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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Rejoinder: Liturgical Music in Science Fiction? I think so!

by Jeanne Van Slyke Evans

Before I was confirmed in the Anglican Church, I had no idea what liturgy was. As a church musician most of my life, that may seem impossible, but thrust into the roles of Music Director, Cantor, Choir Member, Pianist, and Organist (yes, all at once in a very small church), one learns to sink or swim.

Research into actual liturgical music in sci-fi leaves a cold trail so far. That parameter is a little too narrow, when viewed through the lens of Christian and religious liturgy. However, I can think of several instances of quasi-liturgical, almost communion-esque scenes in sci-fi films.

According to Wikipedia:

Liturgy is the customary public worship performed by a religious group. As a religious phenomenon, liturgy represents a communal response to and participation in the sacred through activities reflecting praise, thanksgiving, remembrance, supplication, or repentance. 

In my personal experience liturgy is a pattern of prayers and actions that lead up to a sermon, and usually the taking of communion—or a similar blessing that brings together the people who gather and agree on their set of beliefs. The sections of the liturgical service are prefaced with a short song the choir leads for the congregants to sing, followed by a reading of a passage in unison. Sections of the Anglican service include the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and the vicar directs the congregation along the way.

I have to wonder: what was the background music in various films when characters were gathering and agreeing on common beliefs? In Dune, Paul Atreides becomes the Messiah who will make the waters cover the deserts of Arrakis and harness the former nemesis of the planet, the worms, to defeat the slave-mafia of the Spice Guild. Well, everyone who likes sci-fi knows that—but can some of the music be considered liturgical? Brian Eno wrote more music for the 1984 film than actually made it into the final cut. Eno’s three-hour “Prophecy Theme” on YouTube illustrates my idea:

When Paul—Muad’Dib—stands with his hand in a pose of blessing, in front of a large army of Fremen who intend to conquer the Guild, the tall standards form a cross and there are choristers/monks lining the sides of the elongated cave.


Wordless music, calming a crowd, bringing in the spirit of solidarity: devotional music and hymns can do the same thing, and each has its own purpose within a worship service, but I think the ‘Prophecy Theme’ comes closest to being liturgical in truest form.

Then, we have the Book People of Fahrenheit 451, wandering the forest like monks, nuns, and other devoted believers—of books. They speak their memorized books like a liturgy, each one a part of the larger whole of mankind’s intellectual and artistic history. Have you ever paused to listen to the music there, in the background? I may have heard it countless times viewing this wonderful film, but here is yet another wordless song of worship.

Bernard Hermann, “The Road and the Finale”

This is what I preach to my music students all the time.  Music is everywhere, and in everything. It creates tension in scary movies, sets the moods required for any emotions required of the audience, and makes great sound effects. In this sense, it would be hard to have music in books or stories.  It’s not always liturgical, but watch and listen—especially listen. Music permeates everything from ball games, to commercials, to funerals. Music is often part of any event, organized or not. So, who’s to say that “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” wouldn’t be ‘liturgical,’ since it leads up to a group of people there for a purpose? Expanding liturgy into the universe, and at the risk of being sacrilegious, one could say that this was once a sacred song!

Jeanne Van Slyke Evans holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education and both a BA and MFA in English. A native Minnesotan, she now lives and gardens in Zone 8, and teaches voice and piano lessons and occasionally watercolor painting workshops. Most of her reading is in poetry and non-fiction, but she also loves historical fiction, especially anything related to the Arthurian legends.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Twelve Notes in Search of a Theme


Spring returns to the North Country, traveling in the company of soft rains and the occasional thundershower. The sudden transformation seems nearly miraculous. In a week the grass has gone from brown and apparently dead to lush, green, and growing. The crocuses have already finished their warm-up act and the puschkinias are wrapping up their run. The tulips are full of the promise of blossoms, the bloodroot is all set to go for its big opening number, and a few of the more eager daffodils have already popped into full bloom. One lonely sandhill crane struts around the cow pasture, wondering why all the rest are late. The air is full of the songs of birds, just returned from their winter homes down south.

Yes, I’m sure the geese think the racket with which they salute the dawn is the most beautiful singing in all the world, too.


If you’ve written to me in the past two weeks or so, my apologies for the tardiness of my reply. Things here have gone just a bit wobbly on the rails again. We don’t know yet whether this is some new symptom or just another pharmaceutical misadventure, but suffice to say we’re back on the diagnostic roller-coaster. Rather than publish speculation and supposition, we’ll share the news when we have actual news to share.

When one is living with cancer, one tends to either clam up or overshare. Other people overshare much better than I do. I think I’ll leave that field to them.


ASK DR. CYBERPUNK is giving it a miss this week. I had begun to write the whole sordid story of how my original c-word novel began as something—well, something pretty darn cyberpunky—but mutated into a military boarding school bildungsroman. I will get back to that topic, but not this week.

The short version is that a) it was my fault, and b) it’s a cautionary tale for aspiring writers. Sometimes, even when you have a four-book deal in hand and both your editor and your agent agree that you need to make “just a few small changes” to make the finished novel a more commercial property, the right thing to do is still to tell them both to get stuffed and walk away from the deal.


If you have noticed, I have been taking a Facebook holiday for the past week or so. This was not intentional. A bit over a week ago I found myself locked out of my Facebook account, not because I had committed Thoughtcrime (as I had at first thought), but because of a Javascript bug in the Facebook login routine. Eventually I figured out how to solve the problem and get back into Facebook—and I’ll be happy to share my workaround with anyone who’s interested—but by the time I did get back into Facebook again I’d gone cold turkey long enough that the urgent need to check Facebook had abated, so I decided to treat this as an experiment. Is there a significant observable correlation between my level of Facebook activity and RLP book sales? A week’s worth of data suggests that no, there is not.

If you have not noticed that I have been off Facebook, see the previous paragraph.

As an aside: interesting that when I found myself locked out of Facebook, my first assumption was that I had violated some unwritten and capriciously enforced social media speech policy. If I ever teach a class in science fiction, writing, futurism, or anything like that, remind me to put 1984 on the required reading list.


While we’re on the subject of writing science fiction and predicting the future and such, quite a few people have asked how I do it. The answer is surprisingly simple. Beyond obvious cause and effect—e.g., “If you don’t show up for work consistently, I predict that you will lose your job”—it is impossible to predict the future accurately on a micro scale, and anyone who claims to be able to do so is either a liar, a charlatan, or an astrologer. Fortunately, you, being a paid professional liar—that is, a science fiction writer—can join their company without any qualms at all, so go ahead: pants it. Make up stuff on the fly just because it sounds cool. If it turns out later that you guessed right: great! Bask in the glory!

If you feel compelled to try to predict the future on a macro scale and to do it somewhat accurately, though, understand that before you can do so, you must first know the answer to this ancient riddle:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


For the past few weeks, until things went off the rails about two weeks ago, we had been doing ad hoc “theme weeks” here on, with most of the posts in any given week having something to do with some specific topic. Question for the readers: are theme weeks worth continuing, or would you rather see a broader spectrum of topics every week?

I ask because Pete Wood has proposed doing Ray Bradbury Week. I will cheerfully publish Pete’s column on the subject but don’t know that I myself have anything left to say about Bradbury. I wrote a lot of Bad Imitation Bradbury stories when I was in junior high and high school. My never-finished thesis was to be a hatchet-job on Bradbury, written from that arrogant P.O.V. that is only accessible to those in their mid-20s who believe they are really hot [stuff]. A few years later I had the good fortune to meet Bradbury, and the experience absolutely floored me, because he recognized my name and started talking to me about a story of mine that had just been published in Amazing. But...

Ray Bradbury Week? Is this a theme that interests you?


I am slightly disappointed that Music in Science Fiction / Science Fiction in Music Week fizzled out as quickly as it did, as I have many more questions I would like to see explored. For example, in the spacefaring planet-hopping science fictional future, where’s the liturgical music? If you go traveling around the Pacific Ocean today it seems impossible to find any place, no matter how remote, where you are not following in the footsteps of some 18th or 19th century Christian missionary who went there before you, schlepping along his Bible, his hymnal, his long-suffering assistant, and a portable pump organ. Are we to believe that in the future there will not be missionaries out there in the stars, spreading the good news of the gospel and teaching the natives to sing “Amazing Grace” in their native language?

Or what about all these oppressive theocracies that science fiction writers seem to like to imagine? Don’t they have any music besides pounding kettle drums and choirs of the damned to go with their hideous and arcane rituals?


Okay, maybe they’ll have pipe organs. Pipe organs have been with us for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks had hydraulically powered pipe organs. The ancient Romans had pipe organs in their coliseums, and some yutz was at the console playing the Roman equivalent of “Charge!” and “We are the Champions” as the score went Lions 6, Christians 0. We don’t know exactly what they played, as no known written record of their music survives, but archaelogists have unearthed enough fragments of their instruments that we know how they would have sounded. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras worked out the details of “pure” diatonic tuning sometime before 500 BCE, the Romans adopted it for their pipe organs, and we’ve been living with it ever since—although to modern ears* true Pythagorean intonation sounds a little off, as we are more used to tempered intonation, which only came into fashion about 300 years ago.

[*Excluding clarinet and saxophone players, of course, who insist that they are correct and everyone else is slightly out-of-tune.]


My point is, music is inextricably linked to acoustic physics, and therefore to mathematics, so where is the science fiction that even thinks about the sci-fi implications? Music is intrinsic to what we are as human beings: we love to sing, we love to dance; yes, even your brother-in-law with two left feet who can’t carry a tune in a bucket and whose voice sounds like geese farts on a muggy day. We take our music with us wherever we go; we make music with whatever we have at hand, even if it's only pounding out a rhythm on a teak log while someone else blows a solo on the conch shell. We love music, and the how, why, and what of the music we make is constantly evolving.

So why is music in science fiction so very much like science fictional “magic gravity?” (You know, the principle that in the future, no matter where you go or what sort of spaceship you might be on, you will still be able to move about just exactly as if you were walking around a soundstage on the Paramount lot.) I mean, consider what just a small increase in the amount of helium in the atmosphere does to the sound of the human voice. Now imagine what effect that would have on a singer, or someone trying to play a clarinet.

I know, I know: they’d still insist that they were the only ones properly in tune.

As far as the future of music is concerned, only one thing is certain: that the future of music is a recipriversexclusion. The moment someone announces that they know the future of music—or worse, that they are the future of music—that becomes the one future that absolutely cannot possibly happen.


Tomas G. asks:

Hi Mr. Bethke, I would absolutely love to purchase several issues of Stupefying Stories, but the only thing holding me back is that they are only available on Kindle, which is inconvenient as an overseas owner of a Kobo E-Reader... Is there any way I could buy an issue in a DRM-protected EPUB format? Is there a specific reason that you choose to publish in this way?

We’ve gone back and forth several times on this one. When we first launched we went wide, with distribution on every possible e-book reader we could support. That quickly proved to be more cumbersome than advantageous, as it entailed a lot of extra work for very little increase in sales. As we discovered at the time, a great month’s sales on Nook or iTunes was a slow day’s sales on Kindle.

Since then the tools have improved, so that the production overhead is no longer a problem, but Amazon has upped their game and offered us a lot of incentives to put titles exclusively on Kindle, most notably the Kindle Unlimited program. We keep experimenting with it, but so far the results have been the same. The Kindle Unlimited program sells novels. When we pull novels off KU—as we have to do if we want to distribute to non-Kindle users—sales drop dramatically. 

The interesting part is that KU sells novels but appears to inhibit sales of short story collections. With novels, KU subscribers seem to read enough to decide to buy the entire book, but with short stories, they seem to read just the one or two stories that catch their interest and ignore the rest of the book.

Right now we’re just trying to solve our production problems and get issues #24 and #25 out the door. Once we do that, we’ll revisit the issue and decide whether we want to keep Stupefying Stories as a Kindle-only title or give it wider distribution. 


Dark and Gritty Week also got short shrift. I was working with my wife on an article about the female perspective on darkness in storytelling when we first realized that something was, if not wrong, at least not right, and we may yet complete that article. But for now, I want to close out the topic with one bit of the exchange, in which my wife was making the point that it’s very tightly tied in with the whole Good Guy/Bad Boy dichotomy and the evolutionary advantages of seeking a mate from further away in the gene pool. “Yes,” she said, “we want to marry the Good Guy.

“But only after we’ve had a wild fling with the Bad Boy.”

In response to my arched eyebrow, she added, “Remember our first date? How my Dad was sitting there at the kitchen table, in full uniform, cleaning his service revolver, and grilling you on where we were going, what we were going to do, and when you were going to bring me back?

“Did you think he did that for boys he approved of my dating? You were everything he’d warned me against bringing home: a long-haired liberal college-boy intellectual.

“That made you like catnip. How could I resist?”


Finally, item #12—and I’ll confess, I had to stretch it a bit to make it to twelve, but I did so for a reason. It’s a self-conscious nod to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, which yes, I did study, and even used to some extent, although I was never any good at it. I always found it too sterile, mechanistic, and pretentiously academic and intellectual. These days I could probably write a computer program to auto-generate twelve-tone compositions…

Although come to think of it, I already did something like that, about 40 years ago. I wrote a piece for computer-controlled sequencer tracks and marimba, and I remember the percussionist complaining afterward that I’d given all the tricky and technically challenging parts to the computer.

Of course I did. That’s what computers are good at: things that require great technical precision but no soul. What he was there for was to provide the human element; the warmth and slight randomness. But he didn’t see it that way.

Maybe there’s a story in that… 

—Bruce Bethke

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Talking Shop: Avoiding Panic Quit • By Eric Dontigney

In a recent Ask Dr. Cyberpunk, Bruce dropped this nugget of wisdom:

“Hence my one piece of enduring advice to aspiring novelists: write the ending first. Then figure out what you need to write to set up that ending, and write it. In the process you may wind up throwing out your original ending as the characters hijack the story and demand that it head off in a different direction, but at least you will have some idea of where you intended to go.”

I happen to agree, in part, with this piece of advice. It’s especially useful for those non-linear writers. What about linear writers, though? If you’re a pantser who does write from beginning to end, like I often do, does this still apply? Can you still be a pantser if you know the ending? In short, I think it does apply and that you can still be a pantser if you know how it ends. 

I don’t think you absolutely need to physically write out the ending. I do think that you need a clear idea of how things will wrap up. Here are some basic questions you should be able to answer after the first 25-50 pages (generally the easiest part of the novel to write for most pantsers):

  1. Who will live?
  2. Who (if anyone) will die?
  3. What is the major conflict that will be resolved?
  4. How will the protagonist resolve it?
  5. How (if applicable) will you set up a sequel?

Without answers to those basic questions, you will likely start flailing about once your pass the halfway mark in your book. Why? Because that’s when you need to start resolving plot threads. You can’t resolve those threads if you don’t know (or at least have some general idea) where the story is heading. I don’t know it’s true, but strongly suspect that a lot of novels stop dead right around there because the writers never considered how they’d wrap things up. I call this as the panic quit. You don’t know what to do, so you just stop.

Neil Gaiman even talks about this in somewhat oblique terms, though I can’t find the specific reference. To paraphrase, he says something like:

“Around two-thirds of the way through writing a book, I become convinced that the book is terrible and no one will want to read it. I call my editor to tell her these things. Then, she says: ‘Oh, you’re at that part of the book.’”

That paraphrased snippet should tell you a couple of things. Even seasoned, professional novelists who adopt the pantser approach struggle with this problem. It’s not an insoluble problem. You can tell by the way Gaiman has written or co-written about a dozen novels, half a dozen short fiction collections, and 15-20 children’s books. 

Knowing the ending in advance is one way to resolve the problem.

The other way main you can resolve the problem is by reviewing what you wrote and noting the key plot points you’ve set up so far. Then ask yourself:

“Where does/can the story logically go from here?”

Before you start that process, your brain will likely tell you that the story can go anywhere. Your brain is lying to you. By the time you get to the halfway or two-thirds mark in your book, you’re going to discover during your review that you’ve probably only left yourself a handful of plausible endings. It’s been my experience that I’ve unconsciously laid out a whole set of hints and clues about where the story is going. Then, you just need to pick one of the available endings and write toward it.

Now, how can you still call yourself a pantser if you know the ending? I can hear it now:

“You know the ending? Isn’t that plotting you pantser-fraud?!”

It is plotting, sort of. But knowing the ending you plan for your book has the same relationship to plotting as a concept drawing has to the blueprints for a building. If you’re really plotting a novel, you figure out every step that gets you from point A to point Z in advance. If you’re just writing with an end in mind, you’re inventing all the steps along the way. That, to me, is pantser writing.

So, here are the key takeaways:

  1. Decide from the get-go or very early in the writing process how it will end
  2. If you didn’t do that and you’re halfway done or better, don’t panic quit because you don’t know the ending
  3. Review what you wrote and note the major plot points
  4. Ask yourself what plausible endings you can get from those plot points (there won’t be that many)
  5. Pick one of the plausible endings
  6. Write the rest of the book aiming at that ending

This can feel a little inorganic to the dyed-in-the-wool pantser. For my part, though, I find settling for something a little inorganic far preferable to the prospect of having 50,000-70,000 words of a novel sitting on my computer with no hope of ever finishing it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

A View from the Geek: Why Do People Like Space Opera and Urban Fantasy? • By Eric Dontigney

I’ve been reading a lot of space opera and urban fantasy lately. This, in turn, has made me think a lot about why so many people like space opera and urban fantasy. Let’s be honest, these aren’t subgenres that are reputed to specialize in deep thinking. Sure, you can work in some reflections on society, maybe have a bit of introspection, but that’s not why people show up and read them. It’s certainly not why people show up and read 3 or 5 or 14 books in a series. At least, that seems to be the assumption from the outside looking in.  

It would be exceedingly easy to chalk up people’s interest in these subgenres as lazy thinking. They just show up for popcorn entertainment and that’s it. It’d be really easy to chalk the subgenres themselves up as the Marvel films of speculative literature. For some people, that might even be true. For specific examples of the subgenres, that might even be true. But it doesn’t hold water as a blanket explanation. 

Let’s take the Honor Harrington series as an example of space opera. At a surface reading, it’s just Horatio Hornblower in space…with an empathic cat. And, let’s be honest, that’s actually a really good pitch. You get exciting space battles. Naval shenanigans. A central character who is, all too often, more honorable than almost everyone around her. Hell, Harrington even fights a duel in one of the books. It certainly seems to tick all the boxes of popcorn fiction space opera.

Except, it’s not. David Weber isn’t shy about working some dense politics into the books. He’s also not shy about knocking political positions he doesn’t appreciate in the books (a hallmark of Baen books). He doesn’t shy away from complexity in his plots. The first book in the series depends on a conspiracy that takes most of the book to become obvious. He’s put a ridiculous amount of thought into the science of those space battles. Now, granted, the Honor Harrington series is widely acclaimed space opera. So, let’s look a little closer to home at something that’s received a little less critical examination.

Rampant Loon’s very own Henry Vogel is a space opera writing machine. So, let’s take a look at one of his recent books, The Lost Planet. What do we get there? Big space battles. Honorable heroes. Galactic politics. Interplanetary mystery. Hmmmm…this also ticks the right boxes, except it doesn’t really fit the bill of science fiction lite, either. In fact, it’s fairly complex in terms of plotting and character development for a standalone space adventure tale. All of which brings me around to my point.

I don’t think people respond to space opera or urban fantasy because they’re simplistic or easy. I think people show up and read them for a very different reason. Most space opera and urban fantasy novels take a hard pass on delving into the “big issues.” Sure, environmental concerns might show up in a space opera, but only as a means of forwarding the plot, not as a central conceit. Poverty might show up in an urban fantasy, but it’s never the major thrust of the novel. While these issues are crucially important for societies in big picture terms, it’s very easy for people to get burned out on them.

I think of it as issue fatigue. It’s the point where you know, intellectually, that you should care about something, but you don’t have enough bandwidth to engage with the topic. The non-stop news cycle hasn’t made this any better. We’re constantly bombarded by images and stories that try to scare us, tug on our heartstrings, or some demonic combination of the two. What’s worse is that we know we should be having some kind of visceral reaction to these things, except, after a while, we don’t.

When you’re exposed to things that trigger strong emotions, it’s not just mental. It’s physical as well. Your body goes through something called the stress cycle. You see the emotional trigger, which trips responses in your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and hypes your autonomic nervous system. That, in turn, triggers your sympathetic nervous system and sets off a hormone cascade that releases adrenaline into your system. Then, when your body decides there is no actual threat or no immediate reason for emotional arousal, it turns off the process by releasing more hormones.

When this happens a few times a month, it’s no big deal. In fact, that’s what your body is supposed to do. Your body isn’t wired to endure that process multiple times a day, every day. One of the theories is that you experience adrenal fatigue. Basically, your adrenal glands can’t keep up production of stress hormones. So, despite knowing you should be reacting to things you hear or see, you don’t get the visceral response you expect. That creates a disconnect between your physical experience and your emotional experience or expected emotional experience. It can quite literally feel like you don’t care that much.  

Assuming the adrenal fatigue theory holds up, you need time away from things that trigger that response. My theory is that people in that state (which probably makes up a lot of the saner adult population these days) don’t want to engage with the “big issues” that don’t have clear solutions in their recreational reading. It’s not that they fear complexity or want something simple. It’s that want things that are direct. They want problems where there are clear sides. They want a story where you’ve got a protagonist you more or less accept as the good guy, who tackles people who are the bad guys.

That hero can operate in the gray, as long as the people on the other side are demonstrably worse. That way, we can root for the protagonist and feel a kind of vicarious victory. We can take sides and know we’re in the right. In some way, it serves a basic need in our psychology for fairness or justice to win out in the end. That describes the reading experience of space opera and urban fantasy pretty well. It’s not universally the case, but it’s a fair expectation about 90% of the time.

I think, if there is such a thing as a simple explanation for why people read the things they do, these are the reasons why people respond to space opera and urban fantasy. It’s a way to escape the apparent expectation that we’ll engage, all the damn time, with the “big issues.” An escape that gives our poor fatigued adrenal glands a break. It’s an opportunity for us to deal vicariously with a direct problem that has clear sides. It’s a rare opportunity that lets us find basic fairness in a world that so rarely provides it.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke

Funny how quickly a week gets behind you when you’re just busy busy busy, scampering like a squirrel from one urgent priority to the next. We have a lot going on behind the scenes here right now at Casa Calamari. One of those things is this book, which I’m really hoping to have ready for release soon. 

As I was digging down through the midden in my office and trying to extract order from chaos, I came across the following notes, scribbled on a string of Post-It notes stuck to a manuscript page. Given the strata in which I found it I wrote this sometime in 2017 or 2018, but even then it was a recapitulation of something I’d found while on an earlier dig for my original notes and manuscript fragments from 1988~1989. For your amusement, then:

Colonizing the Digital Frontier

It will go like this.

1st wave - the cyberpunk phase, primarily kids, anarchists, hackers, wild cards

2nd wave - early adopter capitalists, moving in to figure out how to make money off what the kids have pioneered

3rd wave - organized crime and malignant political actors, moving in to exploit the trust the 2nd wave built and to make real money

4th wave - government, first in the form of military and intelligence agencies trying to figure out what the hell is going on here, followed by regulatory and taxing authorities trying to control it and get the government a piece of the 2nd wave action

Thereafter it settles down into the usual corporatist/fascist unholy alliance between the 4th wave and the successful survivors of the 2nd wave. The 2nd/4th wave alliance will do a great job of getting rid of all that pesky free speech, driving out or putting in prison whoever’s left from the 1st wave, and strangling their nascent competitors in their cribs.

After that things settle into a state of wobbly equilibrium with the 3rd wave. The 3rd wave has the edge in imagination and thus in finding new and creative ways to be evil, but the 2nd/4th wave has the edge in money and raw power and thus is always one close step behind the 3rd wave. 

The 1st wave people, if there are any left or any new ones coming along, will be irrelevant, except insofar as they can be co-oped to join the 3rd or 4th waves. 


Gee, it’s a shame I never wrote that book. 

—Bruce Bethke


Friday, March 26, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke

And now, as threatened promised:


I’ve been doing a lot of digging in the deep archives lately, as I work on—well, this. The book I’ve been talking about writing for years. The one that ties together the original short story, how it mutated to become the aborted Baen-damaged novel, and what it’s meant to me personally to have spent the past 35-plus years being known all over the world as, “The Guy Who Wrote Cyberpunk.”

It’s finally become apparent to me that this book will never really be finished. Just last week, more than twenty new questions came in from people wanting to know this or that thing about the inception, creation, propagation, etc., etc., etc. of cyberpunk. 

Hence this feature on the Stupefying Stories web site. I’ve come to the conclusion that Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk Revisited needs to become both a book and an interactive web feature. The book will contain the definitive version of the original story (Thank you, Leen!), my notes about the writing of the original story and what it took to take the thing from original concept to published work, my description of the novel I was in the process of writing when Jim Baen called, and the complete text of the resulting novel that Baen then refused to release because he hated the ending and I refused to write the ending he wanted. Cap it off with a suitable postlude containing information culled from decades of interviews, and then include a link to Ask Dr. Cyberpunk for them’s as has further questions, because invariably, someone will.

To deal with one of those questions right now: “Why don’t you just release your original novel?”

Hark! Utopians! I Wanna Rock! • by Chris Naron

It’s hard for me to admit that I was at one time a Star Trek fan, but in my defense, I wasn’t quite aware of the levels of fandom that existed above me. Everyone has their thing, and that’s cool. But even Star Trek fans have to admit that it gets way out of hand.

Where’s the line, you ask? The line for me isn’t dressing up like a Klingon or getting married at the Star Trek thing they have in Las Vegas. Some chicks actually look better as Klingons, and if I could have gotten married in a Mississippi State Bulldogs uniform—pads and all—I would have. No, for me, the line is where you stop enjoying the Star Trek universe for the adventure and imagination and start believing in its Utopian vision.

I could never buy the notion of an Earth united internally and with distant planets for one simple reason: such a future never includes rock and roll.

Mind you, I’m not saying that the writers of Star Trek don’t include rock and roll in their stories. Star Trek: First Contact included some Steppenwolf and Roy Orbison, but the sight of Zefram Cochrane dancing to Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” would make me long for a future without rock myself. Barring those exceptions, the utopian vision of Star Trek does not include rock. Jazz and classical, yes. But in a perfect society, no one wants to rock.

There are plenty of other examples, of course. In the Logan's Run utopia, really bad music seems to rule the future. Not surprisingly, Jerry Goldsmith composed the soundtracks for both Logan's Run and Star Trek: First Contact. The man is a great composer, but a rocker he is not. And I’m not really commenting on the soundtracks as much as whether or not these sci-fi universes with utopian themes include rock music. In Star Trek, for instance, it’s assumed that Classical and Jazz survive as art forms enjoyed by the characters. For rock, such is not the case.

Interestingly, dystopian visions often do include rock, but mostly in the soundtrack. Movies like the animated Heavy Metal and the 1980 version of Flash Gordon make great use of hard rock and metal bands for their soundtracks, but the characters don't play the stuff. (Now, at this point I must admit that my knowledge of sci-fi movies is somewhat limited, so if my assertions are off in that technically there are movies where the characters play rock music, I’m more than willing to accept it. However, the main point I’m making is that Utopian visions in sci-fi do not include rock. Obscure examples in obscure movies do not necessarily contradict this point.)

So if we can concede that rock is not a part of sci-fi’s more optimistic visions, why is this the case?

Perhaps the world outgrows rock. Musical fashions come and go, so it’s not far-fetched that hundreds of years from now, people will have no desire to express themselves in power chords, growling vocals, and skull-splitting drumbeats. Hmm, could be. I think it’s more likely that the writers of these visions assume that in a future where we’ve finally achieved harmony and equality, there will be no need for aggressive, sexual, violent, and passionate music. Well, at least not the kind of passionate music produced by the masses. In the future, everyone is an elite. Their tastes are all refined beyond that which might cause one to bang one’s head.

In the Star Trek vision, music is just another excuse to show how much more emotionally and intellectually developed the characters are than us. Data plays classical tunes to perfection on his violin, giving another character an excuse to bloviate about how important emotions are when playing a piece of music. Data doesn’t have emotions, you see. I bet if he cranked out Randy Rhodes’ solo from Revelation Mother Earth to perfection, no one would whine about his lack of emotions. Or, when Commander Riker plays his jazz trombone, I guess we’re supposed to marvel at his intergalactic street cred. Is he trying to impress black people or white people? Someone ought to tell him that Geordi La Forge is the whitest man in the galaxy.

It’s a shame, too. There is no fictional race better suited to carry heavy metal music to the rest of the universe than the Klingons. Their whole planet is an Iron Maiden video. I’ll wager that the whole unpleasantness between the Klingons and the Federation could have been solved much sooner had they contacted Earth in the mid- to late-1980s, when hair metal was its height. They would have recognized the look at least, and even if hair metal wasn't hard enough for them, Thrash and Speed Metal were coming into their own, and even harder stuff was just a few years off. You can’t tell me a Klingon wouldn’t have felt right at home in the front row at a GWAR show.

Heck, come to think of it, even Vulcans would have loved Dream Theater and Rush. Very logical stuff.

Finally, I know there is one obvious exception to the “No Rock in Utopia” rule: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. You thought I forgot, but I didn’t. While the plot of Bill and Ted centers around a peaceful and prosperous future that owes its very existence to rock and roll, I don’t think it is considered to be serious science fiction. But ask yourself: would you rather live in Bill and Ted’s future, or Star Trek’s?

Wedgies for those who answer incorrectly.



Chris Naron is a father, husband, strength coach, football degenerate, and erstwhile writer. He starred in a Three Stooges commercial with Tracy Morgan, and the wife of Green Day’s drummer recorded one of his songs. Though he lives in Southern California, he’s most proud to know the owner of Shipley’s Do-Nuts in Greenville, Mississippi.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Music in Science Fiction, or Science Fiction in Music? (Part 2)

Sixties rock ‘n’ roll and New Wave science fiction grew up together, step-siblings living on the wrong side of the tracks in the shadows of the larger culture of the Space Age. Never mind for now the question of why there’s so much lame and insipid music in science fiction. Why isn’t there more and much better science fiction in rock music?

Especially in England, the two subcultures intermingled. Science fiction writers and rock musicians: they knew each other, they hung out with the same people, they dated each other's ex’s, they went to the same parties, they shared the same drugs. So why didn’t science fiction have more of an impact on the development of rock music?

The answer, I think, is that it did, but it was largely a regrettable and forgettable impact. As with many things wrong with the world today the Sixties in general are to blame, but The Rolling Stones in particular caused the single biggest problem. 

If you go looking for science fiction-influenced rock ‘n’ roll, the usual list is pretty short. David Bowie typically comes in first, with “Space Oddity,” and perhaps some people also remember “Starman.” He actually wrote and recorded quite a few songs with science fiction content, not to mention starring in The Man Who Fell To Earth, but in a weird twist of fate, Bowie recorded his first demo tapes with Joe Meek, the man who had previously written and produced “Telstar.” Meek subsequently decided Bowie wasn’t worth further development (Meek also turned down The Beatles and Rod Stewart), and those original demo tapes, along with thousands of hours of other recordings of a veritable who’s who of Sixties rock stars, have been sitting unreleased ever since, while record companies and lawyers for artists’ estates argue over who owns exactly what.

Plenty of other sci-fi influenced music was released in the Sixties, though, by other artists working for other record labels. My personal pick for the undiscovered masterpiece of the lot is “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” which you’ll find on Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album. In 1967 Marty Balin’s lyrics were merely strange, but with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight we can see now that this track is obviously a love song Marty is singing to his sexbot. So obviously…

After a fairly small handful of highlights, though, and a few promising concept albums—Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Center of the Earth—the list of good SF-influenced rock peters out pretty quickly. The problem with Sixties SF-influenced rock was that it soon merged with psychedelia and evolved disintegrated into “Space Rock,” a subgenre best forgotten. Before Dark Side of the Moon (which has nothing to do with science fiction; it seems to be mostly about Roger Waters’ premature midlife crisis), Pink Floyd had been a leading proponent of the idiom, with songs like “Astronomy Domine” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” By the time they got into the studio to record Meddle, though, they’d changed the lyrics of “Echoes” specifically to avoid the “space rock” label, and therefore to avoid being thrown in the same bin with—

Well, with bands like Hawkwind, for example. And Amon Düül II. And a whole lot of other freakish experiments from the late 1960s to early 1970s that are best forgotten now.

So what do The Rolling Stones have to do with all this? Aside from recording “2000 Light Years From Home,” weren’t they mostly off recording pleasant little religious ditties, like “Sympathy for the Devil,” Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Goat’s Head Soup

Well, yes, the band was. But in a story that’s been passed around science fiction writers so many times it’s become nearly apocryphal, their business organization was looking for a science fiction property they could develop into a stage show, or maybe even into a movie, to star Mick and the boys. The property they settled on was a little novel entitled A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, which because Burgess was broke and desperate they were able to pick up the rights to for the lordly sum of $500.

The stage show never materialized. The film was never made. But a few years later, when Stanley Kubrick came around looking for the film rights to A Clockwork Orange, he found he had to deal with the Stones, not Burgess, and the price—well, let’s just say that there was a bit of a markup, none of which went to Burgess.

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The Sixties may have had the conceit that it was all about peace, love, and understanding and all that rot, but by the time the Sixties ended (around 1975, actually) it was all about agents, lawyers, and who controlled which rights. By the time Alan Parsons set out to make his I Robot concept album, not only were Isaac Asimov’s representatives involved, but also the television production company that owned the film rights—and in the end Parsons had to change the title slightly, removing the comma from what originally was I, Robot, to resolve trademark issues.

Having been on the music side of the equation, I can tell you that it became a thorough pain in the ass. You couldn’t do anything that was even tangentially influenced by a published piece work, without first going to whoever controlled the performance rights for that work and securing permission, for which they often wanted an insane amount of cash up front. I can see why a lot of musicians said, “Screw this! It’s only sci-fi! I’ll write it myself! How can I do worse?” (And based on the sort of crap that Hollywood throws on movie screens and people buy, who’s to say they’re wrong?)

But on the other hand, having been on the writer’s side of the equation: you’re damn right I don’t want you to do any sort of musical adaptation of my work without my permission at the very least, and ideally I would like to be paid up front for giving that permission—and to get a cut of your profits from the subsequent performance or production.

Does this all seem a bit grouchy and abstract to you? Then join me tomorrow, when we’ll talk about…


or,  Please God No, Make the Hurting Stop!

Music in Science Fiction, or Science Fiction in Music?

Ever since Pete Wood first proposed this topic, I’ve had two tracks running in my mind. On the analytical side I’ve been pondering the general question of “Why is there so much stupid music in science fiction?” and on a more specific level, questions like, “Why does the first officer on a starship in the 25th Century play trombone in a Dixieland jazz band?” I mean, a trombone? And jazz? In the 25th century? Why not a sackbut or a krummhorn, for Roddenberry’s sake? It would make just as much sense.

On the emotive side, though, I’ve had one song playing in my mind’s ear all week long: “Telstar,” by The Tornados. In 1962 it was a huge, huge, HUGE worldwide hit that sold millions of copies. If you’ve never heard it before, take three minutes and twenty-six seconds now to go out to YouTube and listen to it:

Not only is it one of the outstanding rock instrumentals from The Time Before Drum Solos, it’s also a milestone in the history of electronic music, as that weird warbly melody line is played on a clavioline, a sort of primitive early forerunner to the 1960s generation of analog synthesizers. If the voicing sounds familiar, it is: clavioline variants were widely used in pop music throughout the 1960s, until the more stable, reliable, and flexible Moog and ARP synthesizers came along. If you’ve ever wondered what instrument made that weird mutant oboe sound on The Beatles song, “Baby You’re A Rich Man,” that was a clavioline.

[Nota bene: And if my comment about Moogs and ARPs being more stable and reliable gave you pause, know that claviolines used vacuum tubes in their oscillators and filters. The very thought of taking one of those beasties on the road makes me shudder.]

If on the other hand this is all old news to you, then for your alternative entertainment I present this video clip of Dick Clark introducing an abridged version of “Telstar” on American Bandstand. If you need a little hipster-grade ironic amusement this morning, you make take two minutes and thirty seconds now to laugh at all those well-groomed preppie white kids trying to figure out how to dance to it: be continued...

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Join the Cult of Stupefying Stories!


As I continue to work on putting together new issues, dealing with that festering pile of unanswered correspondence in the back room, rebuilding our social media presence, and assessing and improving our web sites, I have—well, I haven’t exactly made a discovery, but I’ve had a bit of a disquieting minor epiphany.

All those contact links in the left column: if you’re looking at this site on your phone or tablet, you can’t see them, can you? In fact, if you are using your phone or tablet and are coming to this site from a link found on Facebook, you don’t see anything except the specific content you clicked through to see, do you?


We’ll have to get this figured out. In the meantime, just as a gentle reminder: 

» If you would like to be notified by email whenever a new post goes up on this site, click this link to go to FeedBurner and subscribe to receive email notifications.

» If you would like to be notified by RSS, Newsgator, FeedDemon, Netvibes, Atom, etc., etc. — seriously, does anyone use any of these feed services anymore? — whenever a new post goes up, click this link to go to Feedburner and subscribe using your news reader of choice.  

» If you have a Gmail account, there is a Follow button in the left column that you can click to be added to the list of followers for this page. However, the button seems to be a Java widget that cannot be extracted or moved into the center column. This link may work, if you are currently logged into your Gmail account. Or it may spawn a window that pukes and dies. If anyone knows how to put the Follow function inside a normal post, please let me know. 

» If you are on Facebook, by all means, follow Stupefying Stories on Facebook at this link:

» If you are feeling really brave, you can friend me on Facebook, at this link: However, be advised that this is my personal page, not the official Stupefying Stories page; that my personal sense of humor is an acquired taste; and that I have very little patience with people who insist on seeing everything through a political lens. If you are a member of the Parting on the Left, please know that I have friends and relatives on the Right whose opinions and comments are likely to offend you. If you are a member of the Parting on the Right, please know that I also have friends and relatives on the Left whose opinions and comments are likely to offend you.

If you have an open mind, you will be welcome.

Finally, we get to the matter of our 2021 Submission Guidelines. As I’ve been clearing out the backlog of correspondence I have also been making updates to our guidelines, to improve the focus on what we’d like to see in 2021, assuming we do have an open reading period, which is not yet certain. You’ll find the link to the updated guidelines in the left column… 

But if you can’t see the left column, that’s kind of a problem, isn’t it? Just as I suppose this means you also can’t see the Search function, the Topic Tags, or the Blog Archives, can you?

—Bruce Bethke

On Writing “Brimstone and Brine” • by Beth Powers


[Editor’s Note: Since Stupefying Stories 23 was released quite a few people have written to tell me how much they enjoyed Beth Powers’ story, “Brimstone and Brine,” and to ask questions about how she wrote it and whether she had any more stories like it. Well, yes, she does, and in response to these questions Beth was kind enough to write a bit more about her Carving Bard series and how she came to write this particular story. Enjoy! ~brb]

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Much like the story itself, which consists of a frame and the tale it contains, “Brimstone and Brine” has two origins: the plot and the narrator. 

The actual writing of the story began with the plot of the interior tale, which was unusual for me. My usual writing process is fairly straightforward: start from the beginning, work my way through a draft, and then revise until the story is finished. But that wasn’t the case with “Brimstone and Brine.” The interior story popped into my head all at once, and I wrote it down (at the time, I drafted longhand, and sometimes still do) backward because I was afraid I would forget what I wanted to do with the ending if I didn’t get that on paper first. 

The story was inspired by my irritation at an episode of a TV show that was really just one in a long line of stories that use a similar scenario: a love triangle with two men who love the same woman, but because one is the protagonist, the other needs to be taken off the board. The doomed side of the love triangle often finds a way to heroically sacrifice himself, and with his death, the final obstacle for the remaining couple is removed. I tend to prefer this doomed love interest over the protagonist (I’m a big fan of side characters in general), and so, every time, I am disappointed when writers choose to follow the self-sacrifice story arc. Without giving away too much of the story, “Brimstone and Brine” is my attempt to write a better version of this scenario. 

Once I had written the interior story, I realized it had too conversational of a tone to work well without being overhauled into something else entirely. I had been tossing around the idea of writing a frame story for some time, and I thought this one would work in that format. I just needed a narrator. 

Prior to drafting the interior of “Brimstone and Brine,” I had written a different story with the Carving Bard (it hasn’t been published, and it is currently waiting for me to get around to revising it into the novel that it wants to be). She was already engaged in traveling the countryside telling stories while she carved walking sticks to give to her listeners, and she seemed like just the right combination of storyteller with a chip on her shoulder to tell this story. (As a side note, the character of the Bard has a completely different origin, one that stems from my frustration with prophecy stories and a quirky D&D rule—in an earlier version of the game, a handful of simple weapons, including the quarterstaff, had no cost.) 

Having found my narrator, I wrote the frame with the bard as the storyteller. I liked the completed story in that format, so I wrote a couple more frame stories—one of which is “Fish and Fools,” originally published in Stupefying Stories #17. With each story, the frame and the interior tale were more closely related until I wrote “A Prophecy and the People,” which starts out with the Bard’s tale, but quickly shifts to the Bard participating in the adventures of the story. 

I’ve written two other stories, one published and one not, that are tangentially connected to the Bard as well. Although they each stand alone, I would recommend reading the published Bard stories in this order:

1. “Brimstone and Brine” (recently released in Stupefying Stories #23

2. “Fish and Fools” (available individually as an ebook

3. “A Prophecy and the People” (available individually as an ebook or in my story collection, Sorcery & Widgets

Technically, the first story I wrote with the Bard—the one that is waiting to be transformed into a novel—is chronologically last, so if you want to see where these stories are headed, let me know, and maybe I’ll move it up in my pile of next projects!

—Beth Powers



Beth Powers writes science fiction and fantasy stories. Having already become a doctor of piratical tales, she is acquiring tech wizard skills in order to expand into multimedia storytelling. Most of her stories are collected in Sorcery & Widgets. Powers lives in Indiana with her cats. Visit her at, or follow her on Amazon at