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Literature / Wiz Biz

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A fantasy series by Rick Cook, featuring Willian Irving Zumwalt, "Wiz", a genius programmer who gets pulled into a world where magic works (called simply "World" by locals) to help defeat the southern order of magicians. There he discovers that magic spells and demons can be used like computer programs and single-handedly wins the war. Almost.

In the second book The Fair Folk express concern about the power his new magic gave humans. As in "start discussing pre-emptive extermination". And northern wizards have to hire more Earth programmers to create better weapons and at the same time to make them feel less threatening.

In the third book the magic compiler research notes fall into hands of some hacker criminals from Earth, who manage to strike a deal with Eldritch Abominations. Elves demand wizards to deal with the problem, but do help a bit.

In the fourth book Wiz works as a consultant solving a dragon problem of a faraway town, dealing with arrogant dragons, corrupt medieval politicians and a clueless FBI agent.

In the fifth book the programmers deal with consequences of some early uninformed architectural decisions, while the new operating system gets its first viruses. Some other loose ends from previous books get tied up.

In the sixths book things get real complicated. The magic compiler was open-sourced on the web to boost its development, but one cocaine addict found that its magic does work on Earth, if the user is sufficiently high. He stole some dragon's eggs, dragons took human children hostage, forcing wizards to frantically search Earth for eggs before they die and to make sure the source gets closed for good.

Books written so far:

  1. Wizard's Bane (1989), accessible by Wayback Machine.
  2. The Wizardry Compiled (1989) ditto
  3. The Wizardry Cursed (1991)
  4. The Wizardry Consulted (1995)
  5. The Wizardry Quested (1996)
  6. The Wizardry Capitalized (2000), unfinished, draft available online.

The first two books have been combined in Wiz Biz omnibus, which was for years available online in Baen Free Library, but disappeared when the site got reorganized a few years after Jim Baen's death. There was also a two-in-one omnibus for books 3 and 4: Wiz Biz II: Cursed and Consulted.

This series contains examples of:

  • Aborted Arc: Early in Compiled some unknown genius from the World figures how to improve Sparrow's spells, a feat experienced magicians of the Council of the North cannot approach. Since Sparrow desperately needs capable assistants it seems likely he'll try to enlist his or her help. But this doesn't happen. Meanwhile the modified spell "demon_debug" becomes a Godzilla Threshold that unites magical beings against humans. Its creator is never heard from again. Maybe he/she was in one of the destroyed villages.
  • Acronym and Abbreviation Overload: Programmers love them, everybody else frown.
    "Not Lord," Wiz corrected as he dug his fingers into the scaly hide. "LRD." The dragon stretched his neck out luxuriously to expose a spot behind his right ear.
    "It's a TLA for Little Red Dragon," Jerry put in from where he was building a triple-decker sandwich.
    "What is a TLA?"
    "Three-letter acronym."
    Shauna looked puzzled and Moira chuckled. "Never ask them for an explanation. You will only end up worse confused."
  • All Trolls Are Different: Fairly usual variety: big, dumb, louse-infected, eat humans. Probably the weakest magicians among immortals. Somehow they can call in favours from dwarves — they demand to assassinate Wiz in Cursed. Dwarves send a group of their misfits and embarrassments they don't want to see. Commanded by their worst warrior with No Sense of Direction.
  • Black Magic: Dark League doesn't use any exceptionally evil spells. They just don't care about the consequences or side effects. Unfortunately, it makes them stronger than northern wizards.
    • Subverted when Bal-Simba is called "black magician" because he looks African. Early on this confuses Wiz a bit.
  • Blunt Metaphors Trauma: Translation spell doesn't work very well for Earth metaphors. Sparrow's incessant puns don't help either.
    "There's a standard text on writing compilers called the dragon book." Jerry explained. "It's got a picture of a dragon on the cover. A red dragon."
    "As protection of the contents?" Moira asked.
    "More like a warning of what the course is like. It's a real bear."
    "Then why not put a bear on the cover?"
    "Bears aren't red," Karl put in before Jerry could answer. "They're not orange either."
    Moira frowned. "Oh," she said in a small voice.
  • Big Damn Heroes:
    • Wiz single-handedly (well, with two bodyguards) storming City of Night to save Moira in Wizard's Bane. Ultimately subverted — he destroyed automated defences and wrecked the infrastructure, but goblin guards gave him pause, and then he met the wizard Atros who had combat experience and could think outside the box.
    • Bal-Simba after Wiz almost lost this duel.
    • When Wiz is rescued near the end of Compiled.
    • The team saving Wiz at the end of Consulted.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: How Mikey gets information out of Judith while she is in coma. Rather mild case — he was just squeezing her hand.
  • The Cracker:
    • Danny in Compiled and subsequent books is both Lovable Rogue and Playful Hacker. He started with editing game character files, then cracking protection of games he couldn't afford, and by 16 was a competent self-taught programmer. His colleagues distrust him early on, but recognize the talent. And watch lest he gets carried away.
      "Yep, it's an 800 number. Direct line to the Wizard's Keep from any phone in the USA. Just don't use it unless you really need to."
      "Is this legal?"
      Wiz hesitated. "Like I said, it was one of Danny's projects."
    • Mickey in Cursed is an unsympathetic variety — a Magnificent Bastard wannabe. The kind not averse to Cold-Blooded Torture.
  • Crapsack World: For humans until the new magic started to spread. Premature, often Cruel and Unusual Death seems to be the norm for people not under protection of one of the Mighty magicians. Especially in the Wild Wood. Or Dragon Marches. Even selling one of your family to work for elves for protection of the rest seems like a good option.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Ur-elves. They don't quite exist, at least not yet. Their form eludes observation — in one scene humans can only see two huge clawed shaggy hands holding a newly-made planet. In another they seem to be fur-covered humanoids with pointed elven ears, somewhat larger than humans — when they show at all. Even Duke Aelric is afraid of them — and willing to risk his immortal life to protect the World from them.
  • Ethnic Magician: Bal-Simba and other "black magicians" (World's equivalent of Africans).
  • Functional Magic: Magical races (elves, trolls, dwarves, dragons) possess inherent magic, while the humans use rule-based magic with insanely complex and fluid rules. Normally humans must study for years the exact words and actions to perform a spell, but Wiz uses a few simple and most reproducible spells as an assembly language and creates a programming compiler for more complex spells.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Dragon Leader, the commander of Wizard's Keep dragon cavalry, a tough and wise soldier. As explained in Cursed:
    "What is that guy's name anyway?" Wiz asked as they watched their guest dwindle into a dot in the sky. "Everyone just calls him Dragon Leader."
    "Ardithjanelle, which means 'shy flower of the forest,' " Moira said. "The story is that his parents were expecting a girl child."
    Wiz watched the dot for a second. "I think I'll just call him Dragon Leader."
  • The Fair Folk: Ranging from Duke Aelric and his elves — almost Tolkienesque (more like their Celtic inspiration, perhaps), but with inhumanity cranked up to the maximum — and all the way to Eldritch Abominations. Elves are arrogant, dislike humans, may create potentially lethal accidents just for fun, but by comparison are among the nicest of powerful non-mortals. Then there's friendly ones like brownies.
  • Geas: In Consulted Wurm, a dragon, places a geas on Wiz, compelling him to stay in Dragon Marches, hide from his fellow wizards and solve the dragon problem. This is revealed fairly late, explaining some Too Dumb to Live decisions.
  • Giftedly Bad: FBI Special Agent Myron "Clueless" Pashley, in Consulted. "He belonged in the Bureau in the days of narrow ties, short haircuts and J. Edgar Hoover; the days when a straight-arrow personality, a gung-ho attitude and a suspicious mind could substitute for intelligence and judgment." Got assigned to computer fraud despite being a technological idiot because there "he wasn't likely to get shot or blow an important organized crime investigation". He managed to mistake an SF novelist and arms collector for a techno-terrorist and raided him greatly embarrassing the Bureau. While the Bureau was still tangled in the lawsuit he started investigating Judith (after Wiz broke into an NSA computer to contact her). Although Wiz was considered a real threat, Pashley managed to blow this investigation too. By searching Judith's flat without warrant and accidentally auto-notifying Wiz that FBI agent reading his mail will be out of office for the next two weeks.
  • Godzilla Threshold:
    • Non-humans stop their conflicts and unite after humans get a spell demon_debug that easily kills them. After the Council forces humans to only use its non-lethal version, DDT, and sets the limit of human expansion to the Wild Wood the alliance quickly falls apart and each group negotiates (or tries to fight) on their own.
    • When a human steals a dragon's eggs in Capitalized, that dragoness forces the rest to unite, take hostages and demand the wizards to return the eggs.
  • Hedge Mage: Moira is referred to as a hedge witch, and is depicted as a village magician and herbalist who can provide a variety of basic potions, cures and wards that are of use to her rural community, but cannot match the immense power of the Mighty, the truly adept and powerful wizards.
  • I Choose to Stay: Wiz at the end of Wizard's Bane. Danny at the end of Compiled. Jerry may return to Earth when he considers his job done. Or not, as of Consulted. In Cursed Mick planned to finish his tour in the Air Force and return, but it took him longer than expected.
  • Ineffectual Loner: Wiz in Compiled. Also in Consulted, but it wasn't his choice. Craig in Cursed, and painfully aware of that.
  • LARP: In Compiled Jerry thinks that a SCA "war" is the best place to hire programmers to work in the World. The author also pokes fun at how unrealistic combat rules are.
  • Left-Justified Fantasy Map: An unusual deviation from the standard. Everything seems to happen in the southern hemisphere of the World. Northern wizards live in temperate climate, while southern City of Night needs year-round magic heating — and freezes when the heating system is damaged in Wizard's Bane.
  • Lovable Rogue: Malkin from Consulted onward.
  • Love Spell: In the first book, Wiz is bespelled to love Moira to keep him bound to the wizards' cause. Bal-Simba quietly takes the spell off halfway through the book, but Wiz has grown to genuinely love Moira and doesn't notice.
  • Magic from Technology or technology as magic...
  • The Mafiya: Former KGB agents who couldn't return home after their computer was stolen in Cursed. As of Quested they are businessmen who "put together aviation-related 'deals' of much import but vague content". In hindsight they are grateful to whoever gave them the gold.
  • Magitek: Other than the spell compiler itself the best examples are in Cursed where BattleTech-inspired mecha fight White League guards armed with magic equivalents of modern weapons. Also Craig made himself Powered Armour.
  • Microts: The World measures time in "day-tenths" which is 1/10th between today's sunrise and sunset. Yes, their length varies as the day length changes. Interestingly, the time in Wizard's Keep seems to be in synch with California — "two day-tenths from sunrise" is the same in both places.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Part of Wiz's effect on the world is releasing simple magical tools that empower the common people. He quickly finds out that, as with powerful computer tools, great disasters can be accomplished in ignorance.
  • The '90s: Despite the series being mostly set in another world the glimpses of Earth accurately portray the evolution of computer industry from late 1980s to 2000. From UNIX gurus sneering at Amiga and MS-DOS through rise of Usenet and World Wide Web to emerging open source movement and almost to Dot Com bubble burst.
  • One Michael Limit: Averted in the third book with Mikey the villain and Mick the supporting hero.
  • Only Sane Man: With Patrius dead, Bal-Simba is the only magician who takes Wiz seriously and doesn't participate in petty squabbles. Good thing he is the boss.
  • Our Demons Are Different: In and of themselves, they, like magic, aren't good or evil, but are basically spells given shape and form.
  • Our Dwarves Are All the Same: Short, strong, greedy, prefer to be left alone. Their magic is said to be powerful, but we only get to see a few magic objects like a sword. Somehow they have a blood-debt to trolls and in Cursed are obliged to send an assassin to kill Wiz. They send a group of their misfits and embarrassments they don't want to see. Commanded by their worst warrior with No Sense of Direction.
  • Our Elves Are Different: They are Fair Folk. Haughty, arrogant, keep to themselves. Civil, but cold, often to the point of hostility. Also inhumanly beautiful and wise. Duke Aelric helps Wiz, because he plans to enlist his help in a certain project, which happens in Cursed.
  • Playful Hacker: Every programmer. Especially, Danny, with Wiz a distant second. They all do it for fun, and they have little respect for authority.
  • Phony Veteran: Charlie, the owner of the An-2 biplane in Quested. Though, he does prove sufficiently competent at his job.
  • Powers as Programs: in spades. Demons are essentially spell codes given form.
  • The Power of Friendship: Human ability to work together draws dragons' envy and hatred. You can't challenge a weak human to a duel and trust his stronger friends not to show up anyway. The true goal of the dragon Wurm bringing Wiz to Dragon Marches was to give lesson to other dragons that their days of individualism are over.
  • Power Perversion Potential: Inverted in Compiled. The heroes desperately need something to slow the flow of time to finish their programming project as soon as possible. Fortunately, a spell is known that doubles the length of a night in the affected room. Some great ancient wizard invented it for his wedding night (but lacked physical strength to perform that long, as he found out). Programmers work long night shifts and rest during the day, which allows them to meet the deadline.
    • Played straight on a smaller scale. One programmer with No Social Skills creates a "user friendly" interface which consists of an equally nubile and nude demoness that follows all of the user's commands. A Straw Feminist colleague immediately calls him out on it and demands their supervisor to make the programmer change such perverted code. The supervisor, himself busy meeting the employers, initially doesn't even understand how code could be perverted, but then exasperatedly orders the code changed, over the author's protests that he's willing to make a male version, too. The scene ends with another colleague pulling the man aside to ask for the code for himself for later...
  • Pun: Wiz is fond of those. Other English speakers cringe.
  • Prophecy Twist: In Cursed. "Your company shall meet your greatest enemy, one like you with powers as great as yours and allies greater than you can imagine [...] in a great battle. The mightiest among you shall die, each of your number shall suffer great loss and your enemy shall achieve his heart's desire." Said desire was: "I want to be master of all I survey." "You" includes Duke Aelric who is mightier than any human. The enemy becomes a child-like idiot and the master of all tin toys and wooden blocks in his comfortable prison cell. The "losses" are personal, ranging from having to part for Mick and Karin, to infertility for Danny.
  • Rewriting Reality: It takes Wiz a while to come to terms with the idea that reprogramming the magical world may not always be a good idea.
    • In a more literal example in Cursed Wiz needs to iteratively compute a fractal representing the World. As the image approaches the correct shape, it starts affecting the world around. Good thing programmers thought of an "undo" command.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The story of Special Agent Myron "Clueless" Pashley, FBI, in Consulted was inspired by the then-recent raid on Steve Jackson Games. (See brief version from SJG. Or Bruce Sterling's account. Or Wikipedia article.)
  • Sabotage to Discredit: In Compiled use of demon_debug causes non-mortals to unite for war and they even make a few villages disappear. Council of the North needs to stop its use to break the anti-human alliance. The problem is, wizards have little power outside the Keep, they can only advise, and if they alter the program its users can revert to backups. In the end programmers create a harmless illusion which only gets much more annoying after demon_debug.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • There's a fair amount of detail about the magic programming language and operating system in the books.
    • Unlike most writers using Russian names Cook picked proper unremarkable fake names for The Mafiya in Quested. Jerry is correct: "Ivan Kuznetsov" really is the closest equivalent of "John Smith".
    • A case of research failure for one scene in Cursed. There's a convoluted explanation to allow a Soviet pilot to mention Steven Spielberg, but it really is unnecessary — small private cinemas (TV, VCR, several dozen chairs) became legal around 1987, big cinemas started running bootleg films a year or two later, and by 1991 when the novel is set any movie-goer knew all major American actors and directors.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: Inevitable when your protagonist is a computer programmer that becomes a wizard.
    • The central conceit of the series is a computer programming language built out of interacting spells. This is done because spell strength is inversely proportional to simplicity of use, therefore the strongest magics are unavailable to any but the most skilled practitioner and out of the common people's hands. It's possible to build larger spells out of small, simple, easy to use ones by inventing three that match the basic requirements of a programming language: a way to store & recall data/instructions, a way for functions to call other functions, and a way to test conditions and change execution in response.
  • Summon Everyman Hero: Patrius was searching for a "wizard from another world" who would think and generalize differently.
  • Team Pet: Little Red Dragon (or LRD, or Fluffy) from Compiled onward.
  • Translator Microbes: Earth humans brought to the World get magic translation. It works fine, unless lack of a term creates discrepancies. For example Silicon Valley becomes "Valley of Quartz". Attempts to use Earth metaphors may cause Blunt Metaphors Trauma (see above).
  • True Name: One demon can kill you at will if your true name has ever been spoken in the World. In what is perhaps a Shout-Out to Earthsea, Wiz often goes by "Sparrow".
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Novels often have several parallel plots:
    • Compiled keeps switching between Wiz (kidnapped by the Dark League and trying to escape and survive) and the newly hired team of programmers racing to meet the deadline.
    • In Cursed it's alternatively bad guys and two separated groups of good guys.
    • In Consulted Wiz is trying to solve dragon problem of the Dragon Marches while Judith is being harassed by a Giftedly Bad FBI Cyber Crime agent.
    • Capitalized focuses on events in Wizard's Keep and around Wiz, but a large subplot centers on the kidnapped children. The texts in the draft are separate, but were planned as alternating in the final version.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Who created demon_debug? Was he/she in one of the villages that disappeared? Or maybe met a smart enough enemy? No answer.
    • What happened to Soviet agents smuggling meteorological computer in Cursed after wizards stole it leaving a pile of gold? This one is answered in Quested — see The Mafiya.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: Words have more power in the World, thus being truthful and keeping promises is Serious Business, especially for wizards. Wiz is rather lax about his promises most of the first book and somewhat in the second, thus locals may treat him as an untrustworthy scum. His liberal use of metaphors doesn't help — their only purpose seems to be to confuse people. Eventually Wiz (and then Danny) learn to keep promises, but metaphors keep creating problems. See Blunt Metaphors Trauma.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside/Year Outside, Hour Inside: Time passes much more slowly inside the fairy realm; this is apparently June's backstory, and she's pretty traumatized by it. She panics in the second book, when the heroes use a spell that doubles the hours of the night to get their work done faster, even though that's the opposite effect.
  • Zero-Approval Gambit: In Capitalized, realizing the danger of the magic compiler, the heroes deliberately provoke the compiler web community to denounce their work, delete their copies and Rage Quit.