Carrie Vaughn's immersive worlds

Carrie Vaughn on tactile escapism, immersive entertainment, and her latest book Questland

I recommend books for a living. Ask anyone I know, and they'll probably tell you that I've pushed any number of books on them over the years. But it's rare that I'll open a book and just pages in, start texting people "YOU NEED TO READ THIS."

That was the case with Carrie Vaughn's latest science fiction novel, Questland. I've liked her shorter stories over the years (and interviewed her a handful of times while I was writing at Lightspeed Magazine), but this one particularly spoke to me: a literature professor is recruited by a tech billionaire to help him regain control of a high-tech, fantasy-themed park called Insula Mirabilis, where visitors could live out their wildest dream and favorite stories. Think Westworld meets Lord of the Rings.

Addie is recruited because her sketchy fanboy ex is one of a handful of staff members who cut off the island with some sort of invisible shield, and she's tasked with accompanying a quartet of ex-special forces mercenaries who've been hired to wrest control back. It's a fun, breezy thriller that's loaded with Easter eggs for everything from Homer's myths to Lord of the Rings to H.P. Lovecraft.

It's like Ready Player One, but not a dumb exposition of all the things Ernest Cline watched once. It's a book that's earnestly nerdy, thoughtful, and that has a lot to say about the stories we consume. What I didn't expect was that it was it takes an interesting turn into a lot of the things I use this newsletter to talk about: intellectual property, content creation, originality, fandom, and quite a bit more. It's like a book that was crafted and crafted by the finest social media algorithms for me.

I blew through the book in a couple of days, and sat down to chat with Vaughn about what I just read, and we got into the weeds on fandom, cosplay, immersive entertainment, and intellectual property.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Image: HMH/JJA Books

You've been writing for a long time, and I'm curious what your Fandom origin story is — how did you become a fan?

I was raised in it — not fan in a capital F — but my parents were both big science fiction geeks. They weren't really aware of fandom, but I grew up on Star Trek reruns and my mom was handing me Heinlein juveniles when I was still in single digit ages. As I grew up, my dad and I kind of worked our way through the science fiction section of the video store when we got our VCR player, and I got all the old classics that way. My dad was into movies and my mom was kind of books.

So I got both — I grew up on Star Wars, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, all those movies. I still think of the 80s as this great golden age of fantasy film in a way that we haven't really gotten back to. They were just so earnest and they had so little to work with in terms of special effects, compared to now. They really focus on character in a way that I think is harder for a lot of fantasy and science fiction movies to do now. It was a great time to grow up in.

It was actually a shock to me to realize that there were people who didn't read and watch science fiction, to the point where it became kind of a crusade for me to get everyone [to] enjoy science fiction. I worked at a bookstore right out of college, and some of my coworkers can tell you that I would get this gleam in my eyes whenever somebody came up and said that they didn't read science fiction, because would find them science fiction that they would like.

I didn't really start gaming until college. I dabbled a little bit in it, but I studied abroad at the University of York, which had a robust science fiction society and gaming group, and that's where I really cut my teeth on role playing games. And cosplay and costumes, I was a theater kid — that was always something I had my eye on.

The story I usually tell about how I got into cosplay is that I went in costume to the premiere of The Phantom Menace. It's hard to believe now, but out of the hundreds of people who were there at this giant theater to see the first new Star Wars movie in 20 years, and there were only maybe a dozen people in costume. It sounds incredible now! But the 501st was in existence, but it wasn't the big thing it is now, so there were no people in Stormtrooper armor. It was just a few of us who threw on Jedi cloaks. I wore my riding boots, my blue pants, and my black vest, and I was a Corellian smuggler. There were there were so few of us that you could put us all in the same picture.

I look at what cosplay has turned into, now that it's become so mainstream and so huge, it's really amazing to me. I stopped for a while because I had to be like, the Professional Author at conventions and I had to be serious and dress serious. But over the last few years, I've been getting back into it because I want to: I decided I don't care what people think if I dress up at conventions.

That sort of dovetails with some of my experiences: I'm a member of the 501st for a long time, and when I started first going to conventions at places like ReaderCon, someone pulled me aside and was like "this is not that type of convention. Don't show up in Stormtrooper armor."

Yeah...

Cosplay goes way back into the history of Fandom, but I've always been curious as to why there's that pretty rigid divide within fandom — cosplay just isn't something you see a lot outside of masquerades. Why do you think that is?

I couldn't tell you. As you say, it goes way back. There are a couple of authors, like P.N. Elrod, comes to mind who did cosplay and did dress it up — they didn't call it cosplay then. But occasionally pictures will come up from the 60s and the 70s of well-known authors who are wearing costumes, and the origins of the SCA was all authors — it was a bunch of fantasy authors in Berkeley who founded the SCA, which is all about the costumes.

But yeah, when I started going to the regional science fiction literary conventions, nobody dressed up except for the masquerade. I started doing that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and yeah, I don't know where [that reluctance] came from. There was just this perception that if you're going to be a serious author on panels talking about your books, then you don't dress up.

Maybe part of it was just time — like if you're going to be on panels as a program participant, you don't really have time to go do the masquerade as well. But there was also just this "Yeah, they're two different things" and I don't think it always used to be that way.

When you're a baby writer in that environment, you really are so worried about doing things right and being taken seriously. It was really funny the first time, I had this whole list of costumes I wanted to do, and the list just kept growing, and I wasn't making them because I was being the Serious Author at the convention. And then there was one year, I wore a Galadriel costume; I just got mad and was like, "I'm made this costume, I want to wear it." I blocked out the time — I'd be Serious Author until five o'clock, and then I put on my Galadriel costume and came back. A local author stopped me and said, "I was always told we shouldn't we shouldn't dress up in costumes," and I kind of looked at him and I said, "What are they gonna do throw me out?" At this point, the [Kitty Norville] series was out, and I'd been coming to this convention as a panelist for 15 years.

I've been having a lot of fun with it. I've done three or four [cosplays] now at Mile High con. At the 2019 one, I had a friend who really wanted to do Crowley from Good Omens, and she couldn't do Crowley by herself, so I put together Aziraphale so that we could go together. That was so much fun and we got some really good pictures.

My specialty is hard armor — stormtroopers and clones. I can see why I wouldn't want to go on a panel in one of those, just because it's uncomfortable, but there are plenty of comfortable things to wear — I've got jumpsuits from The Expanse and Moon that are even more comfortable than my regular clothes.  

The other reason I got into it, which you just reminded me of, is that I started to get frustrated when I was going to San Diego Comic Con and some of the other big pop culture conventions. There were just a lot of costumes that I don't recognize! I don't do the video gaming thing or anime quite as much, and you know, it's marvelous!

There are hundreds of kids running or kids (you know, people in their teens and 20s) who are running around in these costumes that I just don't recognize. My first impulse was to kind of get angry about it, like I'm not feeling part of the culture anymore, because I don't recognize all of these characters. But I finally kind of backed off from that a little bit and decided that if you don't recognize a character, just go up to the person and ask! They will be happy to tell you and that's when you get a fantastic conversation.

The other thing I took out of it is, if I don't recognize their characters, maybe I should wear — instead of trying to be new and hip, I should go ahead and work on cosplaying the stuff that I grew up with and love. That's when I put together my Lisa Hayes RoboTech uniform — super old school. That's something that I'm doing now. The costume I'm putting together now is a Jedi, but really old-school Jedi from the comic book Tales of the Jedi: I'm doing a Nomi Sunrider, which is such a deep cut, and nobody's gonna recognize it. And I kind of don't care, because it's a great costume. I'm doing it because I want to do it, not because anybody's going to recognize it. And you know, somebody will recognize it.

How did this collective experience and influences here funnel into the creation of Questland?

So... Jurassic Park, but with Tolkien. The seeds from the story go back a long time. I actually started working on an idea — first a short story, no, maybe a novella — and then I just noodled around with it for a long time. It was funny, when I started putting the novel together: there were some pieces that became dated, but in other ways, there were pieces that were really timely, in a way they hadn't been 15 years ago when I first got the idea.

Jurassic Park, but with Tolkien

That nugget was an eccentric billionaire sets up an island where magic is real, and all of his favorite fantasy stuff is real. My first draft was called "Tolkien Park". (That didn't last.) I worked on the short version of it, sent it out to magazines, it didn't sell. My critique group wasn't really onboard with it. I expanded it, pitched it to my editor at the time, who just didn't believe that an immersive fantasy theme park would be profitable or economically viable. And then just a couple of years later, you've got Wizarding World and Galaxy's Edge and these really immersive fantasy fan theme parks that people are just starved for.

So it was really an idea that had to incubate for a while. And in that time, I was able to work in more technology and more of the dynamics of the eccentric billionaire, which was kind of a trope 30 years ago, like when Jurassic Park came out, but now it's real. We've got Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos running around. I realized that I don't want one of those megalomaniac tech bros in charge of an island like this. So it suddenly became much more relevant and much more real than the jokey way I'd initially come up with the idea. And that's where it all coalesced. I'm glad it's coming out now, because I'm worried in a few years, it's all going to be dated.


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I've been really intrigued by how immersion layers onto these sorts of parks like Galaxy's Edge, and I'm curious as to how you see cosplaying and groups like the SCA together: how do you see immersion as being part of the story?

If you back up a little big, it occurs to me that Star Tours might have been the proof of concept for everything that came after Galaxy's Edge and all of that. I loved it — if we look back on it now, it would be super primitive, but it's exactly that immersion in how they funneled you in. You're in the line, and there's these droids in the corner  who are sorting through something and talking, and C-3P0 is there, and you're in a dark corridor with industrial piping and everything. They funnel you into the ship and then it's the movie: you're on a ship in Star Wars. And then you go through the gift shop because there's always a gift shop. There were travel posters for like Dagobah and Tatooine, and it was just so cool.

In the SCA, there are people who really work had to make sure nothing in their camp looks modern. They'll do the research, they'll have a fire with the tripod and the pot cooking the stew and the period pavilion and a cot made out of wood that they built themselves and it all just looks perfect. And the weird thing about the SCA is it's not strictly medieval — it's their own modern invention of the medieval. That invention has always happened, from Henry the 8th on, we've been reinventing the Middle Ages into our idealized vision of what we want the Middle Ages to look like, from Henry the 8th's tournaments to the Victorian Arthurian stories: that's how they reimagined the Middle Ages.

A lot of this has been wanting a beautiful, handcrafted aesthetic that eschews modernity, and part of it is a lot of SCA people reading fantasy literature, Terry Pratchett called the Consensus Medieval Fantasy World. That there's this idea we have of the Middle Ages, which isn't actually the Middle Ages, but it gives us all this idea of being inside a story or the fantasy literature that we grew up with. It's wanting to separate ourselves from the modern current world, because I think we associate modernity with a lot of stress and anxiety.

I'm not the first person to talk about these things, and it sounds a bit cliché, but we have so many means now to make that escape. That's one thing in cosplay that's blowing my mind — it's not just physical resources, things like vacuum forming or Worbla, but the internet, the tutorials. If you want to make something, you can go online: cosplayers are so generous in telling you how they made something and telling you how to do it. So there's just so many more resources out there now, and that makes that kind of tactile escapism, so much more accessible than it ever has been.

Going back to Questland, we have the modern cosplay element, we've got modern, immersive theme parks, and you mentioned that you were a little worried about your book catching up to the present. How do you see immersive entertainment becoming more of a thing in the coming years?

I don't know, and the pandemic has thrown a lot of that kind of up in the air.

Part of the angle with Questland is the technology — the whole sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic from Arthur C. Clarke, which is kind of becoming cliché.

But things like invisible cloaks are real — that's something that people are working on. I look at the Boston Dynamics robots and the Mars rovers, and that we're at a high level of technology, where we can make things happen that look magic, which I think escalates what an immersive experience can be. Like, you can actually start casting spells, because you've got this Bluetooth device that can activate a thing. You can start fires with your mind because you've got this neurotransmitter, another thing people are working on.

There is a level of technology that's going to make this all really interesting, I think, and that's part of the thread that runs through Questland. You've got this technology, and you can use it for entertainment, but you can also use it for a lot of other things as well, and how does that play into it?

One of the things that struck me was when Addie goes off and comes face to face with all these fantastical elements in the park, there's a mishmash of these elements in the park — classic fantasy tropes, Greek legends, Lovecraftian horror, and the thing that stood out was that someone pointed out that they couldn't use certain names: "We can't call that a Warg!" How would this sort of park work? They'd have to go off-brand.

Right? The example that I used in the book is that you can have a school for wizards. That idea isn't copyrighted: the idea of a school for wizard has been around for decades and doesn't belong to anybody. You can't call it Hogwarts. And you probably can't have a hat that puts people into different categories, so there are certain details where you have to stop on that.

You know, it was funny: at one point I was talking with my editor John [Joseph Adams], and asked "well, how much Tolkien can we actually use?" And he pointed out that my publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, actually publishes Tolkien as well. So there was a point where we were like, "how much can we get away with?"

I became hyper aware with this with the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe — like what characters does Marvel Studios own and which do they not own and the contortions they've gone through to tell stories with only some of their characters. And there's Ready Player One. I was just fascinated when they did the movie, because you can mention something in a book as fair use, but to actually take the image of the DeLorean from Back to the Future and put it in movie, that suddenly becomes an IP issue. The legal department on the Ready Player One film must have been huge, just to get the permissions to use all of these images, because a big point of that story is to just reference everything.

So yeah, it's about ownership and content creation. Addie has a line in the book, that Harris Lang, the billionaire who's building all this park, he wants to own everything and he doesn't want to pay somebody else for content creation. So that's an issue. The balance is that you can create something original and you'll own it, but will it be popular? Will it draw people in? And so, you're toeing this line, where you're like "yes, we've created these creatures that are obviously Wargs, but we're not going to call them "Wargs", because the Tolkien estate might say something about that. So we're going to create these things that are obviously inspired by them" — and that happens all the time.

I think especially for writers, we get inspired by something that we read, but we have to somehow make it our own. A lot of that is where you draw the line between a trope that is just floating around in the culture that we all experience and an actual intellectual property that you have to respect.

One of the things that interests me is that you can create an off-brand thing, and as you mentioned, you can make something but people might not show up. But there's the hard lines of corporate ownership when it comes to Tolkien's Middle-earth or Harry Potter, or Dungeons & Dragons. But there's also the sort of collective ownership of something — who actually owns Middle-earth when it lives inside of our heads? Fans have some say here because they're consuming it.

That's the whole other issue here — the rise of fan entitlement, for lack of a better word. The example of Middle-earth is really interesting, because Tolkien didn't make that up: Tolkien was drawing on a whole raft of medieval and Scandinavian literature. Middle Earth is Mythgard from Scandinavian mythology —  he didn't invent the term Middle-earth.

He was drawing on this other concept and he kind of shifted around and tweaked it and made it his own, but Mythgard is a thing that exists outside of Tolkien's world, so I suspect someone would make an argument that you can use the term "Middle Earth" referencing Scandinavian folklore. But be aware that if you say "Middle Earth", everybody's gonna think Tolkien just because it's so ubiquitous now.

Especially the Tolkien Estate's army of lawyers.

[laughs]

Addie is actually talking about that as she's going to the park — all these deeper influences that this theme park comes from, as she's in it. It seems like that within their design team, there was this tension between creating something original and something that's a known quantity to fans.

One of the places that she talks about that the most is the idea of Robin Hood. I'cw written Robin Hood stories. Last year, I published The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley, so this has been on my mind. What most people think of is either Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood, or Disney's Robin Hood, or maybe a couple other versions that have come out recently. But how far back do you go when you're talking about Robin Hood? The original stories are these very folklore-ish, 14th century ballads that bear no resemblance to our modern ideas of Robin Hood, except the names.

So at that point, if you were going to try to adapt the original 14th century stories, it's like, would people even recognize that as Robin Hood at that point? And yet, if you want to do a really original Robin Hood, it might be interesting to go back to those origins.

There are so many layers — Star Wars has so many layers these days.

What's interesting about Star Wars is that there's so much lore that it can reference itself. You've got the older Expanded Universe canon, and then newer stuff that's paved over it, but they're bringing back all of these older things from it like Grand Admiral Thrawn or Han Solo's kid falling to the Dark Side of the Force.

I get a little frustrated. I love Star Wars — it's probably one of my number one fandom – but it's been interesting seeing how much of Star Wars has become referential.

Looking at The Mandalorian, how much of the buzz of that comes from the Easter eggs and referencing things like Ahsoka Tano showing up in live action for the first time or Luke Skywalker appearing at the at the end of this latest season, that so much of it now is referencing things that came before and giving the fans those Easter eggs that they're looking for.

What would something totally new look like in Star Wars, without referencing anything? Is it even possible anymore? I don't know.

Something I've written about quite a bit for this newsletter is this idea that a lot of streaming companies are trying to appeal to these big groups of people, so they have their science fiction and fantasy shows, especially now that Game of Thrones was such a big hit, or like Lord of the Rings was a big hit — they've spawned all these imitators, like The Witcher, Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings (or whatever they're gonna call it). I wanted to switch gears a bit to communities playing a role in this, because fans are the ones responsible for driving this interest. I'm curious where you think that line is – catering to fans or trying to go out and making something that takes risks or is wholly original.

I keep going back to the big franchises, because their primary goal is to make money. Nobody's deluding themselves that there's anything different. Their thing is how they create content that keeps their audiences glued to the TV. I don't think their goal is to do anything original.

And yet, if they get good creators, you get Thor: Ragnarok or WandaVision, which was firmly in the world, and yet so off the rails. As an author, my goal is to tell good stories, I want to tell good stories that people like, I want people to read my books and be glad that they read the book. To put it really simply, that's, that's what I would love. I don't have to worry about bringing in $100 million at the box office, right? The bar keeps going up on what constitutes a hit. As an author, my goal and the bar that I want to clear are totally different. And I think that's what we need, we just need the diversity.

I love Star Wars and Marvel, and I hope they keep churning out stuff that I enjoy watching, but I think we also need independent films, foreign films. One thing that streaming has done for us is giving us a chance to watch lots of different things from lots of different people.

There was that Korean film Space Sweepers, which I haven't seen yet, but it's gotten a lot of buzz, and I'm really happy that it's getting a lot of buzz. I want to see room for lots of people doing lots of different things, and not all of them have to be huge blockbusters. I think we should get out of this mindset that every single thing has to be huge.

But it's really hard, because it's all so corporate driven and making money right now. So as far as the community goes, for every for every blockbuster out there, there's some little thing has a huge fandom. I'm not going to remember the name of it right now, but I have a reader who keeps emailing me to tell me about this weird streaming movie that she just loves, and I haven't had a chance to watch it yet. But there's stuff out there that I've never heard of that the internet has allowed. I think it's the convergence of things like San Diego Comic-Con and Dragon Con and the Internet that has allowed this kind of gestalt to build up.

Midway through the book, the staff of the park seem to realize something halfway through [spoilers ahead]: Addie comes across the park's guiding documents, and it's basically like, in exchange for food and shelter, they get to live in this fantasy world. They're essentially rising up because they don't want this corporate owner to come in merchandise it and exploit these stories to death. It comes back to the idea of who gets to profit off of fans' enthusiasm.

Yeah, and that's where you get fans who really want to be in charge. Star Wars is just such a perfect example of fans. If they don't like where the story is going, they'll let you know, because they're aware that it's their money that's going into this, and in this consumerist, capitalist model, the customer's always right, right? If you're paying for a product, you want to be able to determine what that product is.

Creativity doesn't always work like that.

Creativity doesn't always work like that. The other problem is that — being the author of a long-running series myself — is you're never gonna make everybody happy as a creator. However much corporate wants to control everything, you produce something, and then it lives in the readers mind, and they're going to try to predict how it's going to go. But then you write the next book, and it doesn't go where they wanted it to go. There's no way to make everybody happy. We read books differently, we have different ideas, we respond to different characters.

But as far as those governing documents, these are people are not really into capitalism: what they really want is feudalism. To go back to the fantasy model, I look at Amazon, I look at some of these big companies that want to control everything. And they see it as a trade-off, if they can maximize their profits if they can vertically stack everything, and that includes the people.

I looked at the gig economy where you've got people scrambling for every single dollar — a corporate feudalist system kind of looks attractive after that.

Especially when you see folks like Elon Musk talking about how people can go to Mars, but they might have to work off their their tickets.

Oh, exactly. There are people who would really love — the movement in capitalism right now seems to be towards this corporate feudalism, and it's horrifying.

Conventions and reenactments and tournaments all seem like they emerge out of their respective communities, whereas you have things like Galaxy's Edge or Wizarding World, which are explicitly profit-driven enterprises. Which model do you think is better, or is that even the right question to ask?

I want them both! I know that's that's kind of dodging the question, but Galaxy's Edge would not be a thing if it weren't for 20 years of the 501st Legion doing its thing, or Fan Force or the Rebel Legion or all of these other clubs that built up the community that created the market for Galaxy's Edge. Looking back on the origins of all of these, it's so synergistic, that LARPing and SCA, and all of that came out of people who loved the literature and loved gaming. It's not enough to sit around the table and play D&D: we want to go out and dress up as our characters and do the things that are more visceral.

So this has been fascinating to me is over the last 20 years, I feel like the energy between the fan communities and the corporate entities to create these worlds (or at least fund them) is really synergistic. I don't know that you can separate it. But the more Star Wars there is, there's more hype that energizes the community, which wants to do more, and that wants to go to Wizarding World, and that wants to go out and do things.

And it's kind of easier when other people do it! Having been in the SCA for 20 years, it's the same handful of people that organize everything, and the rest of us want to show up and have a good party, so there's that balance as well. The volunteer fan communities are so important, but it's also kind of thankless, verses paying however much and then showing up and it's all just right there in a polished and immersive way.

So, I'm not sure you can separate them. But I've also seen it moving more and more towards corporate, because it makes it accessible to people. LARPing has been going on forever, but it was always such a closed, insular group that wasn't open to everyone. But when you've got this big corporate entity that comes in and builds a theme park that's associated with Disney, all of a sudden, there are people who maybe never would have considered going because it's just not part of their experience.


Questland is now available in stores.