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Shaun Barger: Five Things I Learned Writing Mage Against The Machine

The year is 2120. The humans are dead. The mages have retreated from the world after a madman blew up civilization with weaponized magical technology. Safe within domes that protect them from the nuclear wasteland on the other side, the mages have spent the last century putting their lives back together.

Nikolai is obsessed with artifacts from twentieth-century human life: mage-crafted replica Chuck Taylors on his feet, Schwarzenegger posters on his walls, Beatlemania still alive and well in his head. But he’s also tasked with a higher calling—to maintain the Veils that protect mage-kind from the hazards of the wastes beyond. As a cadet in the Mage King’s army, Nik has finally found what he always wanted—a purpose. But when confronted by one of his former instructors gone rogue, Nik tumbles into a dark secret. The humans weren’t nuked into oblivion—they’re still alive. Not only that, outside the domes a war rages between the last enclaves of free humans and vast machine intelligences.

Outside the dome, unprepared and on the run, Nik finds Jem. Jem is a Runner for the Human Resistance. A ballerina-turned-soldier by the circumstances of war, Jem is more than just a human—her cybernetic enhancement mods make her faster, smarter, and are the only things that give her a fighting chance against the artificial beings bent on humanity’s eradication.

Now Nik faces an impossible decision: side with the mages and let humanity die out? Or stand with Jem and the humans—and risk endangering everything he knows and loves?

* * *


In 2010, I proved to the world what a responsible adult I am by dropping out of grad school and moving to Los Angeles to try and make it as a writer.

I moved with a crew into a house with a courtyard, a mysterious black cat, and a master bedroom with a tinier, secret room you could get into via a hole in the western wall.

In the tiny room was a curtain. Beyond the curtain, a tiny door.

Behind that door? You guessed it – The Dark and Spooky Secrets of The Universe.

Staring directly into the brutal truth of reality’s most devastating revelations made me anxious, so I closed the door and decided to write MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, a novel about wizards and robots, instead.

You know why? Because I also learned that . . .


Say there’s a box, painted all your favorite colors.

Say there’s a song, coming out of the box. The closer you stand to the box, the louder the song becomes.

You like the song. You really like the song. You can’t remember where you heard it, but you’ve got the strangest feeling that it’s important. Like you loved someone once, and this song played on your first date, right before you kissed. And it was a really fucking great kiss. Like magic, you know?

Somehow, you’ve forgotten. But you know, with certainty, that if you open the box, it’ll come back to you. If you open the box, you’ll remember everything.

Just as your fingers touch the latch, you realize that neither the song nor the long-lost lover could be real. This must be a trap, made specifically for you.

So you walk away.

Nikolai Strauss, the titular mage hero of MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, begins his journey by making the choice to open his very own Pandora’s Box, in the form of a magical talking revolver. And it gets him into a hell of a lot of trouble.

It’s totally OK not to open Pandora’s Box. It’s okay not to click that link, watch that video, reply to that text, check on or reconnect with that severed toxic element in your life.

There is no magic box to make you happy. No single person or solution or change that will make this big horrible wonderful clusterfuck make sense all at once.

Anyone or anything that promises as such is likely full of shit.



Throughout the fuckery of my supposed adulthood, I have found that one of the primo keys to navigating the beautiful nightmare of The Millennial Experience is getting comfortable with very slowly picking away at life’s prickles, stubborn thorn by stubborn thorn. One day at a time.

Or, often enough, one moment at a time.

Next time you find yourself panicking — like, really panicking, with that claustrophobic certainty that your life is like one of those tower defense games where you’ve been trapped in a torturously drawn out fail state you can never quite claw your way out of — set a timer for 20 minutes.

By the end of that 20 minutes, so long as you haven’t actively made things worse, you will feel better. Because you CAN claw your way through this. Because it’s so much more interesting for you to do so.

Even if everything’s totally awful right now, so long as you’re smart and decent and sharpen your nose for bullshit, there’s GOTTA be good stuff down the line, sooner or later. So you might as well keep going, right?

Of course you should! Because…


Life’s a little more fun if you think of yourself as an explorer. Everything interesting a dusty corner on a map, vague and unexplored.

If something’s interesting to you, you’ll have the patience to really do the work of properly penciling in additional detail. You’ll have the reliable drive and motivational warm fuzzies to obsess and persevere, where others might not.

I wrote MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE because I found the idea of a conflict between realistically human wizards and complex AI villains who are more like strange synthetic gods than murderous metal skeletons super fucking interesting.

I’m pretty sure a lot of you are going to like MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE. I’m also completely certain that many of you will not. But I bet you’ll think it’s interesting.

One more thing:






Since European colonists began plundering the native civilizations as somewhere between 20-100 million indigenous American people were killed by an apocalyptically devastating plague in the 1500s, our country has had a long and continuous tradition of shitty people doing shitty things to get filthy stinking rich.

For a lot of Americans right now, it feels like the walls are closing in. For the more vulnerable of our population, this experience has been more literal.

In the best of times, this country has not been a great place to be poor, disabled, or any sort of minority. It’s especially difficult to keep it together when smug, pig-faced bigots are squealing with vicious glee as a bible-thumping rapist is appointed to our highest court and children are being stolen from their refugee parents and placed in concentration camps where they’ll be deeply and profoundly traumatized.

In the world of MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE, right-wing extremists like those currently rising to power across the globe in real life were suckered into a nuclear holocaust by psychopathic wizards.

It’s a lot of fun to write about the apocalypse. But it’s another thing to live it. Especially the miserable and banal sort of slow apocalypse promised by such real world Voldemorts as newly appointed President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, who promises to brutally plunder the Amazon, effectively stripping our planet of its lungs.

And let’s not forget the white supremacist infestation sliming its way to power in our own government. They’ve got a real hard-on for Armageddon.

After the extremely stressful Nov 6th election, if you’re in the mood for an escape from adulting, consider taking a break from all this exhausting reality with my debut novel, MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE.

It’s about wizards. And robots.

* * *

Shaun Barger is a Los Angeles-based novelist who detests cold weather, idiot plotting, and fascism. He splits his days between writing, resisting the siren’s call of Hollywood’s eternally mild summer climes, and appeasing a tyrannical three-pound Chihuahua with peanut butter and apple slices. Mage Against the Machine is his first novel.

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