(1) Tue Jan 12 2021 14:24 Situation Normal Author Commentary #3: Space Aliens:
My favorite part of writing science fiction! If you've
read Constellation Games, you already know that I love
designing alien biologies and cultures. In Constellation
Games, each alien species had its own histories of war
and privation, which they'd transcended to become part of a
classic SF multi-species alliance. In Situation Normal, I
came up with two different takes on the "multi-species alliance"
trope and had them fight.
Not for the first or last time, the setup in Situation
Normal comes out of a throwaway line in "Four Kinds of
Cargo". Specifically, when Kol goes out onto the Outreach space
station he mentions "humans and their Outreach lackeys." This
implies a) the Fist sees itself as an alliance of equals, with the
Outreach dominated by humans, and b) there are at least two "lackey"
species. Basically, the Fist of Joy is how Star Trek's Federation sees itself, and the Outreach is the Federation we actually see on screen most of the time.
Some of the Fist species have some flavor (e.g. the rest of
the Fist are squeezing the jetk into a gender binary where they
don't really fit), but overall they're designed to feel like a
disorganized mob where no one is in charge and you can't even keep
track of everyone. The key line here is:
Myrus wondered if a species could quietly join the Fist of Joy without anyone noticing. With everyone thinking someone else had invited these weird-looking people.
Whereas the Terran Outreach is an empire consisting of three
species with well-defined cultures (plus brands). As Arun
sarcastically puts it: "the nasty humans and their uhalti pets and
their rre attack dogs."
The fundamental alien concept for the uhaltihaxl is pain debt,
which makes them capable of feats of physical badassery despite a
reputation as fluffy sheep people.
The book starts hitting "fluffy sheep people" early. The first
thing we hear about uhaltiaxhl is the mayor of Jaketown saying
they "aren't warriors by nature." The "hoof" in Churryhoof's name is
designed to subliminally lock in "ruminant". And Myrus is a
fluffy sheep person. He gets a moment of pain-debt-fueled badassery
near the end, but all he wants is to read fantasy novels and make
furniture. Churryhoof and Den are the ones who do bad stuff, and the
surprise (I hope) is that they don't need pain debt to do
the really bad stuff—I'm thinking of Churryhoof's
decision to draft the council kids and Den's cold-blooded manipulation
The "six percent" conversation in Chapter 24 is important here:
Churryhoof drafted the wrong kid. Myrus is in the six percent
of uhalti who would never hurt anyone, and Den is at the other
end of the bell curve, able to kill without remorse.
The other alien feature of the uhalti is that their extreme gender
segregation means no incest taboo. You're not even supposed to know
who your relatives are, so it can't matter, right? In various
drafts I went back and forth on whether Den and Myrus were actually
related and/or romantically interested in each other, leading to a
kind of wishy-washy Arrested Development level of humor.
In the end my editor wanted me to make the uhalti as weird as
possible, so I went all the way in the final draft, adding the
tradition of concentration of genes, and Maskitenny's and Kemrush's
attempt to put it into practice with Den and Myrus. And, of course,
the nearly-successful human attempt to wipe out that tradition, such
that Churryhoof (who's very conservative), is happy to see it being
One minor feature of the uhaltihaxl that I think should be present
in the next release of humanity: in chapter 16, Myrus is able to
"close his ears" by an act of will and not hear something annoying.
The rre are a body-snatching species who are also a colony-intelligence
species. It's a similar trick to Her from Constellation
Games—a collective intelligence whose components are
individually intelligent—but much more fine-grained.
The rre are the opposite of the uhaltihaxl: they repulse humanoids
and have a horrifying biology but are generally nice people. They
were built out of a few features of Yip-Goru as described in "Four
Kinds of Cargo": 1) ungendered pronoun, 2) hyphenated name, 3) lives
in a metamaterial suit.
Having set that up, Yip-Goru turns out to be an
unusual rre. Most of the rre we see are squares, hyper-loyal to
"the rules" (Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tip-Iye-Nett-Zig) or some higher sense of
morality (Tia, Ethiret-Jac). Yip-Goru is bitter, cranky, and only out
Yip-Goru's late predecessor, Yip-Goru-Toco, is mentioned a couple
times in Situation Normal. My sketch is that Yip-Goru's unusual
attitude stems from trauma from being trapped in a suit and attached
to Toco's dead body for a long time. But this didn't come up and was
too gross to put in the story for no reason.
The metamaterial suit was mainly used a way to introduce
the sanitized, human-friendly version of the rre to the reader. It's abandoned pretty quickly, as Dwap-Jac-Dac takes things in a... different direction.
The Fist of Joy
The many species of the Fist of Joy are designed as Star
Trek-style forehead aliens—humanoid, but superficially
different from humans and from each other. "From each other" is the
most important piece because the contrast I'm setting up is actually
between the Outreach and the Fist.
Since there are three major characters—Kol, the Chief, and
Qued Ethiret— from these forehead-alien species, I needed to
demonstrate that there's diversity within each species, and
it's not a Planet of Hats thing where all the egenu are
walking down the street like this.
I did this by creating minor villains whose personalities are
maximally different from our heroes. The self-made Chief is mirrored
by the credentialed Dr. Cwess, and sensitive Kol by the sadistic
Vec. Bolupeth Vo, who draws a sharp distinction between "real life
and something you'd see in the damn 3-tank", is mirrored by Qued
Ethiret, who makes no such distinction.
The Errand Boy is the only major jetk character, and he's a big
villain, so I ran the process in reverse, giving a number of "regular
folks" bit parts to jetk: the receptionist at the Long Term Memory
House, the Mormon missionaries, one of the kids in the model ICSA, and
Tvez the pilot.
In Connie Willis's novel Bellwether you get phrases like
"word came down from Management", and only late in the book do you
discover that there's a character named Management who said that
stuff. The core idea behind the brands came from a similar joke. Our
experience with real-world brands (e.g. on Twitter) makes it easy to
read "Strigl Modern Design did X" in the passive voice, and you don't
learn until pretty late in Situation Normal that "Strigl Modern
Design" is a specific person.
A couple things happened to this idea en route to the final
draft. Basically, keeping you in the dark that long would not have
been funny, because unlike with "Management" the fact that brands are
AIs is important to the story. The most important change here is in
Chapter 4, where Hiroko uses the three-ring binder to enact Trellis
On-Site Security, and Jaketown on the other end finds someone
to enact Strigl Modern Design at her. There's a conversation between
two brands, with both sides of the conversation are mediated through
This introduces "brands" as a satirical take on the real-world
phenomenon of people switching in and out of a corporate voice. When
the literal brand-as-character AIs are introduced, it's hopefully
less of a shock because you see who was making the humanoids do
that. After that reveal, I expanded the scenes between Den and Gearu
to establish the fucked-up relationship between brands and the rest
of the Outreach—something that in previous drafts was
primarily Crinoline White's job.
There was some lighthearted editorial debate about how to format
brand speech. Up to the final draft, brand speech was written as
narration, to throw off the reader and convey the "gets in your head"
feeling of a brand connecting directly to your capital terminal:
"This gentlebeing wants me to talk to you about a factory."
The hless factory.
"Presumably some kind of munitions factory," said Tellpesh-Tia.
My fallback idea was to set off brand speech with dashes—what
I always think of as "James Joyce quotes"—but we settled on
French-style guillemets. Italics and underlines were out because they
were being used for mental asides and rre native-speech.
One of my big missed opportunities in this book is that because of
the scenes I happened to cut, we almost never see brands taking action
on their own. Almost always they are doing what someone else told them
to do. This makes it difficult to see them as moral actors until the
very end, but I assure you, they are moral actors.
And finally we have the humans: Becky, Arun, Mrs. Chen, and
Professor Starbottle. I gave them the same treatment I gave the Fist
of Joy aliens. There are huge differences of attitude between Becky
(born and raised in the Outreach), Starbottle (born and raised in the
Fist), and Arun (born in the Outreach and had to flee).
Because there's no need to convince human readers that humans
aren't all morally the same, I was more free about casting humans as
pure villains. In "Four Kinds of Cargo" Mrs. Chen was depicted as a
little sleazy, but she's despicable in Situation Normal; and
if you're a consequentialist, Starbottle is the worst person in the whole story.
This only shows up in the background, especially after I converted
from Commonwealth to American spellings (we'll talk about that later),
but Earth culture of this time period is dominated by India. Everyone
in the Fist of Joy has a very superficial understanding of American
culture, but Kol makes a pretty obscure joke about the Mahabharata
(about the "Tata Yudhisthira" hovercar
loses altitude) and assumes the Chief will get it. The Errand Boy
misreads a fact about Hindus as a fact about humans in general. The
government of the Outreach is a parliamentary democracy with a civil
service; not, for example, a Galactic Senate. Just a counterweight to
how US-centric these space opera settings often are.
Surprisingly, this novel's language design also comes from a
decision made in "Four Kinds of Cargo". The language used in that
story is Trade Standard D, which implies that language barriers in this
universe are handled with trade languages rather than automatic
translation, and there are at least three more of these things.
In Situation Normal, languages are almost always rendered as
English (so you can read them), but this rendering is done in
different styles depending on which other languages the speaker knows
(a fun trick I learned from Keith Laumer's Retief stories, also used
in Constellation Games) and the fluency of the POV
The clearest example is Trade Standard A, the Fist's military
language. When Kol hears people speaking A over the radio, it's
rendered as idiomatic English, because Kol himself is fluent in
A. When Churryhoof (who learned A in the Academy a long time ago)
overhears Styrqot and Vec speaking A, it's rendered in a way that
makes visible the underlying structure of the grammar. Through
Churryhoof, we see that Trade Standard A sentences are stacks, with
nouns pushed onto the stack and verbs popping from the top.
Styrqot's line as heard by Churryhoof: "To the military, the
research project, the brand operates, the benefit accrues." is
literally: "The benefit of the research project operated by the brand
accrues to the military." and idiomatically: "The brand is just
running the research project for the military."
Trade Standard B and D are two languages that work together. D is
designed to be really easy to learn (Becky needs to learn it quickly
for plot reasons) because it just doesn't have most of the stuff you'd
want in a language designed for literature or flirting. That fancy
stuff is isolated in Trade Standard B, which acts as a mixin language
that you can drop in and out of while speaking D.
This shows up so subtly that I could have ditched it, but I think
it's a cool idea. Merikp Hute Roques refers to "boring old Trade
Standard D" because for the sake of her Outreach guests she's not
including much B in her patter. The comedian in the casino is working
almost entirely in B, which Den understands, as befits her would-be
future in marketing. Jac is fluent in A and D, but to be effective as
a con artist in the Fist thon needs Ethiret's fluency in B.
For characters who learned English through Trade Standard D, their
English speech is mainly rendered as a sequence of noun phrases. This
is most obvious with the Chief ("Kol, the dramatic reveal!"), but we
also see it in the video ad for the Youth Festival ("Our decision to
send you there!"). You see how this works in detail at the Youth
Festival itself, where Myrus watches a sentence get translated from
English to D, and the response get translated in the opposite
I had to add some clarifying bits to make it clear that the Chief
doesn't talk like this all the time! She's a native speaker of Trade
Standard D, so when she talks with Kol, she sounds like she does in
"Four Kinds of Cargo". Only her English (in scenes where Becky is the
POV character) is noun phrases.
The flip side of all this is the way Becky, a native English
speaker, encounters Trade Standard D. To start with she has no sense
of the language's words or syntax—it's a wash of
anxiety-inducing "harna harna" sounds. After watching the Down
Under Crew dub with the Chief, she can pick up individual words if
they're spaceship-related. By the time she goes off on her own, she
has a clumsy grasp of D, which is rendered as all of her verbs coming
out as gerunds. ("Thinking I Yip-Goru anticipating a war happening.")
At the very end of the book, Becky becomes aware of the linguistic
underpinnings of her reality, which I dramatized by using punctuation
characters to mark up different parts of speech in the text of
Crazy Rooroo does business mostly in his native language, switching
to D only when talking numbers. Since he learned English through his
native language, his English is rendered differently than the Chief's;
he tends to use weird prepositions, a bit like Tetsuo
from Constellation Games.
The Cametrean abbot's vocabulary includes a lot of portmanteau words
designed to sound like neologisms from bad 1970s sci-fi: "genemod",
"newsfax", "farcall", "litstash", "tintshots", etc.
Kol has native fluency in all relevant languages, a purely
practical decision I made because otherwise the book would be
impossible to read.
No information is available about Trade Standard C.
(2) Fri Jan 08 2021 08:00 Situation Normal Author Commentary #2: Worldbuilding:
Welcome back to the commentary grotto. Please, help yourself to an olive. Today I got some high-level
notes on the worldbuilding for Situation Normal. In future
entries I'll be going into much more detail on two very important
items—the space aliens and the fictional
religions—but today is a more grab-baggish look at the choices I made when customizing an off-the-shelf space opera universe. As always, spoilers (and olive pits) are ahead.
from "Four Kinds of Cargo" to Situation Normal
The single biggest worldbuilding source for Situation Normal was worldbuilding I already did for its prequel,
Kinds of Cargo". Over and over again I'll be telling you that some major piece of the novel originated in a throwaway line from the story. But there are also many tonal differences
between the two that you probably wouldn't notice, except I'm
going to point them out here.
Most obviously, I changed some of the names around at editorial
suggestion, to avoid ambiguity or assonance (both of which cause
readers to conflate names). The main reason I did a Retcon Edition
of "Four Kinds of Cargo" was to let you go back and forth between
story and novel without being confused by abrupt name changes. I
don't think the names are a big deal one way or the
other—"Terran Extension" and "Terran Outreach" are the same
kind of nonsense. I changed "the Captain" to "the Chief"
because Situation Normal contains numerous characters who
have "Captain" as a military rank, but no equivalent of Master Chief
or Chief O'Brien. That sort of thing.
Since there's no expectation you've read the short, Situation
Normal only contains explicit references to "Four Kinds of Cargo"
when that's necessary for continuity purposes. Mainly we need to refer
to Terequale Bitty, the crew member who dies in the first sentence of
"Four Kinds of Cargo" and who in Situation Normal is replaced,
briefly, by Becky Twice. Becky sleeps in Terequale's bed (if you can
call it sleeping) and inherits her coffee mug. The details are just
Easter eggs—if you haven't read "Four Kinds of Cargo" it may
seem weird that Sour Candy had a quenny engineer, and I don't
explain it. What's important is, that engineer just died and her stuff
is still on board, which makes room for Becky and sets up the
expectation that the crew on Sour Candy changes pretty
In Situation Normal we learn that crew members usually
leave Sour Candy not because they die ("Four Kinds of Cargo"
sez Terequale Bitty was the first fatality) but because they're
romantically involved with the Chief, who dumps them. Were Terequale
and the Chief lovers? I never had that in mind, and it doesn't fit
with how anyone remembers Terequale in "Four Kinds of Cargo", but
statistically it's likely.
Becky joins Sour Candy despite not having any of Terequale
Bitty's skills, because the most important thing is having an odd
number of people on board to prevent votes from ending in a tie. (This
may also explain Kol's bad decision to hire Mrs. Chen in "Four Kinds
of Cargo".) This was more prominent in an earlier draft
of Situation Normal, where at one point there were four people
on the crew and they couldn't agree on anything.
In Situation Normal it's revealed that Mrs. Chen has been
tracking Sour Candy, whereas in "Four Kinds of Cargo" it seems
more like she's doing psyop work against Quennet. Going over "Four
Kinds of Cargo" and reconstructing what I may have been thinking back
in 2012, it reads like Mrs. Chen was trying to get to Terequale Bitty
or turn her somehow. So it's a little weird that immediately after
infiltrating the crew ("Four Kinds of Cargo") she'd go right back to
secretly tracking them (Situation Normal).
In "Four Kinds of Cargo", Arun is described as not just the heavy
but the negotiator. At the beginning of Situation Normal we see
him pull the "Bertie Wooster routine" on Becky, but apart from that he
doesn't negotiate very much—in particular, the Chief handles the
drug deal with Rooroo.
In the final draft of Situation Normal there are three references to the Cametrean tradition of ritual
cannibalism (as modified by Kol in "Four Kinds of Cargo"), all of which come from people mocking Ethiret and none of which are explained. The first draft contained actual cannibalism: the food served at the monastery
was not neutral soup, but a Tupperware containing a jellied corestin
"Our late sister Clovak," said the quenny. "Ethiret's
partner in crime. An intestinal infection killed her. We're not eating
Finally, this is more of an Easter egg, but the purple dress the
Chief wears in "Four Kinds of Cargo" comes from the rasme thau casino
Den visits at the end of Situation Normal—Den is given an
identical dress even though she's a different species with a different
body shape. It's the equivalent of the humiliation necktie they give
you at the fancy restaurant if you dare show up without a tie. I'm
assuming they still do that but maybe it only happened in sitcoms. I
will say I've been to a couple fancy restaurants in my day, and I
always made sure to wear a jacket and tie to avoid Den's fate.
The very first title of this book was The Furniture
War. Once I'd written a bit I wanted to call it Heavy
Evidence (now the title of Part Two) but was foiled by genre
reading conventions: that sounds like a mystery novel. Instead Sumana and I
started calling it Explosion of Honour, a title I never
seriously intended to use, but which set the mood as a parody of those
Baen military fiction books with goofy cover paintings.
Sumana came up with the title Situation Normal while we were brainstorming over dinner and from that moment on the book never had any other title. There are other books called Situation Normal, and there will probably be more in the future, so I hope we can all get along.
In 2007, I was doodling a novel set in 1960s Earth, called The
Man From ARPA. A programmable hallucinogen fit with its
countercultural phone-phreaking theme. This is a quote from my
A family of "targeted hallucinogen" drugs called Evidence that induces specific hallucinations or hallucinations intended to evoke specific reactions.
So Evidence has been in my head for a while. However, this idea did
not work with The Man From ARPA at all—the level of
neuroscience you'd need to create it is way beyond a 1960s level. Even
in the space-opera future, the Fist of Joy can't pull it off without
Instead of The Man From ARPA I wrote "Vanilla", an
unpublished novella featuring a synthetic hallucinogen that was not
called Evidence but had a few similarities. "Vanilla"
became Constellation Games, and Evidence finally saw
publication with Situation Normal. At this point The Man
From ARPA is well in the rear-view mirror, but the phone-phreaking
plot is still a remote possibility—the core concept is clever
and I haven't seen anyone else use it. It would probably be a short
story, not a novel, and set on another planet, because I don't like
doing historical research.
Keeping time in terms of "shifts" shows up in "Four Kinds of Cargo"
for the same reason I use 2x notation for everything in
Time Somn Died". In a story with no human POV characters, time
won't be measured in "hours" or "days", and using those words will
take the reader out of the story. This is always a challenge because
making up fake timekeeping words also takes the reader out of
the story, without even the benefit of explaining how long a period
of time has elapsed. A "shift" is a way humans have of keeping time
that isn't directly tied to the planet Earth, so it served the
I expanded the "shifts" idea a little in Situation Normal:
the Outreach does keep time using "hours" and "days", even
though this doesn't make sense outside of Earth—part of the
Outreach's human chauvinism.
At some point I calculated exactly how long a shift was and
calibrated all the times in the book based on that number, but that
was a while before the final draft and if you try to make everything
line up precisely I suspect you will be disappointed. The one rule
that has to work for plot purposes (it's part of Yip-Goru's conspiracy
theory) is that a kiloshift is approximately one Earth
year. This would make one shift about 8 hours and 45
minutes—approximately the length of a "shift" of 20th-century
American work. In the end this doesn't matter and you can get through
the book on Becky's vague sense that "[Fist] sitcoms ran five
centishifts, so ten hours maybe?"
The Fist measures volume in the creatively-named "volumes", though in the final draft this is only used once, in a way that's ambiguous. ("A volume of Terran bourbon!") I'm gonna say the ambiguity is intentional.
I dunno how the Fist measures distance; fortunately it doesn't
matter because of the way FTL works. Astronomical distance is measured
in terms of the time, or number of skips, it will take to get
there. Speaking of which...
I read a book around, like, 1989, which I've never been able to find since. I think the book was called Twister, so good luck finding it, and I'm pretty sure I read an ARC, so maybe its name changed or it was never even published. Anyway, in this book our intrepid scientists are trying to invent a teleportation machine. Instead, they make a machine that can "twist" a spherical volume of space, swapping it with the equivalent volume in a parallel Earth where humans never evolved.
In "Four Kinds of Cargo" the mechanism of FTL space travel is not
really spelled out, because I think that stuff is boring. But you
gotta spell it out in a novel that spans most of a galaxy, and I
like to have a mechanism that gives me some constraints and plot
toys, rather than just handwaving it and making space the size of
Rhode Island. In Constellation Games the FTL mechanism is
ports—moveable wormholes that connect two previously separate
points in spacetime. This gives me some cool plot toys, most of
which were stolen by the video game Portal, and the rest of
which you can read in that novel.
In Situation Normal the FTL mechanism is skipping, defined
as the thing I suspect those scientists in the book I read
were trying to invent: something that swaps one spherical
volume of space with another. This gives me lots of cool plot toys:
skip overlap, questions of what is "spherical" given that mass
distorts spacetime, and FTL as something that happens in discrete
bursts (with capacitors that discharge) rather than
continuously—more Battlestar Galactica than Star
The idea of encrypted matter, which shows up at the very end of the
book, is an idea I've had for a really long time and wasn't originally
related to skipping as an FTL technology. I think at one point I
intended to use it as a plot point in Constellation
Games—something related to the shipping containers—and
I will probably use it again in another story. It's too cool an idea
to only use once as a minor plot point.
Some other things I remember about the mysterious sci-fi book, in
case you want to try and find it where I have failed: there was a
hacker character, possibly named Gordon, who frequented a l33t hax0r
BBS with a false front. The hacker character would suffix "-o" to
statements for emphasis, e.g. "sounds like some bullshit-o."
Constellation Games was full of fictional media and works of
art, and Situation Normal keeps up this enjoyable
tradition. The only fictional video game in Situation
Normal is the Snake-like game bundled on Myrus's
replacement Fist of Joy terminal, though I cut a couple when I cut
Crinoline White's storyline—Kol uses online games to launder money.
More prominent in the novel are the crime dramas which first made
their appearance in "Four Kinds of
Cargo"—primarily Nightside, Undeclared, and (Becky
and Den's favorite) The Down Under Crew. Over the course
of Situation Normal, a number of characters take inspiration
from these dramas as a guide to life, which makes perfect sense
as Situation Normal is the same kind of story. As Myrus says,
"no magic or future stuff, just normal people in normal spaceships
Jammer Readout!!, the Chief's origin show, is a different
sort of crime drama, and IMO the book's most direct connection
to Constellation Games. The rasme thau have just made contact
with aliens who have brought them new technology (the videocamera) and
introduced them to a complicated wider universe. So they use the
technology to have wacky fun and play out their feelings about the
complicated universe. I modelled Jammer Readout!! after corny
low-budget sci-fi like 1980s Doctor Who.
My elevator pitch for Situation Normal is "the Coen Brothers
do Star Trek", and my elevator pitch for Aquadale
Selmar's Cametre stories is "Phillip K. Dick does Star
Trek." I asked myself what kind of science fiction would
inadvertently become a religion (as opposed to you-know-what), and I think that's a pretty good
answer. I'll cover Cametreanism in greater detail later, but here's a
detail about the books themselves: Selmar's novels are the ones with
"Cametre" in the title. In Cametre's Clutches, Doing Without
Cametre, Through Cametre's Prism, etc. The titles that
don't specifically mention "Cametre" are short stories: Don't Go
Out There, The Second Copy, The Kind Permission,
etc. Doesn't really matter.
Myrus spends the story reading a novel called The Object of
Power, and you see little clips from it at one point as he
searches for the dirty bits. The Object of Power is my attempt
to play out what a fantasy novel would look like in a space-opera
universe, where you have magic but also space aliens and
interstellar travel. I don't read a ton of fantasy, so the style of
those excerpts was mainly inspired by stories and novels I've read
through my writing group.
In earlier drafts, the interactive "Princess Denweld" story Gearu
and Den improvise was a generic medieval high-fantasy story. I never
enjoyed rereading those scenes, so while embarking on a late-stage
project to make the uhaltihaxl more alien-feeling, I rewrote
"Princess Denweld" to feel more like a medieval high-fantasy story written by
uhaltihaxl as opposed to humans. This gave those scenes some sci-fi oomph
and made them more rereadable.
In addition to changing names from "Four Kinds of Cargo" I spent a lot of time working on new names, and new naming rules, for new types of characters. Hetselter Churryhoof's name went through several variants early on as I was establishing the rules for uhaltihaxl name construction. Her original name was "Wabang Kannakannary", but that sounded too much like a human name.
Eventually I figured out that uhaltihaxl names, like the word "uhaltihaxl", needed to sound awkward on the English-speaker's tongue. For this I used weird enjambments and little bits of chopped-up English words (similar to how I made Alien surnames in Constellation Games).
Myrusit and Denweld were the only major uhalti names I never changed. Tellpesh was originally "Tellhesher", Myrus's dad (Kemrush) was originally "Kenressy") and Den's mom (Maskitenny) was originally "Tensenny". Watkerrywun, the fake name Hiroko gives Tellpesh when bamboozling the spaceport manager, turns out to be the name of the colony where Tellpesh grew up.
"Professor Starbottle" is the name of an astronomer in The Goddess of Atvatabar, an 1892 hollow-Earth novel. While writing the first draft I read a history-of-science book that mentioned this novel, and the cool name fit the character, who "bottles" the numinous and distills it into Evidence. His full name, Thaddeus Ganapathy Starbottle, is intended to evoke Groucho Marx's high-status clowns.
Styrqot's name was originally "Styrriqo". I like that name better but it's the same rhythm and has the same rolled R as "Churryhoof", so changed it to reduce cognitive load.
The name "Dwap-Jac-Dac" is probably the deepest cut in the book. It's a reference to one of the meetups I held in the mid-90s in Bakersfield for my BBS, Da Warren. The meetup was called DWAP-JAC-DAC and it stood for "Da Warren Annual Party - Jabbacrats Anonymous Conference - Dvoren Awards Ceremony." Yes, I pulled it off—the reference of a lifetime!
A quiet running joke in Situation Normal is the apparent impossibility of finding a precise English translation for the name of a Fist of Joy spacecraft. Hiroko translates Sour Candy as Bad Sugar, Mrs. Chen translates it as Sweet-and-Sour, and Crinoline (RIP) translates it as Tsundere. Churryhoof translates Small but Sharp as Little Dagger. The Errand Boy translates Unreadable Signature, the name of his own ship!, as Small Illegible Smear.
As for the Outreach Navy, all their spacecraft are named after
important political documents from member governments, in parody
of/tribute to the over-long ship names from the Culture books. These
went in and out of the book as necessary. Some of the ones I cut
that I remember
With Destiny, Akset Swy Stands Ready, United States
v. Frankie, and A Few Suggestions For The Incoming
Government. You may be interested to know that The Case of
the Armie Truly Stated, a very GCU-ish name for a Light Combat
Platform, refers to a real pamphlet from the English Civil War.
I believe the only civilian Outreach ship we see is Jaketown, which is named after my friend Jake Berendes. It's a simple but pleasant joke of taking the tradition of naming early American colonies after royalty (Jamestown, Williamsburg, etc.), and applying it to some random guy named Jake.
Outreach colonies with names like Fallback and Temporary Junction are inspired by the planet in Larry Niven's Known Space universe called We Made It; also by some Discworld characters whose names bear Cake Wrecks-type mistakes due to a poorly-thought-out naming ceremony.
A few Navy characters have the position of "Master of Drone" on their ship (Dwap-Jac-Dac on Brown v. Board, Churryhoof on What is to be Done?, Ja-Iyo-Cat on Magna Carta). This is a reference to the Roman military/government position of magister equitum, "master of horse".
The name of the capital terminal is a dense pun: it's a computer terminal that goes inside your head, but it's also the interface through which you experience capitalism. "Capital" and "terminal" are both antonyms ("first" and "last") and synonyms ("deadly").
The next essay is devoted to a single, awesome topic: space aliens. How do you make twenty-six species of forehead aliens feel distinct? You don't! Lots of pro tips like that coming right to you, on Tuesday the 12th!
(1) Tue Jan 05 2021 10:01 Situation Normal Author Commentary #1: High-level structure:
Hey, folks! My second
Normal came out three weeks ago, and I've heard that at least a few people have
finished it, so I'm reinitializing a tradition I started
with my first novel, Constellation Games: author commentary.
With Constellation Games I did a chapter-by-chapter
commentary as the book was serialized. I won't be doing that this
time—Situation Normal is significantly longer
than Constellation Games, which was itself really long for a
science fiction book. Instead I've written a number of topical essays; a combination of "stuff for
fans" and "stuff I wish I'd known when I was planning a big
I'll be posting chunks of comentary every Tuesday and Friday; I
have about a month of stuff depending on how I split it up. Today's episode takes a look at the structure of the book on the highest level. All of these essays will have big spoilers for Situation Normal, but since this one's a high-level overview I think it's vague enough that you could read a bit to see if the book sounds interesting.
The single best piece of writing advice I've ever gotten, or at least the best one I consciously remember, comes from Jim Macdonald, who compared plotting a novel to a game of chess. At the beginning of the story, the crucial thing is to get your characters "out on the board" as quickly as possible.
One you do that (this is my own discovery and not part of Jim's advice), you can get a long way through the plot by writing a scene for each pair of characters and seeing what they have to say to each other. I don't know if anyone else does this as a conscious strategy but I see it happening a lot in ensemble TV shows like Star Trek. I did this in Constellation Games, e.g. "Daisy and Ariel haven't had a scene together, what would they say to each other?" But this doesn't quite work in Situation Normal because the characters spend most of the book in small, physically isolated groups. What I did instead was shuffle the groups.
In Situation Normal, Cedar Commons is the "chessboard". At the beginning of the book, most of the major characters are drawn to the planet. This lets me write "before" scenes with sets of characters who already know each other:
- Becky + Hiroko (on Cedar Commons already)
- Churryhoof + Dwap-Jac-Dac (on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka)
- Kol + the Chief (on Sour Candy)
- Myrus + Den (on Jaketown)
Then I turn on the particle accelerator. The Situation goes Normal, and all the characters are shuffled and flung back into space. Now the characters are separated again, but every grouping of characters contains wildcards:
- Kol + the Chief + Becky (on Sour Candy)
- Dwap-Jac-Dac + Hiroko + Myrus (in Scoop Bravo)
- Churryhoof + Den (on Cedar Commons, then on Magna Carta)
Over the course of the book, the characters become even more isolated than this. Myrus is sent to the Youth Festival, Becky leaves Sour Candy. But at the end of the book everyone comes together a second time, at Nimar, pulled together by the gravitational pull of the plot.
Because the characters spend so much time in separate plotlines, a
lot of fun scenes didn't happen. Churryhoof and Myrus make things
very difficult for each other without ever meeting or even becoming aware of each other. Ethiret-Jac and the Chief only have the tiniest
interaction, but in that interaction I see the seed of an amazing
scene: those two are effectively the same character, and you can
just see how much they hate each other.
I'm not crying over what might have been. This is a huge book. I cut major characters and plotlines to get to where we are today. But compared to Constellation Games, there are a whole lot of scenes I could have written but didn't.
The Lebowski Connection
It's now a bit of a cliche to love The Big Lebowski, but it
went through a long wilderness period where it was dismissed as a
post-Fargo brain fart, so let me have this. I've loved The Big
Lebowski since opening day, March 6, 1998; and one of the things
I love about it is the plot, which is pretty tightly constructed
(not perfect) but seems random and incoherent because the POV
character doesn't understand what's going on. Since POV is so
tight, the moviegoer must see the film multiple times to piece
together what the Dude can't.
In Constellation Games a whole lot of stuff could have been
cut without affecting Ariel's through-line (e.g. Ragtime and the
Mars mission). For Situation Normal I wanted to work on
tighter plotting, and naturally I took The Big Lebowski as my
model. The problem is, it's a bit much to ask someone to watch a
movie multiple times to understand the plot, and it's a non-starter
with a big novel. This only worked with The Big Lebowski
because it's funny as hell; even then it took years for the film
to get its due.
However. With multiple POV you can tell a complex story and
the reader will be able to keep up even as each
character stays in the dark. If you told the story of The Big
Lebowski from multiple POV (let's say the Dude, Bunny, and
Maud—the three Lebowskis), you could tell the story all the way
through in chronological order, it would make sense on first viewing,
and the core elements of the comedy would come through just fine, because
no one character would know what was happening.
When writing the first draft of Situation Normal, I worked
on a scene-by-scene basis and didn't really know where it was going
overall. But I had a single guiding principle: all the major
characters need to end up at the same place and play a crucial role in
a climax that fires every Chekhov's gun introduced over the course of
the book: Evidence, brands, pain debt, rre colonies, etc. No Return
of the Jedi stuff (or, be fair, Constellation Games stuff)
where entire subplots end up making no difference to the
If Cedar Commons is the planet where everyone ends up together by
chance, Nimar is the planet that everyone goes to intentionally. The
middle part of the story equips everyone with the motive, means and
opportunity to get to Nimar. Every major character has an individual
character arc as they proceed through the same plot arc, though some
characters (Dwap-Jac-Dac) change more than others (Kol).
Then the climax fires all the Chekhov's guns, and the epilogue
draws the lifelines of the survivors a little bit past their second
point of intersection at Nimar. It gives you a little cooldown
without changing the emotional tone, like Donny's funeral in The
In my 2013 review of The Big Lebowski I mentioned how, like in a Thomas Pynchon novel, "each of [the] characters is surrounded by a protective bubble of literary genre". In The Big Lebowski each character lives in a different genre. In Situation Normal everyone is in the same genre—madcap space opera—and the characters who get the best endings are the ones who'd already been living in a compatible genre bubble, or who manage to develop one over the course of the book.
This is a smaller influence, but Myrus's subplot in particular was
inspired by the John le Carré (RIP) novel The Tailor of
Panama. I'm probably not remembering this right, but the
bit I remember is someone tells a little bitty lie that spirals out of
control and ends in death and disaster. The upside for Myrus is he
never finds out about the consequences of his (totally justified IMO)
Building the cast
So, all these characters who can't see the consequences of their actions, where did
they come from? Going back to "Four Kinds of Cargo", the Sour
Candy crew were all structured around the Chief, who's a huge
weirdo. Kol was the one who managed the relationship between her
adventure-story fantasies and reality; and Arun and Yip-Goru
were... pretty similar to each other. In the novel I differentiated
them by making Yip-Goru extremely cowardly (inspired by thons line
"Why should we risk our vocalizers for a dead body?") and Arun
smoothly British (inspired by his willingness to do a "Bertie
Becky Twice is the starting point for all the new characters. Becky
herself stems from a request of my friend Mirabai, a big fan
of Constellation Games who wanted to read a space opera romance
between two butch women. I had one butch woman character (the Chief)
so I created another (Becky) and put them on a collision course to
I didn't consciously know this at the time, but a romance story
often has a red-herring partner to create tension or to contrast with
the story's "real" relationship. Hiroko Ingridsdotter came out of that story
need—a maximally inappropriate match for Becky. Hiroko's
personality was somewhat flexible through the drafts, as she got moved
from one subplot to another, but her character design has always been
(Mirabai's phrasing) "high-maintenance military hard femme."
(Mirabai fan-service also explains Crinoline White,
though I cut Crinoline's storyline in the final draft. I'll talk more
about her in a later post, but she was basically Hiroko's style
plus the Chief's cavalier attitude.)
A chain of logic gives us the other characters: at the end of "Four
Kinds of Cargo", Kol suggests Sour Candy "sit out the war in a
forest." In Situation Normal we see he had a specific forest in
mind—Cedar Commons, a whole forest planet where he and the Chief
had previously hidden their purloined Evidence.
This raises the question of why Becky is also on that forest
planet, or why a "forest planet" even exists. A lot of forests on
Earth are monocultures that basically exist to be cut down for wood,
so it made sense to say Cedar Commons was that kind of forest. This
created a good reason for Becky and Hiroko to have a whole planet to
themselves (they're guarding the trees), and for Becky to have missed out on recent developments (meaning she needs
the same exposition you do).
Given that a forest planet is our chessboard, who else would
go there? Answer: people who want to cut down the forest and make
things out of the wood. Jaketown came out of this, and Myrus
and Den, the apprentice woodworkers. From that came the
question: how come Becky and Hiroko didn't hear that a customer was on
the way? Answer: Jaketown is running from something. Not in a
panicky way, where you'd hide on the closest planet. Jaketown
is a bunch of draft dodgers, and they're looking for a forest
planet, where they can pretend they're doing business as
usual. Churryhoof and Dwap-Jac-Dac came out of the need to have
someone chasing down the draft dodgers.
At that point I had plenty of characters for a novel, with main
characters from all three Outreach species, so I stopped sending
people to Cedar Commons. We do have some characters introduced
later in the book: Starbottle and the Errand Boy are shadowy villains who get revealed over time. Tia and Ethiret were necessary to
further Dwap-Jac-Dac's character arc of ceasing to be
Dwap-Jac-Dac. And the standalone arc of Styrqot and Vec is necessary to further Den's character development.
The occupation of Cedar Commons changes Den from the person
Myrus remembers to the person we see in Part Four. Styrqot and Vec play a role analogous
to (though much nastier than) Tammy Miram's role in Constellation
Games. I could have cut Tammy without affecting the main
plotline; she's actually the main character of a different book we
never see. But Ariel's relationship with Tammy puts him through the
transformation he needs to be ready for the climax
of Constellation Games.
On Friday I'll go into more detail about the sci-fi components of the worldbuilding, and the transition from "Four Kinds of Cargo" to a novel-length story. I'll cover the secret origins of Evidence and skipping, and reveal which real sci-fi corpus was my model for the Cametre stories. See you then!
Sun Jan 03 2021 11:41 December Film Roundup:
To close the year we dug into our crate of Billy Wilder DVDs, with mixed results. So mixed, in fact, that this month's Roundup can illustrate the principle that it's a lot easier to talk about a bad movie than a good movie.
- Kiss Me, Stupid (1964): Fun and acidic. The plot only works because one character is a huge jerk at several crucial points—IMO something to avoid in plots. Can't say much else against it. Not a top-tier Wilder film, but a very good mid-1960s film. In fact I think this could work really well as a dark-and-gritty film reboot of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
We're big fans of star Ray Walston, a.k.a. Boothby—check him out in This "Murder, She Wrote" episode where he basically reprises his "buddy boy" role from The Apartment.
- Irma La Douce (1963): Knowing that this was supposed to be a musical explains a lot of its problems: it's way too long (which would have been okay if it had had 45 minutes of musical numbers), plot develops too slowly (because people can't just do a song to explain their situation), and there are weird setups that are never repaid involving people losing clothes and immediately getting them back (maybe these were hooks for songs?).
According to IMDB this made a lot of money, but there's some other 1960s movie that's way better on any given axis: Billy Wilder directing Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment), Jack Lemmon funny-voice dual role (The Great Race) Billy Wilder sex-worker farce (Kiss Me, Stupid), Shirley MacLaine sex-worker farce (Sweet Charity). On a creative level Wilder should have just tried to direct this as a musical. If it succeeds, it's another feather in his cap. If it's a flop, at least he went down swinging.
I will admit that this film has some really funny bits, but they're lost in the 2:27 run time like bacon bits in a huge salad. It's also got a jaw-dropping final shot, but it's mainly jaw-dropping because it's tonally inconsistent with the rest of the movie and, as far as I know, with every other film Billy Wilder made. Even The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes didn't try anything like that.
I still love Wilder, but as I see more of his stuff I think my impression of him has been distorted by the 1959-1961 seasons, where he directed three of the best movies ever made in three consecutive at-bats.
Mon Dec 14 2020 13:33 Situation Normal:
Situation Normal is out! You can now buy DRM-free direct from the publisher, and we got purchase links galore on the book's webpage.
We got the first two chapters free to read in HTML or PDF. We got great reviews from Booklist ("A fast-paced romp"), Library Journal ("will have readers laughing one minute and wanting to cry the next"), and Cory Doctorow ("a novel so brilliantly conceived that it runs like precision clockwork"). We got a "The Big Idea" essay on John Scalzi's blog. We're going all out!
I've written my author commentary essays and after giving you a couple of weeks to read this huge book, I'll start posting them occasionally here, so stick around and subscribe to the RSS feed. Hope you enjoy the book!
(3) Sun Dec 06 2020 16:20 Music Video Roundup:
Since our concentration is sometimes fragmented these days, Sumana and I will sometimes watch old music videos instead of something more demanding like a movie. By mutual agreement, we've been focusing on the 1980s, especially pop and new wave music. It's amazing how accessible most of this stuff is these days; we've basically been going through the Billboard charts and almost all of it is on Youtube, gated only by geolocation gates and stupid commercials. (We did get some "not available in your country" for some of the British videos, so presumably mutatis mutandis elsewhere.)
Here are some of our favorites from the past few months, in an easy-to-click list format. Share your favorites in the comments!
- I believe this tradition started with Sumana showing me the 2001 Spike Jonze video for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice". If you like this (and why wouldn't you), I've found an officially-posted clip of Christopher Walken's striptease from Pennies from Heaven (1981), twenty years before Weapon of Choice. I think there's a straight line between these two videos.
- "Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel, a video I'd heard of through MST3K references but... wow, it's amazing. Pretty much every Peter Gabriel video is inventive and fun, but the other really great one has to be "Big Time".
- "King of Wishful Thinking" by Go West, another great example of the "put everything in there" school of music video making. I also want to point out that these guys are surprisingly buff for pop musicians, who judging from other videos tend to be on the scrawny side.
- The Cars have a number of wacky videos, including "You Might Think" and the John Waters-directed sci-fi comedy "You Are The Girl", the video which proves that Ric Ocasek should have played a Vorta on DS9 alongside Iggy Pop.
- Huey Lewis and the News do a lot of fun rom-com music videos like "Stuck With You", but also things like the drumstick POV shots of "Hip to be Square" and the 2020 frontline-workers tribute "I Am There For You".
- Hall and Oates are a group I never really heard songs from or thought about, but "Possession Obsession" and "Method of Modern Love" are both really fun, and they have a number of other good songs that I'm not mentioning because they don't have great videos.
- "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon, feat. Chevy Chase. My mom used to say that when she was single and living in LA in the 1970s, one of her friends had tried to set her up with Paul Simon. Assuming this actually happened (never a safe bet with my mother's stories), it would have been after his 1975 divorce. Simon went on to have relationships with Shelly Duval and Carrie Fisher, and Frances Whitney in 1975 would have fit that type, so who knows?
- Lionel Richie's glorious "Dancing on the Ceiling", which ends with a gratuitious '80s camero and led me to another great song I'd never heard before, "Nightshift" by Richie's former band The Commodores. The video for "Nightshift" isn't terribly memorable, so here's Richie's Technicolor West Side Story-esque video for "All Night Long". At the end of the video someone goes "through" a door and has to just stay behind the door, because it doesn't really lead anywhere and the door won't close! The music video equivalent of just singing softer and softer rather than fading out.
- Through this process we discovered British band ABC, who I only knew from "When Smokey Sings". They have a bunch of playful videos including "The Night You Murdered Love", in which the lead singer is hunted by a female assassin on a skateboard; and "Poison Arrow", in which the lead singer is hunted by a female assassin without a skateboard. They also made a fun animated video for "How To Be A Millionaire" which has a cool Batman: The Animated Series feel, but the only copy I could find on Youtube plays the video in reverse, presumably to avoid the eye of Content ID. This reverses the meaning of the video, showing the band members leading less extravagant lives and returning items to store shelves.
- Thomas Dolby, of science-blinded fame, is to me the archetypal "weird 80s music video" maker; see also his "Hyperactive".
- "Think" by Information Society... unlike the other links here, I don't like this song, but the music video is an incredible taste of the '90s. Anyone can rip off Brazil, but it takes a true Gilliam-phile to also collect Time Bandits.
- "Pop Musik" by M - Super-low-budget work that I feel was really influential in the language of music videos just from having come out so early (1979).
- Berlin's "Metro" has a similar look, as if Rainer Werner Fassbender directed it right after making Kamikaze '89.
- I'm not really into the Pet Shop Boys, but the second music video for Opportunities is great, and director Zbigniew Rybczyński has a solid body of work, including Rush's "Time Stand Still" video.
- Pat Benetar specialized in big female-empowerment action-movie videos, like the Sweet Charity-esque "Love is a Battlefield" and the Nazi-punching adventure "Shadows of the Night"
- Annie Lennox has a number of fun videos, my favorite being "Would I Lie To You?"
- Steve Winwood's "While You See A Chance" illustrates the dichotomy of the '80s pop video. Steve himself is well-dressed and presentable, playing the keyboard in a sound stage where two Suliban are crawling over a giant pyramid! What's going on? Never explained. Steve doesn't seem to mind. Did they go to high school together?
- Two great videos from Men At Work: "It's A Mistake" and "Who Can It Be Now?"
- Dire Straits's "Walk of Life" is a glimpse back into a time when you couldn't just see a bunch of sports bloopers whenever you wanted, it had to be a special thing. Also on Youtube is the Walk of Life Project, which shows the ending of various movies redone with "Walk of Life" as the closing song.
- "Jump" by the Pointer Sisters also includes sports highlights—plus potentially dangerous jumping in high heels.
- "I Can't Wait" by Nu Shooz is the perfect example of the appeal of this project to me. I've probably heard this song twenty times in my life without ever paying attention, and only remembered it because of the catchy hook. But it's got a wacky, surreal music video with corny 1986 CGI effects. The song is fun! It was a big hit! People put a lot of work into this video! But it's just been sitting around in the back of our collective cultural unconciousness, not giving us the enjoyment it could give in a new context.
- The Human League's video for "Don't You Want Me" is nice and metafictional.
- Scandal's "The Warrior" has learned the lessons of Cats. Relatedly, Hall and Oates's "Maneater" and Heart's "Nothing at All" both use a panther to represent the feminine. In fact I'm gonna assume it's the same panther; how many trained panthers are there who can stalk through a music video?
- "No One is to Blame" (melancholy) and "Everlasting Love" (cute) by Howard Jones.
- Calloway's "I Wanna Be Rich"
- Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out" and "Down to London", which is kind of the same video twice.
- Finally, some videos that make me homesick for Manhattan: Bananarama's "Cruel Summer", Glenn Frey's "You Belong To The City", and (again), "Possession Obsession"
Sat Dec 05 2020 14:03 November Film Roundup:
And we're back to Youtube presentations of plays that were once shown in theaters by Fathom Events. It seems like these days, I just can't Fathom Events, you know?
- "Being Shakespeare" (2011): Drama doesn't need a reason to exist, but it feels like this one-man show has a reason that I don't understand. This New York Times review says it's putting forth the case that Shakespeare authored his own damn plays, which, okay, but I already believed that. The biographical reconstruction was pretty interesting.
- "Macbeth" (2010): I remember seeing that Patrick Stewart was doing Macbeth on Broadway, and not going for it because the tickets were too expensive. Now, thanks to a global health disaster, he comes to my living room! We thought this was really solid and the staging gave it a real The Death of Stalin vibe.
BTW when you look up Patrick Stewart on IMDB, his top "Known For" item is Logan (2017). I give you this information to do with what you will. (Probably nothing)
- Happiest Season (2020): I don't watch many recent holiday rom-coms, and I will say this speaks more to today's issues than, say, Christmas in Connecticut, but I liked the "com" more than the "rom". Daniel Levy's comic relief was both welcome and massively oversold by his over-prominent presence in the opening credits.
For the first ten minutes of this movie I was really tense, because it opens almost exactly the same as Get Out. Maybe this is less a fact about Happiest Season and more a reflection on how effectively Get Out evoked the rom-com feeling before subverting it.
As the days get shorter we've gone back to one of our old online-video hobbies, a hobby that deserves (and will get) its own blog post. But I do have a Television Spotlight for you, albeit one I forgot to mention a couple months ago when we watched it: Raw Craft with Anthony Bourdain. It's the most blatant Sponsored Content ever, but it's got the late Anthony Bourdain interviewing and appreciating a lot of interesting craftspeople like Elizabeth Brim and Raul Ojeda.
Sun Nov 29 2020 16:17 Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene:
While you're waiting for Situation Normal to come out, you can enjoy the novel I just released as my NaNoGenMo project.
Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene is the first English novel written in the Tamarian language. The data comes from a bot I was working on when I decided a) this bot was going to be a ton of work for almost no reward; b) corollary, I'm kind of done making bots. Works great as a NaNoGenMo though! It's really fun to read.
(1) Fri Nov 27 2020 12:04 Situation Normal preorders now open!:
Preorders are opening up for my second novel, Situation Normal, which launches on December 14th! I'm just going to copy the meticulously assembled preorder links from Sumana's post on the same topic: you can read a preview that's long enough to introduce the main characters, and then order an ebook (Kobo, Nook, Chapters Indigo, Hive.co.uk, Kindle) or a paperback (Amazon,
Barnes & Noble). It's also now available thorugh bookshop.org, the site I personally have been using to buy paper books since the start of the pandemic.
You can of course jump right in to the story—it's a science fiction novel, it's full of exposition, you'll figure it out—but to give a proper introduction I've revised my 2012 story "Four Kinds of Cargo", the inspiration and direct prequel to Situation Normal. The "Retcon Edition" of 4KoC changes some names and characterizations, but leaves the plot unchanged; it introduces the Terran Outreach, the Fist of Joy, and the stupid, stupid war they're about to fight.
If you've read Constellation Games you should know that Situation Normal is set in a completely different universe with a different tone—the only constant is humor and lots of cool space aliens. To give an example, I worked to make Constellation Games a book with high drama but no character death; whereas an important character dies in the very first sentence of "Four Kinds of Cargo".
I've been writing up some author commentary essays for Situation Normal which I'll post periodically on this weblog after the book launch. I won't go chapter-by-chapter like I did with Constellation Games, because that took forever, but I've written some fun essays on the design of the aliens, deleted and rewritten scenes, how throwaway lines in "Four Kinds of Cargo" became essential novel worldbuilding, and so on. I've been working on this book for a long time and am really excited to share it with you!
Mon Nov 02 2020 22:03 Pandemic Reading Roundup:
While stuck at home over the past few months I've tried all sorts of things to keep occupied: eating food, sleeping, even working on a novel. But I've also made a lot of progress going through my backlog of books. I thought I'd give mention a few of these highlights.
- The Centauri Device (M. John Harrison, 1974): Reading this book was like discovering an uncle I didn't know I had. This is the origin of modern space opera, clearly a huge influence on Banks and (this is more of a guess) even Hitchhiker's Guide, and it's done as a takedown by someone who clearly thinks the whole thing is ridiculous. Spaceships with goofy names, meaningless space battles... The fact that it's incredibly depressing didn't bother me, because the author isn't taking it seriously so why should I?
- Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds (Greg Milner, 2016): Interesting history on the same level of technical detail as Milner's phenomenal Perfecting Sound Forever. Plenty of good military-industrial-complex gossip.
- Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About (Donald Knuth, 2001): A gift from a friend that got lost behind my bookshelf and stayed there for years. This was really nice to read, maybe because I'm not religious at all. I love Knuth's 3:16 project and it's great to hear him go into detail about his process and what he learned about the Bible while working on it.
- A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (Ben Folds, 2019): My favorite kind of celebrity autobiography is where they just tell you a bunch of stories about their life. The best book in this genre will probably always be Peter Falk's Just One More Thing, but this one's pretty good. Feel free to suggest your favorites; always looking for more of these!
- Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons (Michael Witwer, 2015): On the other hand, the lack of original research makes this biography read like a Wikipedia article, and there's also fictionalized dramatizations, like you'd get in a biopic. Two types of biography I find much less enjoyable than "celebrity tells stories", and furthermore two that pull the book in incompatible directions. However the subject matter is really interesting. I admit I was pulled in by the incredible cover art, something that basically never happens to me.
- Russian Spring (Norman Spinrad, 1991): An entertaining near-future sci-fi story that extends the Cold War into the 21st century, undone by one fatal error: it refers to UCLA as the home of the Trojans. The correct answer is, the Bruins. [taps note cards] The Bruins.
- Collision Course (Barrington Bayley, 1974): A brilliant concept (Earth as the focus of two timelines going in opposite directions) and a creepy setting can't make up for a cheesy plot. Mentioning this one solely for the, again, brilliant concept, and the alien with the mind-bending pronouns.
- Not quite done with A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth, 1993), but I'm nearing the end and I don't think the last 150 pages are going to change my mind: this is a really, really fun book. Ever since I've known Sumana this has been one of her favorites, and it's good to be able to get her references. I've been moseying through it over the past... couple of years... but recently picked up the pace because once I finish it we can watch the BBC miniseries that just came out. Yes, they made a whole miniseries while I was reading the book. PS to Seth: you can finish A Suitable Girl! We believe in you!
Sun Nov 01 2020 16:08 October Film Roundup:
Here we go! Take a break from your doomscrolling with some fun filmroundupscrolling. Remember, if you don't read the words, your scrolling has all been for naught.
- Stranger Than Fiction (2006): Thought the twist of this rom-com was going to be the fictional character falling in love with his neurotic creator, but that twist would be too creepy for this sweet story full of Will Farrell goofiness. A good time.
Sumana and I both liked the office set for Dustin Hoffman's literature-professor character. All that 1970s concrete and glass made me think of the offices at Cal State Bakersfield where I'd end up babysitting myself while my mom was getting her masters' degree.
Without implying that it affected my enjoyment of the movie, I want to mention that Karen Eiffel's novels seem pretty bad. There's always a reverse-Ishtar problem when one tries to depict great art using ordinary skill. Stranger than Fiction falls flat depicting both the novels themselves and the way critics think about fiction (as opposed to, say, screenplays).
Sometimes Sumana and I play a game where we figure out how early in human history a given story could have been set. We couldn't come up with any "fictional character comes to life" stories (as opposed to, like, "statue comes to life") older than the twentieth century, but I'd think it could have happened in medieval Japan, or in Europe any time after Tristam Shandy. However this particular setup seems best suited to the early 1960s—a mediocre highbrow writer who hasn't finished a book in ten years but is kept on contract with a big publisher for prestige.
- The Lady Eve (1941): I kind of thought I'd seen this one, but it turns out All About Eve (1950) merely has a misleading title. This was another fun rom-com, though made much earlier, at a time when Hollywood was still trying to figure out how to merge the "rom" with the "com". Barbara Stanwyck is always hilarious as the brassy dame who don't need no man, but once the man she don't need enters the picture it always loses a little. At least now they're pairing her with A-list hunks like Henry Fonda instead of that guy from Christmas in Connecticut.
We speculated that the classic A New Leaf (1973) might have started as a gender-swap of Fonda's ditzy rich scientist and Stanwyck's gold-digging schemer. Think about it!
- Betaville (1986): The Alphaville parody/sequel you didn't know you needed. Godard paid tribute to American genre fiction, and America responded with a no-budget short full of great gags that you can watch on Youtube. Big recommendation. Watching black-and-white French New Wave people wander around 1986 New York was a soothing balm for this guy who hasn't been in Manhattan for months.
In Television Spotlight news, we re-upped our CBS All Access account for the new Discovery season, and caught up with the first season of Lower Decks. We were initially very skeptical of the main character—a little "competent asshole" goes a long long way in this household—but the other characters are quite fun, and by the end we were on board and excited for season 2... which is about average for the first season of a Trek show. We loved the continuity deep cuts. My absolute favorite part was how the inhabitants of Beta III went right back to worshipping Landru the minute the Enterprise left and the Federation never followed up.
BTW, this is by no means a novel complaint, but the near-total (but not total!) lack of NCOs and enlisted beings in Starfleet really makes things weird for Lower Decks. All the schmoes and screwups in this show are Starfleet Academy graduates. Theoretically, any one of them could give orders to Chief O'Brien. But there aren't any O'Briens around to do the grunt work.
There is an explanation for the officer-heaviness of Starfleet vessels, which I learned in the "Is Starfleet Military?" episode of the Gimme That Star Trek podcast: it mirrors the structure of a bomber crew like the one Gene Roddenberry served in during WWII. It was great to learn an explanation for this, but when writing Situation Normal I tried to make things a little more realistic. In Trek's defense, I found it really tricky to keep the ranks consistent, and the exact ranks never mattered dramatically—only the distinction between commissioned officers and the rest.
Sat Oct 03 2020 18:56 September Film Roundup:
Yeah, so, a couple items for the Television Spotlight. We're in the middle of our Legend of Korra rewatch, and it's is still fun. New fun for us this time around is catching what we now see are a ton of Avatar references.
I forgot to mention this at the time, but we watched Star Trek: Picard as it aired and enjoyed it a lot... but maybe my expectations were too high? Certain very powerful character themes (my favorite being Picard effectively choosing to become Locutus again) were handled so subtly compared to the un-subtle plotting that I question whether they were even there or whether I was writing a better version of the show in my head. Anyway, haven't seen Lower Decks yet but between it and Picard and The Orville it seems like TNG has finally displaced TOS as the official Trek throwback show. Truly, this is my time!
Sat Sep 05 2020 08:56 "August" Film Roundup:
Kind of a weird Roundup this month, made up of movies I forgot to review in earlier months and stuff we actually saw in September. That's because the "July" Roundup had a lot of overlap with August, and then instead of movies we spent the rest of August watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008), a really nice kids' show that paved the way for more sophisticated shows like Steven Universe, not to mention its own sequel, The Legend of Korra, which we saw in 2015 and are now rewatching. Time has lost its meaning and there might not be much to show next month, is what I'm saying.
- The Old Guard (2020): Nothing fancy, but a enjoyable action concept leads to a lot of scenes in the Deadpool mold where the heroes can soak up incredible amounts of damage and keep fighting. A conceit similar to the heavy use of tasers in PG-13 movies (and Korra) in that it lets you have more brutality than an audience would otherwise be comfortable with.
- The Rise and Fall of Nokia (2017): Smana wanted to watch this documentary because she was involved in Nokia's mobile-Linux projects of the early 2010s. I enjoyed the parts of the documentary that dealt with the invention of cell phones but I thought it presented the introduction of the iPhone as a fait accompli rather than going into why Nokia's (kinda disorganized) response was inadequate. Not the tone you want to take in a film made to celebrate the centenary of Finland's independence, I suppose.
- Nixon in China (2011): We streamed the Metropolitan Opera's performance for free when they put it up. I really love the libretto but neither of us were wild about the music. We don't really watch opera, so we don't have the reading conventions down. After an Act I which was pretty naturalistic and easy to read, we were totally befuddled by the weird fourth wall breaking in Act II. Act III was not naturalistic at all, but typical of what I think of as opera: people singing out their emotions, you know, like a Broadway musical.
But I keep going back to Act II, which features the Nixons watching another opera (The Red Detachment of Women). Their reactions to the plot lead them to interfere with the performance, but the opera-within-an-opera seems designed to accommodate and work with such audience interference, because of course it's all part of one big opera and the "audience" is just as much performers as the people they're interfering with. That was really interesting but I imagine that's a feature of Act II of Nixon in China and not something special you get from the art form of opera.
(2) Tue Aug 25 2020 23:07 Hundred Dollar Brain:
I just finished Len Deighton's 1966 computer-age thriller Billion Dollar Brain and unfortunately must report that it's much less computery than I'd hoped. Deighton wrote an excellent alt-history, SS-GB, so I'd been hoping for some retro SF or at least sciency fiction, but in this novel the titular Brain is naught but a minor piece of set dressing, to the extent that I kind of want to write the spy novel that seemed to be taking shape and which would have been really groundbreaking had Deighton gone there.
Basically, if you're using a computer with a telephonic voice interface to run a privately-funded spy ring in 1966, there's no guarantee the individual actions of your agents add up to what you're trying to do. You're incredibly vulnerable to the ELIZA effect. Someone else could be using your computer and your agents to run their own spy ring! (Again, this is not what happens in Billion Dollar Brain.)
I will reproduce the most technically sophisticated paragraph in the book, since it's clear Deighton at least talked to someone who knows computers and I like to see that rewarded:
"I don't want to bore you," Harvey said, "but you should understand that these heaps of wire can practically think — linear programming — which means that instead of going through all the alternatives they have a hunch which is the right one. What's more, almost none of them work by binary notation — the normal method for computers — because that's just yes/no stuff. (If you can only store yeses and noes it takes seven punch holes to record the number ninety-nine.) These machines use tiny chips of ceramic which store electricity. They store any amount from one to nine. That's why — for what it does — this whole set-up is so small.
No, please, bore me!
(1) Fri Aug 21 2020 10:16 Presenting AT NASFiC:
Today at Columbus NASFiC 2020 I'm giving what is hopefully the definitive edition of my talk "How Game Titles Work". It had to wait until 2020, because the ultimate game title that proves all my crackpot theories wasn't released until last year. But now we should be good!
The talk starts at 2:00 PM Eastern time and you can watch it online for free. Because there's a lot of text on the slides, I'm making sure to put up a PDF of my slides before the talk, so you can follow along. After the talk I'll work on an HTML version with a transcript.
Later tonight, at 9:30 PM Eastern, I'll be giving a prerecorded reading of two unpublished flash pieces. Hope to see you there! (In the Discord.)
Fri Aug 14 2020 13:48 July Film Roundup:
As countries I don't live in get the coronavirus under control, National Theatre and the weird musical channel have both died down, so our household is back to watching movies. Also I've been real busy with work and the Situation Normal proofread, so this Roundup goes well into August. Any concerns? Let me direct you to this humorous painted-script sign I have hanging on my wall: "My Blog, My Rules!" Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go "Live, Laugh, Love!"
- Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) - Back in May I said I regretted missing it the first time it was made available through Youtube, so all I can say now is the grass is always greener. Jesus Christ Superstar is way better. There are some good anachronistic gags here, but I think a lot of the enjoyment of this musical comes from nostalgic memories of the high school production where you played Asher and the butler.
- Amadeus (2017) - We loved this INCREDIBLY FICTIONALIZED story of someone with way more taste than talent. I gotta stress this is FICTIONALIZED, based on romantic myths about Mozart and his death, and apparently none of it happened this way. But what an archetype is created in this play. Great to watch.
Reading about this afterwards I'm glad I saw the play instead of the movie, because the movie introduces a bunch of additional plot elements that doesn't really matter. It won Best Picture, so I guess they know what they're doing?
- Psych 2: Lassie Come Home (2020): Fun for Psych fans, no reason to watch the movie otherwise. Except: let's say one of the actors in your ensemble cast suffers a stroke after the TV show has wrapped. The easy path would be to write them out of the made-for-streaming sequel movies, or else bring in someone else to play the character. Instead, Psych 2 is a film entirely about the character's stroke and its aftermath. This is another way in which Psych feels more like the product of a close-knit team than other shows. Another way is the constant in-joking and bringing back characters who died in season 4, which I'm kind of tired of.
- Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Apparently this film made boffo box office because it was released three days before V-J day. When everyone wanted to celebrate by going to the movies, this is the movie there was to see. Barbara Stanwyck is fun as always, and the scamtastic setup is fun, but the male lead is kinda Zeppo-ish and for the sake of variety I was rooting for the coded-gay architect who's just looking for a beard. (She picks Zeppo.) There was also a little subplot about hostility between different waves of American immigrants which I thought was interesting but didn't go anywhere.
This could definitely be remade as a Hallmark Christmas movie -- look at the super-white title! -- and in fact it was remade in 1992. Today it would be about an Instagram influencer, I guess.
- The Bride Walks Out (1936): Stanwyck-mania continues! Not a great film, although it kind of feels like a trial run for I Love Lucy: wacky neighbors, wife wants to work outside the home. Zeppo would be an improvement over the guy in this movie; he seems to actually dislike his wife and think of her as a burden. So why bother? Maybe it made more sense under Depression-era gender roles. Actually you know what this really reminds me of is Fig Leaves (1926), with the modelling wife and the misogynistic business partner.
Some good one-liners and a surprising amount of unnecessary vaudeville schtick. It's always fun to see a dramatization of the office in New York's City Hall where Sumana and I got our license.
- Door Ke Darshan (2020): An uninspiring Bollywood remake of one of our favorite films, Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) Not just another film with the same idea--they clearly copied some of the shots, reminding us of how powerful/funny those shots were in the original and how they're not those things here. The setup here is totally implausible, which primes us for comedy much wackier than is appropriate to the story. And we don't even get the wacky comedy! Despite the superior videography capabilities of 2019 India vis-a-vis 1989 East Germany, the characters in this movie are only able to muster one fake broadcast.
Rather than go on and on I'll present you with the result of our post-movie fix-it discussion: you can make an Indian version of Good Bye, Lenin!, but it needs to be set in 1947, with Mom a big booster of the Raj. Not in the cards for a low-budget picture like this.
During the fix-it discussion we were brainstorming other big world events that could provide the backdrop for a similar movie.
S: She could be in a coma through the Russian Revolution.
L: Yeah, call it Hello, Lenin!
I'm here all week! Because I can't go anywhere and there's nowhere to go!
(3) Mon Jul 27 2020 13:38 Situation Normal:
I'm happy to announce that my science fiction novel Situation Normal is being published by Candlemark & Gleam! It'll go on sale December 14th, 2020. Here's the acquisition announcement, and it's time for the cover reveal!
(Cover art is by Brittany Hague, who did a fake book cover as part of Thoughtcrime Experiments way back when.)
My elevator pitch for Situation Normal is "the Coen brothers do Star Trek". It's a military SF story where no one is incompetent but everything goes wrong. Situation Normal is a direct sequel to my Strange Horizons story "Four Kinds of Cargo", but the crew of the smuggling starship Sour Candy is now only one thread of a plot that includes weaponized marketing, sentient parasites, horny alien teenagers, and cosplaying monks. It's the result of a lot of work for me and Athena Andreadis, and I hope you love it!
Sun Jul 05 2020 21:05 June Film Roundup:
More months, more quarantine, more big drama! We started watching the Tom Hiddleston Coriolanus and weren't into it. Here's what we were into:
- Small Island (2019): A great "immigrant experience" drama... from England? A sure sign of national decline, that other countries are beating us at our own game. Just another reason to watch Hamilton on Disney+!
Seriously, this was probably the best show of the month, with really well-defined characters and well-timed comic relief. Recommended!
- The Madness of George III (2018): Just as Oceans Eight (2018) got me to care about the Met Gala, this movie got Sumana to be sympathetic towards George III. I really liked the political machinations, but what I'd really like is more This House. I also thought this play took a lot of cheap shots at 18th-century medicine. It wasn't super funny and seems like the ultimate soft target. I mean, everyone from that time period is dead... because 18th-century medicine was terrible! Zing!
For someone like me who doesn't really know the history, this play has an interesting happy ending. The king gets better! But then you go to Wikipedia and it turns out ten years later the same thing happened again. As so often happens, it all depends on when you stop telling the story. Brits: do you know what happened with George III or is it a high-school blur of "well, he was mad, and then the Regency happened"?
- A Midsummer Night's Dream (2019): A silly original text made enjoyable by really leaning into the silliness; plus acrobatics, some judicious fourth-wall breaking and a well-executed gender swap (Oberon has all of Titania's lines and vice versa). When combined with having much of the audience as groundlings milling around the stage, this performance really felt like it delivered the modern equivalent to the night out you would have gotten in Shakespeare's time.
Tonight the gala Television Spotlight shines on CanCon production Schitt's Creek, co-starring Film Roundup favorite Dan Levy, who is either playing himself on this show or took his Schitt's Creek character to The Great Canadian Baking Show, because they're the same person wearing the same outfits. The show's fun, low-key Canadian take on "Arrested Development but not mean", the sort of thing we saw with Jane the Virgin.
Sun May 31 2020 18:09 May Film Roundup:
More prerecorded live theater, but since all the National Theatre productions etc. have IMDB pages I've decided to just call them "films".
- Frankenstein (2011): We were not big fans. We saw the version with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature and Jonny Lee Miller as the doctor, rather than vice versa. I don't think it would have made a big difference because my problems were with the super-unsubtle script. Some nice bits of staging... and some super-unsubtle bits of staging. Not subtle, I guess I'm saying.
- By Jeeves (2001): In conversation afterwards, Wodehouse superfan Elisa revealed she'd seen the original London run of Jeeves in 1975. She spun a fantastic tale of the play having originally featured a heavy Roderick Spode fascism subplot, a tale backed up by the Youtube link she sent me of S P O D E, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."
That show sounds really interesting but it was a flop, so Webber eventually reworked it into this simpler, fluffier, lower-budget piece with a really awkward framing device. Still kinda funny though. Sumana and I thought Wooster was depicted as way too stupid (and uncharacteristically aware of his own stupidity), and Jeeves as way too snarky, but Elisa says that's in line with the earlier stories, before Wodehouse had a handle on the characters.
Hard for me to complain about the slow start because Webber himself defused the criticism in a wrap-up video where he smiles warmly and thanks the fans for watching all his plays, "even By Jeeves—slow start, I know."
- Antony and Cleopatra (2018): Not much fun apart from the mental pleasure of decoding 500-year-old jokes.
- Moon Zero Two (1969): Rewatch of the MST3K cut during the MST3K LIVE Social Distancing Riff-Along Special with Emily Marsh in the big chair. I really enjoy the underlying movie (it's stupid, but its decent budget gives it a lot of fun sci-fi set dressing), and it was nice to see a good print of it rather than the much-circulated VHS tape I remember watching.
- A Doll's House: this one fell flat for us; not sure how much of the problem is with the original vs. the changes made for the adaptation. Some good Hitchcock-esque suspense with the letter.
- Barber Shop Chronicles (2018): A great play: a convoluted plot that turns out to involve just a few simple human relationships. Big recommendation.
- Cats (1998): I confounded expectations by loving this play. It was exactly as good as Cats. I'm not going to see it again and again, though.
It's hard to beat the book here: the poems are really enjoyable. The staging puts the cats at around Fantastic Mr. Fox on the anthropomorphic animal twee-meter, which is right where I like it. I've never been a huge fan of "Memory", the show's hit single, and next to all the Eliot it really felt out of place, like a practice song for Phantom.
The enjoyability of Cats didn't mean we spared it our acid riffing. Our best one: as the rest of the cast takes their bows, someone busts on stage singing ♬ I'm Chumbyfate, the cat who's always late! ♬
- This House (2013): Engrossing political dramedy with an incredible soundtrack and staging. Probably our favorite of the National Theatre set so far. We started out thinking the play might be entirely fictional; then the wealth of detail convinced us it was probably somewhat historical; then I looked it up afterwards and not only did all the big plot beats happen, all the people portrayed in This House are real people who now have OBEs and Wikipedia pages. Another big recommendation... and since this is the most recent National Theatre production to go online you can still watch it, assuming you reliably read Film Roundup right when I publish it.
Sun May 03 2020 16:18 April Theatre Roundup:
For the first time since the institution of Film Roundup, I didn't watch any films last month. Instead, Sumana and I streamed recorded-live theater performances from two British sources. With theatres closed, the National Theatre has been putting up one play a week from their 2010s archive. So far they've all been excellent. (I'm adding IMDB links where possible, to disambiguate from other performances of the same play.)
- One Man, Two Guvnors (2011): Really enjoyable farce with a good variety of types of comedy. Not a lot to say; we loved it. Big recommendation.
- Jane Eyre (2015): Sumana has read the book and I haven't, so we played a game where Sumana would periodically pause and I'd make up how I thought the story is going to go. I think I did pretty well—I invented an "inspirational teacher" character who was cut from this adaptation but is present in the original novel.
This is where I started noticing that the National Theatre does really cool set design. One Man, Two Guvnors was written as a play and it's got normal British play-staging: a drawing room, then a street, then a pub, etc. But when you're adapting a novel that spans most of someone's lifetime, you need a more abstract space that can be reconfigured on the fly. These sets act like children's playgrounds, providing scaffolding for the imagination. This is probably entry-level stuff, but I don't watch a lot of theatre.
- Treasure Island (2015): Another fun one, with a super-impressive set that transforms from inn to ship to island to cave. How closelyy does this production track Stevenson's original vision, most clearly realized in Muppet Treasure Island (1996)? Well, there are no Muppets, that's a big ding. But Patsy Ferran makes a great Jim Hawkins, and most of the time you're watching Jim, so minute-to-minute I think it's better.
- Twelfth Night (2017): I discovered here that watching Shakespeare with subtitles really helps you understand the play and feel smart. In fact, by the time we finished watching Twelfth Night I was convinced I had written Shakespeare's plays. I mean, look at this acrostic:
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Rherein the pregnant enemy does much.
Aow easy is it for the proper-false
Nn women's waxen hearts to set their forms!
Olas, our frailty is the cause, not we!
Eor such as we are made of, such we be.
Low will this fadge? my master loves her dearly
Exactly the sort of stupid stunt I'd pull. Anyway, check out this presentation of one of my classic comedies. Oliver Chris plays Orsino as exactly the kind of amiable public-school dunce he brings to the role of Guvnor #2 in One Man, Two Guvnors.
On a less highbrow note, on the weekends we've been watching Andrew Lloyd Webber shows on The Shows Must Go On!, a YouTube channel created just for this purpose. Despite what I thought going in, it turns out I'm not a big fan of Webber's stuff. I remember liking Evita when I was a kid, and I'm holding out hope for his quirkier shows, like the Jeeves and Wooster musical and the... Thomas the Tank Engine???
- Jesus Christ Superstar (2018-ish?) - My favorite so far of the Webber we saw this month. Great concept, decent songs. I regret missing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat the week before, since my sisters like that one.
- The Phantom of the Opera (2011?) - There's a common type of story about a Tormented Man of Genius whose Genius explains/excuses/justifies his antisocial/misogynistic/destructive behavior as he drives away everyone he cares about. You can read The Phantom of the Opera as a gender-swapped version of this story, about a Tormented Woman whose destructive Genius manifests as an abusive, overdemanding partner. That's an interesting story, but probably not the intended reading. The title song is rockin' but watching this felt like buying an album having heard the one hit single.
- Love Never Dies (2012) - The less said the better regarding this Phantom sequel. The best thing to come out of this viewing was our joke that the 'song' the Phantom has written for Christine to sing turns out to be the Doublemint Gum jingle:
♫ Double-double your refreshment ♫
♫ Double-double your enjoyment ♫
SING FOR ME!
- Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Royal Albert Hall Celebration (1999): Not technically a musical at all. At this point I realized that even front-loading the greatest hits won't do much for me. I will give props to Julian Lloyd Webber for refusing to dress up for his brother's birthday celebration, performing an energetic cello piece wearing what looks like a football jersey from videogame publisher Acclaim.
(1) Sun Apr 19 2020 17:53 It's All the Go!:
When I'm under a lot of ambient stress, one of my low-energy hobbies is browsing old catalogs. One that caught my eye recently was the 1926 Albert Pick, Bath & Company supply catalog for soda fountains and ice cream parlors. My nostalgia for tutti-frutti and walnuts in syrup is secondhand—the drugstore soda fountain was basically dead when I first encountered one in the late 1980s—but I was spending a pleasant hour paging through this catalog and chuckling at the old-timey language when I saw an intra-catalog ad. A space in the catalog was being used not to advertise a product, but to advertise a page further along the catalog:
"Krusty Korn" Baker
Turn to page 94 and see our New Money Maker. Cooks Frankfurters and Hamburger in Corn and Molds them like an Ear of Corn. They're going to be a Big Hit.
That's pretty silly, I thought. Who the heck thought "Krusty Korn" would catch on? How do you even cook a Frankfurter "in corn"? But it worked. I turned to page 94. And there I saw...
Krusty "Korn Dog" Baker
Something New in Money Makers
It's new, novel, and delicious to eat. The Krusty "Korn Dog" is a corn bread waffle, shaped like an ear of corn, with a "hot dog" baked inside. All done in one baking. IT'S ALL THE GO AND MAKING BIG MONEY FOR OPERATORS ALL OVER THE COUNTRY. The "hot dog" is baked inside the corn batter, which, as it bakes, moulds itself to resemble an ear of corn. When broken open it looks exactly like an ear of corn with the golden kernels on the outside and the red cob of sausage in the center.
It's corn dogs. This is the ancestral form of the corn dog. They used to be molded like ears of corn with little kernels. Amazing. Maybe we shouldn't have stopped thinking of the coating as a "corn bread waffle"; corn dogs might be haute cuisine today.
Sat Apr 04 2020 11:39 Film Roundup: "These Trying Times" Edition:
The Television Spotlight is in full force this month; Sumana and I are watching Ken Burns's epic "Baseball" documentary (1994) with all its slow pans and Shelby Foote drawls. PBS is streaming it for free within the US. We're not quite done, but I feel comfortable recommending it. Don't care about baseball? It's for you! I think for people who do care, this documentary may be a little boring. For me, it's nice hearing people really passionate and knowledgeable about the long history of something I don't really care about. And only about 20% of it is depressing, unlike the Civil War documentary. Steven Jay Gould is a nice surprise.
Finally, just a reminder that my Film Roundup Roundup page has over 150 recommendations to tide you over while Film Forum is closed. Take care!
Mon Mar 09 2020 19:24 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog, September 1980:
The big highlight here is Steven Gould's very un-Analog "The Touch of Their Eyes". Good writing, cool 'superpower'.
A couple other bits worth mentioning:
In an inversion of the usual, Mack Reynolds's "What the Vintners Buy" is an era-typical sexist romp right up to the end where there's an incredible plot twist that should have been revealed at the beginning of a much different story. For the record, the twist is that the entire interstellar economy is a scam, with every planet spending all its money on a genetically tailored drug produced by some other planet. Too clever to leave unexplained, too specific to rip off.
And in a "no longer satire" moment, Susan M. Schwartz's "The Struldbrugg Solution" mentions a college class called "Myth in the Classic Stan Lee Comic".
Back cover ad pushes The Number of the Beast with the blurb "Look Where Heinlein's Been for the Last 7 Years". I admit I haven't exactly been cranking out the novels, so I probably shouldn't snark. In fact, maybe this ad points the way to what my work has been missing: "sensual scientists."
Wed Mar 04 2020 17:01 February Film Roundup:
I wasn't kidding about Space February:
- Remember the Night (1940): Really nice rom-com with heart and a satisfying bittersweet ending. Brought down a bit by the stereotypically racist "comic relief valet" role given to Fred Toones at the opening. I dunno, you make this nuanced, funny piece that carries powerful emotions across eighty years and I gotta put a big asterisk on it because of cringey racism. Not to single out this movie in particular; Fred Toones has 223 roles listed on IMDB, thirty-five of which are "Porter (uncredited)". He played "Porter (uncredited)" in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!
Filmmakers take note: Remember the Night is effectively an edgy Hallmark Channel Christmas movie and could be remade as such.
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): My first time seeing this on the big screen, and it was preceded by a talk from Film Roundup fave Douglas Trumbull! Some cool photos and juicy special-effects gossip. Then, the movie! It's not great. Reading between the lines of Trumbull's talk I feel like I got an understanding for what went wrong. But I've been reading The Best of Trek, an old series of books assembled from fanzine articles, and fans in that era were pretty hungry. Easy to turn up our noses today, when there's an entire streaming service being kept alive by original Trek programming.
As with Star Trek V, I'm gonna stand up for this "bad" movie as having a heart of pure Star Trek. First, nothing else has the scale of the V'ger flythrough. The Dyson sphere in "Relics" is bigger, but 1) it's just a sphere, 2) the Enterprise barely goes inside. This is klicks and klicks of varied, mysterious organomechanical sensawunda. Great stuff.
Second, it's common knowledge that ST:TMP is a rehash of a TOS episode. But is that so bad? Why not take a classic episode, crank up the humanism, and give it a lavish big-screen makeover? Isn't that better than where we are now: redoing the first "good" Trek movie over and over?
Bonus from discussion: Trumbull is working on a cinematography technique involving filming at very high framerates. He's been working on this for a long time—Brainstorm (1983) was supposed to be a showcase—but the return of 3D movies, which are filmed at high framerates, means movie theaters now have projectors that can show these films.
Trumbull made bold claims about the immersive qualities of films made using this technique, claims I think could be tested relatively easily by reformatting the 2016 Ang Lee movie Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I haven't seen that film, but it was shot at a high framerate and was panned for problems Trumbull says he has solved. That contemporaneous Slate article paraphrases him as saying that eliminating flicker creates a better film experience—the opposite of what I heard him say in person—so presumably he's learned something from Billy Lynn. Just noticing things from outside the industry here.
- Space is the Place (1974): I was really into the first scene, which takes place on a TOS-like alien planet with weird flora, but they must have used the whole budget on that scene because the rest takes place in hospitals and warehouses and is mostly dull. Big credit for early Afrofuturism, and the nonchalance with which all characters accept the science fictional premise. Sun Ra goes to the youth center to rap with the kids and a lot of them are like "who's this old fogey?" but there's no "I'm skeptical that you just spent several years in space."
If you're a fan of Sun Ra's music then I'm sure the music redeems it, but I'm not (sorry, Jake). In fact, this film made me realize I'm not really into Frank Zappa anymore. When I was in college those long guitar solos seemed like the sort of thing I should like, and would grow into as I matured, but during this movie I kept thinking "I know their styles are polar opposites, but this is boring me in exactly the same way as a thirteen-minute Frank Zappa song." So, it's good that this film got me to examine my preconceptions.
- Alien (1979): Rewatch with Sumana. It's still great! Before showtime I asked Sumana some diagnostic questions to see what she knew about this movie from cultural osmosis. "There's a famous scene in this movie. Do you know what I'm referring to?" She didn't at the time, but during The Scene she gave me a significant elbow nudge.
- Dark Star (1974): Also a rewatch with Sumana, but I originally watched Dark Star in the pre-Film Roundup era, so I'll go into a bit more detail. Like Space is the Place, this has some great scenes, but at feature length it's a slow ride. I was thinking "man, that ending seems really familiar" and chalked it up to having seen the movie before, until Sumana also mentioned finding it familiar. Turns out it's a ripoff of "Kaleidoscope", a really good Ray Bradbury story we'd both read. You thought Stephen King's student-film "Dollar Babies" were a bargain, but plagiarism is even cheaper.
Sumana found the dude-heaviness of Dark Star a bit tiresome after the greater diversity of Alien, which is reasonable, but I think Dark Star gains power if you see it as a movie made by a buncha guys who are worried about being drafted.
Sat Feb 01 2020 22:11 January Film Roundup:
Welcome to Space January! Thanks to the museum's new 2001 exhibit and its filmic tie-ins, I got to see lots of space flicks in January. Next up: Space February!
- Apollo 11 (2019): I was blown away by this film, made almost entirely from unused contemporary footage synced with mission audio. There's a little illustrative CGI and on-screen graphics, but it's mostly just amazing shots of people and equipment. Two bits stick in my mind in particular. First, a long, long pan through rows of computers and rows of desks that ends up in what you see in other movies as Launch Control. It was like seeing the whole iceberg. Second, this movie dramatizes the 1202 incident, creating a near-Uncut Gems level of tension, without having to stop and explain what was going on. You just hear the real-life participants dealing with the problem and you get the gist. I may be watching this again at the museum soon; that's how good it is.
- High Life (2018): I was 100% engaged in this Silent Running style story with this guy and his daughter, and then that story turned out to just be a framing device for a J. G. Ballard type of thing in flashback. Claire Denis told the story she wanted to tell, but I was not into it until the flashback ended, at which point my interest abruptly resumed. So not a recommendation overall.
Caution to doesthedogdie.com fans: I don't think I've ever seen this many dead dogs in a movie.
- We saw a bunch of more or less spacy 2001-inspiring shorts. Some of this called back to 2013's computer film festival with droning and strobe lights, but a couple stood out: John Whitney's Catalog, which true to its name felt like a sizzle reel; and Colin Low's special-effects extravaganza Universe, narrated by Douglas Rain and starring a daredevil astronomer. Watch 'em online!
- The Earrings of Madame De... (1953): This is... a film noir. I see why it's not marketed as such: it's super femme and it takes place in the 19th century. But it's the story of someone who makes one bad decision and has to keep hustling and doubling down and improvising until the aftermath ruins her life. Just awesome. Would love to see more stuff like this.
- Dolemite is my Name (2019): Doing a biopic as a comedy is a great idea; there should be more. Pure moviemaking fun. Loved the cameos. One obvious comparison is Ed Wood, but this movie seems to care a lot more about accuracy. The main liberty I found in IMDB trivia was dramatizing the filming of some scenes from the Dolemite sequel as though they were from Dolemite. Presumably just for fun.
- Ikarie XB-1 (1963): For the 1960s this is some impressive psychological sci-fi. Like watching two really good TOS episodes back-to-back. A little heavy-handed, but I repeat myself. I went looking for director/screenwriter Jindrich Polák's other stuff and randomly found a time-travel thriller comedy (Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977)) and an ET-like family movie (The Octopuses from the Second Floor (1987)). A solid body of work!
But here's the secret to Ikari XB-1's success: it was based on a Lem novel! One of the early ones, the ones that never got translated into English but provided seemlingly endless grist for Eastern Bloc filmmakers (see First Spaceship on Venus, which is basically a bad version of this movie but it's easier to tell the characters apart). It's a little moviegoing treat, like finding a Billy Wilder writing credit.
And the surprises keep coming: when researching this I learned that MIT Press is reissuing six of Lem's books later this month! Including a new translation of The Invincible, which I've never read. Very exciting. Don't sleep on Memoirs of a Space Traveler and His Master's Voice!
Got a hot Television Spotlight tip for ya today: "The Repair Shop", a wholesome BBC reality show where conservationists who normally (I'm assuming) make top £££ restoring Rembrandts and Louis XIV cabinets, turn their skills to family heirlooms brought in by random people. You may have noticed that I only like reality shows where people are nice to each other, and this one's 100% collaborative, very relaxing to watch.