Battle of the Linguist Mages, playwright Scotto Moore’s debut novel, more than lives up to the nerdy promise of its title. It follows die-hard gamer Isobel Bailie, who unlocks magical abilities due to her mastery of the virtual reality game Sparkle Dungeon, down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and capitalist enterprise. The reigning champion of the game, Isobel has mastered its vocal spellcasting mechanics. But then she’s let in on a paradigm-shifting secret: The same techniques can be used in the real world. By uttering phrases called power morphemes, Isobel can literally change reality. In this Q&A, Moore unpacks the myriad inspirations behind what he deems his “science fantasy,” from Burning Man and EDM to the very real reality-altering dangers of technology.
Battle of the Linguist Mages is reminiscent of some other speculative fiction I’ve read or seen, like Ready Player One, Snow Crash and Contact, if these were all reflected off a few dozen disco balls and seen through a haze of real-life events. What were your inspirations for this project?
Back in 2010, I had a conversation with a linguist friend of mine who described her work in the field of speech recognition and speech-to-text and scaling that technology out to new languages. And I remember thinking it sounded completely like science fiction to me, a theater artist with no training in linguistics or any other science. Every word you say narrows down the potential words that might happen next, and I sort of cheekily thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be evil if you were capable of surreptitiously planting that first word in the sequence without a subject knowing it?” This ultimately led to me writing a play called Duel of the Linguist Mages, which we produced in Seattle in early 2011.
Then in 2014, I wrote a play called Balconies, which evolved out of a desire to write a giant farce with a romantic comedy wedged into it. I needed two sets of contrasting characters to play on two neighboring balconies, so on one you had a political fundraiser, and next door you had a video game-themed costume party. I’m sure my many Burning Man experiences must’ve inspired Sparkle Dungeon, the video game in that play. By the time I started writing the book, I’d acquired a hobbyist-level interest in DJ culture, so that got added to the mix. Balconies is one of my favorite plays, and the humor in the book is directly inspired by the comedic style of the play. I entertained some wishful thinking about writing a sequel, [but] instead I became motivated to use those characters in a book. That general atmosphere of menace from Duel provided a contrast to the lighthearted nature of the Balconies source material as I started to plot out the book, cherry-picking characters and concepts to use.
Battle of the Linguist Mages (and Sparkle Dungeon itself) sits right between science fiction and fantasy. Do you see your creations as bridging that genre gap or simply filling a niche that neither genre really describes effectively?
I’ve called it science fantasy from the start, although my publisher called it contemporary fantasy at one point, and that seems fair too. There’s so much spellcasting in the book that fantasy probably outweighs the science fiction elements. When I was a playwright, I did often write actual science fiction, but since then, I’ve also come to a better appreciation of fantasy. It feels natural right now to explore the wilder and weirder aspects of my imagination within the context of fantasy or science fantasy.
If someone were to release a real version of Sparkle Dungeon, would you play it?
Well, I don’t actually play video games. So if a Sparkle Dungeon game came out and I wasn’t connected to it in any way, it would miss me altogether. I wouldn’t even notice its release unless it became a monster hit that affected culture at the top level.
I didn’t call this out in the book, but in my imagination, there’s a mode in Sparkle Dungeon that’s like Rock Band, except it’s the DJ equivalent. Whenever Isobel boasts about her DJ skills, she’s actually referring to her mastery of this mode in the game. I might find that mode entertaining, but not “acquire a VR headset” entertaining.
Battle of the Linguist Mages is the exact sort of story that I can see somebody wanting to adapt to the screen, but that might not translate particularly well, given how many things would be challenging to visualize (or auralize). Since you have experience writing for the stage as well, do you think this book is capable of being adapted to another medium?
Oh, you could definitely adapt this book into a film or a streaming series. I mean, I learned working in fringe theater, where the production budgets are ridiculously low, that you can almost always find a way to express a strong creative vision. Resource constraints and limitations become creative opportunities by necessity. Maybe your finished product is rough around the edges, but you can still tell a powerful story. Our version of power morphemes in Duel of the Linguist Mages was a series of intricate sound cues, which the actors lip synced. It was super weird and effective.
In the midst of all that spectacle and action, a very character-driven story engine drives the book. Isobel, Maddy and the Dauphine of the Shimmer Lands feel to me like a charismatic trio of leads you really want to follow through this adventure. They’re like a mini superhero team, but instead of secret identities, they really wear their hearts on their sleeves with each other.
A lot of the characters and organizations in Battle of the Linguist Mages are very, shall we say, recognizable from our real world. How much were those references intended to situate the reader in a familiar world, and how much were they intended to make a point?
I always wanted to situate the reader in our world, in the present day, because I think part of the fun is how our world is a springboard for these elaborate flights of fancy, so to speak. You get mileage out of that contrast, and the real world looks different to them when they return home. And the cabal’s actions have a more visceral impact because the story takes place in California instead of an invented land. It could be you or your own family that gets swept up in their schemes.
Meanwhile, as I developed the characters, it was apparent that Isobel and Maddy (like many of us) were deeply skeptical of modern capitalism, and some of my own rage bled through as they interacted with rich and powerful people in the story or observed how the world was being shaped by such unscrupulous forces.
But Isobel and Maddy somehow find a way to fight the powers that be without sacrificing conscience or compassion, and that’s what makes them so compelling to me.
Battle of the Linguist Mages is also very meta with all its references to literary and video game tropes. Do you think the characters in your book use tropes to describe their lived experiences, or did those tropes causally shape those experiences?
Isobel spends a huge amount of time in Sparkle Dungeon, immersed in the narrative tropes of the game, and she uses her instinctive understanding of those tropes to succeed at the game. That way of thinking does bleed into her daily life. So for instance, when she needs to study new spells with Maddy for several weeks, she flat-out thinks of it as a “training montage.” But this is the era of TV tropes and the culture having a really deep knowledge now of the typical tactics that narratives deploy, so she’s probably not the only character who’s immersed on some level in those tropes. Still, I think Isobel revels a lot more in fulfilling a literal role in a narrative than anyone else in the book.
I’m a composer and psychomusicologist (it’s a real thing, I promise) by training, so I’m fascinated by your choice of EDM and house music as the vehicle for magic, both in Sparkle Dungeon and outside the game. What attracted you to using that genre in particular?
I think it’s just familiarity more than anything. I’ve been listening to electronic music since the mid-1990s, which is actually late to the game. A friend handed me an Orb CD and an Orbital CD and insisted that I would enjoy them, and she was totally right. And to the extent that my Burning Man experiences influenced Sparkle Dungeon, I mean, electronic music is seemingly everywhere you turn at Burning Man, or it was back when I was regularly attending the festival. Electronic music has been the soundtrack for a big chunk of my life.
The singing scenes are also particularly interesting to me, because they point to power morphemes’ implicit therapeutic potential. Where do you think they lie on the spectrum from therapy to enhancement?
Well, it’s tricky. The way Bradford pacifies the participants in a large brawl by singing sequences of power morphemes is almost akin to a guided MDMA session, so therapeutic potential is certainly there. At the same time, Isobel notes more than once that some of the euphoric healing sequences she uses have addictive potential. Spellcasting in that fashion seems slippery, although if you scaled it up, maybe you’d cure diseases.
But I think it’s telling that instead of curing anything, everyone is a lot more focused on “combat linguistics” and other subversive techniques. It’s like these power morpheme sequences provide steroidal power boosts to the spellcaster, which are a lot more immediately compelling to these people than anything altruistic.
Although power morphemes are speculation, the core premise—the invention or discovery of something that alters people’s perception of reality regardless of their agency—hits a little close to home. Things like power morphemes can cause immense harm but also achieve incredible good. How worried are you about the possibility that real life may come to imitate your art?
It’s happened already. Facebook has altered people’s perception of reality so definitively that otherwise rational people now believe wholesale in bizarre and outright harmful conspiracies. When these users first created their Facebook accounts, hoping to connect with friends and share photo albums or whatever, they never suspected they’d be hammered with insidious lie after lie after lie, propagated by an algorithm that operates with no mercy. I mean, maybe when you agreed to the terms of service, you willingly gave up your agency, but I doubt most people think of it that way.
At one point in the book, Olivia describes her work in advertising as “planting meaning in the culture and guaranteeing its effects.” Facebook mastered this approach, and they used their technological wizardry to torpedo the stability of American democracy and prop up despots around the globe. I’m not seeing the incredible good anywhere in sight. Maybe that’s part of why I like writing fantasy.
Author photo by Ian Johnston.