Archive for March, 2020

When Science Fiction Becomes Current Events

How ’bout a book review? How ’bout a recent sci-fi novel that bizarrely predicted part of our current situation? Let’s take a look at A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker.

Let’s get this out of the way first. From our current vantage point in the early spring of 2020, this is a shockingly prophetic book. It’s set at some point in our near-future, when a combination of terrorist attacks and a deadly plague epidemic convinces the government to ban all mass gatherings. Sporting events are no more. All schools are taught online. Shopping malls, conventions, parades, amusement parks, festivals, movie theaters, and music concerts dry up and blow away.

It is, I will tell you, deeply weird to be reading along in a book of science fiction, published about six months ago, and find incidents that closely mirror the evening news.

So what’s our plot about? We follow two main characters. There’s Luce Cannon, rock star on the rise — at least until concerts get banned nationwide. She has a little extra fame because she played the very last major concert before large gatherings got shut down. So years afterwards, still jonesing for the thrill of playing live music for an audience, she runs secret and illegal concerts out of her soundproofed home in Baltimore. And there’s Rosemary Laws, a younger woman who has spent most of her life sheltered and protected in the rural Midwest. She’s attended online schools, has few real-world friends, lives with her technophobic parents, and works as online technical support for the Superwally retail giant.

Rosemary gets a new job working for a company called StageHoloLive — they specialize in recording holographic music concerts for live or recorded replay on Hoodies, which are basically wearable virtual reality interfaces. Put the hood up, and you can go online, watch a concert or movie, and order your groceries (with convenient drone delivery). Expecting to go into tech support, she instead finds herself in what’s now called A&R — Artists and Repertoire — essentially finding new performers in whatever secret venues they may be playing, recruiting them, and getting them signed on as StageHolo artists, ready to gain worldwide fame and make the company a lot of money.

Rosemary has no idea how to find any secret concert venues, but gets a hint from a StageHolo artist that she should check out a particular club in Baltimore. So even though she’s been told her whole life that cities and large gatherings are full of disease and probably terrorists, Rosemary gathers up all her courage and travels to the big city. Once she finds Luce’s secret music club — and once she overcomes her fears of human contact — she starts making friends, including Luce and a bunch more people in interesting and very talented bands.

But StageHoloLive has some dark secrets that cause serious repercussions when exposed. Can Rosemary continue working for them? Can Luce find a way to keep making music? And is there a way for both of them to break the hold fear has over the country?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This was a really fun book — and not just because it was so weirdly prescient. I’d actually stopped reading somewhere around the middle — not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I had a different book I was reading that had hooked me into focusing on it. But once the urgency about the Coronavirus outbreak started making the news, once all the sports venues started closing, all the conventions cancelled, all the schools started shutting down, and everyone was told to distance themselves socially from friends, coworkers, and even family members — well, the bizarre accidental topicality of the book’s background brought me back and kept me glued to the page. And honestly, the topicality means it deserves a lot more readers. Hint, hint, guys.

I loved the characterization — Luce and Rosemary are the most obvious examples, but there are great character bits everywhere, from the members of Luce’s various bands to Rosemary’s parents to the corporate middle managers at SHL to the music fans willing to risk jail for the sake of new music. LGBT representation is everywhere — both Luce and Rosemary identify as queer, and they’re far from the only ones. And the fact that being gay is rarely remarked upon and never condemned is one of the few ways this future society is better than our current one.

The worldbuilding is also great. There’s a lot of stuff we’re shown without having everything specifically laid out in detail. Drones are everywhere, both for deliveries and for people wanting to see the world without leaving the house. Hoodies are rarely worn by older people but almost universal for the young — except for young people who’ve decided they can live a better life without the corporate surveillance and gatekeeping the Hoodies bring. Certain areas are completely closed to any vehicles but self-driving cars, and rural cops will stop any car with license plates from urban states out of simple racist paranoia. The characters barely remark upon these things because it’s part of the landscape of their lives, but it still manages to paint us a very clear vision of this corporate dystopia.

I was also impressed with how well the author incorporated many current issues into the story without absolutely overpowering the plot. The book addresses the question of whether concerns over public safety should trump personal freedom. It jabs a hard, angry finger at the entire concept of health care inequities. It ponders the fact that technology and social media have just as much power to oppress us as it has to liberate us.

And the story reserves its greatest venom for our system of predatory capitalism — not through diatribes and jeremiads, but just by recounting how outrageously stupid and greedy our corporate overlords can get. Is StageHoloLive over-the-top in its stupidity and evil? Maybe a little — but do you know how many restaurants make their employees come to work sick? If fiction’s villains are unrealistically vile, the real world has more than enough ridiculous evil, too.

But though it describes a short-sighted dystopia, this is still a hopeful book. Throughout the book, the power of music to bring people together, to heal and uplift, to create pure joy is celebrated. Musicians and audiences are always depicted as being willing to defy the law for the sake of live music, and more than one music fan works to turn their home or their business or even just a barn out in a back lot into a performance venue, even at the risk of losing their property to the cops. And in the end, music has the power to change lives and the system. Music — and hope — have great power.

My friends, this book is highly recommended and highly relevant, not just because it manages to predict our current situation, but because it also offers a little hope for a way out. Musicians, artists, creatives of all sorts, you will love this book more than you can believe. Go pick it up.

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Wash Your Hands!

I’m really getting tired of this COVID-19 crap, okay? I’m tired of worrying about getting it. I’m tired of worrying that my family will get it. I’m tired of having everything shut down. I’m tired of no one being tested for the virus. I’m tired of our disease response and everything else run by the incompetent dumpgoblins in the White House.

Wash your hands, dammit! Wash your hands! Do you need a guide on how to do it?

Do you need superhero songs to help you remember?

Do you need Wonder Woman to help you remember?

Do you need Spider-Man to help you remember?

Do you need Ralph Hinkley to help you remember?

Do you need Flash Gordon to help you remember? Do you need Queen to help you remember?

Do you need the Spin Doctors to help you remember?

Do you need heavy metal to help you remember? Will you at least listen to Dethklok?

At long last, has it come to this? Do you need the stylish 1960s jazz stylings of Neal Hefti and the Dynamic Duo to help you remember?

Batman says to wash your hands! BATMAN SAYS TO WASH YOUR HANDS!

(And stay inside, if you’re able to. Don’t hoard needed supplies. Share with your neighbors if they need help. If you’re showing symptoms, call your doctor to get screened — don’t just rush to the hospital first. If your local comics shop or other local merchants have to close because of a lockdown, try to support them through mail or online ordering. And vote out the Republicans!)

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The House of Dumb Ideas

People, I legit expected to start this blog back up and then spend weeks having absolutely nothing to write about but old graphic novels I dug out of storage, photos of Funko Pops, and all-caps reminders for everyone to wash their hands.

But nope, nope, turns out I get to write about an upcoming comic, and I have to tell you it sounds dumb as hell.

In this case, we’re talking about the just-announced “New Warriors” series, written by Daniel Kibblesmith and illustrated by Luciano Vecchio.

The concept doesn’t sound particularly bad. The members of the original New Warriors team, plus a few extra former teen heroes, band together to help train up a new generation of teenaged superheroes. You can find the same general formula in tons of X-Men comics, in Avengers Academy, in Teen Titans, and more.

The problem here is the new characters being introduced.

Trailblazer and B-Negative seem like the closest thing to halfway-decent characters and not-entirely-awful names. But Facetime is a crude caricature of an Extremely Online Memelord, just with higher-tech equipment.

And then there’s Snowflake and Safespace.

So they’re twins. Snowflake is nonbinary. She throws ice shurikens. Safespace is a jock. He creates protective shields. And those are actually, seriously the names they decided to give them.

I am absolutely no Comicsgater. Frankly, I want more non-white characters in comics. We need a heck of a lot more non-binary people, too, since there are almost none right now. But when you mix those names into the whole thing…

This isn’t representation. This is pandering. And it’s unusually clumsy pandering at that. People joke about how awkward the 1960s Teen Titans comics were, with Bob Haney trying — and failing hilariously — at creating hip teenager slang.

But this is worse, because it’s so cynical. These aren’t believable teenagers. They’re not Peter Parker or Miles Morales or Sam Alexander or Kamala Khan. These are caricatures, designed by conservatives to be derided by conservatives and bullies and trolls. These were characters created solely so Nazi fanboys on Twitter will have a new excuse to scream even more abuse and death threats at women and trans kids.

“Here’s what you want, woke teenagers,” sneers Marvel Comics, home of extreme Trump fanboy Ike Perlmutter, home of racist toerag C.B. “Akira Yoshida” Cebulski. “Here’s what you want so buy our shit, lololol, NPC loozers.”

I feel sorry for Kibblesmith and Vecchio, who have always seemed like clued-in creators. Either this is a truly epic screwup on their part, or it’s a mandate from editorial.

But either way, it’s a cruel and stupid mistake, and everyone involved should feel ashamed.

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The Future, Conan?

Okay, I’ve told you the blog is back, and I’ve told you what’s happened to me over the past few years. So I guess the next question is — what comes next? What does the future hold?

Well, as far as this blog goes — I’m not really sure.

I won’t be able to blog about comics as much as I used to. There are no comics shops in the town I live in now. I can pick up Archie digests at the supermarket, and the local library carries a small number of graphic novels. The closest comics shop is about an hour away — I’ve been in the store once, and it was genuinely the worst comics shop I’ve ever seen. The next closest stores are two hours away — and I deeply dislike the idea of driving for four hours there and back to pick up weekly comics.

Even if I had easy access to a comics shop, I probably wouldn’t buy many. I just don’t have the money for it nowadays. I’ll order a graphic novel occasionally, and if there are interesting comics available for free through Comixology Unlimited, I’ll read those, too.

But a few reviews of older graphic novels probably ain’t gonna cut it for gripping blog content, right?

I can do other reviews, too, of course. I already did quite a few book reviews before, so we’re all used to that. I could do movie, TV, and game reviews — but those wouldn’t happen often, ’cause I nearly never watch movies or TV or play games anymore.

I could rant about politics all the freakin’ time. But I’m not entirely sure y’all would want that, since it would mostly be me screaming about all the people I want to club with crowbars. Because I want to club so very many people with crowbars. I think about clubbing people with crowbars all the time. And while it might be fun for me, I suspect it’d get boring and creepy for the rest of y’all. I’ll try to keep the political rants to a minimum.

(At some point, I’m sure I’ll be posting about COVID-19. I got parents in the high-risk group. I’m nervous as heck.)

I can also post photos. I’ve taken a ton of pix for Instagram, and I sure don’t mind re-posting them here. Plus I could post some of my old poetry, old RPG characters, all kinds of random and quasi-cool stuff. Of course, those aren’t really typical blog fodder — and I hope to post a lot of that on my new personal website, when or if I get it up and running.

No matter what I end up writing about, however, I’ll probably be posting a lot less often than I used to. Not daily, not three times a week. I’m not even sure I want to say I’ll post every week. I have other projects I’m trying to work on these days — like I said, I want to start up a personal website, plus I’m writing a novel, and I try to post essays on other websites, too.

Above all else, I don’t want to get to the point where I absolutely despise writing for the blog, which was definitely the case by the time I quit blogging before. Hopefully, a less frequent blogging non-schedule will help stave off burnout.

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What Has Gone Before

So I’ve started blogging again, and I’m sure you’re wondering (yes indeed lololol) what’s been happening with me over the last four years.

It ain’t been great.

I got fired from my job soon after I quit blogging. I’m still not entirely sure why I got the axe, but they’d been working on getting rid of me for quite a while — vastly increasing my workload, trying to get me to do additional work off-the-clock, etc. I figure either my boss decided I was boring and uncool, and decided to unload me for cooler people, or the division as a whole was working to discard workers with more seniority in favor of recent graduates they thought they could underpay.

After that, I was unemployed for over three years. I was able to move in with the folks and have been more than pleased to help them out here and there. Still, I’m in a far worse place than I was before — I’m making less than half what I was making in Denton, most of my belongings are in storage, likely permanently, and the nearest decent comics and book stores are hours away.

(I’ll probably be salty for the rest of my life about having to leave Denton. I loved the holy howling heck out of Denton. A beautiful city, two excellent comics stores and more within driving distance, the best damn used bookstore in existence, and a vast variety of things I could take photos of. I’ll also be salty at myself for not appreciating where I lived and spending most of my time hiding inside the house. I should have volunteered at the music festivals. I should have tried more weird restaurants and coffee shops. I should have taken even more photos than I did.)

And the blogosphere in general ain’t doing too great either.

At some point, blogs got abandoned because we let Facebook and Twitter convince us that social media was the only thing we needed. Most of the blogs in my sidebar have been abandoned, and many others haven’t been updated in months. Some of them are even more depressing. Comics Alliance was shut down. Brian Snell, host of “Slay, Monstrobot of the Deep,” died just over a year ago. RIP, Snell, I wish we’d appreciated you more.

And even then, considering how bad things got for me, considering the dwindling of the blogosphere — it’s still better than discovering that half the country, including people we thought were our friends, think Nazis are “Very Fine People,” doesn’t it?

So yeah, the country is falling to pieces, fascist governments are on the rise worldwide, a global coalition of Russians, Nazis, dumbfucks, and trolls got together and worked very hard to kill off video games, comics, and the Hugo Awards — all to win the favor of a Nazi-loving has-been comics artist and a creeptastic anime voice actor, and a worryingly large percentage of our national population is champing at the bit to start going door-to-door machine-gunning their neighbors.

Nihilism is wrecking the country, the environment, democracy, and the economy — ’cause if you can’t own everything, why not just let the world burn to punish everyone else? — but we’re told that the problem is we’re not being civil and polite enough to the maniacs running our lives.

I don’t know how to fix any of this, but I can tell you I have strong desires to trim down the planet’s supply of sociopaths. It might not work, but I could at least have some fun with my duffel bag full of crowbars, right?

So, in summary, the last four years have sucked. Any way to fix it all? Hell if I know. May as well write some blog posts, right?

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Un-Cancelled

It’s been over four years since I shut the blog down, and I regret to inform you that I’m back.

Why? I certainly wasn’t enjoying writing this when I quit, and I’m not under many illusions that I’ll enjoy it more if I start back up again. Blogging is hard work, and it’s incredibly ephemeral, and it’s a distraction from the stuff of real life.

But the world changed all around me and around you and around all of us over the last four years. And I think it’s time to start again.

So again — why do this again? I think it boils down to the simple fact that we all got persuaded that we should give up on blogs and personal websites so we could focus our online lives into social media. And the past few years have certainly shown us that social media suuuuuucks.

Facebook? Zuckerberg and his goons are sociopaths willing to burn the world down for a few extra bucks and a few giggles. Twitter? @Jack is a Nazi, and the only good Nazi is a dead Nazi. Instagram? Listen, I absolutely love Instagram — but it’s owned by Facebook now, and eventually, it’ll turn on us, too.

And the worst thing about ’em? They really are a great way to keep up with your friends. That’s a hard thing to give up, and while I understand people who’ve given up social media so they don’t contribute to the sad state of the world, I know I’m probably not going to be able to quit Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram until it’s way, way too late.

Nevertheless, blogs were — and are — good. And personal websites were — and are — good. They do things that social media can’t do at all, and we never should’ve given up on them.

So I’m starting the blog back up again. Not because I think I can lead other people to start blogging again, but because I want to do it. I hope it’ll be fun. I hope it’ll be a way to improve my writing and my communication skills. And I hope you enjoy what I do.

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