Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: My Year in Goosebump-Raising and Attic-Sleeping

This year I slept in Neil Gaiman's attic.

That's not all I did, of course, but it's the thing that stands out the most in my mind as I peer back through the shrouded mists (or is that the misted shrouds?) of the past twelve months. But allow me to explain: This summer I was one of eight participants in a speculative-fiction-writing workshop called Wyrd Words, and it took place at Neil Gaiman's house deep in the wilds of Wisconsin. I won't elaborate on it too much, but I will say this: Among the many wonderful things that happened during those five days -- up to and including talking about '70s British punk with Neil, who regaled me with the tale of how he snuck into a pub to see The Jam while a teenager in 1977 -- I slept in the man's attic, just a wall away from his archive of original manuscripts and Sandman statuettes and other things that just boggled the mind of a guy who's been faithfully reading and gathering inspiration from that stuff since 1989.

In short: It was pretty amazing.

In preparation for Wyrd Words, I wrote the first draft of a novel throughout the first half of 2015. I'm pretty stoked about it: It's called Repeater, and it takes place in the punk scene in Denver in 1994, and it involves ritual magic and being in a go-nowhere band and what it's like to be 22 and lost and alone and yearning for far more than the world is prepared to give you. I need to revise it before having my astounding agent, Jennifer Jackson at Donald Maass Literary Agent, sent it around to some publishers. But that's high up on my to-do list for 2016.

That's not all I wrote in 2015. Along with my usual output of articles and reviews about books and music for NPR, Pitchfork, and The A.V. Club, I wrote a few pieces for Clarkesworld Magazine, including a pair of essays about two of my favorite science-fiction-fixated musicians: Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and Marc Bolan of T. Rex. Full disclosure: I am the former nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld (which is how I won that shiny Hugo Award in 2013, for which I am eternally grateful), and I'd also been researching Styrene, Bolan, and many others for a nonfiction book proposal I wrote in 2015. That proposal is currently making the rounds with publishers, and one major publishing house in particular has shown avid interest; I've been working with a certain editor there in the hopes that we can make something happen. But I don't want to jinx myself, so I'll keep the details mum for the time being...

I didn't write a ton of short stories this year, but I did sell three, varying from interstitial science fiction to horror to fantasy: "Of Homes Gone" to Farrago's Wainscot, "The Projectionist" to the Hex Publishers' anthology Nightmares Unhinged, and "Daughter of the Drifting" to the Stone Skin Press anthology Swords v. Cthulhu (which will be published in 2016). Speaking of Hex Publishers: I've also signed on to edit two science fiction and/or fantasy anthologies for them over the next couple years. One of them we're close to officially announcing, but I'll drop some details here: It's titled Cyber World: Tales of Humanity's Tomorrow, and it's coming out in November of 2016 in both physical and digital formats, and it's going to feature a stellar roster of authors that includes Paolo Bacigalupi, Saladin Ahmed, Nisi Shawl, Stephen Graham Jones, Cat Rambo, E. Lily Yu, Chinelo Onwualu, Madeline Ashby, Isabel Yap, and others. More details soon!

Music-wise, I made a big leap in 2015: After many years of playing guitar, I picked up the bass again. Some of you reading this (that is, if you lived in Denver in the '90s) may remember that I started out playing bass, in a punk band called Crestfallen from '93-'96, before I switched to guitar in '97 to play in The Blue Ontario (with two members of the seminal emo band Christie Front Drive). Anyway, I've stuck with guitar in various bands ever since -- but this year I grabbed the bass again to join a great band called Cowcatcher (ex-The Blackout Pact, who released stuff on Astro Magnetics/Eyeball Records, which were co-owned by Geoff Rickly of Thursday). Anyway, I'll be playing my first handful of shows with Cowcatcher in January of 2016 -- including an opening slot for Small Brown Bike on January 22 at the Marquis in Denver -- and I'm super stoked. Cowcatcher sounds sort of like Leatherface, Jawbreaker, and Hot Water Music; in other words, it's exactly the kind of music I'm rooted in. However, I'm not forsaking the guitar altogether! I've got another band called Cloak of Organs (featuring Neil from Wovenhand and Planes Mistaken for Stars), and it's a much heavier affair, and hopefully our debut EP will be ready in early 2016. More news on that to come.

Oh, and I guess I ought to mention a little book of mine that came out in 2015: Slappy's Revenge, an official Goosebumps movie tie-in that was published by Scholastic Books. It was a blast to write an installment in one of the world's most popular horror franchises, and of course, my 10-year-old-niece Hazel suddenly thinks I'm the coolest person in the world. In other young-person-book news, I've also been busy in 2015 revising my original middle-grade novel, Lullaby Underground, which will hopefully be finding its way to a good home in 2016. Fingers crossed.

So yeah. Goosebumps-raising and attic-sleeping. 2015 has been a weird year. Hopefully 2016 will top it. Time to start making that happen.

Friday, October 9, 2015


I just got my copy of Bob Rob Medina's new book, Denvoid and the Cowtown Punks. It's fucking amazing. Bob Rob conducted tons of interviews with people from the Denver punk scene of the '80s then added lots of his own incredible artwork, which makes the whole thing super vivid and eye-popping. Of course, there are also photos, flyers, and other bits of archival stuff sprinkled throughout. Bob Rob published this book himself, and it's such a labor of love, passion practically drips off the page. And the tone of the writing is perfect, a very funny and poignant and readable mix of fact and anecdote. Bob Rob's conversations are definitely nostalgic and fun, but he also sneaks in all kinds of insight and smart musical analysis. He doesn't white-wash shit either. It's an unvarnished, unflinching look at a time that was as violent and intolerant as it was creative and liberating.
If you don't know Bob Rob, he's one hell of a guy. He started playing in Denver bands in the '80s, but he was also involved in the punk scene here in the early '90s before moving out of town. I first got to know him in the '90s, when I got into the local punk scene. He'd been a member of Savalas, a great, Rites of Spring-esque band that he'd played in with Sonny Kay (later of Angel Hair and The VSS; by the way, Sonny designed Denvoid, and he deserves tons of credit for how beautifully the book came out). Sonny and Bob Rob were super supportive of the '90s scene, even snot-nosed little shits like me who were just starting to play in bands, put out zines, and put on shows. I'll always remember how kind and cool they were back then.
I got into the scene relatively late, when I was about 17-18, circa 1990 and '91. I already loved punk rock at that age (I'd take the bus down to Wax Trax to buy punk cassettes using the money from my after-school warehouse job), but I was a dirt-poor kid living in Northglenn, very introverted and shy, and I had no idea how to access the local music scene (or really what the local music scene looked like). I was yanked into it by my old friend and bandmate Johnny Seven, who was a few years older than me and much more experienced in the ways of punk. It was then that I dived into the local punk scene for the first time -- and I was able to experience the fading echoes of the '80s punk scene that Bob Rob writes about in Denvoid. In the early '90s I was lucky enough to see bands like The Fluid (of Sub Pop fame), Dead Silence, Choosy Mothers, The Rok Tots, Rope, and other local punk bands that either survived the '80s or featured members of '80s punk bands that had exploded long ago.
These bands blasted my eyes open. It wasn't long before I started a punk band of my own (with Johnny), called Crestfallen. I also started working at Wax Trax, the epicenter of Denver punk at the time. It was there that I got to know guys like Pete Flye, Mike Serviolo, the late Larry Denning, and my manager at Wax Trax, John Meggitt -- all of whom had played in some of these already legendary '80s punk bands. (Many years later, I even had the honor of playing music with Bambi Lee Savage, formerly of the '80s punk band Pagan Cowboys, who get a great little chapter in Denvoid.) I'm sure they would've all balked at being called "legendary." But they were. Back then, there was no way to instantly access, learn about, and listen to the local bands that came before you. You had to find the records, dig up the old zines, and most importantly, listen to your elders, hoping to snatch a few crumbs of history from them while never appearing too hungry. This was punk, after all, and you weren't supposed to have heroes. But all these guys, in their own ways, were my heroes, the ones who created the Denver scene that I -- along with the rest of the '90s punks -- had so fortunately inherited. What can I say? It changed my life.
Anyway, Bob Rob is having a release party for Denvoid tomorrow at Denver's Mutiny Information Cafe. You should go. I'm not much of a socializer these days, but I'm really looking forward to it. I'm sure I'll see a bunch of old friends, but mostly I just want to thank Bob Rob for pouring so much of his sweat and soul into this book. It's seriously a monument -- to a city, to a scene, to way of life, to an ethic, to a glorious neverending mistake, to motherfucking punk rock. I can only hope someone comes along to similarly document Denver's punk scene of the '90s. We should be so lucky.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Hugos, Goosebumps, and me

DISCLAIMER: This post is NOT about the recent Hugo Awards kerfuffle, nor this weekend's results of said awards. There are plenty of people out there doing an admirable job at covering and commenting on that. Cool? Cool.


Last month a dear colleague of mine, someone I hold in extremely high esteem as both a person and a writing industry professional, said to me ever-so-slightly slyly, "You're going to the first Hugo winner to write a Goosebumps book."

That person was gently chiding me. But on all counts, they were right.

I won a Hugo for Best Semiprozine in 2013 as part of the editing team of Clarkesworld Magazine, for which I served as Nonfiction Editor. During my time at Clarkesworld, I expanded the nonfiction section, including the addition of a monthly column titled Another Word. I brought the great Daniel Abraham aboard as the regular author of Another Word, who rotated in every other month; on alternating months, a guest author would take the reins, using that space to speak personally and intimately about the process of reading and/or writing. I also did my best to help expand Clarkesworld's pool of nonfiction writers and to do my own small part in solidfying the section as a worthy complement to the magazine's award-winning, world-class fiction. My successor, Kate Baker (a multiple Hugo winner), has done great things with Clarkesworld's nonfiction since I left, and she's even been generous enough to accept multiple articles from me over the past couple years, including a piece I wrote about the late punk legend Poly Styrene and her relationship to science fiction, of which I'm particularly proud.

In addition, I've written a Goosebumps book. Tomorrow, August 25, the world will bear witness to the birth of Slappy's Revenge: Twisted Tricks from the World's Smartest Dummy. Okay, so now I'm chiding myself a little. No one, me included, will ever mistake Slappy's Revenge for a wondrous work of literature, any more than the Goosebumps movie that my book ties into, which will hit theaters out later this year, will likely go down as some cinematic milestone. (That said, I've read the script and seen tons of stills, and it looks like a hell of a lot of fun.) But you know what? I'm still proud of it. Scholastic Books asked me to write it, thanks in part to some ongoing conversations I've been having with them about a separate project--not to mention the fact that I have experience writing this kind of media tie-in. A few years back I wrote The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook for Quirk Books/Disney, an official tie-in to the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. And I was happy to do it. Thrilled even.

Why thrilled? I mean, I've written my own, original novel, the alt-history political satire Taft 2012, for which I was interviewed by NPR's Morning Edition, and which snagged a starred review in Publisher's Weekly. And I've been consistently working on other original novels--I'm revising two complete novel drafts, one middle-grade, one for adults, even as I procrastinate by writing this blog post--which is the path I've always wanted my writing career to take. I have a ton of ideas, and I want to write my own novels about those ideas. And as my esteemed and beloved colleague so chidingly yet good-naturedly pointed out, I am a Hugo winner. Why not use that as a platform? Doesn't having a Hugo open some doors for you in the writing world? Doesn't that launch you up to some higher tier, or at least a tiny step up, where you don't have to rely on writing media tie-ins any longer?

Well, no. Actually, of course not. I am but one of many, many Hugo winners who aren't big names. Many people with Hugos have win them the way I did--as part of a team, be it editing, writing, or podcasting. The glory is shared. It's not like I won a Hugo for Taft 2012 (it never threatened that ballot with its presence). I'm proud of my shiny rocketship statue, sure, but I hold no illusions about it. If this year's Sad/Rabid Puppy controversy showed us in the SFF community anything, it's that we shouldn't take for granted what our awards mean and stand for--or overestimate what they signify to the populace at large, most of whom could not have cared less about what must have seemed from the outside to be just another case of online insider squabbling.

Oops, sorry. This post wasn't supposed to be about this year's Hugo kerfuffle. Ahem.

Anyway. Yes, I have a Hugo. And yes, I'm still writing media tie-in books. In case my base humanity wasn't painfully apparent by now, I did it for the money. But here's the thing: In both cases, I actually enjoy the piece of media that my tie-in book ties into. Do I love every Pirates of the Caribbean movie? No. Do I enjoy the series overall? Absolutely. Same goes for Goosebumps. Both of these properties are squarely in my wheelhouse, seeing as how I also write my own original fantasy and horror. I didn't seek out these tie-in assignments, but when they fell on my lap, I grabbed them. They were both fun to write. And the money they made helped me buy some more time to work on my original fiction, novels included. 

See, I'm a full-time writer. I have no other source of income. I don't have a nest egg or a trust fund. I was born poor--not kinda poor, not lower-middle-class, but dirt poor, at least by United States standards. It's something I wrote about candidly in, aptly enough, an Another Word column for Clarkesworld--and coming from that background made me realize a few things. First of all, there's no shame in making a living at what you do best, even if some of those jobs might seem beneath you to someone who's never known what it's like to go hungry or not know where they're going sleep that night. But it's more than that. I grew up poor, but I also came of age in the punk scene. And in the punk scene, integrity is a big concern. Integrity can also be a hangup, and an albatross around one's neck--but in my case, I felt no qualms whatsoever about writing Pirates of the Caribbean or Goosebumps books. I have always wanted to write for big publishers, and I've always loved swashbuckling fantasy, and I've always loved things that scare kids in the best possible way. Nothing about writing my two media tie-ins scribbled outside the lines of my integrity. Which is still something I take seriously, as much as I still take the music and message of, say, The Clash seriously.

Again, these two properties for which I've written tie-ins, these two cool universes I got paid to play around in, are things I like. If someone asked me to write a media tie-in for a property I knew and/or cared nothing about, I would turn it down. In a heartbeat. Trust me. But now, having done this kind of tie-in work, I feel even more prepared to march forward with my own original fiction. Tie-ins were basically on-the-job training for me. And a way to keep out of working another temporary warehouse job, which I've had to do in the past when the writing thing wasn't making ends meet. If the punk ethic values one thing above all else, it's scrappy resourcefulness--which is its own kind of integrity.

Both times I've written a media tie-in book, I've been asked by my respective editor if I wanted my own name to appear on the book, or if I wanted to write it under a pseudonym. In both cases, I didn't blink. HELL YES I wanted my name on it. If I was okay with writing the book, I damn sure was taking credit for it. I've written under a pseudonym before--specifically, I ghost-wrote a middle-grade horror novel for a big publisher a couple years ago--but I used a pen-name because it was part of the concept of the book itself, as conceived by the editor who hired me to write it. Even then, it hurt not to have my name on it. Not because it's an amazing book or anything, but because I poured my sweat and tears and brains all over it, and it felt criminal not to be able to own it. But even then, I learned a lot--and again, it bought me more time to write my own novels, and with the added lessons about craft and business I'd learned along the way.

It's been said, often and wisely, that every author finds their own path to publication. Writing movie tie-ins has opened doors for me that I thought would take years to even find. It's helped me sharpen my chops, tighten my ability to meet deadlines, and figure out how to work with editors on book-length projects. It's gotten my name out there, even if just a little. And hell, I have a nine-year-old niece who couldn't be more stoked that her uncle writes Pirates of the Caribbean and Goosebumps books. She couldn't give a rat's ass about my Hugo, bless her heart.

And after all, it’s not like I’m the only Hugo winner who ever worked in media tie-ins. Fritz Leiber wrote an official tie-in to the film Tarzan and the Valley of Gold—eight years following his win of a Best Novel Hugo for The Big Time. After winning the Best Novel Hugo in 1959 for A Case of Conscience, James Blish famously went on to write novelizations of Star Trek episodes. Best Novel Hugo winner Neil Gaiman, long before taking home that award for American Gods in 2002, wrote Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion, back when he was just launching his illustrious career. I’m not saying I’m in their class, or that I ever will be. What I am saying, though, is that this kind of practice isn’t all that strange among Hugo winners--even the upper echelon of Leiber, Blish, and Gaiman, regardless of how increasingly august the Hugos have grown in our eyes over the course of decades. (Assuming this year's kerfuffle hasn't forever downgraded that estimation. Again, ahem.)

As writers, we're told these days to be obsessed with our brands. Honestly, I don't think that way at all. If other people want to look at my "brand," fine--although I'd be surprised and probably a little creeped out if anyone actually cared. But even if they did, that so-called brand of mine is going to be a mosaic of all the kinds of writing I have done, and can do, and will continue to do, even if some of those things don't seem particularly worthy of a Hugo winner--even one who was just a member of a great team. If that makes for a bit of cognitive dissonance--and maybe even a little chiding--well, I'm fine with that too. At the end of the day, I’m writing for a living. That’s its own reward, and its own humility.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

New Novel Playlist

I just finished the first draft of my new novel! And as I usual do when working on a book, I listened to a lot of music while writing it. But this novel is a little different: Music is one of its central components.

More specifically, the book takes place in the punk scene in 1994, and each chapter is named after a punk/hardcore/post-hardcore/emo song that was released between '90 and '94 on an independent label (even if some of the bands later moved to a major--and even if some of these songs we were later rerecorded for those major-label debuts. Specifically, Green Day and Quicksand.)

The book is also an urban fantasy. You know, with magic and stuff.

Other than that, I'm not spilling any more details about the book as of yet. Not even the title! I don't want to jinx anything. But I will gladly share that list of songs/chapter titles, which can be found below. (FYI: The name of the book actually does appear somewhere on this list: either a song title, album title, or band name. But that's all I'm spilling right now.)

Not only is each chapter named after a song, each of those song titles has some integral connection to what happens in that chapter. Which means, given all the information in this blog post, you could conceivably piece together my entire novel. Or you could, you know, just listen to some great songs. And wait for the novel. Hopefully not too long, though. Fingers crossed.

Oh, and needless to say, this is a pretty accurate reflection of the music I was obsessing over circa 1994. This isn't everything I was listening to--I was just as much into The Kinks, Stereolab, and Ornette Coleman at the time--but it definitely sums up the scene I cut my teeth on. In a very direct way, this novel is an outgrowth of a huge, yearlong column about '90s punk/hardcore/post-hardcore/emo called Fear of a Punk Decade that I wrote for The A.V. Club.

P.S. In case you're wondering, I didn't make a Spotify playlist for these songs because Spotify didn't have all of these songs. Hopefully the YouTube embeds will suffice!

Chapter 1
“Welcome to Paradise”
-Green Day, Kerplunk (1992)

Chapter 2
“Pure Pain Sugar”
-Unwound, Fake Train (1993)

Chapter 3
“Unwritten Rules”
-Rancid, Rancid (1993)

Chapter 4
“In Circles”
-Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary (1994)

Chapter 5
“How We Connect”
-Dog Faced Hermans, Hum of Life (1993)

Chapter 6
“And I Live in a Town Where the Boys Amputate Their Hearts”
-Bratmobile, The Real Janelle (1994)


Chapter 7
“I Always Thought You Were an Asshole”
-Circus Lupus, Solid Brass (1993)

 Chapter 8
“Lightning Strikes Twice”
-Rorschach, Remain Sedate (1990)

Chapter 9
“A Chronology for Survival”
-Neurosis, Souls at Zero (1992)

Chapter 10
“Go Your Own Way”
-Seaweed, Go Your Own Way (1993)

Chapter 11
“The Science of Myth”
-Screeching Weasel, My Brain Hurts (1991)

Chapter 12
“Alien She”
-Bikini Kill, Pussy Whipped (1993)

Chapter 13
“Don’t Break Me”
-Samiam, Billy (1992)

Chapter 14
“A Comment on Ritual”
-The Nation of Ulysses, Plays Pretty for Baby (1992)

Chapter 15
-Quicksand, Quicksand (1990)


Chapter 16
“Mother Made Me”
–Lungfish, Rainbows from Atoms (1993)

Chapter 17
“Kiss the Bottle”
–Jawbreaker, 17 Reasons: The Mission District (1992)

Chapter 18
“Middle Finger Response”
-Propagandhi, How to Clean Everything (1993)

Chapter 19
“What Could I Have Done?”
-J Church, Quetzalcoatl (1993)

Chapter 20
“By the Throat”
-Born Against, Nine Patriotic Hymns for Children (1991)

Chapter 21
“End of a Lifetime”
-Unbroken, Life. Love. Regret. (1994)

Chapter 22
“Lies About the Sky”
-Shudder to Think, Funeral at the Movies (1991)

Chapter 23
“My Poor Friend Me”
-Bad Religion, Recipe for Hate (1993)

Chapter 24
“Through My Fingers”
-Pegboy, Three-Chord Monte (1990)

Chapter 25
“Shut the Door”
-Fugazi, Repeater (1990)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Readercon bound

I'll be attending Readercon in Burlington, Massachusetts, from July 9-12! This is my second time at Readercon, and the first time I'll be on programming (not counting the last-minute Sybil's Garage reading I participated in back in '09, thanks to my magnanimous editor Matthew Kressel).

This year I'll be on one panel, and it's on Friday, July 10 at 1 p.m., and the topic is: "It's Actually About Ethics: Reviewing the Work of Colleagues and Friends." My fellow panelists will include Jonathan Crowe, Elizabeth Hand, Kathryn Smith Morrow, and Liza Groen Trombi.

I'll be out and about at the convention all weekend, so if you'd like to chat about anything and everything (including any upcoming books you may have on the horizon), please do say hi. But just to let you know: I'm an introvert and a morning person, so if I seem distracted and/or overwhelmed (especially after dinnertime), that's why. Thanks for understanding.

See you there!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mile High Soul Club

Human beings frighten and confuse me, so I don't go out much these days. But I'm happy to make an exception tonight for MILE HIGH SOUL CLUB. I'll be the guest DJ tonight, and I'll be bringing my box of soul 45s, and I'll be playing them while I watch you dance. Does that sound creepy? Because it kind of is. Most of human existence is sort of sickeningly absurd, when you think about it. Thankfully there's soul music to help distract us from our own frightening, confusing selves. FUCKING PARTY! 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My AnomalyCon schedule

The schedule for this year's AnomalyCon -- Denver's big steampunk convention -- just went up. I'm on a whopping SEVEN panels, including a couple with Cory Doctorow and a few with my friends S. J. Chambers, Carrie Vaughn, and Molly Tanzer. My schedule is below (subject to eleventh-hour tweaks, of course). The con goes down March 27-19 at the Hyatt Regency Denver Tech Center. See you there?

7pm: Ancient Civilizations
From the very ancient to the near modern, history has a way of romanticizing features of our past that make us want to rewrite the stories about them.
B. Cherf, J. Heller, S. West, TL Morganfield

8pm: Why Are We Still Talking About This?
No, seriously. Why are we still talking about feminism and equality? Isn't it here yet?
C. Doctorow, S. Chambers, M. Fowler, J. Heller, C. Rose

11am: Steampunk, Anarchy, and Sociopolitical Activism
Steampunk is on the rise and fans of the genre enjoy more than just the aesthetic. But what about using the core of a movement to bring about positive change in the political or socioeconomic climate?
C. Doctorow, S. Chambers, J. Heller, A. Rogers

12pm: The Science of Steampunk
Steampunk might be considered "fantasy" to some hardcore scientists today, but the science of Steampunk looks a lot like hard science when examined through a Victorian lens.
G. DeMarco, M. Tanzer, J. Heller, S. Chambers

2pm: A History of Steampunk Music
What is Steampunk music, really, and how has the genre evolved through the ages?
T. Deeney, C. Vaughn, J. Heller

6pm: Steampunk Is Taking Over the World!
When people think "Steampunk," Jules Verne and Wild Wild West often come to mind. But the last 50 years of media have been full of hints of Steampunk. It's everywhere, and there are things you need to see and read.
J. Heller, S. Chambers, M. Acevedo

9pm: Why Steampunks Love Squid
Why Verne, why H.P. Lovecraft, why all the mysterious affiliations with squid? Discuss the Steampunk attachment to certain kinds of fiction.
G. DeMarco, J. Heller, T. Kroenung

Monday, February 9, 2015

Downton Abbey characters ranked by which ’80s British bands they listen to

Edith: The Smiths

Barrow: Death in June

Tom: Billy Bragg

Lady Mary: Siouxsie and the Banshees

Rose: The Style Council

Daisy: Bow Wow Wow

Lord Grantham: Cliff Richard

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Announcing: Fantastique

For the past few months, my old friend Frank Romero (co-founder of Denver Comic Con) and I have been curating and hosting SCIENCE FRICTION, a monthly science fiction film series at Alamo Drafthouse Denver. It's done so well, we're branching off into a second monthly series: FANTASTIQUE. The new series will be all fantasy, and it will go down on the first Thursday of every month at Alamo.

We're launching Fantastique on April 2, and we had to kick things off with one of our favorite fantasy films of all time: Highlander. It's a movie that helped put urban fantasy on the map in the '80s, back when that protean, nebulous term had different connotations entirely, and it stands as an undeniable epic (just don't think too hard about the sequels, although I will admit to having a real soft spot for the underrated Highlander TV series).

Fantastique, however, won't only cover the swords-and-sorcery end of fantasy, although there will be plenty of that. It's my goal to represent fantasy cinema as inclusively and diversely as possible; for me, there's room for all kinds of fabulism, magic realism, and/or uncategorizable films that stretch our view of reality. Conan the Barbarian? Willow? Sure, we love it. But Fantastique also has room for quieter, quirkier films like Robert Altman's Brewster McCloud and Guy Maddin's Careful.

As always, Frank and I will appear in person to introduce each Fantastique film as well as offer giveaways, host special guests, and so on. In fact, we have a great guest lined up for Highlander on April 2: Carrie Vaughn, New York Times-bestselling fantasy author, as well as a huge fan of Highlander herself. She's even started spreading the rumor that she may show up to the movie cosplaying as Sean Connery's character, Ramirez, sword and all... fingers crossed! She'll also be giving away signed copies of her latest novel, Low Midnight, courtesy of Tor Books. Oh, and like Science Friction, Fantastique is sponsored by The A.V. Club, where I'm Senior Writer and sometimes-puller-of-strings.

Tickets for Highlander aren't on sale quite yet, but I will certainly and selfishly spread the news as soon as they are. And I almost forgot to mention, the kitchen at the Alamo will be offering a dinner special that night, in honor of the film's Scottish theme: haggis. Not even kidding. See you there?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"...a labyrinth of capillaries."

Farrago's Wainscot--one of the most progressive and adventurous weird-fiction publications in recent memory--is back. And I'm lucky enough to have a short story in their new issue. The story is titled "Of Homes Gone," and it imagines an impoverished world where people are no longer allowed (or no longer allow themselves?) to go inside buildings. It also has boys without noses, hints of Guy Debord, and architecture that resembles "a labyrinth of capillaries." If you dare to read it, I hope you like it.

From Motherships to Dazzle Ships: An Author-Selected Sampler of Great Science Fiction Music

Adventure Rocketship! #1
A couple years ago I asked a few writers I love to list their favorite science-fiction-themed music. The goal was to print those lists in a future issue of a new SF journal out of England, Adventure Rocketship!, that I'd begun writing for.

That second issue of AR! has yet to materialize (although I'd love to see it surface at some point), which left me holding a handful of great lists of SF music. Below are those lists, a stellar sampler of albums, songs, and insights about the intersection of speculation and sound. Thanks to all involved. Time to queue up some Parliament.

My favorite SF-themed music is the stuff that heads straight for the
 concept of alienation and then turns it all the way inside out, sothat the sparks fly--no, soar--in every direction, and reach all ofus. I don't know how to rank these, so I won't; they're inchronological order.

1. Sun Ra, Interstellar Low Ways

2. Parliament, Mothership Connection

3. OutKast, ATLiens

4. Radiohead, Kid A

5. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid

1. UFO: Strangers in the Night
The live rendition of "Lights Out" is the best soundtrack to an SF adventure film never made. Ever. 

2. Montrose: Self-Titled Debut
In any intergalactic pit fight, someone will come to the match with "Rock the Nation" or "Space Station No. 5" as their theme song. 

3. Rush: 2112
Inspired by SF works from Isaac Asimov to Samuel R. Delaney, Neil Peart's space opera is smarter than anything Hawkind ever wrote, if not as cool. 

4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
When a new planet is born, the main theme is played. When a planet dies, the last song is played. 

5. Queen: Soundtrack to Flash Gordon
When a soundtrack is this awesome, No explanation is required.

My tracks, which purposefully don't include "The Final Countdown," though I did really want to somehow feature a Yes video:

1: "Rocket Man," Elton John
The loneliness up there, man. It's like Don DeLillo's "Human Moments in World War III" story. Also, Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids. At least not yet. But I've always wondered if that line was in response to Stranger in a Strange Land.

2: "Highwayman," Highwaymen
Willie liberating jewelry, Kris doing his best Bobby McGee out on the high seas, Waylon building Hoover, Johnny Cash playing Fear Agent out there between the planets. It all confirms some suspicions I'd had all along, about time and space, life and death.

3: "Band on the Run," Wings
I've always heard this song as if sung by a spaceship crew. Stuck inside these four walls, sent inside forever. That could be Ripley and Bishop and them, yes? HAL and Dave. And there's even an M-class planet in there, a 'desert world.' This song's pure Silent Running, pure Sunshine. And then of course they fall into that sunshine.

4: "Life on Mars?" David Bowie
Not the usual spidery pick from his catalog, I know. But how can that girl be watching that movie? And how can this 'Bowie' have written it? The story of the song wraps around on itself in a very Calvino way, and then's out the door only two verses in, so you don't even have time to question what just happened. Real aliens are clever like that.

5: "The Voice," Moody Blues, from Long Distance Traveler
I title I keep trying to use, for science fiction. You know how The Dark Side of the Moon's supposed to go with The Wizard of Oz? I've always thought Long Distance Traveler was meant as accompaniment for Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. Just listen to that first distant, obviously galactic sound that opens up "The Voice." It's haunting, it's bigger than any of us. Your mind has no choice but to fold open.

First runner-up: "Everything You Know Is Wrong," Weird Al. Obviously. 

Also, I vote Ace Frehley as the most science fiction of any guitar player ever, even counting interplanetery history and the Dominion.

Powers by Andy Partridge should be on the list. His eerie soundscape tribute album to sci-fi master artist Richard M. Powers is great.

Top 5 SF albums:

Really, nothing more need be said.

Queensryche--Operation: Mindcrime
Dystopia, mind control, assassination. Doesn't get much more SF than that.

King Crimson--In the Court of the Crimson King
My go-to psychedelia.

An underrated work. "The Gates of Delirium" is suitably epic.

Iron Maiden--Somewhere in Time
Another underrated album. One of the band's best. And hey, "Stranger in a Strange Land."

Top 5 SF singles:

Billy Thorpe, "Children of the Sun"
A one-hit wonder, but what a hit.

Blue Oyster Cult, "Veteran of the Psychic Wars"
A nightmare vision of the future, done without a hint of irony.

Rush, "The Body Electric"
Featuring one of my favorite Rush lyrics ever: "Bytes break into bits."

Zager and Evans, "In the Year 2525"
Cheesy? Sure. But never let it be said that rock 'n' roll doesn't take the long view.

Pink Floyd, "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun"
No idea what the song's about, but the title demands to be included here.

The ELO half of the soundtrack to Xanadu.

Deltron 3030: Deltron 3030
This record is to science fiction what Enter the Wu-Tang was for kung fu. A dense, mythology-heavy concept record with more sfnal ideas than you can shake a blaster at, it's also a damn good listen from start to finish.

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
I mean, c'mon.

Black Sabbath: Paranoid
Y'all can keep your Zeppelin-y ruminations on the Shire; I'll take the crushing, post-apocalyptic tunes of classic Sabbath any day.

Parliament: Mothership Connection
Like Douglas Adams, Parliament punctures the myth of the self-serious science fiction nerd with one of the ass-shakin'est records of all time.

Devo: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!
De-evolution never sounded so good.

1) "Replicas" by Gary Numan and Tubeway Army
Full of robot friends ("Are Friends Electric?") and night clubs were humans are tortured for the entertainment of robots ("Down in the Park"), this album to me fully encapsulates the cyberpunk verve of the early 80s.

2) "Visage" by Visage
Glitz and glam new wave with a decidedly futuristic edge, this was the sound we imagined would be playing in the night clubs of the 21st century, back when 2000 seemed so far away. The video for the title track "Visage" might have been a cut scene from Blade Runner. And I could see their most popular hit, "Fade to Grey", as the theme song to Chris Marker's brilliant French time-travel film La Jetée.

3) "Flaunt It" and "Dress for Excess" by Sigue Sigue Sputnik
I include both albums here because it's hard for me to separate them. SSS mocked the corporate excess and over-consumption that showed its moisturized face in the early 80s. SSS went so far as to put ads for hair products (Loreal) and fashion rags (ID Magazine) and others between each song. "Love Missile F1-11" made an appearance in the opening act of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and the upbeat track turns Cold War paranoia into one long sexual metaphor.  Layering their music with samples from Blade Runner, Scarface, Dirty Harry, and Japanese advertisements, it's easy to enter the future techno-pop world that Sigue Sigue Sputnik imagined for us. Favorite tracks are "21-st Century Boy," "Teenage Thunder," "Rio Rocks," and "M.A.D." The albums are worth it just for their cover art.

4) "Dazzle Ships" by OMD
Known for their pop songs like "If You Leave," "Dazzle Ships" was a sharp departure from their previous oeuvre. "Genetic Engineering" warns about the dangers of experimenting with human DNA and has my favorite use of a Speak-and-Spell (an 80s toy) which creepily chants in a Stephen-Hawking-esque voice, "Babies, mother, hospital, scissors. Creature, judgment, butcher, Engineer." "Dazzle Ships Pts. 1-3" might be the sound of a spaceship docking gone wrong, while "Time Zones" layers recordings of individuals from around the world announcing the time. With tracks called "The Romance of the Telescope," "Radio Waves," and "Telegraph" this album veers sharply toward the science-fictional landscape and safely lands on its own unique planet.

5) Blade Runner Soundtrack by Vangelis
Blade Runner, that iconic film that has influenced everything from fashion to architecture, would only be half a film if not for the surreal aural landscape painted by Vangelis. Due to rights issues, the original film score wasn't available for public release until 1994, and so for years we had to listen to the cheap methadone substitute of an orchestral version. Who can forget the atmospheric sounds of "Main Titles" when the film opens to Los Angeles' smog-choked streets? And the haunting saxophone of the "Love Theme" is forever seared into my mind as the sound of future city blues.  With "Memories of Green" we can almost hear Rachael's tears as she realizes she's a replicant. "Tales of the Future" takes us down into Animoid Row, where artificial animals are sold on thronging streets.  And the "End Titles" might be the orchestral accompaniment to Philip K. Dick's dreams. May you rest in peace, fair prophet!