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Rehabilitation Through Art

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

I meant to take a break, I really did, but ended up writing a new book instead. Not sci-fi or fantasy this time: satire.

Cover Art for Steve Jackson's "The Citadel of Chaos", a Fighting Fantasy Gamebook
Inspiration for my gamebook's title and setting

I got the idea in October 2021 after playing some old Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, and the impetus after a particularly frustrating attack of bureaucratic reflux. The cure for the latter, I found, was two tablets of catharsis dissolved into a 40,000-word glass of humour.

"The Citadel of Bureaucracy" is a project best described by its back copy:

"Part story, part game, this is a book in which YOU make all the decisions!

"The Citadel of Bureaucracy holds dark and dangerous perils for Public Servants unprepared for its labyrinthine cubicle walls; but enter you must. The Albatross Pay System has shorted you, money’s tight, and long hours have left you ragged and in desperate need of a vacation. You’ve just got to make it through one more day. But it won’t be easy. Packed with asbestos, bad wiring, and with air quality equivalent to a dank, rat-infested dungeon, the Darby Complex, known as “The Citadel” by its hapless inmates, is riddled with appalling hazards and frantic Public Servants to test you beyond all reasonable limits.

"Working against the clock, you must fight unreliable transit, dodgy I.T., the dreaded Canada goose, and a rising sense of nihilism in an effort to get paid and clear your desk before your vacation. YOU decide which paths to take, which dangers to risk and which colleagues to confront. May the blessings of the Janus-faced God of Finance and H.R. be with you, for you will find little succor within the Citadel’s unhallowed halls!"

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief it is.

An illustrated Canada goose rears at he viewer out of frame. By Matt Herring.
Test illustration by Matt Herring.

The writing went well and quickly. A few weeks to write, a few more to edit. Urged on nightly by daily bureaucratic frustration, I still tried to strike a careful balance. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, the price of accountability is bureaucracy. The public service has its flaws, sure, but it's also necessary for a free and functional society. Without it and a strong judiciary, one has little defence against totalitarianism. I'm not just saying that because the government issues my paycheques. I didn't want this gamebook to be a salacious tell-all or a stone for axe grinding. It's a dark comedy, after all. I am and remain an impartial public servant; fearless advice, loyal implementation.

The book's purpose is to entertain but also show the toll thoughtlessly risk-averse bureaucratic structure takes on everyday people, from DG to Admin. You know, in a funny way. It's also a way to show people outside government the sorts of messes public servants deal with on the daily. Federal, provincial or municipal, teachers and health care or office workers, I suspect the themes and challenges of the book will be refreshingly relatable. They certainly are for me. Honestly, writing a fiction-worthy bad day in the public service as comedic adventure required surprisingly little dramatic license.

Illustration of a sad-looking woman seated in front of computer in an office setting. By Matt Herring
Test illustration by Matt Herring.

The gamebook is on submission with a few agents and publishers, but I'm not going to belabour the process; not like with The Novel. On the probability that I'll be self-publishing this baby, I'm working with an illustrator, Matt Herring (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Netflix's Carmen Sandiago), to draft thirty or so inset pictures for the gamebook. After all, part of the appeal of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks are the illustrations!

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