Not Really That Much Stranger

My better half and I binged our way through new Netflix series Stranger Things last weekend, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. On its face, the show — a sci-fi suspense period piece set in suburban Indiana in the 80’s — is kind of custom-made to hit a metric trailerful of my geek-nostalgia buttons.

Spoiler warning here, since I can’t talk about some of my strongest responses without them. You’ve been warned.

So, on that surface level I referenced above, the show delivers. The Duffer Brothers and their cast and crew do an amazing job of re-creating 80’s sci suspense. Hairstyles and clothes are spot-on 80’s Hollywood without being over-the-top The Wedding Singer riffs, but that’s kind of the least of it. The recreation here is much more immersive, including a synth-y soundtrack reminiscent of a Carpenter film and title credits that call back to basically every 80’s movie based on a Stephen King book ever.

Unfortunately, it’s such a good recreation of an 80’s sci suspense flick that I had a hard time seeing what this brought to the table that all its predecessors hadn’t done already. Movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing remind us that there was a time when what Stranger Things is doing was innovative.

That time isn’t now, though. While my own eternal weakness to jump scares holds true, most of the twists of plot and nearly all of the character arcs feel staid and well-worn. Of course Finn Wolfhard’s Mike and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven will develop a crush on each other. Of course maternal instinct will drive Winona Rider’s Joyce to face horrors for the sake of her son.

There are a rare few moments that stand out as bucking the trend. When Charlie Heaton’s loner teen Jonathan and Natalia Dyer’s popular Nancy decide to face down a monster, it’s Nancy, with no experience, who turns out to be a natural with a gun. For once, too, the third point of a teen love triangle (Joe Keery’s Steve) manages not to be a total garbage fire of a human being.1 And on the visual front, there’s a really fun inversion of the E.T. flying bicycle moment that I literally applauded.

Sadly most of these happen both very late in the season and are isolated in general. Much more likely, and in several cases frustratingly, the show doesn’t seem to have any real interest in more than pushing the verisimilitude of its 80’s Hollywood-ness. One of the reasons this reads as such an amazing recreation of an 80’s flick, for example, is how very White, Male, and Straight it winds up being.

The women in this show are intriguing, but by and large they aren’t capable of doing anything until the men in their lives empower them.2 Joyce knows her son is alive, and even creates a way to communicate with him across dimensions, but she can’t do anything about it until David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper decides she isn’t crazy. Similarly, it takes Jonathan to empower Nancy to go out monster hunting. There’s an almost palpable theme here wherein nothing is real until a Dude believes it is.

Hell, Eleven — who has actual kickass super-powers — almost never uses them save at the behest (or imminent danger to) the trio of boys she falls in with early in the series.

There’s an even smaller ethnic minority presence than there is a female one, largely represented by Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, who at least seems to do as admirable a job as his young peers. There’s probably an argument to be made about why he of all the characters has to be the constant voice of dissent, but Lucas at least has a measure of agency, though mileage on that may vary.

Perhaps I’m simply more forgiving because Lucas (1) exists and (2) isn’t called out by slurs. Which is the exact opposite of the show’s treatment of LGBT and the 80’s. I went on a bit about this on a Twitter thread already, but the long and short of it is: while the show tosses “you’re a queer” around as the ultimate insult (indeed, in two separate cases people come to blows over the insinuation they might be “a queer”), there’s no evidence that anyone is actually queer. The creators get the benefit of claiming they’re accurately recreating attitudes of the time without bothering to actually deal with the people most affected by those attitudes.

Daniel Reynolds over at The Advocate is much more willing to buy into a “coded queer” reading of the show than I am. I just think we’re well past the point where I should have to rely on coding. We aren’t working against an actual 80’s standards committee trying to get this work made.

In general, it all points to a lot of energy being spent on recreation and not much at all on reflection or examination. A lot of these elements would get little more than an eye roll from me in a film produced in the 1980’s. Whatever its setting, though, Stranger Things was produced by people who have a lot more distance with which to recognize that era’s cultural baggage and a lot fewer barriers to inclusivity.

This all comes back to what I think is a central weakness of the show. Stranger Things peppers its background with movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing. And the influence of these movies (and more) are similarly plastered all over the film-making. I can’t tell you how many times I got a nostalgic thrill recognizing a riff on a sequence from E.T. or Alien or Firestarter or Carrie or several other movies I’m sure I’m missing.

Unfortunately, while the creators show a seemingly exhaustive love of the innovative films which form the series’ inspirational sources, they aren’t bringing much of anything new to the table themselves. That may ultimately be all that most of its fans want, mind you. Surely there’s a piece of me that responds to a lot of it. But, like “The Upside Down” that plays a pivotal role in the show, I can’t help but also see the dangers of the wider, other world the show leaves unacknowledged.

1. This Variety interview suggests Steve’s better qualities may have less to do with purposeful subversion and more to do with directors enjoying an actor, but the end result is nonetheless refreshing.

2. Hat tip to Adam Michael Sass over on the The Geeks OUT blog for hitting this particular nail on the head: “No woman can save the day until a man believes her.”

Mishmash as Worldbuilding

I promised some wonk about “Taste of Birdsong,” didn’t I? We should do that, then, yes?

This story, unlike a lot of my other recent sales, is set in its own world, so there was a lot more whole cloth worldbuilding to do than when I write a Tall or a Detritus story. But that’s what scribbly note files are for, right?

Let’s stop and see if I can’t kill the pretension in that a bit. I don’t pretend to be burdened with so many amazing ideas that I must — simply must, my dear — write them all down as soon as divine provenance sends them to me, lest the world be robbed of my brilliance.

Yeah, no. What I have is a brain that runs scattershot. I have some ideas that are silly and some which seem kind of cool and a lot which are completely random and probably not particularly insightful or intriguing in the least. I tend to tap them into the Drive app on my phone not to record brilliance, but to get them out of my head. When I’m in a place to noodle around with things, I periodically pull the little bits of stuff out and poke at them to see if anything happens.

Which, as this story will attest, sometimes results in something. The world and story here came from a bunch of different little ideas that were floating around unattached.

I had at one point written down something about migrating trees. Not Ents, not sentient anythings. I’d just been wondering what might happen to a hunter / gatherer paradigm when the things from which we gathered were also the things we hunted.

Similarly, I had another scribble about transitional senses. That one came from a weird thought progression that started somewhere with me noodling alternate senses that could be used for telecommunication, of all things.

Neither of those were a story, of course. It wasn’t until I decided I wanted to see if I could write something that mucked about with perception and notions of strength and beauty that I had something to hang things on.

Given that Sovani’s journey is one where he’s trying to assemble a life for himself, the meta hodgepodge that went into the world he lives in is at least thematically appropriate.

Walking Trees and Words Made of Smells (or: NEW STORY!)

Cover art: Smoke in the water… by Cyril Rana
Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0) license
Image edits by Joy Crelin and Leland Spencer

As usual, extended nattering to be had in a day or so, but after a bit of fallow, I’ve a new story out in the wilds.

When I heard Joy Crelin was planning to put Betwixt on an indefinite hiatus, I knew I had to send something in. Joy published one of my first pieces (“At Her Fingertips” in issue #7), and it was a wonderful experience. Joy’s fast, professional, and all around lives up to her name. Luckily, Joy liked what I sent her this time, as well.

“Taste of Birdsong” has migrating trees and senses that turn on and off for the season. It has skinspeak and pherospeak and signing. It might also be a story about self-worth and what it means to be beautiful if I did my job right. Plus monsters with multiple mouths because monsters make everything cooler.

Extra bonus points for this story being a first: evil twin Laura Price and I are finally sharing a table of contents! Our evil crazy weirdness has joined forces for Betwixt #11. Is that why “File 29520: Notes from Immediate Aftermath of Attack by New Villain, ‘The Daemon’” is a super-villain story? I won’t tell because that would ruin the evil! Go! Witness our power!

I’m Only Afraid That Your Offense Is Fabricated (by a 12-year-old)

One of the perennial memes that crosses my screen goes like this:

When I was a kid, we did X, but now kids can’t do X because people are afraid of offending someone.

There follows the usual “share if you…” blah blah nonsense which is the lifeblood of social media, but that’s an entirely separate issue, so I’ll stop the quote there.

X, of course, changes depending on the specific meme, but since the structure and the sentiment are pretty uniform, and seemingly omnipresent, I decided I should just respond in one place so I can link it and stop wasting time fuming. The other reason for “X” is that, honestly, the problem is never whatever the hell X happens to stand for, it’s with the compounded levels of wrongheaded put together in this sorry excuse for an argument.

The live action The Sound of Music may have scarred us all, but we can still agree that Maria was right in asking us to start at the beginning, so let’s:

When I Was a Kid

I still watch cartoons and collect comics. Hell, I still have my Lion Voltron and a box full of He-Man figures. I absolutely understand holding on to treasured things from when we were kids. There’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly on one’s childhood when possible.

That said, when I was a kid, I thought my Flash underoos could make me run at super speed. I thought you could swing high enough to wrap yourself around the swingset. I thought every guy I was in school with was straight.

All of those are as accurate as the likelihood I can once again fit into a child’s large t-shirt (which I also did “when I was a kid”), so you may see why I’m a bit incredulous of when I was a kid as the primary support for your position.

Let’s also acknowledge that when I was a kid is a way of wrapping nostalgia around a this is how it’s always been and how dare things change argument. To which: people used to believe that heat rose because the top layer of the world was made of fire, that the sun circled the earth, that the uterus was the primary source of mental illness in women, that certain people were property, and that only witches floated in water.

I’m kind of hoping no one reading this is on board with pushing for a return to any of that just because it’s the way things were when someone was a kid.

People Are Afraid

People ascribe motives all the time. Is that guy who cut me off in traffic rushing to the hospital to check on a relative whose health has taken a turn for the worse, or is he just being an asshole? It’s exactly what’s happening with this construction which presumes that the only possible reason for a change in X is fear.

Parents aren’t afraid of their children when they put a bandaid on a scraped elbow and hug them until they stop crying. Or when they lift them to the sink to wash their hands. I’m not afraid of a stranger with an armload of packages when I hold the door for her. Or when I invite someone to sit with me at a party when I notice them wandering a bit aimlessly.

We see people who are hurt, or struggling, or encumbered, or just plain unnoticed, and we reach out. I call that empathy. I think it’s sad as fucking hell if you call it fear, and it says more about you than about “them.”

Also, I hope I’m never running from a serial killer with you around, because it kind of sounds like I can expect to be tripped so you’ll have time to escape.

Offending Someone

The only thing better than ascribing motive is doubling down and ascribing it twice. Because, you see, anyone asking for a change in X is clearly offended.

By the time we get to it, offense loads everything down with a whole lot of ire you can’t for one moment assume. Wanting to exist isn’t offense. Wanting to have a seat at the table, a partner on the dance floor, these aren’t indicative of offense. They’re indicative of longing and attempts at community. And I fail to see why asking for them is by its very nature so aggressive as to be characterized as offense.

Even if there is offense, there seems to be a palpable lack of self-reflection here, since the tone of the whole damn meme makes the poster’s offense palpable, and something which needs to be soothed. For reasons I can’t fathom, however, the offense of others gets an immediate thumbs down.

You’re painting some zombie apocalypse scenario where there are “normal” people, and then some horde of Other: religions, ethnicities, sexualities, levels of ableness, gender identities. All of them, growling and reaching to take a bite out of your tender, pristine flesh.

I think you need to watch a little less Walking Dead, dear heart. Or consider that maybe the mindless, tooth-gnashing horde is on your side of the door.

I Think She’d Be Marvelous

So apparently casting for the upcoming Captain Marvel movie is ramping up. I see the usual suspects suggesting the usual suspects for the title role. And I don’t know that anyone I’m hearing named is a bad choice, mind you, but when I sat down to think about what might make a good Captain Marvel, I came up with someone else.

I’m all in on Kerry Washington for the cinematic Captain Marvel.

I’ll stop right here and clarify that no, I’m not talking about making this film about Monica Rambeau. I’d be thrilled to see that character on screen, too, but that would involve a wholesale concept shift. I suspect the MCU gurus chose their Captain Marvel for her kree / alien / cosmic ties as they expand into outer space for their Infinity War mega-event. Trying to change the course of that monster seems so entirely outside the realm of possibility that I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.

So, yeah, I’m doing my back flips and megaphone cheers for Kerry Washington as Carol Danvers.

Since I can already hear the um actuallys starting with their But Carol Danvers is.., I’ll just stop right there and finish that sentence for you.

Carol Danvers is a woman filled with inner strength and determination.

Carol Danvers is a woman willing to fight against overwhelming odds to do what she thinks is right.

Carol Danvers is a woman whose military background suggests she’s used the previous qualities to push her way up the ranks in one of the ultimate Boys’ Clubs around.

Carol Danvers is a woman with a past of mistakes and tragedy, who’s been beaten by fate and circumstance time and again, gaining power, losing power, but who, at the end of the day, has come out triumphant and ready to keep fighting.

Um, yeah, so what I’m seeing here is someone who feels like she has a lot in common with Washington’s Oliva Pope on Scandal. Sure, her fights there aren’t nearly as physically violent as the kind Captain Marvel is likely to entail, but that’s what stunt doubles and special effects are for.

And while Washington herself hasn’t always been the punching character, her recent turn in Django Unchained, and previous roles in the first two Fantastic Four films, certainly suggest she’s not opposed to being part of a film built around things going ‘splody.

Said role in the FF films also happens to mean Washington’s already dealt with anti-diversity nerdrage and came out on top. I’ve no idea if she wants to wade into the morass again, mind you, but if she did, she at least wouldn’t be coming into the whole thing unawares.

So, yeah, if we’re fancasting that MCU flick? I’m on the Kerry Washington for Carol Danvers train. THAT would be some Marvelous casting, if you ask me.

Pronouns Caught In a Twister

So, after record-breaking attendance at the launch reading, Clockwork Phoenix 5 is now a thing which is officially out in the world. Which means “The Wind at His Back,” my story which starts this particular volume of “tales of beauty and strangeness,” is also officially a thing in the world, about which I couldn’t be more excited.

This story is special to me for several reasons. As I mentioned before, I went through a massive rut of writing basically nothing. What I didn’t say then (because we were talking about a different story), is that “The Wind at His Back” is the first story I wrote when I finally sat down and decided I was ready to write again. For that reason alone it’s pretty significant to me. I’ve sold other stories before this, but managing to sell the story that kind of marks my return to writing is its own unique awesome.

That my first dive back in has also been called out in a Publisher’s Weekly starred review and a Locus review certainly doesn’t hurt the warm fuzzy of it all.

They aren’t all glowing, mind you. One Goodreads reviewer wasn’t particularly impressed by the gay relationship at the heart of the story, where, as he summed it up “Basically, to add gay, change pronouns.”

I’m not highlighting this to be all sour grapes about it, mind you, but rather to lead into the other element of “The Wind at His Back” which makes it mean so much to me. This wasn’t the first time I’d written stories with gay characters, but previous to this, I always worried about writing gay characters. I hemmed and hawed about whether characters “needed” to be gay, if they might distract from other important things in the story.

When I came back to writing, when I sat down to write this story, I finally decided I was going to stop giving a fuck.

Look, when I came back to this, it needed to be something I wanted to do. Something that made me happy. That I was proud of. And I realized I couldn’t really enjoy writing if I had to worry readers might not respond to (or be actively averse to) people like me in fiction written by me. I knew that I, for one, was always extra excited to invest emotionally when a story I was reading or watching decided that (1) I existed, and (2) my existence needed neither a reason nor a special tragedy to justify said existence.

And there it was. Benito started riding from town toward the quiet home and life he’d made after leaving the bloody angst of life as a tornado wrangler, and hell if he didn’t come home to his husband. Pronouns switched. Gay achieved. That was, in fact, exactly how I added gay. And how I keep adding gay. Because of course it won’t be for everyone, but the people it’s for are, to my mind, the audience I want.

I’ve already published several subsequent stories which subscribe to that same “fuck it, you don’t need justification to exist” philosophy I adopted, but in a lot of ways, “The Wind at His Back” has always kind of been the mission statement, the tentpole, the source. That Mike Allen included it in Clockwork Phoenix 5, then, is an intense kind of validation.

Now, enough blubbering from me. Go read about my former tornado wrangler facing his troubled past while just trying to have a nice quiet life with his husband and the neighboring giants and his drinking buddy and her pet jackalope. The Mythic Delirium site’s collected the slew of formats and vendors into one handy post to help you out.

All The News

And into the void that is my blog updating schedule, lo there were a bunch of things to update (some of which may not be a surprise if you’ve been checking my bibliography page), so let’s dive in:

Almost available for your greedy reading needs:

I was lucky enough to make the cut for Clockwork Phoenix 5 (pre-order info at the link). As usual, I’ll probably wax on aspects of it more when it’s alive-alive, but for those keeping track, this is the third story set in the “Tall” universe. This time out, we’re tackling exactly what being a twister-wrangling Pac really entails. Also, tortured pasts and giants and magic trees because it wouldn’t be a Tall story without them.

Plus: men kissing and maybe doing a little more than kissing.

CP5 already has a starred review from Publishers Weekly. It even mentions my little story by name, which was extra nice.

If you’re a Goodreads person, you can also enter the giveaway for one of 12 copies of the book if you want to devour all the weird goodness for free.

Waiting in the wings for your greedy audio needs:

I just signed the contract for another story sale, this time to YA podcast Cast of Wonders. In a shocking turn of events, this story isn’t set in the world of any of my other stories. I know: a standalone? What new terrifying reality is this?

Don’t worry, dear hearts. It’s not quite the unrecognizable alien landscape you fear it to be. There’s still supernatural whatsis and boys kissing, so you needn’t worry I’ve completely lost my senses.

I’m excited to see this one, since it’s literally the oldest story I’ve written that I was still trying to get published.

Nope. Not finished yet.

I also had some roller-coaster-y excitement last week, when it turns out I made the shortlist for The James White Award, presented to one ‘non-professional’ writer as part of the BSFA award ceremony.

Ultimately I didn’t win, but making it to a final cut of 6 from a pool of around 350 entries was nothing to shrug at.

So, what’s new with you?