In Which I Both Decry, and Defend, the Concept of Dad Rock

I was thinking about the concept of “Dad Rock” and what it means, and when it is that a previously popular and/or relevant band goes full Dad Rock, and I realized that there was a particular song from a particular band that crystallized the Dad Rock Moment, as it were, for me: “Vertigo,” by U2, off the band’s 2004 album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

What’s wrong with the song? Well, there’s nothing wrong with it. If you were to present it to someone who had no other context for the song or the band, it would probably come across as a nice, chunky rock song. It’s solid if not spectacular, the sort of song that a band with a long discography would trot out at the two-thirds mark of a concert. It’s the song that’s no one’s favorite but that everyone likes well enough, to pad the playlist until they get to the songs that will build to the end of set. It’s not a song one would put in the encore. It’s good! Which is fine. Or more accurately, it’s fine! Which is good.

In context, it’s the sound of U2 standing pat. U2 became the Biggest Rock Band in the World in the late 80s with The Joshua Tree, then freaked out a bit about that in the 90s, releasing a trio of albums (Achtung Baby, Zooropa, Pop) that increasingly strayed from their previous iteration before releasing 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which married the two previous eras into a “return to form” album that got them back to Biggest Rock Band in the World status.

So what did the band do for Atomic Bomb? Well, they stayed where they were and just worked that for a while.

“Vertigo,” the album’s first single, typified that. It’s a U2 song that sounds like a song that songwriters and musicians who were not U2 would make if they were told to make a song that sounds like U2. Bono is in full “arch lyric” mode, the Edge is sawing away but also doesn’t forget to drop in his signature chiming guitar in the right places, the rhythm section is doing its uncomplicated but solid thing. The video is grandiose and also tongue-in-cheek about it, to variable success.

All of which was a solid commercial choice: Atomic Bomb sold ten million copies, won nine Grammys (three for “Vertigo” alone), and started the band on its profitable relationship with Apple, which would culminate rather infamously with the band’s 2014 album Songs of Innocence being stuffed into everyone’s iTunes collection whether they wanted it or not (this was the uber Dad Rock maneuver, the tech company equivalent of making your kids listen to the classic rock station against their will as you drove them to school in the minivan). No one could fault U2 either for “Vertigo” or Atomic Bomb. From a sheer numbers point of view it kept the band on the top of the rock heap.

But for me it also meant U2 stopped being a band that would surprise or inspire. They became predictable, and comfortable, and less memorable. And indeed that’s where the band has stayed in the sixteen years and three studio albums since. The albums since have varied from “meh” to “not bad,” and each has a song or two worth revisiting. But when I think about the band, “Vertigo” is a hard frontier for me: What came before it could be flawed (boy, could it!) but wasn’t boring; what comes afterward might be good but isn’t essential.

And fundamentally this is what “dad rock” means to me: it’s when a rock band whose audience is mostly male stops challenging that audience and starts maintaining it instead, even if they release new work. Or as Bono himself might have put it, in the bridge to “Vertigo,” speaking as U2’s audience: “Just give me what I want and no one gets hurt.”

I’m noting U2 here because it’s a band relevant to my own life, but certainly they are not the only example. The Rolling Stones went Full Dad with Undercover in 1984; Genesis in 1987 with Invisible Touch; Metallica with Death Magnetic in 2008; Coldplay with Viva la Vida, also in 2008. Paul McCartney went Full Dad the instant he left the Beatles; likewise the Foo Fighters (who, by the way, I love) appear to have been intended as Dad Rock from day one. Most bands associated with the Album Oriented Rock era of music have been Full Dad since the early 90s; Journey, which was one of my favorite bands growing up, has a concert playlist that is stuck in amber — the band members call their greatest hits “the dirty dozen” and play them every show. Likewise pretty much every heavy metal band that started up in the 80s; when I went and saw Iron Maiden’s Legacy of the Beast tour last year; that “greatest hits” concert format, while entirely awesome, was also the epitome of Dad Rock.

(Let us not speak of KISS.)

Dad Rock is clearly used as a pejorative, and my personal definition of it isn’t particularly complimentary either, but allow me for a moment here to give at least a half-hearted defense of dad rock. First, look: There’s nothing actually wrong with producing a reliable creative product for an identifiable audience, said the man who got a thirteen-book publishing contract specifically because he is able to produce reliable creative product for an identifiable audience. If the worst thing that can be said about your new work is that it’s rather a lot like your old work, only more so, you’re probably going to be able to make your house payments (or castle payments, in the case of U2).

Second, it’s not just the bands and musicians staying pat. Rare is the music listener who is as adventurous with their tastes at 38 as they were when they were 18; even more so at 48 or 58 or further on. At a certain point people know what they like and they want more of that, and if the bands they already like keep putting out work that’s in the same vein, album after album, then guess what? Those fans are going to stick around.

Which brings us to a third point, which is that after a certain bend in the demographic curve, most musical artists aren’t picking up new listeners anymore, or at least, younger listeners; they work with what they have. If you’re lucky you become retro, or (in the case of U2, the Stones and probably Coldplay) you were so big at one point you could lose much of your audience over time and still fill stadiums. But most performers work with who they accrued in their heyday. Those kids who were your fans became dads, your music became Dad Rock, and you know what? That’s fine. We can’t all be David Bowie, innovating literally until the day we die, and it’s worth remembering that even David Bowie went Full Dad for a while there (See: Tonight and Never Let Me Down), and otherwise benefited from a catalogue that gave him the wherewithal to do other things later without regard as to whether an audience would follow.

Finally: Hey, combining constant innovation while maintaining a non-trivial level of popularity is hard. Shit, producing merely adequate creative product while staying popular is hard, which is why so few people actually manage even that, particularly in music, in which what is popular can become obsolete almost literally overnight (See: The extinction event of 80s hair metal bands known as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991). It might be unfair to demand constant innovation from musicians, especially when coupled with their need to, you know, move units (or, these days, shift streams) in order to eat.

To go back to “Vertigo,” it might be the sound of U2 standing pat, but it’s also the sound of U2 being as U2 as they could possibly be, for an audience who wanted that and was, for the most part, glad to keep getting it. It might be that U2’s greatest moments of creativity, innovation and popularity are behind them and they just keep doing more of the same between now and whenever. But let us also acknowledge that there are worse fates, for both a band and its audience, than becoming Dad Rock.

— JS

Small Business Saturday: Ocean’s Originals

Hello, everyone! I hope you are all having a great Saturday. One thing that Saturdays are good for is shopping small! Which is why I’ve decided to start a new thing on here where, occasionally on Saturdays, I feature a small business that I think is awesome and highly recommend! Every business that I promote will be one that I personally have tried and/or used their products, so I actually know that what I’m recommending you is quality stuff supporting quality people!

To kick things off, I’d like to talk about Ocean’s Originals; a wonderful brand of all natural skincare and beauty products to amp up your self care routine. Not only is everything all natural, it’s also hella affordable! From lip tint to body scrub, cuticle balm to roller ball perfumes, she has such a nice variety of self-care products that I just adore.

I have bought from Ocean many times, and never regretted a single purchase. Everything feels so quality, not to mention smells totally amazing! Personally, my favorites out of what I’ve tried are probably the lip conditioners and the cuticle balm, but I also really like the lip scrubs and Luscious Lashes oil. Just to be clear, I have not tried all the products she offers! But I can totally vouch for the ones I have, as they have all been wonderful additions to my skincare regime.

Image of Lemon Lime Cuticle Balm

Here’s a few words from the creator herself:

My name is Ocean! I’m 22 & live in Illinois. I’ve been creating since October 2017. I love creating all types of self care items, especially lip care! I strive to be as eco friendly and low waste as possible in every aspect of my business! It’s extremely important to me to be low waste in every aspect & I’m actively finding ways to reduce waste while providing the best products!

Image

You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or check out her products at her website.

Image

Anyways, I hope you consider giving Ocean’s wonderful products a try, and I hope you have a great Saturday!

-AMS

Oh, Christ, Not the Science Fiction Canon Again

Ugh, we’re talking about the “canon” of science fiction literature, again, for reasons (most imminently the recent Hugo award ceremony and its fallout), and whether, basically, newer writers and readers should and must slog through a bunch of books in the genre that are now half a century old at least, from a bunch of mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight writers who are, shall we say, not necessarily speaking to the moment.

I’ve essayed this before, because I’m me, but here’s my newest set of thoughts on the matter, also because I’m me. Ready? Here we go:

As a practical matter, the science fiction “canon” is already dead.

There are at least two generations of adults now, and two generations of genre writers, who didn’t grow up on it and fundamentally don’t care about it. Long gone are the days where a kid’s first introduction to the genre was a Heinlein or Asimov novel, smuggled out of the adult fiction section of the library or bookstore like samizdat. The Kids These Days got their start reading genre through the YA section and grew up on Rowling and Collins and Westerfeld and Black and Pierce and Snicket, and got their science fiction through film and TV and video games and animation and comics as much as if not more than from books.

I repeat: They don’t care about “the canon.” Why should they? What they grew up with was sufficient for what they needed — to be entertained when they became readers and fans, and to be inspired if they became creators and writers. The writers they read spoke to them directly, because the art was new and it was theirs, not their parents’ or grandparents’. And while one might sniffily declare that what those YA authors were doing had been done before, by [insert spreadsheet of who who did what first in genre, which in itself is probably incomplete and therefore incorrect], no one cares. For readers and developing writers, it doesn’t matter who got there first, it matters who is there now, when those readers (and writers) are developing their own tastes and preferences, and claiming their own heroes and inspirations, both in fiction and in terms of the people writing it.

Also, here’s a news flash: even those of us who are old enough that the “canon” might have some actual relevance to our development as writers didn’t necessarily have that much reverence for it back then. Look, I’m fifty fucking one, and when I was younger, the “canonical” writers and works were already old. I liked some of them — Heinlein is an obvious one for me, Bradbury a less obvious one, and I enjoyed Piper in parts and Herbert for the length of Dune — but a lot of the rest of them were just not that interesting to me, nor would I consider them significant influences on me as a writer.

There are writers outside the field who are much more influential on how I write — Gregory Mcdonald and William Goldman and Nora Ephron, to name three — than pretty much any “canonical” SF writer other than Heinlein. What’s more, you could fill a library with all the “foundational” science fiction authors and books I haven’t read, and an even larger one with the writers that I read a couple things by, and went “meh,” and never read them again.

Who in genre was influential to me as a writer? Well, in high school and college, and in no particular order:

(sucks in a breath)

Varley and Brust and Adams and Gibson and Butler and Le Guin and Card and Gaiman and Stephenson. Alan Dean Foster, who seemingly put out a novel every month, was my go to sci-fi candy as a teenager. Ariel, by Steven Boyett, was hugely inspirational to me because it was fun and also written by someone who was still a teenager at the time. At the very end of my formative period came Tepper and Simmons.

None of these writers were “canonical” at the time, either (well, Le Guin was) — they were just who was writing then, putting out the new stuff that I would snap up and enjoy. I wasn’t spending much time going into the classics of the genre; I wasn’t shunning it, but these contemporary writers were just more interesting to me, and felt more relevant to my own life.

And yes, I knew a few science fiction nerds at the time who would try to shame me for not liking some classic writer (or at least someone who they considered a classic). My usual reaction would be to shrug, because I liked what I liked and that was fine (I was, however, more receptive to the enthusiastic SF nerd who instead of shaming said “Oooh! If you like that then you’ll like this!” Which is how I met Stephenson and Simmons, as two examples).

The point here is that even for me, who is a straight white dude in his fifties and who is deeply into the middle of a long and unquestionably successful career as a science fiction author — who is indeed in many respects the very model of a popular, mainstream genre writer — the canon of science fiction, the “golden age” of science fiction, was not (and is not!) essential, either as a reader, or later as a writer. I don’t feel bad about skipping a lot of that stuff back then, and at this point, the chance I’ll go back to read a lot of it now is pretty damn slim, because I’d rather keep up with what my contemporaries are writing, and be influenced by them.

That being the case, what is the argument for saying writers in their forties, or thirties, or twenties, need to offer fealty to a “canon” of genre work? It’s not necessary, practically, commercially or artistically, and at this point maintaining that it is only serves the function of being an increasingly inefficient method of gatekeeping by an ever-shrinking group. The moment of the canon as (effective) social cudgel has passed, because, again, younger writers and readers simply, and correctly, don’t care.

Now, is it useful to have a knowledge of the works and writers that have been influential over the length and breadth of the genre? Sure, if your interests run in that direction, and you want to grasp the history of the genre for your own purposes. Do these “canonical” works and writers still have value and interest to modern writers and readers? Indeed they may! We all get to choose our influences, and some of them might be from this group.

Should these canonical writers and works be tossed aside merely because they are old? Well, no; if they are to be tossed aside, it should be because they are not relevant to the particular reader. But: that also does not oblige the reader to pick up those works for any purpose but their own; if they don’t have such a purpose, down to and including mere idle interest, then it’s all right to let that book sit. “Not picked up” is existentially different than “tossed aside.”

Moreover, the days of certain works and writers being accepted more or less uncritically as “the canon” are well and truly gone. I mean, let’s face it, these “canonical” writers and works were always being called on their bullshit — see the New Wave of Science Fiction for that, which these days has its own bullshit to be called on as well — but the last few crops of writers, with no fealty to the canon or its makers, are especially not here for it. This is deeply uncomfortable for a lot of people! The whole point of having a canon is that it’s supposed to be more or less settled!

The question then, however, is: Settled by whom? And for what purpose? “The canon” didn’t just somehow happen. It is a result of choices — choices made by editors to favor some writers and viewpoints, and by readers and self-selected fans, to choose some of these previously-selected works and writers for canonization. The writers and readers today gave no assent or consent to these choices, and their choices may well be different: They may choose different writers and works to canonize, point out the problematic aspects of “canonized” creators and works and the gatekeepers who chose them — and, importantly, may reject the idea of the canonization of works and writers at all, because intentionally or otherwise, it’s an attempted system of control and a process of putting some people and works “in” and some “out.”

Which is not a bad idea! Maybe — here’s a thought, not at all original to me but one I’m happy to amplify now — we should just abandon the idea that science fiction requires a canon. Because, again, as a practical matter for current readers and writers, it doesn’t have one, and doesn’t need one. Moreover, pinning a fandom identity to works and writers that as a group have little relevance to contemporary readers and writers seems to be resulting mostly in annoyance, schism and, so as to not paper over the issue with too-mild words, an unexamined acceptance of a shitload of bigotry and exclusion that shaped that “canon” in the first place.

So, yeah: Drop it. Make the work and writers stand or fall on their own merits, to the modern writers and readers comprising who the science fiction field is today.

You know what will happen? Some works and writers will rise, some will fall, some will be rediscovered and some will be consigned to the archives, possibly forever. No canon, just a field forever in conversation with itself, choosing its conversational partners from its past rather than having them assigned from a list.

Because, again: that’s what’s actually happening. We might as well own up to it.

— JS

A Four is a Two is a Six

One thing to know about me is that I love shopping. Like, so much so that it’s an issue. Much like Ariana Grande said in 7 Rings, “think retail therapy my new addiction.” However, there are so many reoccurring issues I run into when shopping, that you’d think they’d be enough to deter me from the activity overall. For instance, as many of you know, I’m 5′ 10″. This alone makes shopping difficult enough, since almost all pants are highwaters (capris) on me and all dresses are too short for me.

To add to this, I’m chubby as hell. Thicc with two c’s. A real tubby marshmallow, to put it plainly. Being tall and overweight is a tough combination. And while the tall thing is a relatively new issue, I’ve been overweight for half my life. So once I became old enough to shop for myself, and did so quite frequently, finding my size became a bit of a challenge.

For the past few years, I’ve been stuck between “normal” sizes, and “plus” sizes. Normal sizes are typically 00-12 and plus is 14-30. I am constantly on the border between the two, sometimes I fit a 12 and sometimes I fit a 14. And sometimes I’m a 16. And sometimes I’m a medium, and sometimes I’m a large, but also sometimes I’m an x-large.

Point is, women’s sizes are confusing! It’s so hard to know what you are when every store, every clothing line, every designer has different measurements for their cookie cutter sizes. A pair of size 12 pants in one store might fit you perfectly but a pair of 12’s in a different store might be completely different. If you’ve ever seen this image floating around, originally posted by @chloe______e on Twitter, in which all of these pants are a size 12, you can start to see why it’s so hard for women to know what size they really are.

Meanwhile, men’s pants sizes aren’t some random number, like a 4 or an 8, they’re actual inch measurements! 30×32, 33×30, these are numbers with real meaning. This is not to suggest this issue doesn’t happen to men though, because I’ve seen a men’s shirt in a medium and an xx-large be identical before.

As someone who is always stuck in between the normal sizing and the plus sizing, it makes it hard to find clothes at either type of store. For example, if I go into a plus-sized only store, like Lane Bryant, everything is too big, despite the fact that I don’t fit into any of the normal sizes at other stores. There are certain stores, like Rue 21, which divide their stores in half, one half is for normal sizes and one half is for plus sizes. I think this is kind of a bad way to do it, because it feels alienating at times, but I can see how it would work if you assumed everyone knew their size without fail. But in stores like that, I always find myself bouncing back and forth between the two sides, and it’s frustrating!

Not only are the same sizes inconsistent across different stores or brands, but even the same brands will be inconsistent with their sizing, like when a women named Riley Bodley showed that her size 4 jeans were actually smaller than her size 0 jeans, from the same company, but the size 0 pants were bought a few years earlier. Which means that American Eagle made their bigger sizes smaller! I’m in awe, really. How do we (me included) let ourselves be so distraught by what size we wear, when companies are constantly changing the sizes, let alone making them consistently smaller?

I mean what can we expect when clothing companies put out these pre-cut clothes, when every single body is different? How can we think that the same pair of jeans will fit a hundred different people just because they’re all an eight, or a ten, or a four?

So you would think with all this, I would hate shopping, but on the flip side of this chaos, when you actually do find something that fits, and looks good, that moment of joy is fucking addicting. I am someone who does not have stellar body confidence. So when I find something that looks decent on me? I have this innate need to buy it. Because who knows when I’ll find something that fits this well again? Who knows when a dress will look this nice on me again? Better play it safe and buy it. And I have this mentality for literally dozens of clothing items, which leads to me spending way too much on clothes.

Also, I think clothing is such a great way to express yourself! There are so many different styles to explore, aesthetics to showcase. Everyone has such unique taste in clothes, it’s hard not to love fashion when it can be so fun. But I can also understand people who don’t feel the same, who prefer function over fashion, comfort over cuteness. Why waste money on an expensive outfit when a t-shirt and jeans do the trick? And honestly, to each their own. You should always do whatever makes you most comfortable and happy!

This post really is just to express one of my many, many frustrations with the fashion industry. My biggest complaint about the fashion industry is far less surface level than sizing, and has to do with where our clothes come from and the factories and laborers that produce our clothes. Which gives me a perfect opportunity to promote a fantastic book I read not so long ago called Where Am I Wearingby Kelsey Timmerman! I highly recommend checking it out if you’re interested in the source of most of our clothes and the people behind the garment making.

Anyways, that’s all I really had to say, just a bit of a vent piece. I hope it was relatable to some of you! Or at least enjoyable if nothing else. And I hope you have a great day!

-AMS

(Also, someone in the comments of my last post asked me what the M is for. It’s my middle initial!)

Krissy, Masked

The mask in question purchasable here, from John Picacio, who did the artwork printed onto it. Very nicely done, and clearly looks great as well.

(And for those about to ask, the picture was taken with my Pixel 4 and then edited in Photoshop. The original, less treated photo is here for your comparing and contrasting.)

Remember to wear your masks, folks!

Graveling Day

Living as we do in the country, we have a long driveway, which is made of dirt, on top of which is a layer of gravel. The gravel has to be relaid every couple of years, and today was that day: A nice man came by in a really huge dump truck, and laid several tons of crushed rock of various grades into the driveway.

As a result, the driveway is now super-smooth if a little treacherous to walk on — the gravel will compact a bit for the next couple of weeks, and then will be easier to get down without worrying about turning an ankle if one is not careful.

But regardless, our driveway is now squared away and looking pretty nice. One of the weird things about being an adult is being excited by a new load of gravel, I suppose, but here we are. One adult, happy about crushed rock.

— JS

The Big Idea: Linden A. Lewis

Today on the Big Idea we have The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis — a novel about a hero with no name and no voice, and the power of three words that, in this world at least, were (and are) not said enough.

(Content Warning: discussion of sexual assault)

LINDEN A. LEWIS:

I read a lot of stories about war and revolution. With the way our world currently is, who doesn’t like a story where the corrupt system is overthrown by the little people? But one of the things that irks me as a reader is to see a world in which there are people enslaved in sexual service, only to have those people relegated to the sidelines once the heroes march in.

Or maybe (as in another popular series I love but had to question) the former-sex-slaves become part of a problematic rebellion bent on terrorism. Or (ever so popular a choice) they die so our warriors can mourn them but ultimately keep on being warriors. So where does their justice come in?

As the popular refrain goes, “If you don’t like it, write your own.” So I did.

“First Sister has no name and no voice.”

That was the first line of my query letter. It’s now the first line that readers see when they check out the synopsis of the book. “No name and no voice” means First Sister isn’t just a comfort woman who’s had her bodily agency taken away, she’s one who has lost her core identity because of the people in power. She doesn’t have a name except for the title they gave her. She doesn’t have a voice because they took it away so she won’t repeat the secrets she hears in the line of duty.

If you’ve been a victim of sexual assault, you’re probably nodding along, identifying with those words. If you haven’t, you might be wondering, “What the hell, Linden? Why write a nameless, voiceless woman?”

The core idea of the Sisterhood, the institution First Sister is part of, came partially from the dichotomy between Madonna and whore. A woman is either a saint or a sinner, a family member or a sexual conquest. How often women have to evoke images of a man’s mother, sisters, or daughters to summon empathy was part of the core conceit behind the Sisterhood, where all positions are named after family members: Sisters, Aunts, Cousins, Mother.

But, as in our world, believing victims is not just a problem among men. Women (read: white women) who benefit from this patriarchal system also work to uphold it. It is forces like these that work to keep First Sister and others like her from ever speaking out against the violence they experience.

First Sister is nameless, because so many sexual abuse victims are not well-known celebrities; they’re just average people. First Sister can’t speak, because so many sexual abuse victims feel that, even if they do speak up, they won’t be believed.

I remember the humble beginnings of the #MeToo movement. It started so simply: Post #MeToo as your status if you’ve been sexually assaulted. I watched the posts roll in, seeing just how many of my friends were exactly like me. But I bit my tongue. I have family on my social media channels, and my sexual assault isn’t something I’m comfortable talking to them about. That day, I didn’t post anything except comments: “I believe you.”

But the #MeToo hashtag gained steam, and more and more people felt comfortable speaking out. Those replies were what I longed for, the reassurance that someone believed what I’d been through. Little by little, I began taking back pieces of my agency by speaking with friends, by telling people what I’d been through. And every time I heard “I believe you,” I felt like a piece of me healed a little bit.

You see, no one had ever believed me before. I was just a child when it happened. He was a family member. I was supposedly a verbose kid who would talk to trees when bored, yet no one “understood” me when I tried to explain what had happened. And when I tried to bring it up later, when I was older and had more vocabulary? No one wanted family drama.

Part of the reason I kept my mouth shut for so long, even as #MeToo went from hashtag to movement, was because I didn’t want to deal with the naysayers. “Why didn’t you report him?” I still fear people asking. “Why don’t you report him now?” Or, the comment I fear most of all: “Where’s your proof?” Without proof of something that happened 20-something years ago, people could say I’m a false accuser.

Sadly, I find I’m not the only one who is nameless, who is voiceless in these matters. The US Department of Justice reports that the number of rapes and sexual assaults that are never reported far outweighs the number of men convicted of rape because of fake accusations. Actually, it far outweighs the number of fake accusations. Period. Obviously I’m not the only one scared of saying something, who believe officials won’t be able to help. And let me be abundantly clear: Officials like police officers are far less likely to listen to someone who isn’t cisgender, white, and/or straight.

In The First Sister, I wanted the novel to reflect this world where “I believe you” is intrinsic, so I very specifically did not include any graphic sexual abuse scenes. Sexual abuse happens; it’s something the characters talk about having faced, but no one ever questions them. No one ever disbelieves them. The last thing I wanted was for this book to be seen to glorify sexual assault in any way or to become akin to ‘torture porn.’ Instead, the world and the characters explore the dangers of rape culture. They explore what it’s like to fight against a patriarchal system upheld by men and (again, rich/white) women.

I believe victims. I stand with them. And The First Sister is my love letter to everyone who has been forced to deal with rape culture, whether they feel comfortable telling their stories or not. So when it comes to First Sister? She is far more focused on seizing that culture by the throat, choking the life out of it, and creating a revolution. She is a sexual abuse survivor, but she is also the hero.

—-

The First Sister: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Athena Mallet

As some of you wondered whether Athena would have use of the Mallet (as we call the ability to moderate the comments here), and whether she would get her own mallet or have to borrow mine, the picture above should answer your question: She does, and she has her own. The mallet in question here is a gift from a friend, and it is delightful (and yes, for those of you who don’t know, I also have an actual real world mallet as well, mine in the shape of an oversized judge’s gavel). We’re the Mallet-Wielding Scalzis, we are.

What we don’t know yet is what Athena chooses to call her mallet. Mine is — of course — the Mallet of Loving Correction. We’ll see how Athena decides to name her own. I’m looking forward to finding out. I hope none of you ever have to have it applied to you.

— JS

Attack of the $30 Rental: Why Disney’s Mulan Strategy Just Might Work

After bouncing the release date from March to July and then August — all of which were scuppered by the COVID-19 virus — Disney has finally announced that it’s going to make its live action version of Mulan available on Disney+ on September 4. The caveat: It’ll cost an additional $30 to rent it on top of the usual monthly fee for the service. So not only will you have to pay a really high rental fee for the film, you’ll also have to get Disney’s streaming service to get it.

I think this is super-interesting and might actually work reasonably well. Here are the reasons:

1. This is a family film. Which means that for the people who were going to see it, they were likely to watch it as a family, which means they were going to buy multiple adult and child tickets to it, plus concessions, plus parking, plus possibly dinner beforehand or whatever. Which is to say, the financial investment for a family was already going to be at least $30, or like $50 or even more. A family watching this film is not going to lose money on this rental.

2. It’s an established property. It’s established in two ways: One, it’s a remake of a beloved Disney animated film, and two, it’s part of the Disney “animation-to-live-action” franchise, which includes the billion-dollar remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Mulan comes from the same animation era, i.e., the “Disney Renaissance” which means it’s likely to have the buy in on the same scale as those two films, especially with Millennial parents who love the originals.

3. Disney+ is ready for it. Disney announced the streaming service now has 60 million subscribers, which is a significant number on its own, and also means that Disney+ have a large enough audience base that making this a purchasable on the service has some economic feasibility. If 10 percent of the Disney+ audience rents the film at the $30 purchase point, which is not an unfeasible number, that’s a $180 million gross for Disney. That’s not as much as it might make in the theater (it’s reasonable to think Disney thought it would make in the area of $300 million domestically from the film), but here’s the thing about that:

4. Disney should net almost all of that rental fee. In the US, Disney has to split the box office with the theaters. Disney is known for asking for 60+% of the box office for its big releases (which Mulan assuredly is) in the first few weeks, with the theaters usually getting more of the gross the longer it runs. In later video on demand runs, Disney gives a cut to the service hosting the video. But Disney owns Disney+ outright; it almost certainly doesn’t have to give anyone else a cut of the gross.

Why does this matter? Because it means Disney doesn’t have to make as much money to recoup the cost of the film. Mulan is estimated to have cost $200 million to make, and probably cost between $100 million and $150 million to market. In order for Disney to make back all that money in theatrical distribution, the film would have to make somewhere between $600 million and $800 million globally. But without having to give anyone else a cut, now all Disney has to do is make the cost of the film itself. Which it could quite conceivably do as a $30 rental on Disney+.

(NOTE: I am vastly oversimplifying here because among other things the film is still being released theatrically in countries where theaters are open, and will even show here in the US in some theaters when/if possible; this film is going to have a very complicated back end. But the overriding point is — Disney keeps substantially more of the gross in this model, and needs less money to break even.)

5. Disney is not destroying its ancillary gross avenues. People who don’t want to pay $30 for the rental will probably be able to wait a few months and get Mulan as a standard video-on-demand title, and on Blu-Ray not long after that, and then on Disney+ standard streaming and finally on Starz or whichever movie channel Disney currently has relationships with, and so on. So even if the $30 rental doesn’t pan out, the company has some options to recoup over the medium term that it wouldn’t have (or would have fewer of in any event) if it just put the film out on the Disney+ as part of the standard offerings.

Why didn’t Disney do this with Onward or Artemis Fowl or Hamilton, all of which were meant for theatrical but which ended up on Disney+ as part of the standard service? Excellent questions! With Onward, it was because it was already (barely) in theatrical when the theaters shut down in the US; bad luck there, but it is what it is. With Artemis Fowl, it was because a) it was a movie meant to launch a franchise, not part of a franchise that already existed, so there wasn’t audience buy-in, b) Disney knew it had a turkey on its hands, so it both saved money not promoting it, and didn’t get the black eye of a box office bomb. And with Hamilton, that was a pure play to lure in a different set of subscribers to Disney+ than it might have otherwise, and it worked like a charm; Hamilton’s success is probably a significant reason why Disney+ now has the critical mass to host a Mulan release this way in the first place.

To be clear: Disney’s plan here with Mulan could fail, in which case Disney will take the write-down and chalk it up to experience. But if it doesn’t fail, and in fact hits big (which in this scenario would be $250+ milllion at the $30 rental price), two predictions: Disney tries the same trick with Black Widow in the November(ish) timeframe, and by the end of the year Warner Bros. tries it as well with Wonder Woman 1984, possibly on HBO Max. After family films, superhero films are the next safest bet in the $30 rental scenario.

(Wait, you say, is it a coincidence that all of those films have women in the lead role? Hmmm! Is it a coincidence, indeed!)

I should also be clear that when and if people in the US can safely go back to the theater at the same levels as they did before COVID-19, the $30-rental-instead-of-theatrical-release is going the way of the dodo. This is a “next best thing” strategy as well as an “everyone knows this is the only way to see this now” strategy. Movie studios have a contentious relationship with exhibitors, but there’s still money to be made there, on top of money to be made elsewhere. What is more likely to happen is something that Universal and AMC have already agreed to: a shorter theatrical exhibition window, followed by a high-price rental window (in which exhibitors get a cut), followed by the usual VoD, Blu-Ray, streaming, cable, etc.

We’ll see after September 4 whether Disney looks smart or foolish. But fundamentally I can’t fault their decision to try getting Mulan out this way. There’s only so long you can leave these big movies on the shelf. If it works, Disney will have done very well for itself.

— JS

Housekeeping Notes for the New Regime

Athena has officially announced her return here so I don’t need to do that; nevertheless a couple of quick notes:

1. The current theme doesn’t have a byline noting which of us is posting, so for the foreseeable future we’ll be putting our initials at the end of our posts to distinguish them. You know, in case the difference in how we present ourselves in text isn’t enough (and who knows, it might not be).

So, if you see a post end in “AMS,” that’s Athena, and “JS” will signify me, John Scalzi. Big Idea posts will be unsigned by either of us (since those are written by their book’s author). Additionally, Athena’s posts will have an “Athena Scalzi” category tag, which you’ll be able to see on the individual entry page but not on the main page of the blog.

(For everyone about to give me theme tips and suggestions as to what I should do with bylines or dates on the posts, etc, please don’t. I’ll tweak and update when/if I can or when/if I feel like it, but for the moment, this is how we’re doing things. Thanks.)

2. You’ll note a couple of cosmetic changes, perhaps, notably that the portrait on the Whatever front page now features both me and Athena; the Whatever information lists her as an editor/writer; and the information about the site has been updated to include her as well. That’s because, well, we’re making changes here and the look and information should reflect that, obviously.

3. Also (I think) obviously, Athena writes differently than I do and has different interests and concerns, and I think that that’s great; my job as an editor is to help her shape her voice and tone to be even more like herself, not to change it into something that she’s not. As a result the overall tone and content for Whatever will change as the site incorporates more of her stuff into it. I’m looking forward to this; be ready for it.

With that said, remember that the rules of the road still apply here. Both Athena and I have moderating capability — yes, Athena has the Mallet — and part of my job as editor here is training her how to use it. To be clear, nearly everyone who comments here regularly does so because they understand the rules, and I don’t expect that to change. You folks are grand. But given how much I catch myself annoyingly mansplaining things to her (and to her mother, which is even more fraught), let’s just say I expect a few slip ups here and there. If you can catch yourself before that happens, that would be nice. But if you don’t, we’ll give you a tap.

I think that’s it for now. Welcome to Whatever as a two-person shop. It will be fun while it lasts.

— JS

Don’t Call It a Comeback

Hello, everyone! Today is my first day back on the blog and I’m so stoked to be here again! Some of you may remember my time on here from the summer of ’18, and even more recently, my one and only post since then. I’m not sure how long I’ll be around this time, but let’s make the most of our time together!

I’d like to start off by introducing myself to those of you who don’t know me. My name is Athena and I’m twenty one years old! I’m left-handed, a Capricorn, an only child, a sweets addict, a lover of the color purple, an ENFP, and so much more! But the other trivial facts will come with time.

Now we can venture forward in my introductory post to the second part: what to expect from me. In the past, my posts were a mishmash of random things, consisting of whatever I was up to, any random thoughts I had, anything new I tried, etc. I’d still like to do all that random goodness, but this time around I’d like to be more consistent with certain things, have reoccurring types of posts, and introduce new types of pieces into the blog that haven’t been done before. I will be posting a few times a week, so you’ll definitely see my posts around, but they won’t be an every day occurrence.

(I just misspelled occurrence so many times it doesn’t even look like a word to me anymore.)

Anyways, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has given me a warm welcome back. It truly means a lot to me that so many of you are excited for me to be here, and that you’re looking forward to my posts. I will do my best to provide quality content for you all to enjoy! Thank you to everyone who wished me well! Your support warms my heart. If you just can’t get enough of me, you can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram!

During this time, I’ll also be working on my own writing, as well as photography, and I’m sure I’ll show you all some of the fruits of my labor. Until then, I hope you enjoy the posts; I have so much planned!

Have a great day!

-AMS

I Got a Permanent Crown Today and I’m Still a Bit Fuzzed Up, So Here’s a Picture of Jupiter I Took Last Night

With its Galilean moons, even! I took it last night in a break between rain clouds (seen below), with my Nikon and its telephoto lens fully extended. All four Galilean moons are in the picture, although one of them is smooshed in between the planet and one of the other moons. You might see it better in this larger version of the picture.

As I noted on Twitter last night, this is the first time I’ve ever gotten a picture of the Galilean moons, so I’m pretty happy about that. I also mentioned that I took the picture handheld rather than with a tripod, which seemed to impress a bunch of folks. Don’t be too impressed; I have five other photos that are basically streaks. But this one came out, so I’m happy.

In other news, the new crown seems to be fine, but the the novocaine is wearing off, I’m feeling a bit dazed and I’ll be eating very soft foods this evening. Go me.

The New Chair Arrives

I wrote last week about my need to purchase a new office chair, and lo and behold, as if by magic (and by “magic” I mean “by means of ordering it online and paying for it to be delivered by the retailer”), it has arrived at the house and is ensconced at my desk. It is indeed a Steelcase Leap chair, and it is indeed reasonably comfortable, although it is also clear to me that a chair with so many potential adjustments requires actual adjusting before I am completely comfortable with it. So I expect to be fiddling with it for the next few days to get it just exactly how I want it.

I am taking a picture of it now, not only to commemorate the momentous occasion of its arrival, but also because this will be the very last time in its history that there will be no cat hair anywhere on it. Please enjoy its pristine state with me, while it lasts, which won’t be long at all.

Why I Like Photography

In fact, the picture above typifies many of the reasons why I enjoy taking pictures, getting them ready for presentation, and then showing them off to the world. Let me enumerate them for you now.

1. I have a lot of photogenic subjects around me: Krissy, obviously, and the cats, but flowers and clouds and sunsets and people I know and so on. Some subjects lend themselves to photography, yes, but the other thing is once you start taking pictures on a more than casual basis you realize that “photogenic” is not just about pretty or striking but what you can do to whatever thing to make it the subject of a compelling photo. You could take a picture of a fork and make it look compelling and interesting. “Photogenic” is as much about the photographer as the subject, and that was a cool thing to learn.

2. Good pictures are everywhere. The picture above looks studiously posed but is not. Krissy happened to come into my office to talk to me about her plans for the day, Sugar leapt up into her lap to be petted and then settled down on her knee. I grabbed my Pixel 4 phone, opened up the camera app and shot three photos of the two of them in rapid succession. One of them (this one, obviously) was good enough to refine further. I couldn’t have planned this shot (I mean, I could have, but I’m almost certain the cat would not have cooperated), but the fact it was there literally for the taking is a reminder that so much of what is worth seeing in the world isn’t planned; from a photography point of view it’s nice to be living in an age where a decent camera is usually within reach. Certainly not every photo I snap is gold — Out of ten pictures I take, four are blurry and at least two have people doing weird things with their faces — but enough of them are to make it worth it.

3. Photography hardware and software are conducive to how I do photography. I am not a studio photographer, nor am I one who usually uses the more complex setting of his camera; I use mostly natural or ambient lighting and I mostly keep my dSLR settings on “auto” for ISO and shutter speed. This means outside of basic composition of the shot (i.e., placing myself or my subjects somewhere to get the best picture) I do everything else in post-production, primarily with Photoshop but with some other programs as well, either standalone or as add-ons to Photoshop. I make pictures this way because it works for me, and also because as a self-taught photographer this is just how I have accreted knowledge and process.

This doesn’t mean my way is right — other photographers might find my process curious or laborious or the long way around to do things, and as I go through and learn more about photography, I’ll often find some way of doing things in-camera that, had I known earlier, would have saved me a lot of pain in the ass post-production fiddling. But I don’t actually mind that! I don’t kick myself when I learn something that I maybe should have known earlier. It just means that now I have two different ways of getting to the same desired point for the photo. And the larger point is: No matter how you do it, today’s photography hardware and software usually allow you a way to achieve an effect or look that you want. Also, here’s the thing:

4. I find fiddling with photos enjoyable and relaxing. The picture you see above has been altered from what came out of the camera in a number of ways: One, it’s in black and white where the original was in color. Two, before it was black and white, I went and did things with the lighting and color balance to give a more dramatic presentation, and to do things like even out skin tones and shadows. Three, I used Photoshop to clean up cat hair on Krissy’s clothes, and irregularities in the paint on the wall (I tried taking out the light switch but did a bad job of it, so it stayed). I played with various filters, in color and in black and white, to get a look I liked — for this specific black and white photo, I actually used a particular color filter (after all the other stuff I did to the photo), and then desaturated the photo’s colors. And then, at the end of it, I added a light dusting of “grain” to the photo, to give it a little bit of texture that all the post-processing I did had taken out of the photo.

And, I enjoyed every fiddly, nit-picking moment of that process. It’s fun to sit there on Photoshop and move sliders and apply brushes and slowly make a photo into something you like, and maybe want to show others. It’s a process I can get lost in, and in doing so forget about other things for a bit. Also, it’s a creative process that for me has a quick(er) result than my usual stock in trade: in the space of a few moments or an hour, I can make something I find artistically satisfying. As a novelist, whose books usually take months to compose and complete and then often even longer to go out into the world, this is something I appreciate quite a lot. Look! Art! In a couple of hours from snapping the photo to putting it out into the world! Wheee!

And it doesn’t even have to be “art” for me to enjoy it. One of my favorite things to do is, when friends post old family pictures on Facebook or elsewhere that are yellowed (or magenta-ed, honestly, that usually what happens to old photos), is to take the snap and do a quick color correction that brings the photo closer to what it was when it was originally taken. It’s a five-minute thing, it’s fun, and generally people are like, oh, cool, thanks. Process is enjoyable sometimes, folks, as much or even more than the final product.

5. It’s not my job. I know a number of professional photographers and they have a very cool job that generally speaking I do not aspire to. One, because I already have a very cool job, and, thank God, I don’t need another at this point to eat. Two, because I stepped in to be an emergency wedding photographer once, and having done so I have some small inkling of how difficult the job is when other people’s expectations are on the line. Three, because I’m good enough to recognize where the skill/knowledge gap is between me and the professional photographers of my acquaintance, and what I would need to do to level up, and, meeehhhhh I’d rather not?

But, and mostly, four: because I enjoy photography as a hobby, and as a hobby it provides me certain artistic and mental benefits which are actually useful and important to me. So that’s where I’m going to keep things for the most part. Do the occasional photo shoot for friends? Sure, why not? (I did some author photos for some folks recently and it’ll be cool to see those in their books.) Do that on the regular? Nah, I’d rather take photos of my hibiscus plant and make it look like an alien appendage just because that looks cool to me.

6. Because memories. Which is why the vast majority of people take photos, so I’m not special there. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. As it turns out I don’t have a huge number of photos from when I was growing up, or indeed, really before the advent of digital photography at the turn of the century. However, I have lots of photographic evidence of my life from about 2000 onward. There are those who suggest that people spend so much time taking pictures or video that they’re not actually experiencing the moment, and I think there’s a small argument for that. One’s memories should not be just looking into a screen or viewfinder. But I also think you can do both: Experience the moment, and at some point in it, record it in a photo to help remember it better later.

I also think photos can be their own moment; not just what you’ve captured, but the experience of the photo in itself. That’s a real thing, too, and and experience worth having. As well as the experience of everything else that comes with making a picture from that photo. I enjoy the whole experience of photography, from shot to showing. I’m glad to have that experience. It makes my life better.

Five Things: July 30, 2020

Oh, hello! How are you? I have a few things I’m thinking about today:

Hey, did you know? Our economy is shit! Specifically, the last economic quarter is absolutely the worst on record, either on its own (in which the GDP shrank more than nine percent) or on the especially dramatic “annualized” basis (which has the GDP shrinking an unfathomable 32%). Here’s an explainer about what “annualized basis” means, and why it’s probably not the one to look at for an actual accurate bead on the economy, but, look, no matter how you slice it, our economy is in a bad way.

“It’s the Trump economy!” Well, as much as I hate being fair to the awful bastard, let us stipulate that given the pandemic and the initial shutdown it precipitated, the economy would have taken a massive hit during this first phase of the coronavirus regardless of who was president. Trump and his administration’s policy of “welp, you’re on your own, guess you’re gonna die,” certainly didn’t help between April and June, of course. But it would have been a mess regardless. It’s all the rest of the year, and the subsequent economic mess that exists (and is coming) from the administration’s incoherent and incompetent response that will define the Trump Economy. And just before an election! That’s great news for him.

Speaking of which —

Trump wants to delay the election: Sure, he’s trying to distract from the horrifying economic report today (it won’t work), but also, he’s pretty sure he’s going to lose the election (he probably will) and if and when he does he’s going to spend the rest of his life in courtrooms and/or in jail (I can’t wait), so why not try to delay the election on the basis of the utterly spurious lie that voting by mail is fraudulent? This is an utterly foolproof plan with no flaws whatsoever!

The good news, such as it is, is Trump’s brilliant plan doesn’t seem to be getting much traction with other GOPers, who I have to assume have actually read the Constitution, or at least have had someone read it to them. Also, Congress would need to change the date; good luck getting that past the House at the moment. But this is just more evidence that Trump is planning to deny the validity of any election that doesn’t go his way, and the rest of the GOP will have to decide which they like more: The US Constitution, or, you know, actual fucking treason. I wish I could say that “actual fucking treason” had less than coin-flip odds at the moment.

Herman Cain dies of coronavirus: Which is sad, and also, I don’t think it’s politicizing his death to point out the odds are really excellent that he contracted the virus either at Trump’s Tulsa event or traveling to or from it. Cain’s people want to suggest there are other places where he could have picked up the virus, and of course they would do that. One does have to entertain the possibility that they may even be correct; Cain was extensively traveling during a pandemic and also eschewing things like mask wearing, which increased his chances of exposure. What we can say for sure is: stay home when you can, folks. Wear a mask when you can’t.

Meanwhile, back here at Whatever: Athena and I held our first staff meeting today, talking about short and long term plans for the site now that she’s coming on as staff — not just in terms of posts and features but a bunch of backend stuff too, like scheduling and where in the house she’ll do her work (home office, folks!). I suspect I bored her a bit with all the things I had on the agenda to discuss, which just means I am totally being a boss, I guess. In any event, a good meeting and a good start. I’m looking forward to next week. Just FYI, expect the Athena rollout to start relatively modestly as we get things going; we have a fair amount of backend stuff to contend with the first couple of weeks.

Spice with the catnip sock: We have a lot of catnip toys in the house, because the cats are all catnip-sensitive (not all cats are) and we enjoy watching them get stoned. But they are also super aggressive with the toys so they don’t last very long — someone sent us some catnip bananas and the cats had eviscerated it an hour later, and we had catnip all over the hardwood floors.

So what I end up doing is taking a whole bunch of catnip, putting it into an old sock, putting a knot in it to sequester the catnip, and tossing it to the cats. Voila: a durable catnip toy the kitties have yet to destroy. And after a couple of weeks, replace the catnip inside, and you’re back in business. I reloaded the sock the other day; here’s Spice enjoying it quite enthusiastically.

The Big Idea: Lif Strand

Music can be life changing, but as Lif Strand found out in writing Evolution Device, turning that life-changing feeling into a novel can be a challenge worthy of the gnarliest of musical performances.

LIF STRAND:

Music is powerful stuff. It enters the ears and takes over the brain. If that isn’t power then I don’t know what is.

I’m not much of a musician, but music is right up there with the most important things in my life. Even so, I can’t let myself listen too much. Not if I intend to accomplish anything. Where there is music there is me at a dead stop, intent on what I’m hearing. Even in stores. Yeah, that’s me, transfixed in the aisle. Not comparing cans of peas on the shelf but lingering under the ceiling speaker till a song is over.

My obsession started with Classical music. I found Buddy Holly, then Link Wray, Motown, and the Ventures. And then the epiphany: what is now considered classic rock. My vinyl treasure horde, worth every penny.

I knew in my heart that real music came from melody carried by notes, not words. Forget lyrics. My soul resonated to the voice of the electric guitar. Clapton and Keef, Harrison and Hendrix, Mayall & friends, Santana – I couldn’t get enough of them. I named one of my dogs BB and another Lucille. I lived for riffs that yanked me out of the path of predictability, for solos that shot me into the realms of the gods, blowing my mind along the way.

But Jimmy Page. I loved his guitar before I knew who he was, back when he was a session man on at least half of the songs I was listening to. Over time I came to realize that his musical genius bore an extra something I couldn’t quite identify but that I craved beyond any other. The voice of his guitar slithered into my ears and bypassed my brain, not just resonating but transforming my soul.

Shortly after I began wrestling with the first draft of Evolution Device in 2011 I started a blog about Jimmy Page’s music. I needed a name for that extra something that so enchanted me. I wanted to identify the sorcery that raised pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and timbre to another level, that ineffable something lost when the music was performed by others. That power that changed duplicable into unique, using energy from… what? Transforming base into noble… how?

Energy, power, transformation, base, noble: Alchemy talk! Why not just call the energy magic? It made sense to me. Aren’t music fans always going on about the magic in the songs they love?

Probably they don’t really mean magic magic, but still…

What if the greatest acts of creativity — the ones that seep into base souls and lift them to a nobler state – what if they really were acts of magic?

Wow. That was a story I needed to tell.

The ideas I blogged about were the foundation of Evolution Device, a story of music and magic. Writing the first draft should have been a piece of cake, what with all the time I had spent on the subject — but no. I had to flog myself to get the words out. It wasn’t pretty.

How could that be? Blogging had been so easy! All I had to do was think a little, then write down my ideas in a logical fashion, explain the basis for my thinking, and then present my conclusions. So simple. So straightforward.

So not a story.

I despaired. I was no storyteller! I’d been a non-fiction writer for years. The people who paid me expected me to build arguments for them while poking holes in their opposition’s positions, but not to make stuff up. Even blogging about magic was not really making stuff up, not in the sense of telling a story. All that research into the history of magic, all those precedents for my theory that magic and creativity are essentially the same, all the delightful serendipities that came my way to bolster my ideas, all the crafting of logical arguments: Worldbuilding isn’t storytelling

Nevertheless, I persisted.

The first draft of Evolution Device was 450 pages and it unleashed… nothing. I knew my characters, could so clearly see the scenes, and praise the gods I could write dialog. It was all so there in my head but on paper? Meh. I poured even more into it but it didn’t matter. I had the right ingredients but the wrong incantation. And the more I tried, the more muddled it got.

I was done. No point in putting more time into a lost cause. I started on a contemporary mystery that had not a bit of music in it. Except my musician characters wouldn’t let me go. The gigs, the parties, the sound checks, the groupies, the dealers – the music in my head — I dreamed them at night and they haunted me by day. I cursed them, those made up people, because I knew what I wanted to say but not how to tell their damned story.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

Eventually I came to my senses. I throw the problem at a professional editor. Boy howdy, was that a good idea! With my editor’s help I created a new writing rule: “when in doubt, chop it out”. I did away with a hundred fifty pages. Fixed the mixed points of view. Dumped narrative and added dialogue. Rewrote the beginning and the ending and a bunch of the middle, too.

And then, like magic… I had a story.

Lilith is a spirit bound to a physical body by the guitarist whose muse she is. Eddie is succumbing to the excesses of fame and fortune, the demands of a supernatural guitar, and fear of the power he was born to wield. His bandmates sense how close Eddie is to the edge but can’t let him stop. All hunger for the energy of the audience that both consumes and fuels the wild magic that is their music.

The magic of creative drive.

The story I had in mind all along.

—-

Evolution Device: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow the author on Twitter.

 

Five Things: July 29, 2020

Well, well, well. Let’s see what we have here:

Ask your doctor if sex with demons is right for you: By now we’ve all heard that those “American Frontline Doctors” and their video touting hydroxychloroquine and no masks were such a level of bullshit that even Facebook felt compelled to pull the video, but I have to admit that even by those standards a doctor that says dream sex with demons causes endometriosis is a little out there. And of our president is out there giving this person a big thumbs up, so that’s great.

I dislike being confronted over and over again that our current president is literally the least intelligent president we’ve had by a significant margin, and that a significant percentage of the American electorate thinks he’s some sort of mastermind. I would ask them whether they think demon sex causes uterine disorders. If they answer anything other that “fuck no, that’s ridiculous,” then I’m fine with not trusting them with anything more complicated than a Fisher-Price toddler toy.

Trump removing troops from Germany: Because apparently Putin wants it, is my guess, and our President, when he’s not plumping physicians detailing demon diddling, is delighted to be a fawning lickspittle for the man paying out bounties on our troops. Yes, I know: tell you how I really feel about Trump, right? Anyway, my understanding is that this removal and transfer will actually take years, which (knowing nothing else about the details at this point) suggests to me that there’s a very excellent chance that come January 2021, this little plan will be tossed into the garbage, or at least altered in a way that doesn’t actually cater to Russia’s interests in Europe. That’s just a guess.

The theatrical window now down to 17 days — that is, if Universal and AMC Theaters have their way; it appears the other major theatrical chains in the US are deeply opposed to it. There is irony here, in that Universal tried to shift the theatrical window earlier this year and AMC responded by saying it wouldn’t carry its films anymore; the new deal apparently cuts AMC into the video-on-demand take so the theater chain figures they’ll make money out of it anyway. At the moment it’s a moot point because hardly anything is being shown theatrically and the idea of sitting in a movie theater should give anyone not convinced of actual demonic coitus the heebie-jeebies, but one day it might matter.

I suspect what’s actually going to happen after the dust settles is that the current theatrical window, currently at 90 days, is going to get cut to something like 45 or even 30 days. The vast majority of films don’t stay in theaters for more than a month these days anyway (part of the reasoning for the 17-day window is that most films make pretty much all their domestic box office in three weeks), and those who want the theatrical experience will be motivated to get to the theater. Where I live the local multiplex gets the big titles in and out the door in four weekends, and the smaller indie/art films don’t show up at all (and those tend to get VoD releases much sooner anyway), so it would be all the same to me. So: 17 days? I’d guess that’s probably not gonna stick. 30 to 45 days? Realistically that’s where we are anyway.

100-million-year-old microbes revived: Seriously, have these people never watched horror movies? But I guess we’re already in the clutches of a massive biological pandemic, so what’s one more possible vector of infection, right? More seriously, though, the fact that scientists were able to revive bacteria from the age of dinosaurs at all is fascinating and certainly has implications for the folks who tout the “panspermia” idea that life on earth might have been seeded by asteroids or other detritus from space. Like that doctor in the first item! Who thinks scientists are fiddling around with DNA from space! Seriously, that person is loooooopy. Do not listen to her.

Spongebob, anime style: To really enjoy this you must, a) have a basic understanding of anime tropes, b) either have grown up with Spongebob Squarepants or have had a child who did, c) probably be stoned out of your goddamned mind. But if you are some combination of the three, this is pretty great. Enjoy.

 

The Big Idea: Richard Cox

Good things come to those who wait… and learn. That might be the theme of this Big Idea by Richard Cox, for his novel House of the Rising Sun, which experienced a pause in its writing and in doing so just may have arrived at precisely the right time.

RICHARD COX:

Before I started work on House of the Rising Sun, I didn’t know such a thing as prepping existed. I didn’t know there was a whole culture of people expecting the world to end at any time, who were storing food and water and supplies in advance of this impending fall of civilization. All I wanted was to write an epic novel about an apocalypse that didn’t immediately kill all the people or blow everything to smithereens or feature zombies or a virus. I didn’t imagine I would publish two other novels before this one or that when the book finally hit the shelves it would be during the throes of an actual pandemic. I didn’t know how strange and transactional it would feel to promote a project that captured so much of the reality we currently face, and when I say reality, I don’t just mean COVID-19.

My desire to write a post-apocalyptic novel dates to when I was 16 and read The Stand, and toward the end of 2010 I decided to get serious about it. I hopped on Google looking for a real-life cause for the type of apocalypse I wanted, and lo and behold there existed such a thing! By now I think many people understand what an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) is, but ten years ago the threat was less well-known, and certainly I had never heard of it. The idea of that all our computer chips and transistors could be fried by a pulse fascinated me.

Think of the mayhem it would cause. Cars wouldn’t run. The power grid would collapse. No phones, no television, no Internet, no anything. Such an event would send a developed nation back to the age of horses and buggies and kerosene lamps, only worse, because back then horses and kerosene lamps were commonplace. Before the 20th century most people didn’t rely on water pumped into cities from distant artificial reservoirs. They lived somewhat near their sources of food instead of depending on daily shipments from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

And even though I wanted the novel to be set in the continental United States, it didn’t seem interesting for the EMP to be local. I wanted it to be global. I wanted there to be no easy chance for rescue for anyone by anyone. That meant the EMP would need to be caused by a celestial event, and since I’d always wanted to title a novel House of the Rising Sun (I’m keen on The Animals’ version) I chose a supernova as the culprit.

So I wrote a few pages and thought I had a solid concept, but there was still the matter of these two other projects on my plate. Eventually I set the new idea aside and published Thomas World in 2011. After that there was a decision to make: keep going on House or pick up the pieces of this other project that had been brewing for years, The Boys of Summer. I was pretty much on the fence until I saw, with some dismay, that someone had beaten me to the EMP story. A novel had been published in late 2009 that was similar enough in concept to mine that I decided not to proceed…at least not yet. I wanted to read and understand that book so I didn’t write the same story again, and because I didn’t want to follow it too closely for looking like I had stolen the author’s idea.

I’m so glad I waited.

What happened was, on the heels of that 2009 EMP novel, many, many others followed. In part, I suspect, because the novel sold well, but also because the prepping community began to behave as though civilizational collapse was imminent. I can’t say for sure if they really believed such a thing, or if certain authors decided to capitalize on cultural anxiety, but it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that prepper fiction gained momentum soon after an historic election that saw a Black Democrat become President of the United States.

Even though I had no intention of writing about preppers, at least not directly, it still seemed like a good idea to become familiar with novels that covered similar ground. So I downloaded a few eBooks and quickly discovered most of these novels followed a template: 1) An EMP quietly kills all the things, 2) Most people have no idea what happened, 3) Preppers inherit the Earth. And yes, that leaves out a few steps, but honestly not that many. Because the point of most of these novels is not to push a character’s life out of balance and explore her attempts to restore equilibrium. It’s not to live in a character’s mind while he shelters in place and hides his supplies from neighbors and battles against grief and guilt.

No, the point of most prepper fiction is to tell you what to buy to protect yourself from Armageddon while also picking sides in an imagined culture war. Like you should order precisely this gun and exactly these water purification tablets and this particular mess kit. And, perhaps most importantly, how to defend yourself against (and by defend I mean kill) hungry city slickers when they realize the power isn’t coming back.

Eventually I came to understand that even though scores of EMP-centric novels had been published, there might still be room for another one. What if I told such a story from the layperson’s point of view? What if some or most of my characters weren’t prepared at all? What if these people hailed from various walks of life and held differing cultural or political views? What if the women in my novel were given agency in their lives instead of idly watching while the manly menfolk solved all the problems and killed all the evil city dwellers?

What if the desire to survive wasn’t taken as a given?

The more I researched, the more I noticed how many reviews critical of EMP novels were published by readers who were fascinated by the story concept but wanted to read a book where normal civilians were forced to navigate a world that became suddenly and dangerously quiet. They wanted to experience the thrills and pain and difficult choices that any character might face if an EMP really happened. And fortunately for me, that’s just the novel I wanted to write.

The irony of all this is that I composed the bulk of the first draft in 2016, while several candidates were careening toward the U.S. Presidential election, and in order to generate a dystopian mindset I pictured a certain candidate winning, even though I did not expect that candidate to win. I watched as that candidate incited anger and violence among his supporters, which absolutely influenced scenes in my novel. With time I came to realize the subtext of my story wasn’t as different as I had imagined from the others in the EMP space…I was just inspired by a different boogeyman.

And now my novel about the end of the world has just been published while the real world is buckling under the strain of an actual existential threat. Another Presidential election is just around the corner, and there is no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I can’t help but imagine what sorts of apocalyptic stories are being written right this minute…and who the next boogeyman might be.

—-

House of the Rising Sun: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.