(2) Fri Jun 04 2021 20:13 May Film Roundup:
- The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021): Fun family animated comedy, good gags and character comedy, not much else to say. I really enjoyed the (rot13 spoilers) Sheol nowhere.
- The Fast and the Furious (2001): This was all right, but it was basically the same as Point Break, only the stunts were less cool. Pretty sure they even reused one of the locations from Point Break. So they knew what they were doing. Vin Diesel's antihero is very likeable, really carries the film. And, I'm assuming, the whole series.
- 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003): Okay, I guess we're doing this. This one was awful. Paul Walker's character is so boring, and this movie lacks even the excitement created by the act-two discovery that he's an undercover cop. The torture scene is the kind of thing other movies have to cut to get their PG-13. Antibonus: no Vin Diesel at all.
- The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006): The first film in the series that I would say is "good". The cinematography is solid, the plot is all right, the race scenes are legible, and drifting is a totally different thing you can do with a car, so it's not just people driving real fast. Even the title is a reference to a classic Japanese film. Sumana's a big fan of Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) and was super excited to learn that Han Lue in this film is the same Han Lue from Better Luck Tomorrow.
Wikipedia says "The series transitioned towards heists and spying with Fast & Furious (2009)." So I guess we've passed through the crucible and the good stuff is coming up next. I thought it would all be heists and spying, and this whole time I've been squinting at the movies and thinking "I guess ambushing and robbing a semi truck is a kind of heist..."
According to IMDB trivia, this 2006 film takes place in 2013! That's quite a jump for something that's not mentioned in-universe, but it does give Han Lue plenty of time to transition from whatever shady stuff he was doing in Better Luck Tomorrow (I haven't seen it). Also makes it a bit more plausible that people standing on a mountain are able to wirelessly transmit streaming video to each others' flip phones... maybe through an ad hoc peer-to-peer network?
BTW, what was the first American film to show an emoji onscreen? Good luck answering that question with our primitive search engine technology! It probably wasn't this film. IMDB keyword search shows nothing earlier than 2014, but c'mon.
Mon May 03 2021 23:00 April Film Roundup: '80s Month: The Revenge:
The TV is still busted, but in April we triumphantly made it through the 1980s thanks to the Film Roundup Auxilliary Portable Screening Room
(my laptop). Technology comes through again!
- Thunder Force (2021): '80s Month started out in a state of
interruption thanks to this Netflix original that, I assume, missed
its theatrical chance thanks to the pandemic. Superhero origin stories
are very 21st-century, but this is a "wacky science" story, so at
least it has an '80s heart. And an '80s soundtrack.
Everyone's game for the comedy, Jason Bateman is delightfully
typecast, and there were a couple of real funny scenes, so it's far
from the worst movie we saw in April. It's a huge idiot plot,
though. I literally realized a huge problem while opening the fridge,
and from that point on enjoyed the movie less.
- Hanky Panky (1982): This was the worst movie we saw
in April. Best thing I can say about Hanky Panky is, we see
some classic slices-of-life due to Sidney Poitier's insistence on
location shoots for scenes that could easily have been done on the
backlot. There's a New York coffee shop called "Disco Donut"!
Otherwise, this feels like a movie destined for heavy Comedy
Central rotation in the '90s: three good slapstick gags, comedians who aren't
super funny on their own and have no chemistry together, reliance on
action-y set pieces, and an overall rejection of both jokes and
character comedy in favor of a vague morass I call "lighthearted
- Trading Places (1983): An excellent film all around except for an
ill-conceived, monumentally lowbrow section on a
train; a section which can easily be cut for television because it has
no effect on the otherwise superb plot. You can draw a straight line
between the pre-train scene and the post-train scene, predict its
existence without seeing it, and be better off.
Apart from that, really funny overall. Nobody does "smart but not
as smart as he thinks he is" like Dan Aykroyd. I also enjoyed
imagining the Duke brothers as being played by Statler and Waldorf.
- Footloose (1984): We were expecting a superficial feel-good
film, especially as scenery-chewing John Lithgow was revealed as the villain, but it's
actually pretty subtle. Lithgow's performance has some depth, he's by far the
best actor in the film and his character garners some sympathy.
The soundtrack for this movie is something else, I tell you. "Let's
Hear It for the Boy" and "Holding Out for a Hero" were both originally
released on the Footloose soundtrack.
- The Color Purple (1985): A well-done rural
drama, generally depressing but with moments of triumph at the most Speilbergian moments. Whoopi Goldberg in particular is great in this.
I was expecting a good dose of horror in The Color Purple, but I didn't expect the most
horrifying thing in the film to be the clueless comic-relief white
lady. She's a tonal mismatch with the rest of the movie, and Spielberg
admits he was out of his depth directing this thing, but I tell you,
Sumana and I were on the edge of our seats like Miss Millie was the
Jurassic Park T-Rex.
- Ruthless People (1986): The prize of '80s Month! A tightly
written, extremely fun character-driven comedy. A little convoluted
but not too hard to follow. And—this one's just for
Leonard—packed chock full of outrageous '80s L.A. design, with its
bright-colored triangles and impractical furniture shapes.
- Outrageous Fortune (1987): This is basically the good
version of Hanky Panky. The main characters are really fun,
with great dialogue, neurotic in different ways. (Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner were effectively playing gender-swapped versions of each other.) But it's got Hanky Panky's overreliance on action scenes and even the same road-trip from NYC to the Southwest (was
there a tax credit?). I greatly preferred the first part of the film
where the main characters were just being obnoxious to each other.
- Coming to America (1988): A fun, wholesome romcom of the
type I do not associate with Eddie Murphy's comedy style, but it
works. John Amos is particularly funny as the uptight entrpreneurial
dad; is it too much to hope that in the 2021 sequel he's revealed to
have a Gus Fring side? Recommended.
According to IMDB trivia, "According to John Landis, it was his
idea to have Eddie Murphy wear make-up to play a Jewish man, as a sort
of payback for Jewish comedians wearing blackface in the early 1900s."
Yeah, the early 1900s, how time flies, it's been five whole
years since John Landis directed a scene between Eddie Murphy and
a corked-up Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. I guess this was
his way of apologizing, and this was far from the worst thing Landis
has done while making a movie (look it up; I won't mention the name of
a crime because he was acquitted, but even without the criminal aspect he was responsible for a workplace where people died).
- Batman (1989): It had to be this to close out the decade; the film that all the boys in my grade were obsessed with for months and I never saw because who drives to Bakersfield and sees movies? Not my family, apparently.
Hard to believe that at the time this was
the "dark" version. With Nolan for comparison this is a bunch of goofy
Tim Burton stuff, effectively a gritty reboot of Pee-Wee's Big
Adventure. Burton doesn't spend too much time in the ball pit and the result
is a fun movie overall. There are a couple characters who are
superfluous to the screenplay, but judging from the voluminous IMDB
trivia this thing was undergoing serious rewrites as it was being
shot, so you'll get loose ends.
Jack Nicholson's a great Joker—by far the best thing about
this movie—but/and his Joker laugh is this Jack Lemmon-esque
bark which distracted me with a million-dollar realization: Jack
Lemmon would have been incredible as an interim Joker in the
1970s. Throw in Walter Matthau as a dad-joke Riddler and you've got
good stuff, hypothetically speaking.
I watched a bit of Cesar Romero's Joker while writing this review, and
learned about a proto-Harley Quinn named Queenie. The Joker's
also got a proto-Harley moll in this movie, though she's one of those superfluous characters I mentioned earlier and has little to do. It's incredible how close to the surface Harley Quinn was for so long without taking a coherent form.
Finally, from my perspective in 2021 I really loved how this movie
doesn't really care about Batman's origins. It assumes you already
know about Batman. After all... he's Batman. If you somehow went in to
this film not knowing that Batman and Bruce Wayne were the same guy,
there's no "reveal", just an inexplicable scene 3/4 of the way through
where Michael Keaton's in the Batcave for some reason.
Thu Apr 01 2021 17:24 March Film Roundup: '80s Mo......nth?:
The promised '80s Month came to a crashing halt almost immediately when the Film Roundup Screening Room (our television) stopped working. I guess this means the golden age of blockbusters continues!
- Private Benjamin (1980): One of those unassuming gems that hides in cinema history waiting to pounce on people doing these constrained watching exercises. This is a series of comedy sketches that combine to form a plot that ranges far and wide, extending both before and after the boot-camp sequence we were expecting.
I never heard of Private Benjamin before '80s Month, but it was a deserved hit and started a mini-fad. Turns out that Stripes (1981) is a Private Benjamin copycat: what if men joined the Army? Between this and Nine To Five I feel like 1980 was the high water mark of a Women's Lib trend in women-led comedies that receded until the 2010s.
- Loophole (1981): The only big 1981 film that appealed was Time Bandits, which I couldn't find as a rental. So we rolled the dice on a British heist movie, and those usually reliable dice came up "rather" and "disappointing".
It's always fun when a square with professional qualifications (here Martin Sheen as an architect) gets roped into a heist, but this is ultimately a feature-length dramatization of the "one chalk mark" joke. And the "loophole" isn't a loophole at all.
Sumana zeroed in on the potential: Loophole feels like a war movie, showing the camaraderie of men from different backgrounds isolated from their families, looking out for each other and working towards a common goal. In addition, there is a very exciting climax which would be the ideal place for a double-cross or heist-within-the-heist, maybe employing (just spitballing here) an actual loophole in something. But we just cut away from the climax and the film ended after a short denouement.
In a final indignity, the subtitles for the version we watched were generated by a neural net that had been trained on American TV news. It was not remotely up to the task and gave the impression that 1980s British criminals had words like "Obama" and "podcast" in their vocabulary.
(1) Tue Mar 02 2021 22:40 February Film Roundup: '90s Month!:
After we saw Speed in January, Sumana discovered that she really liked being able to talk to people our age about movies that the other person might have seen or heard about. We decided that over the course of February, we would watch some big films from the 1990s, one for each year of the decade. These are movies that don't often get programmed nowadays, and we chose ones I hadn't seen back when they were in theaters, since Sumana's more interested in rewatching films than I am.
Preparing for this project was a ton of fun, and we now have a pretty big list of interesting-sounding '90s films for future Roundups. In the end, "big" usually meant "big box office", but for a couple of the years we made a decision based on lasting cultural impact or cult status. I didn't want to watch a bunch of Disney animated features, folks.
- Total Recall (1990): All-time great PKD plot gets a second half that feels like an unused arc from Babylon 5's crummy final season. I would forgive a great deal if it were possible to read the back half as an implanted memory of Verhoevanian excess, and there's even internal evidence for this, but the screenplay must have got muddled in development hell because that explanation doesn't wash. Basically, there are scenes from POVs other than Quaid's; what could that possibly mean? Who's having those experiences?
- Point Break (1991): Over-the-top fun, from the ridiculous/beautiful action sequences to the goofy/sinister character development.
- Sister Act (1992): Fun family comedy with a little action, in the vein of the older Disney comedies we'd rent when I was a kid. The Apple Dumpling Gang and whatnot. I loved the chase scenes through the casino, possibly because "being in a room full of people whose hobby is making bad decisions; also there's a buffet" seems impossibly far away right now.
- Sleepless In Seattle (1993): Meg Ryan's character is a huge stalker, but when you live in a rom-com universe, stalking can be a positive-sum activity! A big feature of these universes is love at first sight, and when Annie hears Sam's voice on the radio she gets clocked by love-at-first-sight. But due to the structure of mass media, Sam doesn't know that Annie exists! The rest of the movie is basically Annie trying to close the love-at-first-sight circuit by making Sam look at her. And it almost works! But it takes a child's faith and pre-9/11 security practices to finally get them both in shot for more than a couple seconds.
Around 2006 in the Sleepless In Seattle universe, a dating website was created that showed you hundreds of pictures a minute to trigger the love-at-first-sight reaction. Once they had identified one side of a match, it was simple to complete the pairing. This website rapidly cleared the market for romance, ensuring that everyone got their Happily Ever After.
Anyway, Sumana and I suspect that a big part of this movie's success was the way it showed technology's ability to mediate romance over long distances. That's old news now, but at various points in Sleepless in Seattle, animation is used to dramatize the physical distance between Seattle and Baltimore in a way that really jumps out now. Why spend that money on animation, and why pick two American cities that are about as far apart as you can get, if that isn't super important to your film?
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994): Of all the films in this list this is the one I really didn't want to watch. It seemed long and monotonous. But if "big" is going to mean anything, it has to include the single highest-rated movie on IMDB.
Anyway, it was fine, and great fun in the final act. It's probably no surprise to anyone that Stephen King occasionally reuses plot points, but I thought I'd casually mention that the core twist of this movie has a lot in common with the twist in The Eyes of the Dragon, King's 1984 foray into high fantasy.
- Friday (1995): This film has a lot of really funny supporting characters (our fave: Bernie Mac's pastor) but it also has two main characters who don't do much. IMO it takes the concept of "audience stand-in" too far to have your main characters sit in the driveway watching the other characters. Maybe I just don't like stoner comedies.
- Twister (1996): I definitely don't like disaster movies, so I didn't care for the action set pieces, except for the rescue from the wrecked house, which I'll justify by saying it's more of a suspense set piece. However, in Twister the disaster is small-scale and repeating, so it turns out to be a pretty fun story of the scientists who study the disaster.
There's also a slobs-vs-snobs storyline which I'm pretty sure makes no difference at all to the plot. I believe every story beat would have happened exactly the same way if the "snob" scientists didn't exist. Maybe they were a late addition to the screenplay? Anyway, the real attraction here is the "slob" scientists, whose personalities and research are rendered very realistically.
Among those slobs was a bit character who's one of the big reasons we chose this movie. Sumana saw this movie in theaters and was captivated by a character who she remembered as an Indian woman with short hair—a rare bit of '90s representation.
We identified the doppelganger pretty quickly (see screenshot) and IMDB let us close the books on this investigation. That part is played by Wendle Josepher, who, unlike No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, is not Indian. (Also, we'd seen her before, in a small part in Intolerable Cruelty.) Still a representational victory for women scientists with short hair. Please note the floppy hat.
- Air Force One (1997): This is good fun, but equating the President's leadership with his ability to personally kick ass creates obvious perverse incentives, especially given how easy the latter is to fake. I don't think it's a coincidence that Donald Trump used the Air Force One soundtrack at campaign rallies. Not blaming Air Force One for this; it's just taking an attitude that already exists and using it as the premise for a diehardlike.
Breakdown: the stuff on the plane was great, the scenes back at the White House were fun, especially the press pool. ("Madame Vice President! Is the President barefoot?" "Does he have a machine gun yet?") Everything else was pretty dull, especially the ticking time bomb with what's-his-face being released from the Shawshank Redemption prison and sloooowly walking out to the yard like the guy going up the steps in Becket (1964). Just gimme a plane and people exiting the plane in unorthodox ways. William H. Macy was a nice surprise.
I will concede that if the American head of government was separate from the head of state, it'd make sense to have the head of state be someone who's really good at kicking ass and doing patriotic stunts.
- Pleasantville (1998): William H. Macy is no surprise at all in this story of human beings who act like Sphex wasps, a dimension so square that a couple dorky '90s kids can casually start a revolution. This was really fun and creative. Really my only issue with Pleasantville is yet another problem that seems to have come out of multiple screenplay revisions: what's up with the Don Knotts character?
I don't think this movie needs a framing device at all—I'd do this story entirely inside Pleasantville as a B-movie apocalypse story. But I can see how that wouldn't pass muster with '90s studio execs. So fine, framing device, Don Knotts, magic remote control, got it.
Now the issue becomes the actions of that character. Over the course of the movie he becomes more and more angry at our real-world heroes and how they're screwing up his perfect bubble universe. In the climax of the movie, David a) permanently "ruins" Pleasantville and b) reenters the real world where Don Knotts can get to him. That was a mistake! Now he's really going to give him what for! Now he's... driving away? He doesn't even seem mad? This movie shifts a major character offstage at what should be his big scene, and we don't care because the story's over and who needs that guy. That is, to me, an indication that the character did not need to be in the film at all.
BTW, big thumbs-up to Joan Allen, who plays an excellent space alien in this film, coming right after her role in Face/Off (1997).
- Notting Hill (1999): In Sleepless In Seattle, the romance took place almost entirely in the woman's head. Now, here's a rom-com fantasy for the guys, in which a famous woman falls in love with a rando. A great supporting cast and fun dialogue makes the premise believablish. I was impressed by how much work they put into the films-within-the-film.
- Mo' Better Blues (1990): After reaching 1999 near the end of the month, we started back in 1990 with the goal of focusing on smaller movies. But we only got one movie into that plan—turns out February's shorter than other months! Mo' Better Blues isn't perfect—if your film's Wikipedia page has a section called "Anti Defamation League controversy" you've got a big problem—but I liked the plot arc, a nice twist on the "tortured genius" storyline with a sweet resolution. Bleek loses the thing he loves most and is able to come to terms with it because he's got friends and family. Sort of Kieślowskian.
I generally like it when a screenwriter/director writes a part for themselves, and I think it's great here. Spike Lee's character is constantly humiliated and beaten up, but gets one moment of awesome: a scene where he has the perfect opportunity to say "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" Truly, a New York dream.
This was a fun experience and in fact we're keeping it going: we've already deemed March to be '80s Month and watched a fun film from 1980. It does look like I've seen most of the big '80s movies that are still remembered by people my age, so this month is likely to be more of a "forgotten gem" thing. Still fun though!
Sat Feb 27 2021 20:01 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2020:
A little late, but I don't want to let the year go by unremarked.
My accomplishments: The big one: I'm still alive and healthy. Second, Situation Normal was published! You may have heard of that.
What you haven't heard, because I'm just mentioning now, is that In 2020 I sold a story to Analog! I've cashed the check and done the copyedit and it's coming out sometime this year. This is my first print magazine sale, and very exciting. The story is "Mandatory Arbitrarion", a legal thriller I wrote in 2019. It's my first published story to feature Ravy Uvana, the space lawyer/circuit judge/general bureaucrat who I think has the potential to be a memorable recurring character.
In 2020 I assembled a NaNoGenMo novel, Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene After a rough start I also wrote two non-terrible stories: "Stress Response" and "When There Is Sugar".
Books: I recorded my 2020 reading in a couple of earlier blog posts, so I'll say that the Crummy.com Book of the Year is A Suitable Boy, a book I started a really long time ago and finally finished last year. Highly recommended for those who like big encyclopedic books like Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest.
Leonard's Excursions: n/a
Film: Not a lot to choose from from 2020, given that we spent most of our quarantime with non-live theater and TV; even early in the year, many of our museum visits were films I'd already seen. But I've updated Film Roundup Roundup with the 2020 crop, and I do have some special recommendations:
- Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)
- That Sinking Feeling (1979)
- Remember the Night (1940)
- Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
- The Earings of Madame De... (1953)
Honorable non-film mention to the National Theatre productions of This House and One Man, Two Guvnors.
Games: 2020 was a year when Sumana and I played Switch games together: notably Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Ring Fit Adventure, and the one you didn't expect, Crystal Crisis. Yes, the Capcom arcade classic Puzzle Fighter finally has a clone on modern systems, featuring such well-known gaming characters as... Quote and Curly Brace from Cave Story? A guy who appeared only in Turbografx-16 print ads? I guess the Darkstalkers crew weren't exactly the A-team either.
On the Linux platform, the Crummy.com Game of the Year is Noita, a roguelike that relies on just enough programming logic to be interesting, not so much that it feels like work. Other great games I played this year: Demoncrawl (roguelike Minesweeper), Jupiter Hell a.k.a. DoomRL, Shortest Trip to Earth (not as good as FTL but excellent for those who want more of the same feeling or just want it to be much more complicated), and Spelunky 2.
Podcasts: Generally speaking my podcast time took a big hit when I stopped riding the subway every day. However, as part of a research project tangentially related to the Constellation Games sequel, I went around looking for some podcasts where families play fantasy RPGs together. As it happens there's a very famous, extremely funny podcast where a family plays fantasy RPGs together, but that podcast doesn't feature women or children, two types of people frequently found in families. So, here are some other family RPG podcasts I enjoyed in 2020:
I think that's it for now. I'll see you in 2021! Wait, I just did. I guess I can check that one off my to-do list.
Fri Feb 26 2021 14:03 Pandemic Reading Roundup #2:
As I prepare the Crummy.com Review of Things 2020 I've been looking back at the stack of books I bought off my wishlist and read over the past few months. That's right, it's time for a second edition of Pandemic Reading Roundup. I'm not in a mood for detailed reviews so I'll just recommend my favorites of this batch:
- Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert
- Death Sentences by Kawamata Chiaki
- The Unconquerable World by Jonathan Schell
- The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah
- The Flu Swatter by Nicholas Dawidoff
I also have an anti-honorable mention: Len Deighton's 1964 spy novel Funeral in Berlin. It occupies a space halfway between Ian Fleming and John le Carré, a space that in retrospect doesn't really need occupation. I mention this not-great book in this post when I let many decent books pass without notice only because there's a reason why my wishlist included two Len Deighton novels. Deighton wrote a really good novel in 1978, SS-GB, an alt-history about the impossibility of selective collaboration with evil, which I read many years ago. Big recommendation for that one. It doesn't seem like his other work is similar, though.
(2) Wed Feb 24 2021 11:18 Twistor!:
During my Situation Normal author commentary I mentioned a book I read as a kid which was a big influence on the worldbuilding of my own novel. Shortly thereafter, chance reunited me with the correct metadata for the book: Twistor, by John Cramer, published 1989. I bought a copy and went through it, looking to nail down the influences.
My original plan was just to skim the book, and the first part is very skimmable; but pretty soon I was reading the book for real, because not only does it get really interesting after the setup is complete, it turns out the influences on my work were not limited to Situation Normal. This isn't too surprising because, looking back, there's a good chance Twistor was the first science fiction for grownups I read. So, big thanks to John Cramer. Here's what I found:
First, I misremembered the goal of the scientists when I wrote my author commentary. They're not trying to create a teleportation device; they're doing Ph.D-level research on a combination of real physics and technobabble. The closest we come to a practical application has to do with a new medium for data storage. This would presumably replace the retro-future "laser disks" we see the characters using. I guess technically CDs are "laser disks"; we should have called them that but I understand why we didn't.
However, I was more or less right about the plot device that comes out of these experiments: a phenomenon that can be exploited to swap matter among the six parallel universes that inhabit the same space as our universe. This phenomenon is at the core of the children-in-peril subplot, a couple of pre-Jurassic Park siblings who are caught up in an improbable case of skip overlap (to use Situation Normal terminology), very similar to what happens in Chapter 8 of Situation Normal. There's a subplot about sighting the stars on the other side of the skip bubble, similar to how the cops in Situation Normal will track you when you skip. Nothing comes of it, though, since in Twistor those are completely different stars that formed in the parallel universe.
That skip-overlap incident also slices off a goon's hand at the wrist; and, in the book's goriest scene, the twistor phenomenon is used to dig a spherical chunk right out of another goon's brain. This is a form of murder that the Seattle police are surprisingly cool with. I get it, I wouldn't want to write about that investigation either. Characters in Situation Normal joke and speculate about injuries from skip overlap, but it doesn't happen onscreen.
As far back as I can remember I've imagined forests of giant trees as being a standard science fiction trope—that's Alien Ring in Constellation Games. But apart from Twistor, all the examples I can think of are a) fantasy and b) a single world-spanning Yggdrasil-like tree, not a forest of trees that are just really big. I suspect I got that idea from this one formative book, whose shadow universe features a forest of very memorable giant trees.
Those giant trees have a scent like cedar. That may be why I named the planet in Situation Normal Cedar Commons, but that's a big stretch IMO. I wouldn't have remembered that detail.
Similarly, there's a fantasy story-within-the-story, analogous to the "Princess Denweld" adventure in Situation Normal, but I didn't remember that from my initial reading, and it's such a common technique that I can't imagine I got it from here; especially since I was consciously parodying a different book when I wrote "Princess Denweld".
A totally random thing I did remember: at one point a character sings a Pynchon-esque song and I remembered music that I made up for that song! I know it's my music because a) there's no record of this song existing outside Twistor and b) when I came up with the music, I dropped a word from the lyrics and got the meter wrong. No influence on anything, but a fun example of all the weird stuff we have buried deep in our memories.
Twistor contains a fair amount of realistic 1980s password-cracking and 1337 skullduggery—man-in-the-middle attacks, false-front BBSes, etc. Most of this skulduggery is carried out on "HyperVAX" systems, and exploits real features of VMS. As a kid I lapped this up—I think it was my first glimpse of the cool things grownups could do with computers. I was way more interested in concepts like email and BBSes—within five years I'd be running my own BBS—than in any of the hax0r stuff.
This is one of those sci-fi books where the climax involves spreading the forbidden knowledge to all and sundry. I agree that's probably the best move in the situation the book sets up, but I can't say I share the narrator's optimism. I feel like the jerk at the wedding saying "I give this planet six months." Anyway, the method by which our heroes spread the forbidden knowledge is... mailing list spam! They evade the watchful eye of the FBI by sending out their preprints through a BITNET distribution list, rather than making an easily-stopped trip to the FedEx store.
In a very useful afterword, Cramer does his own author commentary, separating physics fact from speculation and explaining that the hax0r techniques described are "all known techniques which have been used to penetrate protected computer systems", but that they're all now being defended against and you should not use them for real. That's a little disingenous IMO. Many of these techniques are alive and well today—installing a trojan keylogger on someone's computer to capture their passwords—even though VMS itself is dead.
Finally, I'm going to reproduce the last two paragraphs of the afterword verbatim, because it's a great piece of computer history:
BitNet is an actual worldwide computer network that is already in very active use by the physics community. However, at present it is used primarily for "mail" messages between users and for the transmission of data files and programs. It is not in general use for the transmission of scientific papers and preprints because these usually include a number of figures; for example, line drawings of equipment or data plots. Although CompuServe's GIF standard, Adobe's Post Script, and several others are looming on the horizon, there is presently no universal graphics standard that would permit the routine inclusion of figures in scientific papers, and so they are still distributed by conventional mail.
It is a good bet that this will soon change. The scientific journals published by the American Institute of Physics, e.g., Physical Review, already accept manuscripts submitted on computer media. It is very likely that within a decade physics papers for journal publication complete with drawings and figures will be submitted and preprints of such papers will be routinely circulated by BitNet or its successor. One can only hope that publishers of works of fiction (like the present novel) will also eventually emerge from the nineteenth century and adopt similar technology.
(1) Mon Feb 01 2021 23:46 January Film Roundup:
This month, by popular request (Sumana's pretty popular around here), I'm bringing back my gimmick from July 2013 where I list a fanciful connection between each pair of movies I reviewed this month. Fortunately this month there are only three movies to connect in a web of fun:
- Quartet (2012): A pretty enjoyable dramedy that gives older actors the chance to ham it up. We got two dramatic characters and two funny characters, the plot hits the beats in the order you think it will, it's fine; the pleasure is mostly in enjoying the British Acting.
- Bonus connection to last month's Irma La Douce: Famous singer comes to town.
- Speed (1994): This is really, really fun, and captures the feel of Los Angeles around the time I was living there in college. In fact, here's a story I've apparently never told before: when I was in college I saw a Santa Monica bus like the one in Speed get hit by a car! No one was hurt, everyone got off the bus and started filling out forms. I actually remember being on the bus when it was hit, and filling out a form with a little stub pencil, but I'm not claiming that because it's easy to confabulate that kind of memory. My point is, Speed takes certain liberties with the sturdiness of that kind of bus. One tap and it's down for the count.
The bigger problem with Speed is that the core middle bit, on the bus, is such a perfect action sequence that it's been raptured straight to Movie Heaven. The subplot about the bad guy and the two completely different transportation-based set pieces that flank the bus sequence are Left Behind, looking cheesy and sheepish by comparison. I mean, you've probably seen Speed and it's probably been a while. Do you remember the elevator sequence? No, I'm pretty sure you're thinking of Die Hard. Or maybe Gremlins 2.
Speed is nearly two hours long. Much as I love any time the LA Metro shows up on screen (hello, Captain Marvel), you coulda cut that whole sequence, saved a bunch of money, and packed in two or three more showings per day of a ninety-minute Speed in a busy multiplex.
It would be great if last year's showing of Gravity and this year's Speed acted as bookends on the pandemic, but it ain't happening. I will point out that Sandra Bullock's Speed character, like her Gravity character, spends a lot of time calling for help from people who can't help her. But that's not the movie I came here to find a connection with! How about:
- Connection with Quartet: Tune man.
- The Devil And Miss Jones (1941): A pretty fun film with some good old-timey New York jokes ("I work at the automat. I have charge of blueberry pies.") falls flat at the last possible minute by setting up a scenario where management recognition of a union is the only realistic way to achieve a happy ending and then... skipping right to the happy ending, letting you draw whatever conclusions you want about how the plot got there. Which side are you on? Which side are you on? Oh, definitely on your side, for sure.
This film has no creative connection to the similarly-named porno classic, to the extent that I wonder whether the director of The Devil In Mrs. Jones had heard the title but never seen the film. It seems like the common situation where you mishear something, decide your mishearing is cooler, and do your own thing based on the mishearing.
- Connection with Quartet: Romance blooms among the elderly.
- Connection with Speed: Bad cops.
(1) Tue Jan 26 2021 13:58 Situation Normal Author Commentary #7: What's Next:
Welcome to the end of January, and the final entry in this commentary
series. Before we get into it, I have a request of you. If you've read
and enjoyed Situation Normal, please tell other folks about it,
either by writing a review or just mentioning it when books or science fiction come
up in conversation. If you're eligible for voting in awards like the Hugos, consider it when you place your 2020 votes—it came out late in the year but 2020 is its eligibility year. Constellation Games spread almost entirely
through word of mouth and the same will be true of this book.
Today I'm raising the curtain on three things that, in different
senses, come "after" Situation Normal. I do this this with some
trepidation because at the end I'm going to talk about a project in progress that is exciting but far from complete. But first, something
that's totally done and just waiting for the right moment to spring on
"We, the Unwilling"
"We, the Unwilling" is a bonus story I wrote after finishing the
first draft of Situation Normal. It's a tall tale of an
Outreach Navy grunt who's retrained as a superweapon after his
superiors discover he's apparently immune to Evidence. There was no
way to tell this story in the main plotline, and at some point we'll
be publishing it online to juice sales. Here's a little
The rre doctor ratcheted thons exosuit into a standing
position. Kenta just sat there, unable to move, amazed that... well,
he was going to die, sure, but there was a chance he'd die with his
shameful secret intact.
Kenta was immune to Evidence, but the explanation wasn't
physiological. It was hiding in plain sight. Evidence turned
battle-hardened spacemen into cowards. It didn't work on Kenta Imura
because he was already a coward.
I reused one little plot point from this story in the final draft
of Situation Normal, but it's pretty minor. It's the sort of
thing that probably happens all the time, whenever two people struggle hand-to-hand for control of a spacecraft. Not a big
deal. Anyway, I'm looking forward to showing you the story!
Several years ago, in a fit of excessive optimism, I wrote a short
pitch for a sequel to Situation Normal called Nice
Doggie, a working title which I love but would surely have to
change. Here is the pitch exactly as I wrote it except with spelling
"Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock." - Human saying
Sel has been promoted! As the colonial administrator of Resca, a
Terran system captured during the war, it's her responsibility to
bring ninety million humans into full citizenship in the Fist of
Joy. Not bad for someone whose previous major accomplishment was
running an international trade show. There's bound to be some initial
trouble with some dead-enders, but once the humans get a taste of a
fully functional modern economy, they'll never want to leave the
Jamey Pandit of the Terran Diplomatic Corps is starting to wonder
why he even bothers saving the galaxy. Time after time he's bailed out
his doddering superiors, and his reward is one punishment assignment
after another. This time he's the passport officer at the Terran
consulate on Resca, a planet that shouldn't even have a consulate
because we shouldn't have given it away. Still, even on a backwater
there are plenty of opportunities for advancing humanity's
interests—and making a little money on the side.
Nice Doggie does for interstellar diplomacy
what Situation Normal does for interstellar war. Inspired by
Keith Laumer's Retief stories, it is intended as a sequel
to Situation Normal but it can be told in a different setting
as a standalone story.
You can see the Retief stand-in there, I won't insult your
intelligence. I will say I gasped when I reread this and realized I'd
made Bolupeth Vo's girlfriend one of the POV characters.
Is this likely to happen? Probably not. I'm still searching through
new fictional universes, looking for the one that will hit it
big. Except, that's exactly what I said about a Constellation
Games sequel, and...
The Constellation Speedrun
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I was about 5,000 words
into a novel about a post-scarcity society that abruptly stops being
post-scarcity. This was shaping up to be one depressing-ass
book. Situation Normal doesn't have a traditional happy
ending, but the war does end and some of the survivors are working
to break the cycle of violence. This was a real end-of-the-world novel,
and with the world actually ending around me, I just couldn't write
So I did what for ten years I'd said I wouldn't do: I went back to
the Constellation universe. Constellation Games wasn't the
commercial success I'd hoped for, but it's become a bit of a cult
classic, and writing in that universe means accepting strict rules
about how bad things can get for humanity. To quote Ariel, "we did
nothing but fuck this up from beginning to end, and it probably
turned out okay." Those rules gave me the guardrails I needed to
face the blank page and write through what I hope will turn out to
have been the worst year of my life. (I'm preemptively disqualifying
the year where I actually die.)
I'm currently 30,000 words into The Constellation
Speedrun. Maybe thirty percent of the way to a rough
draft. It's slow going, and I don't usually talk about incomplete
manuscripts, but this isn't a novel I'm writing for sale. I'm
writing it for myself and for you. I hope I can sell it,
but if I have to I'll self-pub or just put it online for
fans. This novel is my coping mechanism and I will finish it
Any attempt to describe The Constellation Speedrun runs into
the reticence that led me not to tell you about the project in the
first place, so I'll just say that it takes place about ten years
after Constellation Games, starring new characters who were
little kids at the time of first contact, with old favorites like Jenny and Tetsuo
returning in cameos or small parts. I'm trying to capture the same
freewheeling, idea-packed feel of Constellation Games but
with a much tighter plot and in an average word
count for a science fiction novel.
Thus ends the commentary! Again, if you have any questions about Situation Normal feel free to ask, and I hope to see you again soon!
Fri Jan 22 2021 08:21 Situation Normal Author Commentary #6: Miscellaneous References:
Today I'm covering items adjacent to
the text but not really part of it, and a slew of little Easter eggs
and miscellaneous references I put into the book. The next essay will be the last one in this series, and it'll provide an exciting peek at what is happening next.
Back in the days of Constellation Games, I put
up a special post solely
for spoiler-filled discussion. I'd like to do that again but I
feel the time for special spoiler posts has passed. So if you got any kind of question about SN, just go for it, either in
comments to this post or on Twitter/Mastodon.
Let me get this out of the way first: I know everyone hates
the Constellation Games cover. I'm probably the only person
alive who likes that cover, and since I wrote the book the appeal is
So when it came time to design the Situation Normal cover I
decided to leave it to the professionals. To stop me from bothering
the designer like a helicopter parent, editor Athena gave me a form
to fill out ahead of time. I located the professional (Brittany
worked with before) and filled out the form and generally left
her to work.
On that form, asked to summarize the overall emotional feel I
wanted the cover to go for, I wrote: "I want to capture the moment you
realize the pin is no longer in the grenade." I don't think there's a
better summary of Situation Normal. Here's a longer quote from
the form; I was asked to list some covers I find inspirational:
Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I really like the way this interrupts a traditional SF cover with immediate peril and humor. This exact idea won't work for Situation Normal because it carries the implication that the failure was sudden and unexpected, but it always makes me smile.
Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has had a number of covers in
different languages. The more literal covers make it look like a
stereotypical war story, but most of them use juxtapositions to convey
the underlying theme—trying to survive a war while trapped a
system that is simultaneously broken and working as designed—in
a way that really speaks to me. Here are a couple examples:
- This audiobook cover depicts a bomber with its crew and loadout as a ready-to-assemble plastic model. Human life and military hardware are treated as interchangeable and equally disposable. I really like the schematic feeling here, and the "toy" look drives home the novel's point even as it makes it impossible to take the message too seriously.
- I think this one is too realistic to be really strong, but it carries off the theme by grouping a set of dog tags (which every airman is issued) with the Distinguished Flying Cross (a special award for heroism).
- This is the cover I'm most familiar with. Despite its overall simplicity it's not my favorite—in particular, I think the bomber in the lower right is superfluous. However it does carry off the juxtaposition I'm talking about, by showing a silhouetted figure in military uniform doing a heel-clicking jig. The silhouette calls to my mind the chalk outline of a body at a crime scene, and the "Kilroy was here" symbol popularized during WWII.
Brittany's core insight was to juxtapose several story elements into a schematic framework that depicts causality the way comics do, creating a Rube Goldberg machine with a most-likely-fatal "punchline".
Not gonna go into a lot more detail on the cover because the finished product is almost all Brittany, and here's Brittany on the topic. I'll mention one little Easter Egg: the gun in the first "panel" of the cover looks a little different from the stereotypical SF ray gun because it incorporates some design elements of an industrial nailgun.
The content note
The content note at the front of the book was the last thing I
wrote. Athena mentioned that Candlemark & Gleam had gotten a lot
of complaints through the Kindle system about typoes
in Constellation Games. Now, I know of at least two serious
errors in Constellation Games (peoples' names are wrong) and
one day I hope to do another press run to fix them, but I'm not
talking about legitimate errors here. I'm talking about words
like... just skimming Constellation Games to find an
example... "pakpapur". Which I suspect I composed from spice-sounding
English words like "paprika" and "pepper" but which is also clearly a
made-up space alien word.
Apparently at one point these Kindle complaints reached such a
pitch that Amazon threatened to flag Constellation Games as a
low-quality typofest, surely with a deleterious effect on
sales. So Athena suggested I add something to the beginning of
the Situation Normal manuscript explaining that "uhaltihaxl"
and "Dwap-Jac-Dac" are spelled that way on purpose and there's no need
to write in unless you find a regular English word being
misused. (This certainly happens! I found some in the final manuscript
while writing this commentary!)
My first reaction was, I got really defensive about this
request. This is a novel where major characters murder each other, and
you want me to put a warning at the front of the book
about spelling? I don't think every book needs a content
warning at the front, but a lot of bad shit goes down in Situation
Normal, and if I'm going to put any kind of note at the beginning
of the book it's got to be a heads-up about that.
This turned out to be the key to compromise. I wrote one last piece
of in-universe text, as though Situation Normal were a potboiler
adventure novel published in the Terran Outreach and stocked alongside
the Down Under Crew novelizations. This fits in conceptually
with the main theme of the novel—people living and dying by
fantastic narratives. It lets me do the content warning, and
incidentally I can explain the spelling stuff, in terms of an in-universe
standards body which sets down how to transliterate words between
languages. It's still pedantic as hell, but hopefully it doesn't sound
Which reminds me: Situation Normal was originally written in
Commonwealth English, that being the in-universe "human language" by
the same science fiction logic that makes Narathippin "the uhaltihaxl
language". I converted it to American English pretty late in the
process for the same reason I wrote the content note: apparently
Americans see "honour" or "manoeuvre" and smash that "Report Content
Error" button. I edited Arun with a lighter touch to keep his voice, and there are still some vestiges of Commonwealth English:
word choices like "solicitor" and phrases like "in hospital".
A lot of authors work little pop-culture references into their
writing in ways designed to stand out only to readers who get the
reference. I've caught a few in my time, Thomas Pynchon does this a
lot, but the one that always stands out for me is Neal Stephenson
working "I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition" into The System
of the World.
There are several hidden quotes of this sort in Situation
Normal; here are the ones I'm most proud of (rot-13ed because
apparently I consider this beyond mere spoilers).
- "Bu zl Tbq, Orpxl, ybbx ng ure ohgg."
- "Vg'f yvxr n xvaq bs gbegher."
- "V'z gryyvat lbh, vg'f n fnobgntr."
As with "Hi, I'm Daisy!" in Constellation Games, I did not
name a character Becky just so I could use that line, but once the
name was set, it was inevitable.
Finally, a rather ominous instance where Situation Normal
quotes itself: Mrs. Chen uses the phrase "clear perspective" in a
way that implies she knows something she probably shouldn't.
The "Princess Denweld" story is the exact opposite of Ender's Game: a teenager
getting a video game to do something horrible. This isn't a direct
quote, but Den's "it is
essential that we continue" is a reference to the Milgram
Becky planning a heist entirely in The Down Under Crew
references is itself a "Darmok" reference.
The name of the fantasy novel Myrus is reading, The Object of
Power, is a truncated quote from 1984: "The object of power
The wirchak woman who owns the bou-tique in chapter 14 is, in my
mind, played by Margaret Dumont. Becky's hatred of clothes shopping
comes courtesy of direct personal experience.
In Constellation Games I made a big deal about the cma,
miles-high treelike organisms in Alien Ring. In Situation
Normal this is flipped: regular Earth trees are regarded as
monstrous freaks of nature and no one else has anything nearly that
The Fist of Joy Youth Festival was modelled after
Festival of Youth and Students, a Cold War-era festival for
bringing together Communist youth for athletic events and cultural
exchange. I say "Cold War-era" but these are still going on! The most
recent one was in Russia in 2017. Anyway, since Myrus and the other
council kids claim to have defected, adults see them as politically
aligned with the Fist, and the Festival as a convenient way to make
them someone else's problem.
The beverages on the refugee ship that are not "anything like coffee"
are a little Hitchhiker's Guide reference; so are the actual
hitchhikers who work as day laborers on Jaketown, and Den's
really impressive feat of hitchhiking at the end.
The "shiny white outplastic" that Ohrsi uses to whittle his
four-dimensional sculptures was inspired by what is IMO the most
disturbing MST3K skit: the Klack commercial from First Spaceship on
Venus. I just went and looked up the skit,
mental image of outplastic came from the general feeling of unease
it evokes, but no, the
outplastic is right there on screen.
Somewhere between "reference" and "inspired by true events":
Bolupeth Vo's story about his demi-uncle double-dipping at the blood
bank to get on Home Front Heroes came from a letter I read in a
WWII-era issue of The American Magazine, where people would
send in their takes on how they were doing their bit. Someone really
did the blood donation thing, and lived to write in about it. Apparently this was common! I just read The Fly Swatter, a biography
of author Nicholas Dawidoff's grandfather, who also gave an unhealthy
amount of blood during WWII.
From the "incorrectly regarded as references" file, Cheryl from
my writing group told me there's a character in the Hunger Games
series who's very similar to Merikp Hute Roques, host of the
successor to Home Front Heroes. I assure you that I have not
read these books and this was not intentional. After looking around
the Hunger Games wiki I believe Cheryl was referring
Trinket. So go ahead and imagine Merikp Hute Roques as Effie
Trinket with a beak.
Similarly, the Great Motto of the Terran Outreach (Universi
sumus una hac in re, "We're all in this together") is not
a Brazil reference; I wrote that before I'd
seen Brazil. But same vibe. BTW I forgot to credit Seth David
Schoen in the acknowledgements for his Latin translation of the
Motto. Thank you, Seth!
Random stupid error
In the final draft, the population of Jaketown is
inconsistent. It's reported as three thousand and five hundred. I
understand how this happened, but I remember triple-checking
it. Really frustrating. The correct answer is three thousand.
I can always tell when a movie's about to end because the director
starts paying off the bookending they opened up early in the film. But
it's much easier to see in film than in books, because books take
longer to read. So I'll cut you a break: here's some of the bookending
I put into Situation Normal:
- Churryhoof starts the book by taking peoples' children away, and
ends up with a child of her own she can't get rid of.
- Gearu's self-depiction as a gelded male in the "Princess Denweld"
story is explained by what Rebtet tells Churryhoof during their sex
scene: "The War Duties Board told Gearu that if it came back alive
they would let it reproduce."
- Jesus's gentle 'Scis me?' is mirrored by Thrux's petulant "Don't
you know who I am?"
- Arun's "Nothing out here wants your blood." == DRAMATIC
IRONY. Really proud of that one.
- In the opposite of dramatic irony, Arun and Yip-Goru carefully
foreshadow how dangerous Yip-Goru's timeshare asteroid will be, but
when Sour Candy actually gets there, Ohrsi is
very chill and happy to share the space.
Again, you have any questions, post them in the comments. I'll see you next time for the final essay!
(2) Tue Jan 19 2021 09:15 Situation Normal Author Commentary #5: Deleted Scenes:
The first draft of Situation Normal was about 182,000
words. My original concept was a science-fiction Song of Ice and
Fire-type epic with many overlapping points of
view. Unfortunately, this made the novel unsaleable—that length
is the main reason you didn't see this novel years ago. Fantasy
readers will devour 182k words and come back for the other two books
in the trilogy, but science fiction novels usually run around
80k-100k. Constellation Games is around 120k which is already
To sell Situation Normal I had to cut the word count down to
no more than 150k. (Final count is about 147k.) I also rearranged
scenes to dramatically cut the number of POV switches—frequent
switches work for television but put too much cognitive load on a
To get to 147k I had to cut a couple subplots and some fun
scenes. In today's commentary I'll list the main ones and mourn them with
some choice quotes.
The bakery that only sells flowers: First, a scene that was
rewritten rather than deleted. I did a lot of "writing the other" in
this book, and took critiques from a number of sensitivity readers. I
want to highlight a big change I made with the help of a sensitivity
In the draft I sold, when Den enters the awareness station
on Magna Carta she is overwhelmed by a "horrible stay-away
smell" which turns out to be Churryhoof's must telling Den, fellow
uhaltihaxl female, to scram. Sensitivity reader: "[T]his was such a
sort of familiar scene (older-lady sexuality is stinky and
embarrassing) that I kind of wanted the exact opposite."
When I get any kind of critique, I try to find a way of addressing
it while also improving the story in other respects. That attitude
short-circuits my defense mechanisms and moves the focus away from
whether I personally think a critique is reasonable.
In this case I do think the critique is reasonable—that was
lazy writing— and the sensitivity reader also provided a good
solution. "The exact opposite"—Churryhoof's pheromones smelling
so good that it makes Den woozy—made just as much sense
as the cliche I'd written originally, and was a lot cooler.
Coffee: In the second draft I wrote an introductory scene
that basically does the job of "Four Kinds of Cargo." It walks you
through the Outreach, the Fist of Joy, the differences between them,
and the fact that they're about to go to war.
The scene stars Styrqot, everyone's favorite doomed dad. Just
before the war starts, he's importing a shipment of coffee beans from
the Outreach. He gets a cursory inspection from Outreach customs, and
then a more thorough inspection from the Fist. One of the customs
inspectors mocks Styrqot for importing luxury goods instead of going
off into glorious battle.
"Due respect, ma'am, I won't take this from you. I ran logistics in
the last war."
"Oh, the war we lost!" said the mehi-peri. "Well,
thank you for your service!" She hopped down off the pallet. "Excuse
me, didn't realize we had a fuckin' hero here."
Stung by this rebuke, Styrqot decides he'll do one little military
job and call it even. Of course the 'job' turns out to be transporting
Vec to Cedar Commons, and you know the rest.
There's a little twist at the end which might make it plausible to
turn this scene into a bonus story, but it's not my best work. In the
draft I sold, I cut "Coffee" and moved the Battle of Unicorn Sector to
the start of the book, so we could open with an exciting
set-piece. But eventually I moved that scene back to its original
place, to preserve chronological order. The book now starts exactly as
I originally wrote it: nice and quiet, with Hiroko waking Becky on
Overall I feel like I tried a bunch of flashy stuff to sell the
book, but it didn't make
the story any better and I should have focused on cutting the word
Fish Dinner: In the first draft, our first glimpse of Sour Candy is from
Kol's point of view. Immediately after Sour Candy lands in the
ocean on Cedar Commons, Kol pops the hatch and goes up with Arun to
scrape flash-baked carp off the spacecraft's hull:
"[These fish] are supposed to be neutral," said Kol.
"They're invasive, is what they are," said Mr. Arun
Sliver. "Whoever terraformed this planet spent about a centishift
planning its ecosystem. We're going to get very tired of eating this
This is why you see the Sour Candy crew handling fish in the
subsequent scenes, and why Kol calls the land-in-the-ocean maneuver
the "Fish Dinner" in chapter 34. This scene still happens but I don't
need to show it, and cutting it left space for a much better Sour
Candy introduction in the final draft:
To put it in cinematic terms, Becky arrives on the scene, is taken
hostage, and brought on board Sour Candy; but the camera
doesn't go into the ship with her! It peels off and starts following
Kol as he climbs into the stolen hovercar. The POV has changed and we
are now seeing things from the "enemy" perspective.
Admiral Norton: In the final draft, Mrs. Chen shows up to
Cedar Commons immediately after Sour Candy bugs out. She gets
there quickly because she never stopped tracking Sour Candy
after "Four Kinds of Cargo". This definitely keeps the story moving,
but there's a great scene I cut, where Churryhoof brought Brown
v. Board of Education of Topeka back to the fleet in disgrace,
was relieved of command, and lectured by an Admiral Norton,
apparently one of her mentors. This is
the "tradition of
glorious suicide" scene I mentioned in my weblog a while
Something was seriously wrong. When your superiors chew you out,
there are certain rote phrases that tell you approximately how fucked
you are. Norton was not using those phrases. For instance, "completely
unacceptable", "colossal blunder", or the most popular, "no place in
this Navy." ... What was this "lapse in judgement", "cannot have
front-line officers" crap?
The mystery of why Churryhoof is being given the kid-glove
treatment, given the horrible thing she did on Cedar Commons, was
solved when Norton announced that Churryhoof was being reassigned to
Echo Division under Mrs. Chen—Chen heard about that horrible
thing and saw it as showing a promising Echo Division mindset. Chen
and Churryhoof then go right back to Cedar Commons, which in
retrospect was kind of silly, so it's a good cut overall.
Until I made this edit, Brown v. Board was a pretty big
operation, crewing maybe fifty people. Because of this edit I had to
make it much smaller—I couldn't have dozens of people left on
board after the loss of the scoop, because everyone except Churryhoof
must be moved quickly offstage. So now Brown v. Board starts
out with a crew of seven. This caused some rank inflation—do you
really need two officers on the equivalent of a Swift
Boat?—which I didn't bother fixing, under "ten percent more
accurate than Star Trek" rules.
Here's a fun paragraph I cut from the return voyage to Cedar
Commons, when Churryhoof sees Mrs. Chen seemingly dead (she's actually
on an Evidence trip). "No acknowledged rank" is a thing from earlier
drafts. You can see why I had to cut this bit, given all the
explanation I just had to give:
Perhaps it is indicative of a personal flaw that Churryhoof's first
instinct was to eulogize. Mrs. Chen may have been a cranky old human
who considered herself Churryhoof's superior despite having no
acknowledged rank, but there are only two good ways for a spaceman
to die, and dying quietly in bed en route to a war zone splits the
difference in a way guaranteed to please nobody.
And this might be my favorite joke in the whole project, a rare
moment when Situation Normal flat-out becomes a Star
Trek parody. Mrs. Chen is quoting Churryhoof from a book she
assumes they've both read:
"I happen to know it's required reading at the Academy."
"There was a lot of required reading at the Academy," Churryhoof said, "and I didn't necessarily do all of it."
This joke would work great in Star Trek: Lower Decks, so
feel free to take it! BTW, other moments I consider pure Star
Trek parody: the death of Captain Rebtet, "scan for life signs",
and the bit where Kol solves a problem by reversing the polarity. The
space marines calling Dr. Sempestwinku "bones" is a loving
tribute, not a parody.
Mexican Coke: In the first couple of drafts, there was a
point where a) Becky had left Sour Candy, b) Cedar Commons was
under occupation, c) Myrus was at the Youth Festival, d) the Navy
personnel were hiding out at the Cametrean monastery. At that point there
was an act break and the story skipped ahead a few weeks, letting
things mellow for a while. I removed this gap to make the story move
at an even pace. This gave me the opportunity to cut a lot of scenes,
including one I really like. During this gap, Becky emigrated to a
planet called Ototho and set up her marketing consultancy to the Fist
It was going all right. A little data modeling, a little advice the
customer could have gotten elsewhere, and some good old American
flim-flam. The customers kept quiet about her. They were embarrassed,
like cheating spouses. You could imagine two businessmen talking shop
at a pub. "I know this American lady, she's worked
with brands." Business grew by word-of-mouth.
We see Becky with Kugeif, a client whose business sells snack
foods. Sales are in decline, and he blames his ugly packaging. He
wants sleek, modern branding, like Coca-Cola has. But after analyzing
his sales data, Becky concludes that the guy's ugly packaging is
actually driving sales to hipsters in trendy neighborhoods. The
working-class authenticity of his packaging is making his product more
upmarket than he originally intended:
"Be listening to me!" said Becky. "Coca-Cola is owning a thousand
companies like yours. Their boys are working all day long to be
seeming like a small business instead of a
you're-knowing-what. They're inventing some crusty bastard like you,
not offensing, and pretending he's owning the company instead of
them. They're making the packaging ugly so it looks like your boy
came up with it. They're faking it. You are having the real thing,
and hipsters are loving the real thing."
"The real thing!" said Kugeif. New
possibilities were dawning in his mind. "Like
Unfortunately, halfway through this scene, the Errand Boy, having
chased Becky down, makes his way into her office unannounced and
really harshes the vibe. I love this scene because apart from the
horrorshow at the end of Situation Normal, it's the only time
we get to see Becky being good at marketing. In the final draft, the
Errand Boy is much faster on the uptake, intercepts Becky en route to
Ototho, and we never get to see what might have been.
Cardparticleboard: And what did Myrus do all those weeks he
was at the Youth Festival? Well, he and Professor Starbottle took a
very detailed trip through the Fist of Joy Youth Festival Equipment
Library, looking for wood. This gave me a chance to name-check
technical equipment from other science fiction stories, but as for
wood, the cupboard was bare—a real obstacle to Myrus's plan to
teach Starbottle woodworking. So Myrus got the idea
of making wood—particle board—out of all the empty
cardboard boxes lying around the Equipment Library.
Apparently something like this happened offscreen, because in the
final draft, Starbottle mentions the particle board procedure in his
letter to Den. I researched this while writing it and it does seem
possible to make extremely shitty particle board out of cardboard, but
who would do that? You'd have to be a civilization completely without
trees... who did business with a civilization that had lots of
Hiroko's un-venture: In the first few drafts, Hiroko didn't
get sent to prison with Dwap-Jac-Dac, Tellpesh, and Heiss. She claimed
to be a civilian, and was sent to the Youth Festival with Myrus and
the kids, to provide adult supervision. At the Festival, she pieced
together intelligence to figure out that the Outreach was losing the
war—something that is no secret in the final draft.
Hiroko went with Myrus from the Youth Festival to Nimar, where she
re-met Becky and had an unpleasant time with her and Arun. Luckily,
Hiroko escaped Nimar with nothing worse than a busted foot, rescuing
Myrus and fleeing into the Hestin box. She in turn was rescued by
Ethiret-Jac et al. and ended up on Sour Candy as the latest
object of the Chief's affections—exactly where she ends up in
the final draft.
TBH, separating Hiroko from the other Navy personnel was mainly a
way to torment Myrus with proximity to his crush. In this trajectory
Hiroko had very little character development and not much to
do. Fortunately, those drafts also featured two extra grunts, Mantri
didn't do much.
So I moved Hiroko to the Arzil storyline. I changed her military
specialty from "intelligence analyst" to "pilot". She got Mantri and
Zaid's scenes and ended up with their rre inside her. Her old scenes
were cut, or went to Myrus or Arun. She's still not the best-developed
character, but I cut almost all her POV scenes, so it's less
important. (Hiroko's one POV scene in chapter 4 is the last
vestige—I tried and tried and couldn't cut or rewrite that
scene. Hiroko's the only person on that side of the planet!)
Here's a little scene I cut from the Youth Festival. Hiroko, the
POV character in this scene, has discovered Myrus's estrus (musth, I
guess) and is trying to let him down easy.
"You want to hear a funny story?" [Hiroko] said, in a normal tone
"Not... really?" said Myrusit.
"I had a girlfriend back when I was working at Jonar Solutions,"
said Hiroko. "Uhalti lady. And I tell you, Myrusit, she always fell
hard for the girly types. She'd be sitting on the train next to some
ditzy redhead with the big cleavage and her horns would unroll, like a
cartoon, sproing! And then she'd be in quite a fix, because,
take it from me, ninety-five percent of those girly-girls are
"I fail to see the humor in this story," said Myrusit.
"Well, let me finish. This eventual girlfriend of mine. Her
insurance didn't cover antiestruals, so she drank lots of licorice-nel
tea. She'd carry around a big Thermos of tea all day. And one night
she's at the Seven-Eleven, waiting in line with her box of Soothing
Fragrance licorice-nel tea, and this uhalti guy gets in line behind
her. And she sees that he's also holding a box of Soothing
Fragrance licorice-nel tea.
"And he says 'Hey, you wanna...' and she says 'I'm gay.' This is
supposed to be the end of the conversation. But this guy can't drop
it. He has to try to back out gently. So he turns purple and stammers
'Uh, oh, yeah, I am also gay.'"
Hiroko snickered. Myrusit's face was a face of stone.
"And if that isn't funny enough for you, she dumped me by throwing
a snowball at my head and running away."
In the final draft, Tellpesh's story about boot camp kinda fills in
for this story. I only regret I couldn't find a way to reuse that
cartoony image of the horns unrolling.
Crinoline White: The single biggest cut: a massive subplot
starring a really fun character. See, after Becky goes AWOL from her
job on Cedar Commons, the two brands involved—Trellis On-Site
Security and Eserion Natural Resources—have a passive-aggressive
conversation that ends up with Trellis hiring an assassin to hunt
Becky down and murder her.
Crinoline White, the assassin who takes the job, is a glamorous
super-femme lesbian who seduces her way across the galaxy before
boarding Sour Candy, posing as a passenger. In what's now
Chapter 23 we hear of someone "whose species and gender was unknown
because they were wearing a black Cametrean shame robe with a one-way
veil"—that used to be sneaky Crinoline.
In the final draft, when Becky encounters the Errand Boy, she has
some internal monologue that he's not acting like a hitman 'cause
hitmen "just garroted you while you sat on the toilet." In the draft I
sold, Crinoline did in fact garotte Becky while she (Becky) was
walking to the head on Sour Candy. In an epic action sequence,
Arun captured Crinoline, Becky peed her pants, and they all ended up
with radiation burns from exposure to space:
Arun cracked the hatch. "We've taken some X-rays," he told the rre
outside. "We all need to visit the medical chamber."
"Isn't the medical chamber the thing that takes the X-rays?" Becky
"I mean, we were bombarded with X-rays from the gas giant," said
In Chapter 27, when Sour Candy is docked at a space station
and Yip-Goru comes in and says thon found some replacement capacitors,
that's a generic bit of spacecraft maintenance I slipped in to stand
for the hull damage caused by the Crinoline/Arun fight.
In the draft I sold, Crinoline is the reason Becky flees Sour
Candy. As soon as Crinoline leaves the medical chamber, the
Chief starts making eyes at her and, in a massive room-reading
failure, suggests a threesome between herself; Crinoline; and Becky,
the person Crinoline just tried to murder. This is Becky's cue to
leave along with Arun. Crinoline replaces Arun as the
muscle/negotiator on the Sour Candy crew, and the book ends
just in time for the Chief to dump Crinoline for
Hiroko. Crinoline, like Becky before her, flees the crew, joining Kol
in his Tok-Bat.
Although Crinoline is hilarious and her scenes are great, it's
questionable whether you, the reader, really want fifteen thousand
words of her during an already crowded book. The good news is that
cutting Crinoline made Becky and Kol much more active as
characters. In the draft I sold, they both stuck around Sour
Candy much longer than they should have, waiting for Crinoline to
force their decision. Now each makes the decision on their own. Becky
decides to leave much earlier than she used to. Cutting
Crinoline also let me bring in the Errand Boy earlier and foreshadow
him as a threat to Becky.
The biggest downside of this cut is that Crinoline is a match for
the Sour Candy crew in a way that poor Becky never is. She has
an awesome fight with Arun, plays chilling mind games with Kol, and
her absence makes the Chief much less important to the novel than she
was to "Four Kinds of Cargo". When I cut Crinoline, I had to cut a key
piece of dialogue where the Chief explains why she does what she
"Let's paint the Fist on the ship and get it over with," said
Crinoline. "Me and Yip-Goru don't care about the Outreach. It's
fine. It's just some paint."
"We will not paint anything!" said the Chief. "This ship is
freedom! In the Fist everyone else tells me what to do. In the
Outreach some brand has always gotten first where I want to go, and
makes me pay for my pleasure. In these societies, the only free person
is the criminal. So I build this little space in between, where a few
people can be free."
And here's Kol passing up the chance to kill Crinoline and solve a lot of his problems at once:
There was already a moment out of time when a
man had disintegrated because Kol had flipped a switch. A normal
person who'd lived through a war might have one moment like that
in his life, but two was the start of a
pattern. If Kol allowed two, there would soon enough be three.
I would really like to rearrange the Crinoline scenes into a side
story for you, but I'd have to make up a whole new final act. Even if
that person in the Cametrean shame robe is Crinoline, there's
obviously no fight with Arun, and when Sour Candy shows up
at the end, Crinoline ain't with them. So it would probably be a story
of her pursuing Becky, forever one step behind, until she gets iced in
the big space battle or something.
I had to leave one little hook for Crinoline's story in the final
draft: the "adorable soldier-boi" in Chapter 27 who checks Becky and
Arun into the refugee ship. Her name is Xiaofei and prior to the
Battle of Unicorn Sector (where she got zapped with Evidence) she
worked in Outreach Navy communications under the call sign
Mudskipper. I wrote a great scene where Crinoline seduces Mudskipper,
taps into her capital terminal, and uses the Navy's military context
to track Sour Candy. Could still happen!
Dodgy wodgy: I cut the very last scene before the epilogue,
set in an Outreach minimum-security prison—basically a hotel you
can't leave. Kemrush (Myrus and Den's dad) and Maskitenny (Den's mom)
are confined in a cell awaiting trial for their part in the
Jaketown draft-dodging mishegas. Someone looked at their
disposition contexts, noticed they were a 'couple', and decided to do
them a favor by putting them in the same cell, but they can't stand
each other. Like a rom-com running in reverse. The scene isn't great,
but I really like this bit of worldbuilding:
When he was four Kemrush had spent a year on scholarship
at an English-intensive boarding school for uhalti children. The house
pudding was what the kids called wadxy or wodgy, although in
English it was simply called "pudding". A bland lump of cake lying
like a waterlogged corpse at the bottom of a dish of white cream. If
you ate with eyes closed and the utmost focus, you might detect a hint
of citrus flavour, but sensory deprivation does strange things to
suggestive young minds, so who can tell?
Dodgy wodgy, they'd called it. That was the term. Sharing a cell
with Maskitenny Xepperxelt was dodgy wodgy: a punishment presented as
Anyway, when Clear Perspective mindfucks all the Outreach brands,
the hotel brand running the prison decides that the Jaketown
draft-dodgers are political prisoners—bad PR—and it has a
guard release them.
This scene wouldn't work in the current draft because the whole
point of the Den/Myrus project is to concentrate Kemrush's genes, and
Maskitenny would have put a stop to it if she'd come to hate him. Like
I said, not a great scene, and cutting it let me cut Kemrush as a POV
character, but it does show you that the parents survive.
Fri Jan 15 2021 12:43 Situation Normal Author Commentary #4: The Fictional Religions:
The theme of Situation Normal is what happens when you let a
narrative drive your life, and religious belief is the O.G. of letting
a narrative drive your life. There's one religion mentioned in "Four
Kinds of Cargo" (Cametreanism) which I wanted to flesh out
in Situation Normal. Having created one, I wanted to make more,
so that it wouldn't look like Cametreanism represented my opinion of
religion in general. As with alien species, I wanted to create a
diversity of alien religions, and I wanted each religion to have some
crossover appeal beyond its species of origin, so you wouldn't just
have "the uhaltihaxl religion", "the rre religion" (or 'rreligion'),
Babylon 5 has a fictional religion called Foundationism
which is an in-universe attempt to refactor all human religions and
find the good bits that they have in common. This was an inspiration
to me because it jibed with my 21st-century experience of
religion. Other SF religions, notably Bajoran mysticism, seem more
I have a suspicion that JMS thinks Foundationism is the way to go
in real life
written a document that covers the history and principles of
Foundationism, but has to date been debating whether to release it or
not, partly for fear of being 'elroned'"), so I want to make it
clear that Jalir, Hasithenk, and Cametreanism are completely made up,
with no spiritual value beyond what you can get from Buddhism,
Stoicism, or Star Trek fandom.
A touchy-feely religion based on a specific long-ago incident, the
Two Epiphanies, which is dramatized in the book and which completely changed the rre species' concept of itself. I have just a couple
things to say about Jalir. First, the touchy-feely part was designed
to counterprogram the stereotype of the rre as killer parasites, just
as pain debt counterprograms the opposite stereotype about
uhaltihaxl. Second, the Two Epiphanies scene was written to be super
disturbing, to set up a mystery as to why a dying human (Spaceman
Heiss) would find satisfaction in having that as his last rites.
At the end of the book, in another death scene, the mystery is
resolved, and you see how a story based on rre biology provides
comfort to a dying humanoid. But I suspect a lot of people won't see a
mystery here at all. They'll figure out the message of the Two
Epiphanies during Heiss's death scene. It doesn't seem that big a
leap to me. I'm interested in hearing what you think.
Hasithenk is paranoid Stoicism, the shifty-eyed worship of Murphy's
Law. It posits that the universe is indifferent to the point of
hostility and the best you can do is roll with the punches. It's a
good religion for a species like the uhaltihaxl who get pushed around
As the uhaltihaxl become less pushed-around, Hasithenk is dying out
rather than spinning off a 'prosperity gospel' variant. Because of
this, Churryhoof is the only faithful Hasithenk practitioner we see
in Situation Normal—as a military officer she has an
ongoing relationship with Murphy's Law. The story she tells Dr. Sempestwinku in Chapter 26 is, I imagine, the kind of story people share in church.
Myrus's dad seems like an Easter-and-Christmas type worshipper,
which explains why Myrus knows the terminology but doesn't
believe. Den is so hostile to Hasithenk ("a children's story") that
she relishes using it as a way to manipulate Gearu. There's also Kol,
whose 'belief' is more of a suspicion, but who shows that Hasithenk
has some cross-species appeal.
We see little glimpses of the day-to-day experience of
Hasithenk—the interminable church meetings, the mysterious
engraving plates in the scriptures—which are taken directly
from my experience growing up in the LDS church. The iconography of
Providence comes more from Catholicism, her ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
mimicking Christ's posture on the cross. And Thrux is inspired by the
Shrike from Dan Simmons's Hyperion
books—specifically Hyperion. The sequels go into too much
detail about the Shrike's hit points and special attacks for my taste;
it's much cooler as a mysterious "it sees you and you're dead"
Thrux is the focus of the Weird Thing in a book that otherwise
plays by normal science fiction rules, analogous to what happens
in Constellation Games when (rot13 spoiler) Nevry naq Wraal
xvff. Churryhoof's religious Moment of Awesome here is my little
tribute to the very best part of Star Trek V.
Just a palate cleanser before we get to Cametreanism. Becky Twice
grew up going to a social-justice multicultural Baptist church, and
I made none of that up, but I made sure to mention an Uhaltihaxl
Jesus in the Echo Park Baptist Fellowship's array of Jesus
iconography, to show that human religions also have appeal beyond
their species of origin. (Echo Park is near where I grew up, BTW
—I learned to swim at
The inaccurate depiction of Jesus we see in Becky's Evidence trip
is because Starbottle doesn't really understand any of the
religions he's weaponizing. That Evidence works on Jeong, though,
so apparently accuracy is not super important.
In "Four Kinds of Cargo", Cametreanism is presented as a generic
oppressive, no-fun religion. We hear a couple fragments: "Cametreans
are isolationists," "space travel is a sin". These puritans control
Quennet, and Terequale Bitty made a deal with them because it was the
only way she could get off-planet and into a life of space
At the same time, Terequale Bitty's attitude doesn't seem
unusual. The quenny in "Four Kinds of Cargo'' love space adventure
stories. They devour Extension Navy, even though it's
shoddily produced propaganda designed to delegitimize
whatever rumors you might have heard of the universe outside
My idea for Situation Normal was to tie these two threads
together by making Cametreanism a religion derived from a
science-fiction fandom. Space travel is a sin because
the Cametre stories show space as an environment degraded by
our presence. Cametreans are isolationists because any contact with
the outside universe makes it clear that the Cametre stories
are completely made-up.
The Cametreans are right about one thing—they are
characters in a science fiction novel—but they're wrong about
which novel. When the abbot is arguing with Tellpesh-Tia he's so
confident that he's going to show up again at the end of the book, and
I don't think it's disrespectful to say that there are deep
similarities between a fandom and a religion based on a holy
text. Even if you do think it's disrespectful, it's by no means an
had a religion
explicitly based on Star Trek. The concept resonates with
me, I think, because of my Mormon background.
Mormons have some sacred books that include quite a
few... continuity errors. When a certain type of person learns about
the continuity errors, they feel they have no choice but to leave the
church. And Mormonism teaches kids to seek out the truth and hold to
it no matter what, making it all the more likely you will grow up to
be the type of person who has to step away after discovering the
Compare this to actual Star Trek, which is full of
inaccuracies and continuity errors, and it's not a big
deal—it's fun!—because everyone knows this
stuff is fiction, and with
rare exceptions, the inaccuracies
don't affect the moral core of the show. Someone who models their
life on "what would Captain Picard do?" (not a terrible idea) is
treating Picard as a moral yardstick, not an infallible guide.
In "Four Kinds of Cargo" we glimpsed a theocratic strain of
Cametreanism that's brittle against continuity errors. We don't see much of
the Bronze Age Bastards, but they're a weird militant offshoot devoted
to destroying things that aren't "canon". In the monastery on Arzil,
we see a strain which treats the religion more as a fandom. This is
not only more humane and closer to the original author's intent
(insofar as any of this was intentional), it also gives you a
more accurate approach to the holy texts.
When Ethiret ran the Arzil monastery, he did wacky stuff like
hosting movie nights and expanding the definition of canon. Quennet
found out what he was doing and sent over a quenny abbot to deploy the
iron fist of orthodoxy and put a stop to all that. But like James
T. Kirk, Qued Ethiret can't be constrained by orthodoxy of any
kind. His whole schtick is coming up with "fucked-up, impractical
plans" that work when they shouldn't. That's canon, folks!
And the abbot recognizes this! He can't imagine a plan to get the
Navy grunts off Arzil, but he knows Ethiret can. And he really hates
that a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the religion
means creating and tolerating playful unorthodoxy.
The idea of putting things "in sync"—taking real events and
slotting them into the continuity of the Cametre
stories—is a satirical exaggeration of the real-world process by
which we compartmentalize our knowledge to resolve cognitive
dissonance. This is most explicit when Ethiret talks about his two
sets of memories, and there's a little Easter egg for LDS folks in
there, where Ethiret mentions putting a forbidden thought on a
Syncweed, the drug that gives you some conscious control over your
own cognitive dissonance, is an essential precursor to Evidence, the
drug that rewrites your brain by guiding you through a
hallucination. We see versions of syncweed that work on quenny,
corestin, and humans, which implies that Starbottle's epilogue vision
of neutral Evidence is a real possibility.
Syncweed and the process of putting events in sync are where my
idea of Aquadale Selmar as a PKD-like figure shows through the
strongest. Specifically it's reminiscent of the use of Can-D and the
Perky Pat layouts in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.
Postscript: Mystery solved!
In an earlier
essay I mentioned a book called Twister that I read
when I was a kid and couldn't find any trace of online. As it
happens, I just started reading Vonda
McIntyre's Starfarers, and she mentions that book in the
intro! How fortuititous! The book is Twistor, by John
Cramer, which explains why I remember it being
called Twister but couldn't find any trace of it online.
I've ordered a copy of Twistor, so pretty soon we'll see how
accurate are my recollections of l33t h4x0rs and alternate
Next Tuesday comes what I expect is the one you've been waiting for: deleted scenes! We've got 'em in abundance. You'll meet Crinoline White and Admiral Norton, antithrill to Hiroko's un-venture, and see Becky successfully set up her marketing consultancy. See you then!
(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.