Basic Instructions Creator Now Writes Novels

Many of you Sequart readers already know Scott Meyer from his popular webcomic Basic Instructions. The comic is thoroughly venerable by internet standards, having written and posted it since 2003. Here is a fairly typical example, from May of this year:

The humor tends toward the subtle and observational. In keeping with the title, each comic offers mostly-legitimate, half-serious “basic instructions” for doing whatever is named in the title. Thus, the comic overall bears the tone of a sarcastic but well-meaning friend teaching “you”—always the second person—how to solve some common basic life problem: “How to Defend Your Position,” “How to Understand a Flaw in Our Society.”

Now Scott Meyer is writing novels, and he has imported much of the same tone, approach, and sensibility into his fiction. He’s putting them out quickly: the first volume, Off to Be the Wizard, came out in March of this year.

The original cover of Scott Meyer’s debut novel.

New-style cover of the first novel, matching the second book.

The second, Spell or High Water, was published in mid-June. And they’re very good, especially for a newly minted novelist.

Off to Be the Wizard has nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz, despite its allusive title. Rather, it explores an intriguing, rich premise. A young man, Martin Banks, enjoys perpetrating small-scale computer hacking as a hobby. One day he finds a mysterious .txt file in an obscure corner of a large corporation’s website. Martin is surprised to find his name there, although he has never dealt with that company. He experiments a bit, and discovers a huge, reality-shattering truth: that .txt file contains all the reality of our world—the people in it, their “basic parameters” (height, weight, occupation, personality tendencies), and so forth. Edit the file, which is easy to do, and you change reality! For example, type in that you now have an ability to fly, and POOF! you can fly. Computer hacking translates into incredibly powerful magic.

Martin—like pretty much every other person to discover the file—quickly gets himself into trouble using his new powers. He flees to medieval England, figuring he’ll be safe there and will more or less know the language. He’s met there by Phillip, a fortyish “wizard” (fellow hacker) from 1980s America who takes Martin as his trainee. Then…the adventures begin!

Martin’s adventures continue in Spell or High Water. The inevitable evil-wizard nemesis from the first book returns, and Martin and Phillip visit the all-female “sorceress” community of Atlantis. Gwen, the nice-girl love interest from the first book, features prominently there, as well.

Both novels have a Basic Instructions feel to them; if Scott Meyer had published them anonymously, several readers could probably have named him as a likely author. Much of the first book unfolds in the form of Phillip’s basic instructions to Martin in how to do magic, why not to do certain things, and how the magic/text system works. Both the tone and the instructional approach point to Meyer’s familiar style.

In addition to their consistent humor and surefire premise, the Wizard books have two distinctive features setting them above many other fantasy series. First, Meyer’s novels are cleverly, knowingly packed full of references to a wide array of popular-culture franchises. It only makes sense, after all, that any hacker would stand a better-than-average chance of having a head full of Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Apple and Commodore computer lore, videogames, and popular music across the decades. Additionally, consider it from this angle: we all have specific ideas of what it means to be a wizard, and how magic works, and those ideas generally come from popular culture. So it’s only logical that a story about how to be a wizard would refer to such works frequently, if only for contrast.

The Wizard books’ other special feature is their direct exploration of the issues they themselves raise. For example, the premise that our whole world is contained in and/or described by an editable .txt file immediately raises daunting philosophical questions: Who wrote that file? (This question is addressed but not yet answered; maybe future installments will do so?) Does this mean there’s no such thing as free will? (Phillip is particularly troubled by this question, and fights constantly to prove that he does have it.) If altering reality is no more difficult than editing a .txt file, then what limits do or should exist to such alterations? How could or should limits be imposed? (The villains of both books misuse their nearly-unlimited powers with deadly results—in the first book, rather horrifying ones.) Perhaps this is the effect of the magic’s ultimate source in computer programming: the source of “magic” here has a scientific/technological basis, which makes it at least partly science fiction, and science fiction tends to deal with ethical and philosophical questions more directly and thoroughly than most fantasy.

Basic Instructions has been around, and consistently good, for a long time now. All signs so far indicate that Scott Meyer’s novels are definitively headed that direction too. If a funny, clever, snarky science fantasy series sounds good to you, then don’t miss these books.

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Brian Cowlishaw grew up in rural Idaho, then earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of Oklahoma in 1998. He has taught and published on many areas of literature and popular culture, especially science fiction and fantasy. He is a Harper Voyager Super Reader, reviewing advance reader copies for the publisher. He is a professor of English at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He is an avid gamer and a big fan of all things related to India. Email: Twitter: @BrianCowlishaw. Blog:

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