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Friday, March 26, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke

And now, as threatened promised:

CYBERPUNK: THE MUSICAL

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.

¤   ¤   ¤

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…

CYBERPUNK: THE STAGE MUSICAL

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPDvsLSnUGc

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: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6buTYCJVZu4

 

...to 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?

Hmm…

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: https://www.facebook.com/StupefyingStories

» If you are feeling really brave, you can friend me on Facebook, at this link: https://www.facebook.com/bruce.bethke. 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]

¤   ¤   ¤ 

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 bethpowers.com, or follow her on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Beth-Powers/e/B00E4S9PYG/

The Best Science Fiction Song of All Time • by Pete Wood

 

The science fiction rock song that probably everybody knows is the God-awful In the Year 2525, a 1969 one hit wonder by Zager and Evans. Inexplicably, the song still gets plenty of airplay. Its lyrics are nonsensical with the kind of science fiction world-building that one might expect from an elementary school student.

The Rolling Stones took a stab at science fiction with 2000 Lightyears from Home, but it’s hardly memorable. Rocket Man is an ear worm, but barely science fiction. Among those science fiction songs that work are David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Blondie’s Rapture, and the Eurythmics’ Thought Crime.

Rock bands have had more success with the science fiction rock opera.  Rush’s take on Ayn Rand in 2112 works for the most part. I like the music and it’s pretty true to Anthem. Well, except for  finding the guitar part. Mr. Roboto, Styx’s dystopian take on censorship, has some good songs, but overall kinda falls flat. I know, I know, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Wish You Were Here aren’t science fiction. But they very easily could be.

The greatest science fiction album may have been Lifehouse, Pete Townsend’s failed early seventies rock opera. He couldn’t quite pull it off, but he cobbled together the surviving songs my favorite Who album, Who’s Next?

For the most part science fiction songs in rock have been simplistic.  With the great speculative works out there, rock has surprisingly adapted few. There have been some great stabs with classic literature. Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush.  The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Metallica.  Or the perfect merger of rock and literature—White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane.

The music we most associate with science fiction tends to be instrumentals. The soundtracks to 2001, Close Encounters, and Star Wars are pop culture staples. If you want to know why science fiction themes don’t have words, check out the lyrics to Alexander Courage’s theme to the television show,  Star Trek. For some reason Gene Rodenberry felt compelled to write lines like “My love Is wand'ring in star-flight I know he'll find in star-clustered reaches.  Love, strange love a star woman teaches.” Cue the sound of a needle scraping across a vinyl record. Trust me, you don’t want to hear the rest. The only thing that could make these lyrics worse would be William Shatner singing them. Check out his version of Mr. Tambourine Man on YouTube if you have any doubts.

Ah, but back to the greatest science fiction song.

Queen did the music for the campy update of Flash Gordon in 1980. The songs are catchy, but kinda shallow. I heard Sam Jones, who played Flash and little else, speak three years ago. You could feel the energy get sucked out of the room when he admitted that he had never met Queen. They recorded the songs after filming was finished. Nobody had many questions after that.

Brian May, the lead guitarist for Queen, wrote Flash’s Theme, my favorite song from the movie. But it’s another May song that is the greatest science fiction rock song of all time: 39.

39. In a little under four minutes, that song packs in more story, more character arc, and more real science than most short stories.

Brian May knows a thing or two about physics. He was pursuing his Ph.D. in astrophysics at London’s Imperial College in the early seventies when he abandoned his graduate degree to tour full time.  He finally earned his PhD in 2008 with his thesis on A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud. Try saying that three times fast.

39 is the fifth track on their fourth studio album A Night at the Opera. The song was also the B-side to the single, You’re My Best Friend.

It’s a heart-breakingly poignant song about an interstellar crew of naive volunteers who journey into deep space to find a habitable planet. They are gone for a year by their count, but when they return home the poor selfless crew discover the effects of time dilation. Decades have passed on Earth.

With a masterful economy, May tells a story of overpopulation, love, interstellar travel, time dilation, and hubris, in 249 words. 249 words!  

The song’s refrain is haunting. It doesn’t make sense at first until it hits you and then it’s a real kick in the teeth.

Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away
Don’t you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I take your hand
In the land that our grandchildren knew

Freddie Mercury comes to mind when most people think of Queen, and with good reason. His larger-than-life voice and bombastic stage presence with hard-driving instrumentals made a Queen concert. That clip of him leading a singalong at Live Aid in a packed Wembley Stadium in 1985 before launching into Radio Gaga still gets me on my feet. Is it any wonder Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta adopted Lady Gaga as her stage name?

After a set from the world’s best front man (except maybe for Roger Daltrey or Bruce Springsteen), the lights would go down and May would sit on a stool and give the audience a dramatic change of pace. He’d strum 39 on an acoustic guitar and sing while Mercury had a chance to catch his breath. Quite the showstopper.

The band named two of their albums—A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races—after Marx Brothers movies. Groucho Marx, who died in 1977, invited the band to his estate five months before his death. They performed 39 a capella for the only surviving Marx Brother.

Damn, I’d love to have a time machine just to witness that.

 


 

Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The State of the Loon • 23 March 2021

First up, congratulations to Scott Huggins for winning the 2021 Jim Baen Memorial Award Grand Prize for his story, “Salvage Judgment.” While Scott is a Stupefying Stories contributor and I’d like to be able to claim some small credit for helping him win this award, I can’t, as I still have my marked-up copy of his manuscript sitting in my to-do stack with a note on it saying, “Finish writing this up and send it back to Scott.” The best I can claim, then, is that I didn’t sabotage his chances of winning.

That aside: CONGRATULATIONS, SCOTT!

And watch for his twisted tale of Lovecraftian horror, “On the Menu Stains of Madness,” coming soon to Stupefying Stories!

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Next up, I have received a few polite queries as to what happened to “Dark and Gritty Week” and last Friday’s installment of “Ask Dr. Cyberpunk.” The two got sort of tangled up together. I was writing a column for the latter—I mean, cyberpunk as an idiom pretty much wallows in dark and gritty, and a case can be made that the 1980s cyberpunk boom was basically the dark and gritty reboot of the whole damned science fiction genre—when my wife looked up from reading one of last week’s columns and said, “You know, you guys really have it all backwards.” 

Then she proceeded to explain why from a female perspective we were completely missing some major points about the appeal of “dark” fiction. This turned into a long, interesting, and at times eye-opening conversation, which I was hoping we could capture and turn into a column, but that didn’t work out. She’d just finished her latest round of radiation treatments the week before last and begun her new round of chemotherapy last week, so while the mind was still sharp and the spirit still willing, the flesh decided it needed a nap.

All the same: she raised some interesting points that deserve further development and exposure, so I suspect we’ll be continuing to explore the dark and gritty side for some time to come. In the meantime, as an example of the difference in perspective, she suggested that you read “Dark Will Come For Me,” by Tara Saunders, which you will find over on the old SHOWCASE web site. 

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Third on the agenda—actually first, but third as far as topics for this column go—is that I’m continuing to work on content for SS#24 and SS#25 at the same time as I’m continuing to dig down through the sizable pile of correspondence that’s accumulated. It’s become apparent that things went off the rails much earlier than I thought during our 2019 open reading period. I’m finding stories for which acceptances were sent but never followed up with contracts; stories marked as accepted in our manuscript tracking system but for which acceptance letters were never sent; and more than a few submissions that never received any response at all. I’m also working through our contract files, trying to figure out which stories under contract are still available for our use and which authors assumed we went out of business (understandably so; we very nearly did) and sold their stories elsewhere.

Be patient, please. It took a while to create this mess. It will take a while to sort it out. In the meantime, if you get an email from me about a submission of yours and it doesn’t seem as if I have a clue as to where we stand: in all likelihood, I don’t.

¤   ¤   ¤

 

Finally: Pete Wood has proposed that our theme this week be “Music in Science Fiction,” because he had a column he was just dying to write about the subject. I agreed, because it’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Looking back, I was surprised by just how many music-themed SF stories I’ve written and had published—for just one example, “Jimi Plays Dead,” which is not merely a rock ‘n’ roll story, but also hard sci-fi that was right on the edge of cyberpunk. 

(The B-side story, “Buck Turner and The Spud from Space,” is of course all true, except for the parts that aren’t.)

Looking into it further, though, I realized that we here at RLP have published a lot of really good music-related SF stories over the years, and that most of those stories are out of print now. So as I worked on developing Pete’s theme, I found that we have far more than a week’s worth of content on the subject of Music in Science Fiction in the pipeline already, and the pieces began to fall into place as if preordained. We could very easily put together a reprint anthology of music-related SF stories and have it ready to release in a matter of weeks. There are only two things holding us back.

1.) We don’t have the cover art yet.

2.) And we don’t have a good idea for a title for such a collection. 

Any suggestions? I suppose we could make this a proper contest and give some suitable prize to whoever suggests the title we end up using, but I have no idea yet what that prize might be. Let me think about it.

Thanks,
—brb

  

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Putting My Writing Where My Mouth Is • by Guy Stewart


My premise is that writers feel that their stories aren’t being taken seriously, so they write what they feel is “more realistic” fiction.

Hopelessness is real. Suicide is real. Isolation is real. Depression is real. Global pandemic is real. The Collapse of the Environment is real. Problems So Big They Cannot Be Solved are real.

Besides, it’s easy to present the problem, show despair, then end on an unhappy, realistic note. It’s much harder to suggest a possible way out of the problem. It’s much, much harder to write positively with conviction.

In a recent blog of mine, I was looking at what made William Sydney Porter such a popular writer. Everyone knows who he is, but few people write like him anymore. (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2021/03/writing-advice-short-stories-advice-and.html

You don’t know him? Oops. You probably know him better by his pen name: O. Henry.

Poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote of O. Henry, “One can readily see that he is the natural father of ‘the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating’, which moral reflection is the thread upon which most of his stories are strung.”

People LIKE reading O. Henry stories…at least they DID at one time. Creating such a story though, manipulating readers from sadness to gentle smiles IS HARD WORK. It doesn’t require a great deal of skill to write a dark story. I found this out myself when I wrote a short story with my son-in-law that ended like this:

Ryan sighed then said to Zilpha, “The only person I ever thought I could love became undead eighteen years ago.” He looked at Arroyo-Torres and said, “You’re sadly mistaken, Major. I wasn’t trying to destroy the Containment Area.” He turned his back on both of them and walked out the door and away from the Workhouse.

In front of him, stretching to an abandoned mall, the ground had shattered from the explosions of the dynamite and settled. But now, as Arroyo-Torres and Zilpha pushed their way out of the office, the rubble had started to move, heaving occasionally as if something were trying to push its way to the surface. Ryan said loudly, though to no one in particular, “I’m all that’s left of the Crew of the first International Zombie Containment Area,” he tapped the door frame. “I think zombies could be news,” he paused. “Maybe one of you can figure out how to use the roller before anything bad happens.” He turned around, flashed a feral grin then asked, “Or do you want me to get back to work?”

The main character was being retired just before his pension would have started. Management had no real use for him as “the zombie” problem had been dealt with and they were shutting it down.

Do people whose jobs aren’t deemed “important” and who are losing their only source of income while management and politicians keep right on working, sound like any recent response to a pandemic you know of?

Certainly I wasn’t advocating barkeeps, servers, and daycare workers blowing up anything. But I WAS advocating action. Trying to do something innovative. Not giving up hope. I can guarantee you that the conclusion to the story did NOT come easily. It required some deep thought and trying out other solutions until we hit on one that made good sense.

It’s my thoughtful opinion that the current dash into grim hopelessness is a reflection of a “starry-eyed” view of the future that once seemed to be dawning.

I’ve noticed this drift in my favorite magazine, ANALOG Science Fiction and Fact. The current issue has two points of data for my research. First of all is the Guest Editorial, by famed British SF writer, Ian Watson. I found it downright grim as he seemed to be stating with finality that Humans living anywhere except on the surface of the Earth is ridiculous. Forget it. Give up. Don’t even bother…It might have been ripped from the pages of your nearest Bible book that currently carries the milquetoast title, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine.” That’s a decided soft-pedaling of its original Greek title, “Apokalupsis Iesou Christou Tow Doula Autou Ioanne”, or The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ to His Slave John. We typically shorten that to The Apocalypse.

The second is the Fact article by Christina De La Rocha, “From Atmospheric Rivers to Super Typhoons: The Future Looks Bright for Weather Disaster Fans.” She concludes, “As climate change gains pace, so will the numbers and intensity of severe weather events coming hopefully only to a television screen near you.” Whew…sarcasm is a tack I often take myself, though I usually give it a humorous twist. That last sentence didn’t seem particularly humorous to me…

Neither one appear to offer any hope at all. Of course, that keeps the articles short and disturbing and scary. As anyone who has ever had children, it’s far easier to startle a baby than to calm them down. Which, I’m certain, is exactly what the editor ordered. (I’m not going to mention that the essay and article are in the vicinity of “preaching to the choir.” The people who should be the target don’t typically read ANALOG.)

So, to answer Bruce’s set of questions, “Dark and Gritty: necessary? Unnecessary? Merely a trendy fictional fashion statement, or clinical evidence that too many writers out there have profound unresolved Daddy issues? Is there any room left for fiction that leaves readers with a positive or at least hopeful view of the world, the future, life, and the people who live it?”

I don’t think it’s trendy or that there are unresolved Daddy issues. (Though there may very well be. I’ve got a few of those I’m still dealing with!) I think that “dark and gritty” is a response to the world around us.

I think that “positive and hopeful” views of the world are on a strictly “let’s just wait and see.” In fact, I think we’ve reached a point where we, as a world, are a bit fatalistic. Sort of like how the world came crashing down around American ears after the ebullience of post-WWII ran into images of shadows burned into Japanese walls not destroyed by exploding A-bombs; race issues finally drawn out of the closets they’d been thrown into (which closets were also painted shut, boarded up, after which the entire wall was re-studded and sheet rocked over); assassinations of public figures; air pollution; silent springs; the population explosion; poverty and sexism pushed into the light instead of hidden in a closet on a different wall from the one where racism had been hidden…and those were only the biggest issues to rise from the shadows of WWII.

In the shadow of all of the events since then – from exploding space shuttles to the scars left by colonialism, and (maybe) at the end of a pandemic; we are now dealing with the first set of problems as an underlayment (put over the original flooring of expansion, slavery, and the rape of the environment), after laying carpet over racism, sexism, terrorism…that carpet of prosperity has gone threadbare…

But here I am, doing exactly what I think we have to stop doing. Ahem.

Excuse me while I go refigure the endings of some of my recent stories and examine how I might offer even the HINT of a solution to some of my characters, because I think we CAN get back to being a literature that both raises issues (disguised as story plots) and offers solutions to be pondered, sometimes tested, and maybe implemented.


A coda to the above: Shortly after I wrote this, I read (in the same issue of ANALOG with the articles I referred to above!) the short story “Recollections” by Elise Stephens, an author who has landed in Stupefying Stories in the past. In it, the situation is textbook “dark and gritty,” but she doesn’t allow the story to overshadow hope, in a quintessential O. Henry way. If a good short story is indeed ‘the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating’, then in “Recollections,” Elise Stephens managed to do just that.


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Punch Them in the Feels • by Eric Dontigney


So, earlier this week, Bruce put up the Dark and Gritty Reboot post. He’s not alone in giving this trend to ever-darker content the side-eye and wondering what it’s all about. It’s something I’ve thought about and written about before, not least because my own fiction trends dark. It’s tricky ground. As a writer, one of the things you can’t avoid is that you must do bad things to your characters. Conflict drives narrative action. Yet the bad things don’t automatically have to be enormous, terrible things. If you write fiction for a mainstream, non-speculative fiction crowd, you can get a lot of mileage out of something as simple as someone getting their hours cut at work.

Think I’m oversimplifying? Picture this. Abby is a single mother raising two kids. She holds her family together with her $12/hour full-time job, occasional overtime, a little extra from babysitting neighbor kids, and a budget so ruthless that it would make pre-Christmas Eve Scrooge nod in approval. Her car has 180,000 miles on it and the engine makes an unhealthy noise. Abby has socked away about one month’s rent in her savings account. One day, her boss calls her in and says he needs to cut her down to 28 hours a week. In one fell swoop, she goes from taking home about $1600 a month to about $1150 a month.

What’s the fallout? Abby has just gone from a hard situation to an impossible one. If she had health care coverage through her job, that’s gone. Let’s say she’s living somewhere cheap and shelling out $800 a month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Now she’s got $350 a month to cover everything. The threat of homelessness becomes immediately real. She’s got to figure out a way to pay for gas, for food, for utilities with way less than she can do it with. Sure, there are potential solutions. She can get another part-time job, but probably working somewhere in the evening. She’ll also probably end up working 50 hours a week and not sleeping enough. So, then she needs to think about the problems of childcare and being an absentee parent. If she doesn’t hire childcare, the threat of social services looms large.

In the vernacular of literature, this is all the substance of pathos. It’s the way in which you evoke an emotional response from an audience. In fact, by the end of all that, you probably felt at least a pang or two of pity for Abby, if not some empathy. More importantly, I didn’t need to say anything about her personality to make that happen. I didn’t have to make her dark and gritty. The situation is plenty grim all by itself. Yet, if this was a science fiction or fantasy film or novel, I’d be expected to make her a humorless, hard-bitten person with an allergy to smiles.

In the back of my head, I think of this as the “punch them in the feels” approach. My theory is that it originates in some form or another with something called the negativity bias. For all the people who didn’t minor in psychology, the negativity bias is the human brain’s tendency to register, note, and react more strongly to negative input. It’s why news coverage of a disaster gets better ratings than news coverage of the guy who takes his golden retriever to visit with sick kids every weekend for a decade. It’s probably also why news coverage has taken a turn for the hyperbolic negative in the last 30 years. When you apply the negativity bias to fiction in novel or film form, the punch them in the feels approach calls for making it as dark as possible.

There is also at least some level of what I call the crappy copycat effect in action here as well. People see something like Game of Thrones or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and they look for a simple explanation for why they’re successful. Now, while I personally loathe Game of Thrones, I understand enough about constructing a story to get why people like it. The fact that it’s dark and gritty is a factor, but it’s not the most compelling factor. Nolan’s Batman films, which I personally love, also upped the grit factor to 11. Again, that grittiness is not the main reason why people loved them. But dark and gritty it is the low-hanging fruit on the explanation tree.

The real secret of why things like Game of Thrones and Nolan’s Batman movies work so well is multifaceted. Game of Thrones benefited from source material that wasn’t created by a committee (except maybe that last season that everyone hated so much). The source material was the product of one person’s creative process, and the show writers apparently did a good job of carrying that story intact over into the scripts. That means you got a much more cohesive and frankly sensible story than you typically see on screen. While it’s hard to know exactly how much studio interference happened on the Nolan films, the scripts for those also appear to be primarily the product of Nolan, his brother, and prolific screenwriter David S. Goyer. The end result was, again, more coherent storytelling.

Both examples also benefited from unusually talented casts. Imagine The Dark Knight if they’d cast Jeremy Renner as Batman, Megan Fox as Rachel Dawes, and Charlie Sheen as the Joker. You’d end up with a very different and almost certainly inferior film, despite the outstanding script. Imagine the first season of Game of Thrones if they’d cast Dwayne Johnson as Khal Drogo and Jude Law as Ned Stark. Johnson and Law are both adequate actors, but neither is as good as Jason Momoa and Sean Bean. Both of these examples also display outstanding results in terms of production values. That speaks to a lot of hard work on the part of all the crew members and post-production teams that never get more than a passing nod when the accolades go around.

Unfortunately, the usual TV and film production process doesn’t enjoy all of these advantages. TV shows get written by teams of people in a writer’s room, often on a bitterly short schedule. Film scripts get written by a screenwriter, then usually rewritten with “input” from studio higher-ups, and frequently rewritten by an entirely different screenwriter or two. Can you imagine the mess you’d get if novels were written this way? The whys and hows of casting remain utterly mysterious to me. Production values on films and TV shows vary wildly. Sometimes they vary from one episode of a show to the next. I suspect this leads the people who greenlight projects to assume that factors like good writing, good casting, and high production values are simply random factors and the real secret is to make it dark and gritty.

People respond to dark stuff. Punch them in the feels, dammit!

This creates an unfortunate knock-on effect. Like it or not, every writer is influenced by the books, shows, and films they read and watch in their formative years. When my writer’s voice was first being developed, I was watching films like Seven, The Usual Suspects, The Matrix Trilogy, and Heat. I was also watching things like the excellent Granada Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett and the outstanding ITV Poirot series. This might help explain some of the darkness in my writing, as well as my tendency to unintentionally write everything like a mystery. Of course, I was also reading some top-shelf authors, like Neil Gaiman, Asimov, Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King. I credit King with saving my writing from descending into irreparable grit and gloom. Say what you like about the guy, he has a knack for working humor into some pretty dark stuff. If I learned the art of working in humor, I learned it from him.

For people who came along later than I did, though, their influences were things like the godawful Saw movies or Hostel. That’s to say nothing of all of the other dark and gritty, but not especially good, stuff I never saw because I didn’t know it existed. All of those writers were subconsciously learning bad lessons about storytelling and mimicking them in their own fiction. This was at the same time as the Potter books, which are pretty good storytelling. Unfortunately, it was also the time of the Twilight books and the Hunger Games books, which are both (by all reports) absurdly dark and not especially good storytelling.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with a generation of writers who were brought up watching and reading popular books and movies that glorified grit and darkness without the saving grace of humor. These writers, in turn, seek pathos through the wrong channels. They write dark and gritty characters into dark and gritty situations, rather than building pathos through careful construction of story and situation. It’s unnecessary and unfortunate because it violates the essential rule of writing: what you know.

What every writer knows best, whether they realize it or not, is other people. Every writer has a vast web of prior and current relationships that should teach them about how people react to situations. Yes, some people react to bad situations with stoicism or grim determination or anger. Others meet those challenges with humor or can-do pluck. Some get worn down and give up. Others rise to the occasion and shine. The amplified nature of speculative fiction doesn’t change that reality. It should simply offer a bigger imaginative canvas on which to express those variable reactions.

In short, don’t punch people in the feels.


 

Eric Dontigney is the author of highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Feeding the Muse: Living Well on a Writer's Budget

Editor’s Note: This was first published on 3/21/2018. With tomorrow being St. Patrick’s Day—or as we call it around here, The Day Before Corned Beef Briskets Go On Clearance Sale—this seemed like a good time to resurface this column. Karen would love to reboot her “Feeding the Muse” series but needs a little encouragement. Would you like to see more posts like this? Let us know.

—Bruce Bethke 

Recipe • Traditional Corned Beef and Cabbage • by Karen Bethke



Now is the time to buy corned beef. Just as the Monday after Easter is the best time to buy a ham, the Monday after Thanksgiving is the best time to buy a frozen turkey, and the Monday after Christmas is the best time to buy a beef roast or prime rib, all the grocery stores that stocked up for St. Patrick’s Day are now eager to move all their unsold corned beef brisket, so if you shop around you can find some great prices.

Corned beef briskets come in two basic styles: the flat cut, which is usually more expensive because it looks more attractive, and the tri-tip, which is exactly the same piece of meat but triangular in shape, because it’s the part of the bottom sirloin that’s trimmed off to make the flat cut look so nice and rectangular. Of the two, tri-tip is usually considerably cheaper, but the difference is entirely cosmetic. You can also sometimes find whole briskets, which are the flat cut and tri-tip still attached to each other, but that’s a huge hunk of meat, and in some markets you’ll find what’s called “New England” corned beef, which has a disturbing grayish color because it hasn’t had nitrates or nitrites added to the brine to keep it pink. In all cases, corned beef is just a big slab of cow that’s been packed in heavily salted brine for a good long time, to preserve it for long ocean voyages, and coincidentally to make it nice and tender. If you’ve ever run across the term “bully beef” in your reading, that’s corned beef.

For that matter, pastrami is basically just corned beef that’s been spiced and smoked. Every now and then Bruce gets a notion to try putting a brisket in the smoker to make his own pastrami, but so far hunger and impatience have always won out.

The great thing about buying corned beef right now is that it’s a.) really cheap, b.) freezes well, c.) can keep for a long time if properly refrigerated—remember, this stuff was made to stay edible while kept in barrels on long ocean voyages in the age of sailing ships, though I wouldn’t recommend doing that now— d.) tastes great if prepared right, and above all, e.) is one of the all-time great fix-and-forget meals for a working mom to prepare in a slow cooker.

So here’s how I prepare it.

How to Make a Really Good Scary Movie • by Pete Wood


It’s bad enough that they remade Archie comics into the dark and brooding Riverdale, where suddenly even Jughead isn’t any fun. They had to make horror movies too dark, too. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Horror movies are supposed to be dark.

Yeah, maybe. Unless they become so dark they stop being scary. Hear me out.

If I ran Hollywood, every aspiring horror filmmaker would have to watch two movies: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the original The Haunting.

The 1940s comedy team of Abbott and Costello showed how seamlessly a good movie can blend horror and comedy. In 1948 Universal Studios brought an all-star lineup in with Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolfman, and Glenn Strange, later the bartender on Gunsmoke, as Frankenstein. The plot ping-pongs between scary and funny effortlessly. The monsters play it straight and some nasty things happen, but just when you think you can’t watch anymore, Abbott and Costello start doing their shtick The comedy duo relied on the horror/comedy mix to good effect in Hold that Ghost, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.

There is nothing funny about The Haunting [1963, directed by Robert Wise who also directed The Sound of Music]. Based on Shirley (“The Lottery”) Jackson’s classic novel, the Haunting of Hill House, it tells the story of a group of paranormal investigators who foolishly decide to spend a few days at the most haunted house in the world. Not even the New England estate’s two caretakers have the guts to spend the night. I’m not going to give away the plot, but the movie works more by suggestion than by explicitly showing things. How scary is the movie? Well, when I popped it into the VCR many years ago while home from college, I got so spooked during the title sequence and opening narration that I hopped in the car and drove thirty miles to hang out with my Dad and his friends. At four in the afternoon.

The senseless 1999 remake is so bad it highlights the greatness of the original. Subtlety and suggestion are thrown out the window in favor of hokey special effects, very visible ghosts, over-the-top acting, and an amped-up body count. Not even Liam Neeson and Bruce Dern can save this movie. (As a side note, would you stay in a house where Bruce Dern is the caretaker? Just sayin’…)

Things have gone horribly wrong since then with the movies. Horror movies have abandoned suggestion for graphic violence that borders on torture porn. Some filmmakers don’t see the benefit of humor at all.

Consider The Night Stalker. Richard Matheson (I am Legend, Hell House, and many episodes of The Twilight Zone)  wrote the screenplays for two of the highest-rated made-for-TV movies of all time. In the Night Stalker, (1972) a wise-cracking tabloid investigative reporter (Darren McGavin, the Dad in A Christmas Story) in Las Vegas can’t seem to convince anyone that a vampire is on the prowl. Darren McGavin repeated his role as Karl Kolchak in the superior sequel, The Night Strangler, (1973), where nobody believes that a monster is murdering women in Seattle. McGavin has impeccable comic timing and some serious acting chops in the scary scenes. Simon Oakland plays his long suffering editor, Tony Vinchenzo, and he and McGavin play off each other like they’re in a screwball comedy.

Chris Carter based The X Files on The Night Stalker. He adopted the monster-of-the-week format from the short-lived ‘70s TV show (also starring Oakland and McGavin), as well as the theme of government cover-ups. He also kept the humor. David Duchovny has some pretty good comic timing himself.

Some rocket scientist had the brilliant idea to remake The Night Stalker in 2005, but without the humor. Kolchak becomes a chronically depressed sourpuss with demons in his past. The reboot went off the air quickly as viewers preferred the original.

The first Stalker was scarier for the simple reason that the characters seemed real. We can relate to wise-cracking reporters who give their bosses ulcers. We can’t relate to the second Kolchak, a stoic loner looking for his wife’s killer. He never even cracks a smile. The first series felt like horror invading real life. The second series felt like, well, a TV series.

Okay, so maybe you think horror doesn’t need humor. Fair enough. Make it too graphic and it stops being scary.

His House is a 2020 horror movie that illustrates my point. Two refugees from South Sudan seek political asylum in London. They’ve just lost their daughter in a horrible boating accident as they fled Africa. There’s enough pathos and horror right there, but then director Remi Weekes just had to make it into a horror movie.

The couple start seeing things. Their home is haunted with that gooey ectoplasm that has dominated horror movies since Alien. Everything in their new house is wet and dripping and phlegm-like. Why? I don’t know. Third base. (A little Abbott and Costello reference there for y’all.)

Then the torture porn starts. I hate seeing people tortured. I hate seeing demons and monsters that love to torture and ooze all over the place at the same time and leave a mess that they never clean up.

What could have been a great drama with a peek into the lives of political refugees becomes a paint-by-numbers horror movie with too much gore, too much phlegm, and no damned humanity. I hated the main characters. I wanted to like them. Honest, I did, but somehow the movie got me to hate two political refugees from the Sudan. The haunted house is so contrived and over the top that everything seemed unreal, even the very real political nightmare that is South Sudan.

There is a genuinely terrifying scene in The Haunting where director Robert Wise shows nothing. No monster. No jump scares. No gore. No violence. Just darkness and narration, but it culminates in the scariest moment ever on film. See the movie and judge for yourself. You’ll know the scene when you see it.

For horror to be scary, it can’t be unrelenting. There have to be quiet moments where you can imagine the monster for yourself rather than gawking at CGI. Unrelenting horror isn’t scary. It’s a cartoon. Horror that comes after a good laugh or a quiet moment or anytime that you aren’t expecting it: now that is scary.

Don’t believe me? Watch The Night Stalker or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or try to sit through The Haunting by yourself, even in the middle of the afternoon on a bright sunny day.

 


 

Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them

Monday, March 15, 2021

Stupefying Stories: The Dark and Gritty Reboot


Just kidding. Not happening. Oh, you might from time to time notice somewhat more adult language and situations in upcoming issues. There was a business reason why I was struggling to keep the magazine G rated—and it was a struggle—but that reason turned out to be invalid, so going forward I’m going to be relaxing those rules a bit.

But this whole “dark and gritty” thing: what the Hell is with that? TV and films in general, and the DC cinematic universe in particular, have turned so dark and gritty it’s as if someone was running a sale on dark blue lens filters and anti-depressants in industrial quantities. And it’s rarely a new idea, either: it’s almost universally a dark and gritty reboot of what was originally a lighthearted and fun-filled property. 

Is it simply a matter of making the CGI cheaper to do, because the audience doesn’t need to be able to see anything clearly? Are the decision-makers in Hollywood so bereft of original ideas that the only things they can think of to do are to torture the characters they once loved when they were children? What’s next: Toy Story: The Dark and Gritty Reboot? The Sound of Music: Only With More Nazis?

When I learned that The CW has greenlit a dark and gritty reboot of The Powerpuff Girls—I am not making this up—this time as a live-action TV series, with Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup as “disillusioned 20-somethings who resent having lost their childhood to crime fighting,” I snapped. 

Okay, it’s Dark and Gritty Week here on StupefyingStories.com. Let’s take a few days to talk it out. Dark and Gritty: necessary? Unnecessary? Merely a trendy fictional fashion statement, or clinical evidence that too many writers out there have profound unresolved Daddy issues? Is there any room left for fiction that leaves readers with a positive or at least hopeful view of the world, the future, life, and the people who live it? 

Let the arguments begin.

—Bruce Bethke

 

P.S. I would dearly love to run some guest posts on this topic. If you have something to say about it that feels like it should be longer than a comment, drop me a line at brb[at]rampantloonmedia[dot]com.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The State of the Loon • 14 March 2021


With STUPEFYING STORIES 23 released and selling—not exactly rocketing up the charts with a bullet, but selling all the same—

Sorry, that “with a bullet” bit is an old BILLBOARD “Hot 100” reference. Does anyone in this century even get it anymore?

Never mind. With SS#23 released and selling, and then updated and re-released (“Now with fewer typos!”), we’re moving ahead with new work. The first thing on the stack is to select the stories for STUPEFYING STORIES 24. I’m not ready to do a cover reveal or start announcing what’s in the TOC yet, but I will say that this thing is coming together much faster than expected. In fact, we have so many good candidates in the stack for SS#24, we’re actually a fair way along the road towards SS#25. Weird as this seems to me, our process has become something very akin to putting together a fantasy football team. E.g.,

“Well, this story is too much like that story, so we can’t use them both in the same issue. And we can’t use both this author and that author in the same issue, because [reasons]. But this story and that story really do complement each other, so we must use them back-to-back.”

I’ve always compared putting together an issue of a magazine to putting together a playlist or a concert program. My wife compares it to putting together a patchwork quilt. I suspect that in different ways, we’re both right. The object remains to create a coherent whole that is greater than the mere sum of its parts.

As for a release date: initially, I was targeting April 1. However, having learned from SS#23 that we really need to build an extra week into the schedule after the thing is nominally finished in order to allow sufficient time for proofreading and making corrections, I’m now targeting SS#24 for release on April 9, with SS#25 targeted for May 1. 

Those are our goals. Now let’s see what we can actually do. 

Meanwhile, after having wasted a lot of time behind the scenes trying to redesign the Stupefying Stories web site, we’ve come to the conclusion that the blogspot engine just can’t do what we need it to do. The biggest single problem is that every newer site template we’ve tried ends up losing or hiding the sales links in the right column, and thus, our entire raison d'être: to sell books.

That’s what we’re trying to do here, you know: sell books. We have a lot of books out there right now, but when they’re not mentioned in the top six or eight posts on this site, sales taper off. For example, Henry Vogel’s Matt & Michelle series has done very well for us, selling thousands of copies on Kindle, in print, and in audio book format, and getting great reviews.


But it sells only when we’re pushing it. If I go a few weeks without plugging it here, sales dwindle.

So rather than turn StupefyingStories.com into the sort of site that is constantly in your face, shouting BUY THIS! BUY THIS! ALSO BUY THIS!, and rather than migrate to another platform and thus lose the ten years of accumulated content we have here, our current thinking is that it’s time to reboot the Stupefying Stories SHOWCASE site. SHOWCASE runs on WordPress, and from the start, it was designed to be a weekly SF/F webzine. 

The site needs a refresh. The template is dated. Now that I look at it, the ads on it are way outdated. But Stupefying Stories SHOWCASE is the kind of site that I was hoping to turn this site into but can’t, because of the limitations of the blogspot engine. If you have some time to spare this afternoon, why don’t you pop over to SHOWCASE, give it a look, and tell me if you think this seems like a reasonable idea or a dilution of effort. There are close to 200 stories sitting out there on the SHOWCASE site, all free to read, and if those stories could speak they would tell you that they would just love to get a little attention.

For example, this story: “Bully,” by Peter Wood. Why don’t you give it a look right now?

—Bruce Bethke

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Science Fiction Never Saw This Pandemic Coming • by Pete Wood


I’m still waiting for the flying cars. Let’s face it. Science fiction is entertaining, but not always prescient. Transporters and ray guns and time travel might come eventually, but I’m not holding my breath.

Some science fiction can’t come soon enough. We all want to journey into space, or have robots clean our homes, but nobody’s looking forward to the Apocalyptic stuff. I don’t want to go through a real alien invasion.

In 2020 the world had the chance to live an end-of-the-world scenario that’s been played out countless times in print, movies, and film. And I’ve been continually surprised by how wrong every writer turned out to be about a worldwide pandemic. 

I’m not an epidemiologist. For all I know, Anthony Fauci loves Outbreak and The Walking Dead. I dunno. Or maybe he got two chapters into The Stand and let out a blue streak and heaved it across the room in disgust. Who knows?

I’m a lawyer and I can’t watch lawyer or cop shows. They get it wrong time after time. Law and Order would have us believe that cases are fast-tracked for trial and that judges open court for one motion on one case and then adjourn for the day. No crowded dockets on television. In the TV world, prosecutors tackle one  case at a time, conduct all discussions about cases in person—never over the phone or email—and are highly confrontational with the other side. The truth is we all get along. It’s a job, y’all. I don’t get into fistfights with the D.A. if I see him at a local bar. But that’s not good television.

My favorite lawyer movie is My Cousin Vinny. Many of my colleagues agree. It gets a lot right. Vinny’s summary of contract law in the pool hall is spot-on and would have saved me a semester of law school.

But back to the pandemic. I don’t profess to be an expert on pandemic literature, but I have noticed a couple of things in fiction.

In the vast majority of fiction, the pandemic is unstoppable. The worldwide pandemic kills almost everone in works like Station Eleven and Earth Abides. People survive by going off the grid until the plague burns itself out.

Nobody takes any remedial measures. In Station Eleven, I can recall exactly one character wearing a face mask. There are no public service announcements, no talk of hygiene. The viruses in the Scarlet Plague, Earth Abides, and The Stand are able to cover vast distances and travel through walls.

Government does nothing in these books. Characters live in a libertarian nightmare where it’s every man for himself; an Ayn Rand utopia. No CDC, no local health departments. Just people trying to get the hell out of the city.

Government isn’t present or it’s incompetent or somehow responsible for the virus. In Stephen King’s The Stand, the government created Captain Trips and the only public policy is to cover it up. The military doesn’t do shit, except things like gunning down media who try to talk about the virus.

Don’t even get me started on 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later where Rage, a virus that shouldn’t have made it out of London, somehow takes over the entire British Isles and then eventually all of Europe. How the hell did that even happen? The infected get the disease in under a minute and become crazed zombies. Are zombies driving to other cities? Did Parliament fund a zombie relocation program?

Say what you want about the response of governments to COVID-19, but they at least had a response. Very simple rules for dealing with the virus have been broadcast constantly. Wash your hands, wear a mask, social distance. I can’t recall anything of that sort in fiction.

The pandemic in fiction rages out of control and overwhelms everybody. Don’t get me wrong. I love The Stand, Station Eleven, and Earth Abides. But the response of government in those works is highly unlikely and reality has proven me right.

No work of fiction anticipated  the deep political divide caused by the pandemic. People in Station Eleven or The Stand might not be doing much to counter things, but nobody in those books pretends that things are normal.

There are riots and traffic jams and street crime in fiction. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stuff. Not so in the real world. Oh, we had riots all right. Plenty of them. But they weren’t about the pandemic.

Who could have predicted that?

If I had read a book with the plot of the past year, I would have pulled a Fauci and tossed it across the room myself. Oh, come on! They’re not heading for the hills or escaping the city. They’re heading to the city to protest the election? Who the hell would do that?

Don’t go back in the haunted house. Stay out of the City!

I’d like to think that maybe the reason the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t like The Stand is because people have read that book. I’d like to think that we’re learning from the mistakes of characters in a Stephen King novel.

Maybe these great fictional apocalypses have taught us something. We didn’t get it wrong. When intelligent apes pop up, we won’t be stupid enough to enslave them as maids and hairdressers and janitors. Then maybe, just maybe their takeover won’t be quite so easy. I’d like to think that if the apes end up running the joint, they won’t flip up humanity and drag the Statue of Liberty up to the rocky beaches of New England. “We’re don’t want your huddled masses, you damned dirty humans!”

I like to think that if we do develop time travel and stupidly give it to the U.S. Congress to regulate, unlike Time Cop, we won’t put the sleaziest and stupidest two senators in a room and let them decide who’s going to control the technology. For the love of Isaac Asimov, I hope that if there is a one-line allocation in Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill for a multimillion-dollar grant to Cyberdyne Systems to fund the development of something called Skynet, I pray that we notice it.

I’m not holding my breath.


 

Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them

Friday, March 12, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke


 

Today’s question comes from Lars, who leads into his question with a quote from what someone else had written about me: 

“When coining the term for his 1983 story “Cyberpunk,” Bruce Bethke reportedly matched up words for technology and words for troublemakers until he found a pair that seemed right, rather than singling out punks as a crucial countercultural group for the new genre.”

Any chance you could enlighten us about the origin of the term? She is arguing that “punk” did not specifically and politically reference the “punk movement” (connotations of anarchy, anti-establishment, etc.) but [you] needed a term that generally referenced something “troublemakers.” We would love to hear how this came about.

Yeah, that looks like a translation of a paraphrase of something I’ve said many times in many interviews, and used to have posted on my website in an article entitled, “The Etymology of ‘Cyberpunk’.” I took the article down because I got tired of dealing with science fiction fans who wanted to talk, and talk, and talk about cyberpunk fiction without paying any attention to what I’ve been doing in the 40 years since I wrote the story. I’d re-post the article if I could find it now, but the file—well, it’s somewhere around here, buried in about 4TB of poorly organized data.

When I came up with the title: first off, I was just trying to come up with a catchy one-word title for my short story. I really wasn’t thinking about anything beyond that. So the way I came up with the title was by experimentation, by putting together various terms for technology—cyber, techno, und so weiter—and terms for “socially misdirected youth,” until I came up with a word that just plain sounded right. 

That was my critical consideration: that it sounded right. I tried a lot of word combinations, and even experimented with Japanese borrow-words—for example, bōsōzoku got really close to my concept—but there’s no way to turn that into an English-language expression without making it sound silly. “Cyberbozos?” Sounds like an Alan Dean Foster novel.

The other key thing to know is that I didn’t set out to become a science fiction writer. I am by training and inclination a musician, which is why how the word sounded was extremely important to me.

Note the photo. That thing behind my head is my ARP 2600, and that, as we musicians say, is my axe. And I keep writing and rewriting and deleting this part of my reply, but let’s just leave it at: if you go to the wikipedia articles on Contemporary Classical music, electronic music, and computer music—well, a lot of the names you’ll see there are people I met, knew, studied, or worked with. Some were even friends. An important part (to me) of my bio, that flies right over the heads of most people in the science fiction world, is that I spent a couple of years working for Passport Designs and was on the design team that developed MIDI and the Finale music notation engine, among other things. If you really want to understand me, go find and watch the movie, I Dream of Wires.

So yes, in the latter part of the 1970s, I was acutely aware of the punk rock music scene. And that is where the “punk” part of cyberpunk came from.

“...punks as a crucial countercultural group...”

Seriously? Countercultural? Hell no. In the US, punk was mostly just counterdisco.

I get the impression that at the time, punk meant something very different in the UK and Europe than it did in the US. In the UK, there seemed to be an authentic working class/proletariat/anarchist/revolutionary thing going on. (Though let’s face it, the Sex Pistols were the Monkees of punk.) There may even have been something authentically political about the New York punk rock scene, circa'76~'77. But by the time punk hit the rest of the US I was living in Los Angeles, trying to break into recording studio work, and the LA punk scene was entirely about affecting the look, the pose, and the fashion. For a year or three there anyone could get a record contract, no talent required, if they just had a lead singer with a mohawk and a guitarist who wore lots of black leather, studs, and chains. (The studs and chains scratch the hell out of the backs of guitars, by the way.)

That is what the American punk rock scene was all about: not James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” but Tom Petty’s “Rebel Without a Clue.” There may have been a few specimens of the real thing in the wild, but at least 90% of American punks were poseurs, pure and simple: affluent white suburban kids, dressing in punk style and going downtown to dance and get drunk on Saturday night, and then back to school or work on Monday. They were McPunks, and that is why Billy Idol became the quintessential “American” punk rock star. He had the hair, the clothes, that little bit of a snarl in his voice, and made great-looking music videos that played well on MTV. But if you close your eyes and listen to his music, and especially to the arrangements and the studio production values in the recordings, you could be listening to any arena rock band of the time. There is nothing threatening—absolutely nothing “countercultural”—in a Billy Idol single. 

Which is why Billy Idol’s songs live on forever in FM airplay, while bands like The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Television, and Siouxsie and the Banshees are for all practical purposes forgotten now.

Except for “Rock the Casbah.” That one comes back on the radio on a regular basis, every time our government is trying to start another war with Iran.


About Bruce Bethke: In the early spring of 1980 Bruce wrote a little short story about a gang of teenage hackers. From the very first draft the story had a one-word title—a new word, one that he’d made up in a deliberate attempt to grok the interface between the emerging high technology scene and teenage punk attitudes, and this word was—

Oh, surely you can guess. 

Half a lifetime later Bruce is still getting questions about this story, so rather than answer them privately and one at a time, he’s decided to make answering questions about cyberpunk a regular feature on this site. If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask him, post it in the comments here, IM him on Facebook, or email it to brb[at]rampantloonmedia[dot]com. He can’t guarantee that he’ll answer, but he’ll certainly give it a good try.