Not The Fox News: 2017’s Non Awful Bits: The Babysitter

It’s been Happy Christmas! Welcome to one of my favorite times of year, the week that isn’t quite anything!

 

Know what it’s perfect for?

 

MOVIES.

 

It’s been a planes, trains and automobiles kind of month. A trip to Vegas for a friend’s wedding, another friend’s vow renewal and PENN AND TELLER!!!!!! Was followed by two trips into That London and a journey to Winterfell for my dad’s first ever book launch.

It’s been GREAT. it’s also been exhausting. And annoying in spots. I am consistently about an inch and a half wider than seats than are designed so I get shoulder checked basically every time someone comes down the aisle. As a result, on long journeys I sleep pretty intermittently (Although I passed out somewhere above Hudson Bay and woke up somewhere above Ireland on the journey back which is a WIN).

I watch movies when I travel. A lot of movies. And I can honestly say I’ve seen very little this year that’s more fun than The Babysitter.

Released on Netflix a little while ago, The Babysitter stars Judah Lewis as Cole. Cole i a 12 year old kid, sweet, nerdy, and perpetually babysat. His parents love him but they also…well…they need some space. So he’s regularly left alone for the weekend while they go and have ‘hotel therapy’ and Bee, his babysitter, looks after him. Played with Harley Quinnian joy by Samara Weaving, Bee is no nonsense, nerdy to the core, tough as nails and gorgeous. Cole is very much in love.

That is not going to end well for him.

After a relatively slow opening 15 minutes, The Babysitter puts every piece of chocolate in the house in the blender, adds all the coffee and downs it in one. The second two acts escalate with just startling grace as Cole discovers the truth about Bee and is hunted by a carefully picked ensemble of some of the best young actors and actresses working today. It’s like a Joe Dante movie mixed with the middle of a Supernatural episode before the boys show up. Only they never do and the only person who can save the kid is the kid.

I love this movie so many different ways. Samara Weaving is about to have a very good horror year with the imminent release of Mayhem and she’s GREAT here. Brian Duffield’s script cleverly gives her just enough back story for you to fill in the rest and Weaving balances flamboyant charm with dead eyed rage perfectly. The supporting cast are great too, especially Bella Thawne as a would-be conspirator and Robbie Amell as, well, Robbie Amell. The Amell boys have been doing great work for a while but Robbie, here and in the magnificent The Duff, shows truly remarkab;e comic timing. The dude’s amazing, and it’s a pleasure to see him work.

But the stars  are Judah Lewis and McG. Lewis is amazing as Cole precisely because he’s so normal. I’ve been this kid; nice, unsure of himself, terrified of everything. He’s instantly likable and Lewis has an incredible line in long-suffering commentary that gives the movie some of it’s best lines.

And McG is so clearly having fun that he sweeps you along with him. There’s a specific moment where the film goes full Grindhouse and from that second on McG is off the leash and running down the hill, screaming with joy. Captions, freeze-frames, locked off and mobile cameras. Everything is on the table here and everything is used to create a movie that’s scary, clever, funny and FUN. Best of all, the film doesn’t so much sidestep the ‘…OR IS IT?!’ Beat that horror movies have leant on for decades as turn it into something earned and fitting.

The Babysitter is FUN. Nasty, stabby, sweary fun. It’s in my top 3 movies of the year and I can’t wait to see it again. If you’ve got Netflix, do yourself a favor, and check it out. And bring your pen knife…

Not The Fox News: 2017’s Non Awful Bits: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

So, the year that for a while looked like it would just go on forever is almost done. It’s varied between hard. awful and ‘DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS MUCH FUN?!’. Congratulations for getting here.

And to celebrate, I’ve got a couple of pieces about some of the cultural bits of the year that weren’t unlawful. Starting with Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, quietly the strangest, and sweetest, game where you kill lots of unnamed thugs released in years.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy a little while ago. It’s the fifth game in the franchise and the first to feature a really interesting gear change. The first four games all focus on profoundly luckless treasure hunter Nathan Drake. Nate is Indiana Jones with less preparation; completely charming, endlessly self confident and always a quarter second from horrible death.

The franchise has done two, almost unprecedented things. The first is that it’s written Nate out. The first four games follow him through the last four jobs of his career and through the growing realization that he’s, if not getting too old for this shit, he’s certainly getting too mature. The ending of Uncharted 4 is legitimately one of my favorite pieces of fiction. It’s a breath let out, an ending that no one expects and is both a definitive ending and anything but. To say any more would be to spoil a genuinely lovely experience.

The second brave thing the series has done is continue. And do so with two female leads.

Chloe Frazer has been a fixture in the series since Uncharted 2. A hard-changing, morally flexible Australian treasure hunter Chloe’s arc across the series has been really subtle. She’s moved from antagonist to reluctant ally, now to lead character. Likewise her partner, Nadine Ross started off as a villain. The owner of Shoreline, a private security firm hired by the real villain of Uncharted 4, Nadine loses her job when the vast majority of Shoreline is shot out from under her by Nate, Chloe and Nate’s brother Sam.

So, an intensely private, morally mutable treasure hunter and a soldier of fortune without an army.

What could possibly go wrong?

Everything! In the funnest way possible!

The Lost Legacy isn’t just a great Uncharted game complete with the exact climbing, jumping, exploding, exploring action the series is best known for. It’s also a Bechdel-shattering female buddy movie that could be read as a romance and manages to fold in a nuanced subtle approach to the supernatural as well.

The game revolves around the search for a pair of lost cities, both of which are wrapped up in a story that focuses on Ganesh, the Indian god of Wisdom. The elephant-faced god is a constant presence thanks to a token Chloe is playing with and the colossal buildings you get to climb and frequently fall off and plummet to your death. He’s also, quietly, Chloe’s chosen god. She apologises to a statue of him at one point, says thank you to one at another.

And then, maybe, meets him. Or at least a friend of his.

Nadine’s trust issues and Chloe’s fundamental inability to not tell the full truth collide at about the two thirds mark. This leads to Nadine running off in a huff, Chloe following her and the pair having an argument that shows they’re both equally right. Or at least, equally in the wrong. As they talk, they realise the villain of the piece is using explosives to blast his way into the city. In doing so, he’s trapped an elephant under some masonry.

Still pissed at one another, they help the animal out without a second’s discussion. And the elephant promptly stands up, walks the pair of them to the next location and gives them time to start working through their problems.

Or to put it another way, Chloe spends the entire game trying to save a pair of cities dedicated to Ganesh from being turned into plunder, and gets a gentle helping hand in return. Or to put it still another way, you do Ganesh a solid, Ganesh does you a solid.

It’s a lovely moment, made all the better by the fact you can read it literally or spiritually. It’s not that it’s a piece of game architecture or a mild supernatural intervention, it’s that it can be, and is, both. This is the sort of ground Uncharted excels at exploring; just a little past what we know, just a little outside the campfire and into the deep, dark woods where something amazing and dangerous is always waiting.

Oh and this happens too.

Better still, it puts the games solidly in the Indiana Jones wheelhouse they’ve always toyed with as well as subverting how it approaches that idea. Previous games have included an ancient bio weapon, actual yeti and some hilariously inventive booby traps. This time, you get the same sort of approach to the past but the danger doesn’t come from Ganesh himself. Rather, it comes from how people perceive the stories around him. A pivotal moment involves Chloe mimicking him exactly and her entire arc in the game is ultimately about making her peace with her past, her dad and her friendly, obtuse chosen deity. It’s intensely personal and at times very moving, as well as giving you the opportunity to have a punch up in a crashing helicopter. And who doesn’t want that?

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is smart, funny and FUN. And Gods know we all need a little fun right now. So, if you can, go spend some time with Chloe and Nadine. Not just because its a great game but because its a textbook example of how to deal with the supernatural, and issues of faith, with subtlety and compassion. And Ganesh-assisted helicopter punching.

 

Not The Fox News: Fox and Mouse Part 2: OH MY GOD DEADPOOL IS AN AVENGER NOW

PREVIOUSLY! ON NOT THE FOX NEWS!

Disney have bought a sizable chunk of Fox including pretty much its entire Movie studio. This is good news for people on each board and completely uncertain and disturbing news for everyone working for the channels, companies and shows Disney now own. We wish them all the best possible luck, and hope the transition is as creatively painless, and redundancy free, as possible.

NOW WE CONTINUE

And now, we put our tinfoil hats on. Because like Jack Ryan in The Hunt For Red October, there’s a pattern here. Specifically, a pattern that suggests this merger has been back-channeled for years and Infinity War, and Avengers 4, are the part of the iceberg we can see.

We know that Infinity War sees Thanos come to Earth to complete his collection of Infinity Gems and bring balance to the universe by killing everyone and knocking Tony Stark out with one punch. We also know, thanks to the various Infinity Gem-centric comic stories, that he’s almost certainly going to win. At least in the short term. We know some Avengers fall. We have a pretty good idea of who. We also know that something very odd happens in Avengers 4 which seems to involve a semi-alternate version of the events of Avengers Assemble.

All of this, not to mention Thanos punching a planet in the face with it’s own moon in the trailer, says the Infinity Stones are going to be in major use in the next movie and probably the one after that.

The Infinity Gauntlet can warp reality. What if, perhaps as a final sacrifice, Tony or Steve acquires it, rebuilds things to how they were before Thanos and…adds a few extras?

It’s very difficult to not look at the timing of this announcement and Infinity War and suspect they converge. If they do, it would be a deeply weird combination of big business and narrative structure. And it would lead some of Marvel’s biggest characters home.

The X-Men

The franchise that kicked off the superhero movie boom but recently the bloom has very much come off the rose. Apocalypse was startlingly bad and the overall timeline is all but impossible to follow. Folding the X-Men back in would give Marvel a chance to streamline that, as well as put a half dozen of their best heavyweights back in the ring. Wolverine, The New Mutants, the X-Men. They’re all back in play. But who’ll play Professor X? Stewart or McAvoy? It’s so confusing…

Fantastic Four

Somewhere out there is the writer and director who will make a genuinely great Fantastic Four movie that isn’t called The Incredibles. Should this deal go through, the chance of finding them will drastically increase.

There’ve been four modern attempts at a live action Fantastic Four movie. The Roger Corman version is deliberately terrible, the two Tim Story movies have a great cast and no idea what to do with them and the Josh Trank version is the world’s first 1.75 act story. All of them (Well…maybe not the Corman) have elements that work. The Trank one honestly hurts the most because it’s going GREAT until it just…stops. None of them work well enough.

That may be about to change. And if Tony Stark is one of the big casualties of the final Avengers movies, perhaps Reed Richards will step up…

Deadpool

Please protect our horribly disfigured, psychotic kitten of a fourth-wall breaking mercenary, Disney. He’s squalid and slightly rubbish but his heart is…there. It’s definitely there.

 

This deal isn’t quite confirmed yet but if it’s at the stage where it’s announced, then the lawyers on both sides must like their chances. If it does go through, we’re in for some big surprises. Here’s hoping they’re all good ones.

And that Deadpool gets to be an Avenger, obvs.

Not The Fox News: Fox And Mouse Part 1: The Bad News

It’s official, Disney have purchased a sizable chunk of 21st Century Fox for $66.1 billion dollars. That’s a big story with a lot of moving parts. Next time I’ll talk about the good things that will come from it. Today, the possible consequences.

(Image from Variety)

In real terms, this means that Disney now own FX, National Geographic, 300 plus international channels, 22 regional sports networks, a 30% stake in Hulu, a 50% share of Endemol Shine Group, a 39% interest in Sky and much, much more.

Numbers and decisions like this are basically abstract for anybody who isn’t directly involved. But the consequences, or at least the ones that seem likely, are going to be seismic.

First off, and this is ironic, the creation of this monolithic slab of corporation actually puts another one on notice. Netflix has reigned supreme as the default streaming service for years, Disney just bought a large stake in Hulu, are rolling out their own service in 2019 and can now offer movies from Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm on both. Netflix aren’t in trouble, but they’re no longer the only game in town. And if Netflix aren’t worried? Amazon Prime certainly should be. That’s a GREAT piece of news. Competition in fields like this keeps people honest and working for their customers not each other.

The bad news comes when you look at scripted dramas. Word is that the channels the Murdochs are keeping will be re-focused around news and sports. Because obviously what the world needs now is even more Fox News.

Fake laugh hiding real pain aside, it’s a bad look and one of the areas where this will hit hardest. The crossover in talent pools between Disney and their new acquisitions’ TV production offices in particular is going to be less than 100%. A lot of people are going to lose their jobs, shows are going to go away, the landscape is going to change forever. And, if Fox News expands, that won’t be in a good way.

(Image from Cartoon Brew)

It’s potentially bad too for the big screen. Disney are very good at crowd pleasers. They’re pretty lousy at everything else. Fox have excelled, for years, at doing the exact opposite. Fox Searchlight in particular has produced a constant raft of award-winning movies.  The worry is that Disney will gut them for parts, and pull the teeth of a studio that’s been part of Hollywood since 1935.

Plus, there’s the simple fact that Disney will want a return on their investment as fast as possible. That leads to more mainstream movies because they get bigger audiences. That leads to fewer smaller, weirder movies. That leads to the sort of creative decline people have claimed is happening for years finally taking place. That’s not a good thing.

Finally, there’s the fact that even if this isn’t a monopoly, it’s close enough that it could be mistaken for one.

(Look at this asshole)

Monopolies are very, very bad. Here’s why.

A monopoly is literally the only game in town. That means demand, and the market, no longer set prices, they do. Because where else are you going to go? Price gouging, price fixing, becomes policy. Because there’s no reason for it not to.

 

Monopolies turn in on themselves and become self-perpetuating. When you own everything, you want to expand as little effort as possible. So you start short changing, and cutting corners. Because, again, where else are your customers going to go? Or to put it another way, do you want Smaug running Hollywood? Because this is how you get Smaug running Hollywood.

 

Perhaps worse of all, monopolies don’t innovate. Because why would they? It’s the deeply weird side of the cyberpunk-esque mega corporation world we live in. Amazon, Google, all the others are trying desperately to supply everything because once you do that you WIN. But once you win, what else is there to do? Besides send your Tesla to Mars?

 

Finally, monopolies generate inflation. It’s a specific type called cost-push inflation which does exactly what it says on the tin. When no one else can tell you what something costs, it costs whatever you damn well want it to. Which means everyone else has to raise their prices to keep their margins which means your customers, your consumers, always end up paying more.

That’s us.

I’m not saying this isn’t exciting news, it is. I am saying that for every ‘OH MY GOD DEADPOOL IS AN AVENGER NOW’ comment or fan theory there’s going to be hundreds of people wondering if they’ll have a job next year, in a landscape that’s got larger but also flatter. Here’s hoping it works out for the best for everyone. I’ll be watching. After all, it’s not like any of us have a choice now.

 

In Part 2: OH MY GOD DEADPOOL IS AN AVENGER NOW

SOURCES:

http://variety.com/2017/biz/news/disney-fox-merger-deal-52-4-billion-merger-1202631242/

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/business/dealbook/disney-fox-deal.html

https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1739362/one-downside-to-the-potential-fox-and-disney-merger-according-to-logans-director

https://www.thebalance.com/monopoly-4-reasons-it-s-bad-and-its-history-3305945

http://variety.com/2017/film/news/disney-fox-studio-deal-10-burning-questions-1202637762/

Not The Fox News: Digital House Gods

Let’s talk about immortality.

It’s the early 1990s and I am living on the Isle of Man. I am a teenager. I am a geek. I am an idiot. I am a walking open wound working his ass off to be the best student possible, keep his parents’ stress damaged psyches together and  not look the fact his best friend is looking at a third go round with cancer in the face quite yet. My adolescence is trench warfare. I am holding the line. It sucks.

I’m 15? I’m 6’1.  I can pass for 18 comfortably. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I don’t smoke.  There are two videos stores nearby. And on one of my many forays there I find the first collection of War of the Worlds: The Resurrection.

This is the 1990s so it’s basically the dark ages in terms of entertainment deployment systems. What you get is three episodes on a VHS cassette released every couple of months. I watch the pilot until its threadbare, do the same with the rest.

The reason is twofold. The premise of WW: The Resurrection is PEAK 1990s and more importantly peak Me. In the wake of the Grover’s Mill assault depicted in the 1950s movie, the Martians are sealed in barrels and presumed dead. Their technology is mothballed, mass hysteria is assumed to be the cause of the event and everyone settles in to really enjoy the cold war.

Until nuclear waste wakes the aliens up. With all new, all-gore spattered bodysnatching abilities they set out to conquer the planet again and only an elite crisis response team can stop them. Let’s go say hi.

Look at that epic ’90s hair. Back left is Colonel Paul Ironhorse, a Native American, hyper-right wing soldier and veteran.  Next to him is Norton Drake, A paralyzed computer hacker and high end martial artist (Philip Akin would go on to be given MUCH more to do in the excellent Highlander TV series). Bottom right is Doctor Suzanne McCullough, a microbiologist and extremely disciplined precise scientist. Also a single mom.

And bottom left is Doctor Harrison Blackwood. A pacifist, vegetarian who was raised by the hero and heroine of the original movie after his parents were killed in the first attack.

So basically, Clever People Versus Aliens: The Series

There are two take homes from this; the first is that the 1990s were MUCH better at diversity and yet still tropey as Hell than a lot of current TV. The second is that Doctor Blackwood, all 6’2, gangly, over articulate nerd of him, was one of the first times I saw myself.

Harrison was kind, weird, funny and open-minded. He was endlessly enthusiastic, endlessly positive, a Doctor Who in a plaid shirt with none of the hand wavy nonsense or bow breaking decades of continuity. He was a hero who was clever. He was a hero who was BIG and clever. To me, trapped in a meatsuit that seemed three sizes too big and that automatically put 5 years on my perceived age and 10 points off my IQ in the eyes of strangers, Harrison was a lifeline, a message in a bottle:

It’s okay. There are people in the world like you. There are people in the world you can work to be like.

The show was occasionally brilliant, there’s an especially fun return to Grover’s Mill episode that I can still hit pretty much every plot beat of. It was also frequently gloriously, exuberantly bad in the most wonderful 1990s way possible. Hilariously gory, filled with stereotypes and written in a way that meant vital stuff often happened between episodes.

I LOVED it.

I missed it for a long time.

I may have sketched out a reboot or two.

And  I never forgot Doctor Harrison Blackwood or the effect he had on me. Like Egon Spengler, Jack Killian, Chris Stephens and Henry Rollins he showed me there was a place for me in the world and helped me to get there.

Jared Martin, who played Harrison, died last month. He wasn’t the only one.

Adam West, the single greatest Batman of all time passed away last week. Sir Roger Moore died recently too. As did Andy Cunningham (Bodger and Badger for life, yo) and Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. We lost Glenne Headley this year too, an actress so great she stole a movie out from under Steve Martin AND Sir Michael Caine.

We’ve lived long enough to see our heroes not live long enough. And, in the middle of two of the most turbulent, often horrific, emotionally draining years so far this century, that can be very hard to deal with.

But not impossible.

It’s cold comfort at times but the truth is these people and the effect they have on us never quite fade. I still write characters that could be Harrison Blackwood. I still, aspire to be him. Every time we need them these people, these household gods of the digital age, are there for us. We live in an ocean of signal, an age, despite our best efforts, of miracle and wonder. None of us will live forever but all of us, especially the artists we’ve loved, are just a little immortal.  And, for now at least, that’s enough.

 


Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape PodPseudopodPodcastle and Cast of Wonders. He writes for Tor.com and MYMBuzz and blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

Not The Fox News: Nostalgia, Escapism and The Overton Window

So I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia recently, and how it connects to both escapism and the Overton Window.

There are jokes this month I SWEAR.

First off, nostalgia! It’s what was for dinner when you were a kid! You seem to remember!

We always look at the past through rose tinted glasses, even the parts of it which were less the best days of our lives and more the days of our lives we just had to GET.THROUGH. Things were easier in the past. TV was better. Adulting is hard. We didn’t used to be tired all the time.

At least two of those things are true but those Rose-tinted glasses are not twenty-twenty. Yes, I had more free time when I was 16. I also had dial up internet access, VHS video tapes and there was a single pizza joint within 30 miles of my house. We focus on the stuff that’s easy and fun because it was easy and fun. We don’t think, a lot of the time, about the awful stuff. Just the day to day drudge, that sense we sometimes get of these just being the weeks we have to get through to reach the next bit that’s good. Kate Bush once sang ‘Just being alive, it can really hurt’. She was right. Also being alive can often be really REALLY irritating and while I choose to believe that was in early drafts of the song, I feel the version she went with scanned better.

So nostalgia is an understandable reaction, especially in 2017: Year of The White Hot Garbage Fires Running The Western World. And that’s what leads to escapism.

I am a huge fan of escapism. I am sane and healthy in no small part due to being able to escape into a movie for two hours at a time. If anyone ever tells you escapist fiction is inferior or unneeded yell at them to get off your fucking dragon and fly back to your ice cube castle because it’s a lifesaver and you need it. In fact, I’d say escapism is mandatory now more than ever. We are almost incapable of being free of extra signal and the temptation to always be connected is a very strong one. It’s also one that will first exhaust and then kill you. Don’t let it. Escape.

Where I have an issue is where the two combine. Nostalgia, especially in genre, is more endemic than grumpy chaps in hoods, short people on walking holidays to volcanoes and female and POC authors being erased from the collective narrative.

Actually not as much as that last one.

Seriously though, throw a rock and you’ll hit something bemoaning the lack of golden age rockets, or pulp storytelling or the sort of stories that were told when all this was nowt but fields. It’s perpetuated by the success of genre fiction’s biggest TV shows and movies too. Star Wars began in 1977. Doctor Who is over 50 years old. Star Trek was airing for the first time during the Vietnam War. The future really is yesterday or sometimes seems that way.

And that brings us to the Overton Window. Here’s how Wikipedia describe it:

The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public will accept. It is used by media pundits.[1][2] The term is derived from its originator, Joseph P. Overton (1960–2003),[3] a former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy,[4] who in his description of his window claimed that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within the window, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences.[5] According to Overton’s description, his window includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.

 

And here’s a picture:

Basically the Overton Window is what society will accept at any given time. It’s moving right now and not in a good direction but for the purposes of this column let’s focus on the model and not the data. Because that idea can also be applied to genre fiction. Specifically genre TV for the purposes of this article.

Substitute the Overton scale for a timeframe. Park that time frame over the Victorian Era at one end and the 1970s at the other. That’s the period that influences a remarkable amount of genre fiction, even now. That’s in part because we live in a world where decades old cultural behemoths stride the zeitgeist plains like merchandise friendly lobstrocities from the end of The Mist. But it’s also partially because that time frame is what the culture we’ve grown up in draws from. It’s like the old marching song ‘we’re here because we’re here because…’. We’ve always lived in the Castle. We’ve always drawn inspiration from and escaped to these time periods.

 

Wouldn’t it be great if that changed?

 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could shift that window forward in time and, in doing so, provide a new cultural foundation for a whole range of stories?

 

I can even give you an example. Life on Mars was beloved, and deservedly so, in the UK. It wa as fiercely smart, metaphysical and metafictional take on the traditional cop show. Chock full of stereotypes that it also interrogated and satirized, it was deeply weird, profoundly odd TV.

It’s sequel, Ashes to Ashes, was better.

Not just because the addition of a female lead changed the show’s perspective immeasurably. Not just because it provided answers to every question Life on Mars left dangling. It was better because the cultural frame of reference was noticeably different. Instead of yet another British TV show trapped in the dour, blocky cars and terrifying facial hair of the 1970s, it was catapulted forward into the 1980s.

I was a kid in the ’80s in one of the most rural areas possible. Vibrant, and often awful, music and fashion aside it still frequently SUCKED. Seeing that acknowledged in Ashes to Ashes, as well as the amazing music and clothes, made the show feel completely unique even as it was woven from very familiar cloth. It felt, as the series both opened and closed, that we’d made some progress, that things had been, like the man once said, pushed forwards.

That doesn’t happen enough. But it does happen some and increasingly in a manner that’s less nostalgic and far more interesting. Firefly’s influence on The Expanse and Killjoys is obvious for example but neither show is beholden to their predecessor. Killjoys uses a multi-ethnic future to explore both the ethics of being a professional killer and the future of human society. The Expanse puts the diversity equations that Firefly toyed with front and Centre and resolves them into one of the most interesting, well rounded casts in recent history. And of course Stranger Things drags that window forward, dumps it over the 1980s and does truly extraordinary things with that time period.

None of these shows do anything particularly new. All of them do what they do extraordinarily well precisely because of what they use to build those familiar stories. They take time periods or influences that sit in living memory and use them as a foundation to do something new and vital in every sense of the word. And right now, that’s absolutely what we need. Something new. A better place to escape into. One where the new future will be built.

There’s a lot of talk about the Golden Age of TV and it always seems to have just finished. I’d argue that by moving that cultural window we have the potential to keep it rolling. Stranger Things was both a massive success and good. The Expanse has just been renewed, as has fellow drawn-from-the-90s show 12 Monkeys. Their success has raised the viability and visibility off the genre which has led to edgier projects such as Falling Water, 3%, The Leftovers and The OA being commissioned. Odds are you don’t like at least two of those shows. That’s the point. They are the antithesis of nostalgia. Something new built from something new and they only exist because of the environment created by the shows built on the nostalgia window.

Nostalgia is fine. Escapism is a basic human right. But like everything else, the tenets of escapist fiction cannot stand still or it will stop being somewhere we escape to and become something we are trapped in. That’s why it’s great that Buffy is 20 years old and still means so much. Because in a few more years, that will become the basis for something new, the window will shift again and we’ll grow, as a culture, again. It won’t be pretty. It won’t be fast. But it will happen. It will be great. And it’ll have a badass theme tune.

Not The Fox News: The February Rundown

Hi! Happy New Year! I hope your festive season of choice was fun and relaxing. I’ve had a surprisingly virulent cold for the last ten days or so and am just coming up to speed. So, in the spirit of being nice to my brain and trying something new here, let’s talk about a few things briefly.

Opening Number

That’s there for two reasons. Firstly because it’s one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands and secondly because it’s what we all need. We are, as I write this, roughly six weeks and change into the New Year. I’ve spent over half that time really surprisingly ill. On the one hand this was kind of great, thanks to the Complete Veronica Mars boxed set I got for my birthday. On the other, it means I’m ten days in the hole on every deadline I have.

Worse still, part of me didn’t want to go back to work.

I love my job, don’t get me wrong. 2016 may have been a dumpster set alight, filled with human sewage and rolled down hill into a Nuclear Waste Dump but I did some of my all-time favorite work in that year. It’s not that I didn’t want to go back to it, I did.

It’s just that, well, I’ll let Chuck explain.

Writing in this instance meaning work.

We all feel this way. We all look at our careers and our lives and wonder if we’ll ever get what we want. Odds are, we won’t get all of it. Odds are, we will get some of it. As long as one thing happens.

We persevere.

So, cut yourself a break. Don’t kick your ass for not doing enough and don’t push when you really feel like you can’t. But don’t stop either. Don’t ever stop. Like the man says, one step, one punch, one round at a time. You’ve got this. And we’re right there with you.

Sell Yourself, Not Your Dignity. Or Anyone Else’s.

Earlier this year, an author successfully dominated a genre fiction news cycle by faking a Twitter beef with then not-quite new President of the United States.

Stop and drink that in:

An author. Who wanted to sell more books. Faked attack tweets. From the imminent President of the United States. A man who probably holds grudges against a sub-par breakfast.

It went viral too. 12,000 or so retweets, some celebrity endorsements and then ‘Lol, soz just satire.’

There are so many ways this is stupid, so many ways it’s the textbook definition of a DICK MOVE we don’t have the words for it. Want to know the best one?

I knew this had happened. But I still had to google the author’s name.

Here’s the thing about parody; it needs to be funny.

Here’s the other thing about parody; in the post-looking glass, Brexit-riddled, Trans-Atlantic dumpster fire we now live in parody, or its snarky oh so ironic sibling, satire need to be really REALLY careful about when they leave their rooms.

Doing this, rightly or wrongly, played on people’s fears to sell a book. The folks out there terrified they’re going to lose the health care they need to survive? Or their jobs? Or the laws that stop discrimination against them? They have very good reason to react without checking. When marketing games them like this it not only plays on their fears but only makes them angrier and more depressed.

To sell a book.

Plus this won’t be the last time. The campaign worked. Which means others are on the way. Which means that ‘Sad!’ and ‘Yuge’ will become default punctuation. Which means the way he speaks will be normalized. Which means everything else will be normalized.

To sell a book.

So what can we take away from this? Other than a headache and a gnawing sense that we should just put Johnny Cash albums on and drink until we pass out?

That’s easy. Don’t do it.

We talk a lot about how to promote yourself here because it’s one of those things authors never figure out all the way. It’s really easy to think there’s a magic bullet, and pop culture certainly looks like it. When all everyone is talking about is one person or thing, you want to get some of that action. That’s how impressionists happen. That’s why SNL is decades old. That’s why every English satirist is currently sitting in the same pub wondering if it’s too late to retrain.

But that’s not all there is.

There’s you as well.

Be you. Be honest. Be polite and be persistent. That means engaging. That means listening. That means changing your approach. And most of all it means, you guessed it, perseverance. One step, one punch, round at a time. You got this.

Unless you fake beef with POTUS. Then you don’t have a damn thing.

And Finally
Self Care! It’s what’s for dinner! In fact the very acceptance of dinner as a concept implies you’re taking care of yourself! And trust me you really need to. The news right now is, much like it was last year, a never ending hellstorm of awfulness. It’s very easy to get dragged in. Don’t do that. That’s bad. Instead, hydrate, eat protein when you can, take regular stretch breaks and be nice to yourself. This is a good place to start if you can:

Lion Spaceships, y’all. You know it makes sense. See you in March.

Not The Fox News: Here Comes The Future

There are six discarded drafts of this column. You can probably guess what most of them were; the prose equivalent of that moment in Avengers where Tony looks up at the Chitauri horde, his HUD shifts to red and he says ‘An army…right.’. Pieces about the relentless shitnado that 2016 has been, about how actually some of it’s gone really well, about bracing for impact for next year and things to do and things to not do.

You know the sort of thing. All useful, all relevant, all well intentioned and absolutely none of it something you haven’t heard or read a dozen times a day since November.

Or the last time a creative whose work helped define you died.

Or any one of the half dozen other catastrophe signifiers we’ve all got on, staring this year down as it enters its final hours with yet more blood on its teeth and no longer even a pretence of an innocent expression.

You don’t need to read that again. You especially don’t need to read that from another educated, cishet white dude.

Instead, just this for next year;

Be kind.

Be kind to other people because the aggregate stress level across pretty much everybody’s social media echo chamber is in the red and the gauge is fit to burst. That old saw about how everyone’s fighting their own battles annoys you right? Me too.

It annoys us because it’s true.

Check in with your people regularly. See if they’re okay. See if they need anything. Get it for them if you can.

Listen to other people and other experiences. Signal boost people who need it. Research things you aren’t sure of. Don’t assume malice when an honest mistake is often dressed the exact same way. Conversely, trust but, when you feel you need to, verify.

Don’t grief police.

Ever.

If there is one unforgivable, braying act of lazy social media cruelty that deserves to be consigned to the fires of Hell forever more starting NOW it is assuredly that.

So be kind. Do that and you’ve set a bass note for the year that positive things can be built on. Keep doing that and your outlook will expand and improve permanently. It’s not easy but it is doable. The really tough part is this:
Be kind to yourself too.

I have a constellation of whiteboards in the office. One of them is my Daily To Do list. The following items are always on there:

-Daylight

-Eat Some Fruit

It sounds stupid but it works.  After winter 2014 when I basically became Gollum I realized just how much daylight lifted my mood. I felt better, I slept better, I relaxed more, I worked better. Not harder. Better.

This time of year there’s incredible pressure to try new things and break old habits and that’s great. But we all set ourselves way too high a standard and when we fall short, we fall all the way. Don’t do that. Work out what you want, set your victory conditions, meet them, reward yourself and repeat them. Slow progress is fine. Slow progress is GREAT. Slow progress is how winning is done. Like the man says, one step, one punch, one round at a time. Keep going. And the best way to keep going is to be kind to yourself.

So, tomorrow, spend some time focusing on you. Work out what you want to do this year, what you want to change and what you want to keep the same. Go buy some new stationary (This ALWAYS works for me) when the shops open again and then, get to it. I will be.

 

Happy New Year everyone. And, to play us out, the one, the only, Mr John Oliver.

Not the Fox News: Closing the ‘Satan’s Pinterest’ Tab

Show of hands, who’s tired?

Not just tired, but bone weary, punched out, ready for this relentless dumpster fire shitshow fucktastrophe of a trip around the Sun to be over so we can burn its bones, salt the ground it’s buried in and scatter the ashes over that entrance to Hell looking crater in Russia?

Seriously, that’s a place.

I’m not going to tell you it’s going to be okay.

It’s not.

It isn’t.

On this side of the Atlantic a feud between sociopath public schoolboys has escalated into whatever the unholy union of a farce, a tragedy, a horror story and the opening montage of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake is called. In the US, a reality TV show host has been elected to the highest office in the land and his chief advisers will be an actual honest-to-God white supremacist and a man who looks like darkest timeline Beeker.

And in the middle, drowning in a sea of thinkpieces, tweetstorms, accidental falsehoods and willful deceptions? Us.

What a fucking year.

I don’t have answers for you. Hell, I don’t have answers for me short of playing ‘Stuck in Lodi’ on loop for the next four years and trying to pretend the inevitable Yes, Minister remake will be funny and not a screaming existential plummet into the heart of shitty, if-wet-in-village-hall British horror. In the dictionary under the definition of ‘Shit is All Fucked Up’? There is a picture of all of us right now.

But I do have an idea.

And I hate it, because it’s a truism and I hate truisms because if we didn’t have them? Someone would have gone and rescued that kitten hanging off a tree instead of taking a photo of the poor little bastard and retiring off the takings from their HANG IN THERE! Posters.

But I have a story for you. And I promise you it’s true. And SUCKS. Here it is:

 

Keep going.

Try harder.

 

And you know the really awful thing? It actually is true.

 

toby

Mine too, Toby. Mine too.

Let’s go with that top one first because it’s going to be the hardest one to do in the short term. Right now, you’re glued to social media or the news trying to work just when it was you fell through that hole to the parallel dimension where people think a man whose failed to be elected seven times is a legitimate political force. You’ve got your guard up, your eyes wide, shoving as much info as possible into your brain.

The bad news is this; you’re going to get tired, you’re going to get blindsided and you’re going to get there much faster by refusing to step away.

The good news, and I use good advisedly, is this; other people will cover you when you step off the attention line. Take the footage of that Venezuelan march that was passed around as an anti-Trump march in LA a few days ago. The bad news is it was mislabeled and went viral. The good news is that it was caught and that also went viral.

Your watch is not going to be 24 hours a day. Step away. Drink some water. Play a game. Eat some carbs. Or more carbs. Or protein. Or carbs. And water. Water’s important.

Once you’ve done that, back to work.

 

Got a short story? Finish it.

Got a novel? Finish it?

Article? Finish it

Podcast? Finish it

NaNoWriMo? FINISH IT

 

Persistence is the single most immutable force in human society. If you keep going, if you keep working regardless of what else is happening around you, regardless of what other people or you put in your way? YOU WILL WIN. You will look and feel like 8000 miles of bad road when you do sometimes but you won’t care. Because you’ll have got there when almost no one else has.

Keep going. Keep going to shut up the people who said you couldn’t. Keep going to get the words out of your head. Keep going so you learn you CAN keep going. Remember that lesson. Rest up. Start again.

And when you do, Try Harder.

Writers are magpies. We dive on what looks shiny and emulate it as best we can. In doing so we destroy it and remake it in our own image and that creates something new. That’s the process, it always has been. We learn, we imitate, we create.

But we can’t keep imitating the same things. The social media bubble universes that have wrought incalculable damage this year encourage us to talk and think to people who talk and think like us. It’s like an ideological proscenium, amplifying the right notes and leading everyone to sing along with the choir.

The choir, any choir, EVERY choir, drowns out other voices. And that’s what got us here.

Sing off key. Go off book. Try something new.

Try this: Get a whiteboard. List the characteristics of what you normally like. Let’s say:

Science fiction

Male authors

Published in last two decades

Spaceships

Explosions

Exploding spaceships

 

Now turn your back on that. Because you know that field and because, bluntly, the day science fiction novels featuring exploding spaceships and written by dudes aren’t turned out nineteen to a dozen? Is the day the world ends and you’ll have bigger concerns.

So, with that at your back, your list would look like:

Fantasy, Horror, Literature

Female authors

Published in the last 50 years

Ghosts

Family secrets

Family ghosts

I know, I know ‘But I like spaceships?’ right?

Me too bunky. But here’s the thing. If there is one concept I’m taking out of this year it’s that the Reader’s Burden is very definitely here and not enough people are shouldering it.

The Reader’s Burden is this; there is a colossal amount of brilliant work out there. You cannot hope to read it all. But if all you read is what you know you like, then you do yourself a disservice. Worse still you keep the conversation focused on that, ensuring that no new authors break through and the window of perspective doesn’t change.

Or to put it another way, read Heinlein. But read Kameron Hurley too.

The idea of different perspectives being valid is going to spend the next four years trapped in the corner eating punch after punch from an opponent who has no business being anywhere near civilized discourse.

Don’t let that happen.

Read, watch, play, listen, interact with culture outside your comfort zones because if you don’t then you’ll be half the writer you deserve to be and half the culture we deserve will be standing at the end of this. If we’re lucky.

Don’t be lucky.

 

Be scared. Be angry. Be demoralized. Then keep going and try harder. And when you need a hand? Ask for one. Because we’re all doing it too.

 

If you’re looking for stuff that will directly help in the US, try this or this.

Not The Fox News: Panel Beaten

Special thanks this month to Den Patrick and James Smythe, who helped shape the central idea in this column. Go buy their books, they’re ace.midamericon-2

Convention season is (mostly) over for me for the year. I’m incredibly lucky in that my job takes me to shows like WorldCon (Which was in Kansas City or, as I like to call it, the Beef Singularity), EdgeLit, Nine Worlds and FantasyCon. Being able to see how both sides of the Atlantic, and every scale of show, do things is a really interesting experience. Especially as there’s one thing none of those shows managed to do;

Got out of their panelist’s way.

I’m not slamming the organizers here. I’ve worked that side of the fence, I know how hard and how utterly thankless a task it is. What I am criticizing is the culture they’re having to work inside, one inherited from decades of calcifiied and at times no longer relevant experience. Experience that actively stops authors doing their jobs.

Here’s an example, which demonstrates both how conventions and authors need to change; Fantasycon 2009/10, I sat in the audience for that year’s ‘YA? To Be Viewed With Fear? Or Merely Suspicion?‘ Panel. One of the panelists was an American author whose debut novel had just come out. He had a copy with him and, inevitably, referenced it a lot during the panel. Not only is this fine, but he also managed to make a running gag out of it.

Given that other panel members were snarktweeting about him as the panel was happening, I’m guessing it didn’t go down as well with them as it did with me.

I’ve thought about that day a lot recently. It was a miserable convention as everything I attended from that particular era of the BFS was, but that’s not why it’s been playing on my mind. Rather, it’s been coming up a lot more because I’ve now seen four conventions in a row where authors haven’t just not promoted their work, they’ve blithely accepted that they shouldn’t really have to. There’s a feeling, and I’ve heard a real human say this, with words, in the 21st century, that it should be the publishers’ job.

In an ideal world, yeah it probably should.

Take a look outside.

There was a clown out there wearing a DRUMPF 2016 t-shirt and crying about Harambe wasn’t there?

Thought so.

edge-lit

Ugly Truth time. Authors have to promote their own work right now. You just do. You can complain about it all you want but every time you don’t bother promoting your work, fifteen other people are promoting their’s. You can turn in the best work you’ve ever done, you can actually write the Great American Novel or the next Girl With A Pearl Earring Tattoo On The Train and I PROMISE you absolutely no one will give shit one unless you tell people about it.

Feel awkward? Feel like it’s not good enough? Feel like you’re bothering people?

Good.

In order:

1) Suck it up, you’re a ghost buster.

2) Everyone feels that way about everything ever.

3) YOU ARE NOT BOTHERING PEOPLE.

Seriously the moment you hit that unease, stay there because you’re probably talking about your stuff just the right amount. Case in point; we interact with kickstarter campaigns three times before we decide whether or not to pledge. In order to do that we need to be reminded that the campaign exists twice. Same goes for every form of retail interaction ever. So, you need to be talking about your work at least three times during the lifetime of a project. And by ‘lifetime’ I mean three times a day until your next project comes out.

A quick aside; it is absolutely possible to over promote. Automated DMs on twitter and using 3-35 hashtags in a tweet are really good ways to over promote and annoy people. Don’t do those.  Instead do what works for you and what makes you feel just a little frightened. That fear is your friend. Shows you’re pushing yourself.

fantasycon-by-the-seaSo that’s ‘Should authors self-promote?’ Answered. And oddly without using the word YES in 72 point block capitals. This time.

Now, conventions!

For some reason, the panel format has become both the default and a blanket to smother authors’ own priorities beneath. It’s not intentional and is clearly one of those dusty pieces of ancestral wisdom that’s been around so long none of us can tell whether or not it’s bad because it’s what we’ve always done.

Here’s the thing; it’s really bad and, crucially, unfair.

We need to stop doing it. Here’s how.

Encourage authors to talk about their books on the panel. If they want copies up there, so much the better! These are people who, odds are, have paid hundreds of pounds to attend the event and who are so conditioned by the industry wide inferiority complex we labor under that they’re not going to promote their work without being told they’re allowed.

TELL THEM THEY’RE ALLOWED.

Be prepared for some of them to hug you when you do.

Mix the format up a little bit. Here are a few ideas:

 

Podcast Everything

A few years ago, our esteemed leader at Fox Spirit very successfully ran a podcast track of every single panel at Fantasycon and Alt Fiction. The fact this has never been followed up on mystifies me. Yes you need to get releases from people but that’s the sort of legal boilerplate that takes very little research. From a technical point of view you can go old school and just record panels with a voice memo app and a smartphone from the desk the panelists are sitting behind. Feeling fancy? Talk to the hotel about using the built in audio system, get a mixer, and you’re away. None of this stuff is hard, it’s just new. And if you do decide to do this? Please get in touch. If we can’t help, then we know podcasters who can.

 

Magazine Showcases

Panels are fine but there are lots of other ways you can present guests. MidAmericon II did really interesting work with Magazine Showcases this year. They had each publication attending (Or publisher in my company, Escape Artists’,  case) present a panel featuring some of their authors and staff. I attended all these panels and it was a brilliant way to cover a lot of ground, and a lot of authors, in a small space of time.

 

TED Talks!

Or perhaps TOD talks just in case their lawyers are present! I tried this on the Comics track at Nine Worlds this year and it worked really well. Extended, 10-15 minute presentations by individual authors on something close to their heart and related to their work. We were able to get Paul Cornell and Laurie Penny in to talk about the history and symbology of UFO incidents and John Constantine respectively and it was great. Both subjects were tied back to their own work, both went far more in depth normal and the twin needs of self-promotion and added information value for the convention were met brilliantly.

 

Kill The Trade Hall, Save The Trade Hall

Nine Worlds’ Expo and MidAmericon II’s shopping section were the only two conventions this year I’ve seen do retail close to right. Far too often, publishers’ and booksellers’ tables are crammed away in a corner or, worse still, split across multiple locations. Don’t do that. Instead, do this:

 

-Put a book table in every room you have book events. Make sure they have a cash float or if you’re feeling fancy, electronic sales facilities. If you aren’t feeling fancy? A cash float of 50 to 70 pounds and a hand written receipt ledger will sort you out. You have a volunteer in there anyway so give them something to do other than hold up a 5 MINUTES LEFT sign.

-Pre load the table, that morning, with stock written by every author who will be in the room that day.

-As each new panel begins, load the table with books by the new set of panelists.

-At the end of the panel, use the 15 minute inter-room shuffle to give people a chance to buy books by the folks they’ve just spent an hour listening to.

Every single author in that room over the course of your show will sell books. Every single trader will thank you for putting their work directly in front of interested authors. You will be lauded as brilliant, maverick innovators in a field that still sometimes sighs nostalgically about the terrible hotels it decided it deserved in the early ’00s. This is a universally good thing, a moment of Ecclestonian joy

Everyone Lives

Look at him! Look at his little pointy face! You could elicit that joy in authors, publishers and convention goers! All you have to do is try something new and when it works, which it will, other people will follow your example. Then? We can finally start making panels a way of building the future instead of endless cover versions of the past.