“It’s always seemed odd to me,” said Sean Stewart, “that each of my two audiences seem completely unaware that my other set of work exists.”
You may remember Sean Stewart as one of the most acclaimed Canadian science fiction/fantasy writers of the 1990’s: author of the magic realist fantasy trilogy consisting of Resurrection Man, The Night Watch and the World Fantasy/Sunburst Award winning Galveston.
Stewart has never adhered to the accepted wisdom of sticking with a single genre, debuting as he did with a cyberpunkish SF/mystery Passion Play, that won both the Aurora and Arthur Ellis Awards. He also wrote epic fantasies Nobody’s Son and Cloud’s End, and dark fantasies Mockingbird and Perfect Circle, gathering more awards and accolades along the way. After his Star Wars novel, Yoda: Dark Rendezvous in 2004, he seemed to vanish — never to be heard from again.
At that point, Stewart didn’t just switch genres, but moved to different media entirely. In fact, he co-invented some of that media.
“A guy named Jordan Weisman had a cool idea and approached Neal Stephenson to join his team. But Neal was busy and said, “hey, talk to my broke friend.”
“My background as a role-playing nerd and guy who had run LARPs and written murder mysteries for dinner theatre was suddenly wildly useful” in the development of a revolutionary cross-media game that was introduced with the April 10th, 2001 trailer for an upcoming Kubrick/Spielberg movie called A.I.. Stewart was one of the game’s famously anonymous puppetmasters. “When I first sat down and wrote a list of all the assets we were going to need, it had 666 things on it —” which is how the project came to be known as The Beast.
That campaign “was a real watershed thing that was covered everywhere in the mainstream. It was on the front page of USA Today; it was written up by the New York Times.”
Stewart recalls, “That was a flashpoint where people said, ‘Oh, that’s how this is going to work.’ The net is media blind. And doesn’t care if it’s text or audio or video — it can deliver through the same channels that your normal life gets delivered — through the phone, through email, or your social media accounts. And you can participate. One of the ‘aha’ moments for me was a central character whose grandmother died. And the next morning, there were thousands of condolence letters. The characters in our story were as tangible as your cousin who lives in Cleveland — who you don’t talk to often, but you’re Facebook friends — indistinguishable from people you know who live far away.”
It was just the beginning for Stewart.
If you’re a gamer, you may have heard tell of the immersive alternate reality game that was used to launch Halo 2. Beginning with jars of honey in the mail, I Love Bees took participants on real-life treasure hunts through clues embedded in theatrical trailers, a website about beekeeping that led to GPS coordinates of pay phones, which led to emails, cell phone calls and even “live meetings” with game characters.
The game won an Innovation award at the 2004 Game Developers Choice Awards and “ended up being one of Time magazine’s top campaigns of the year and was nominated for a Webby award.”
Stewart’s “merry band” went on to do “a project for Nine Inch Nails called Year Zero. Trent Reznor was like ‘Here’s a big stack of money, let’s do the coolest shit anyone’s ever seen.’
“It was awesome to do an artistic collaboration with such a great band, but the scale of what we were doing was supported by the marketing budget of large properties. We always had to pick up the phone. Even for people we didn’t really want to work for and projects we didn’t really want to do. There are people relying on you to give them the work that pays their rent.”
So in 2007, part of the team branched off to do “stuff that wasn’t about marketing budgets,” which was how he came to be the head writer on a trio of New York Times bestselling young adult books with alternate reality game elements. In Cathy’s Book. Cathy’s Key and Cathy’s Ring, readers had to use clues planted in the books and occasionally follow trails outside of the books to solve mysteries. Stewart described the books as “Veronica Mars with a few ancient Chinese immortals thrown in.”
He teamed up with two trusted colleagues to start Fourth Wall Studios, where he co-created the first full multi-platform television series: Dirty Work, which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media. Shortly thereafter, he came full circle — rehired by X-Box Studios just before it was shut down. “My severance package is what funded (my current project) to this point.”
“Sherlock Holmes: The Art of Detection is another form of engaged, discovery-based story telling that’s more casual. You’ll be able to get it at the App Stores. I spent fifteen years making incredibly complicated esoteric entertainment. And then I had an idea for something my mother-in-law likes.” The funding, moving forward, will come through their Kickstarter campaign.
He’s also “working [with Neal Stephenson] on projects for an augmented reality company called Magic Leap — that’s making glasses that lets you see your regular world all around you and yet put some things in it that aren’t actually there.”
He hopes that the readers who loved his award winning novels will take yet another step along the evolution of storytelling to see what he has up his sleeve. And for those who don’t know about those novels, they’re a great place to start following his many-faceted career.