Who the Fuck Listens to This: Morrissey – California Son

So Morrissey, yeah? He almost never comes up around here 1, and that’s because I have carefully arranged my life so that I basically never think about him.

Nevertheless, he intrudes occasionally upon my thoughts, and here he is now, having made a record of other people’s songs for….a reason that probably only makes sense to him. If there even is a reason, as there may not be (about which see below).

I’m not going to overburden this here piece with my opinion of Morrissey, although here’s a footnote 2 if you don’t know it, because this really isn’t about my opinion of Morrissey, but rather about one of the most weirdly-miscalculated and unpredictable people “working” in music today, and his weird decision to make a covers album.

Covers albums have become something of a staple here in WTFLTT-land, having come up several times previously 3, and this one seemed like such a self-lighting conflagration that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to actually hear it.

See, because whatever else Morrissey has done and has been doing, he has managed to spend the last couple of years completely alienating his extant fanbase 4. That’s why he’s gone over into WTFLTT-dom: who is still around and loyal to/curious enough about Morrissey to listen to this record of covers?

Morrissey himself appears to be positioning the material, and the record itself, as its own commentary on his uh….evolving public image. He did no real press for it (a couple of tv appearances where he plays songs from the record notwithstanding), and has yet to comment much on it as itself. The songs include some AM fluff, a Bob Dylan song that makes a clever, nuanced point that is almost certainly turned on its head, and a couple of genuinely-good songs that are turned into weird karaoke manglings. But lyrically, this is all stuff that clearly influenced Morrissey, or that Morrissey has genuine affection for, even if it seems like the only reason he’s recording it is to play some dumb, tiresome “see what I’m doing here?” game.

But of course, that’s sort of been Morrissey’s whole thing the whole time. Morrissey is, despite being a thoroughly reprehensible person with some awful political leanings, not an idiot, and has spent as much of his music-creating career playing with his public image as not, which makes this part and parcel of his whole thing anyway. He’s still doing the same meta-acknowledgment of what you, the listener, know about Steve-o himself as part of the delivery for his music, which in this case is songs that he didn’t write.

And that’s kind of the problem. The whole time I was researching, listening and conceptualizing this very set of words I ran up against what is, on its face, the primary problem with writing anything about a Morrissey album: I hate every note of it. But outside of my own feelings about it, the whole thing still doesn’t make sense. I hate Kill Uncle or Your Arsenal or You Are the Quarry just as much, but the things that there are to respond to there are pure, unique Morrissey. He wrote his dumb songs about how you already feel or whatever in the interest of illuminating a set of feelings that is, at least, pretty common – there is a certain type of person whose concern is the way that people feel about them, and Morrissey writes songs that speak to those things well. The self-absorption and concern for the thoughts of others that occupy a dim, primitive part of many (if not all) human brains are illuminated and examined, and related to in a way that provides his audience with an ability to identify these same parts of themselves and deal with them in an effective way.

Morrissey was, in his way, the exact sort of thing that I’m inclined to like and go to some lengths to defend: he was doing what he does genuinely, and he was doing it in his own way, and he clearly did not care to alter it for whatever people were out there expecting things of him, even though the entire focus of his oeuvre is exactly about the expectations of those same people. And I’m here for examinations of feelings and reactions that we’d rather not acknowledge as part of our own brains 5. The fact that Morrissey took all of this and turned it into stupid music is probably why I have spent so much time trying to respond to it in the first place 6.

But when he performs other people’s songs, the Morrissey-ness of it is stripped away from everything except the presentation, and you’re sort of left looking at very little. He’s still singing them, and I suppose for whatever joys that holds you’ve got an opportunity to clutch at them, but none of these songs are in his words, so his voice is pretty well wasted on them – each of these songs could almost certainly be sung better by someone else, and the “geddit? GEDDIT?” aspect of the lyrical bent on each of these songs 7 intrudes every single time, and also creates a sort of isolation between the singer and the songs being sung in such a way that I can’t imagine engaging with this music even if I didn’t think that Morrissey’s bleating was as baffling and unmoving as everything else he does musically.

The music itself, then is kind of a trivial point, given that it’s barely-performed by someone who seemed to be more interested in making his point by the mere existence of the record, rather than in any meaningful way through the performances. The songs slide by without drawing much attention to themselves, unless you’re, say, writing a blog post about why anyone would want to listen to this. There are occasional moments of traction – Billie Joe Armstrong’s vocal appearance is weird enough to garner some attention 8, as is the lady who sings on “It’s Over”, and there are a couple of really, truly terrible production decisions on the record, which occasionally are bad enough to make me notice them (there’s a saxophone early on in the album that made me want to shove spoons through my ears, for example).

But the only two points at which the music made me think anything were during the Morrissey parts of “It’s Over”, in which Morrissey fails completely to be half the singer that Roy Orbison was, which lead me to listening to a bunch of Roy Orbison songs and being happy that the world ever had Roy Orbison in it, and wondering why you’d even try to take on a song that Roy Orbison ever sang – not because they’re necessarily better songs (his quality average was right about at the Mendoza line, honestly), but because he could sing the everloving shit out of anything and make it sound better.

Honestly, it’s things like “It’s Over” or the closing “(Some Say) I Got the Devil” 9 that reveal the biggest problem – when he’s almost invested in what he’s doing (he never gets all the way there, but this stuff is the closest), you can hear what he’s pretending to go for, but it’s only ever pretending. This album exists for the sake of the album existing, for him to waggle his public persona in the faces of his fans (or former fans, or the new fans that his political about-face has brought him), and not as a thing to be listened to.

So who the fuck does listen to it? People who are curious about the trainwreck, I suppose. There are probably some Morrissey die-hards who will try to like it, and, as mentioned above, the new political outlook probably drew some attention to him. But honestly, given that it isn’t a document of anything other than one cranky old man’s trolling habit, nobody will probably listen to it, and since doing so is tantamount to rewarding some pretty awful behavior, that’s probably the way it should be.

  1. the numerical majority of mentions on this here space pertain to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 
  2. I loathe virtually all of his music. I don’t like any of his solo music, and can be said to have enjoyed a bare handful of Smiths songs historically, the number of which dwindles to basically nothing at this point. He has occasionally had good guitar players. I also hate his stupid deflating-penguin voice, which is a large part of the selling point for his music, and which leaves me wondering what the hell everyone is hearing. I’m at peace with it. 
  3. here’s the last couple of installments in fact, which are about The Lemonheads and Weezer and, before that, Third Eye Blind. 
  4. aligning himself with marginal white supremacist and/or anti-immigration groups, talking loudly in the press about the demise and defilement of the “proper” Great Britain, stuff like that. The previous several decades of being a cranky, lying, impossible-to-work-with moron seem to slide off everyone’s back, but he’s managed to finally throw people off, which I guess is comforting. It’s nice to see that even Morrissey fans have a bottom to hit. 
  5. It’s among my favorite things, and in fact is the whole reason that I’m into huge whacks of the things that I’m into – because they help me process things that are a part of the repertoire of my own brain’s palette of responses and rationalizations. 
  6. You can plug Scott Walker, Elvis Costello, J. Cole, Janet Jackson, or Young Thug into this paragraph and would only have to change a few words, although none of them leave me as universally and completely unmoved as Morrissey 
  7. you know what, say what you will about the rest of this fucking mess, I’ve thought about the lyrics of this record more than the lyrics of any other record I can remember listening to in the recent past, so I appreciate it for that, anyway. 
  8. I was tempted to be mad about it, but jeez, I don’t know Billie Joe Armstrong’s reasons. He can’t agree with Morrissey politically much, but Willie Nelson sang on that godawful Toby Keith song about how we need more lynchings and the police should be killing more people, and he’s one of my genuine-actual real-life heroes, so people do weird shit sometimes. I mean, Billie Joe Armstrong is no Willie Nelson, but like, you didn’t think I meant that anyway, because how could anyone meant that? That’s crazy. Just crazy. 
  9. actually, it’s this song that almost led to an alternate-universe version of this piece where I spent more time comparing Morrissey to Will Oldham, who’s also a difficult, inconsistent, prickly dude with some iffy political beliefs, and who covered this exact song for my favorite covers record ever made – Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Tortoise’s The Brave and the Bold, which did not flatter Morrissey by its comparison. 

Interested in Endings: Game of Thrones

What follows is somewhat-disjointed, but I left it as-is because it’s mainly a thinking-points post, and it ties in together at the end. Sorry for the weird structure.

So Game of Thrones is over. This is the sort of thing about which people seem to need to make their opinions known, but there’s only one of them worth addressing (that’s at the end, here).

I mean, I have a set of opinions about Game of Thrones, and they are, at least, markedly different from my opinions of A Song of Ice and Fire. Since the show is over, and the likelihood of any further books existing seems to be vanishingly low, here is that set of opinions.

I think that George R.R. Martin is a terrific writer. His early short stories, especially the ones with a horror bent, are wonderful. The Nightflyers is great in either form. I read all of this, however, after I first read the first 1.5 books of A Song of Ice and Fire. I think ASOIAF is of tremendous importance to fantasy publishing, if not writing, by dint of both its scope and its popularity – it will, like all unfathomably popular things, have changed things even if its only qualities were the fact that everyone was into it, so publishers were encouraged to make more things like it. This means that, in an oblique way, I probably have it to thank, at least somewhat, for excellent work by Kate Elliott, Ken Liu and KJ Parker 1, each of whom have written better “realistic” and/or “dragon-y” (sometimes both!) works of fantasy.

That’s reductive, but it’s the positive part. As far as it goes, I thought the books were overly convoluted, and there was clearly a lot of breadcrumb-trailing that I would need to see an ending appear in order to appreciate. If it ends, I’ll re-evaluate the way that I feel about the beginning, and see how it feels as a reading experience, but as it is it seems like opening a lot of doors just to have the rooms available later, and I find that process maddening and not at all fun to read.

The television show, however, I’m pretty unreservedly negative on. They managed to transcribe many of the events of the books 2, but by about season 3 the version of the story they were telling was pretty far removed from the books – characters and events were added, other characters and events collapsed together, that sort of thing – and seemed, for most of the middle seasons, to be more about wheel-spinning to set up giant “event” episodes that served as bait to keep watching and/or occasional fan-service for people that were into the books. They played up all of the most lurid/talk-about-able elements of the story, while leaving aside most of the mitigating circumstances thereof.

This is, however, not a problem unique to Game of Thrones. This is a problem with episodic television, which it is unfair to blame on Game of Thrones. They’re merely doing what is expected of them in their idiom, which is part of why I find it difficult to take television seriously in general. For as much as there were some mechanical aspects of the show that were effective – some of the acting was good, many of the action setpieces were well-choreographed, etc. – there’s still the generalized fact that the storytelling itself had to contort around not only appearing in more-or-less one-hour chunks 3, but also to the rhythms of those one-hour chunks themselves, which even in non-adapted stories, means that the whole thing has to contort around the constrictions of the form. It means that the scenes of sensational violence, or sexual menace, or glib one-liners, all take primacy over any other way of telling the story.

Anyway, this isn’t about my opinion of the thing, or about my opinion of television, although they both come to bear here as a result of this thing being around for the last eight years. My time writing this, a blog about things that are popular or well-regarded or feted, and how they become so 4 coincides almost exactly with this being among the most-popular things out there. It’s been strange, but illuminating, to watch everyone go apenuts bananacrazy – people I like and whose opinions respect, even! – for something that, even in its best, original incarnation, left me pretty cold.

So the question, then, from the popularity standpoint is the oft-asked one about whether this is the last mass-popularity, event-television thing of its caliber. But like everything else, I have no idea. It seems like it might be! But it also seems like it probably won’t be. For the entire era of “peak tv” – which is a decade in 5 at this point – the line has been that it’s impossible to get a bunch of people around the television to watch the same thing, and that it’s even harder to have a real hit.

But of course, this space is also largely about music, and the record-selling folks have also been dealing with the same problem for even longer now, and it still remains the case that there are Drake and Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande and Adele, people who can penetrate the consciousness and still create some degree of penetration into the mind of the public consciousness. There are fewer of them, and the hits are smaller, but the number on Game of Thrones aren’t actually that huge when compared to the television hits of yesteryear either, so we’re already on the way there.

I think that the role of “huge popular tv show that everyone watches” is the kind of void that will always be filled, in short. I’ve been largely-indifferent to television 6 for more-or-less my entire awareness of it, and there’s always been something. The notion that the most-popular thing is going to be smaller than it was is perfectly provable – it already happens, after all, every single damn week – but I don’t think that’s the same as there not being huge water-cooler shows.

I will prognosticate this far, however, and I think this is why this is all so interesting to me. The Avengers movies have ended their run before metamorphosing into whatever it is they’re going to be without the two marquee stars. Game of Thrones has ended its run, and is likely to metamorphose into whatever it is without its marquee stars 7, Marvel is re-launching the interesting half of its comic book titleset. But, most germanely to the question of actual real-time popularity vs. public-perception popularity, we have to talk about The Big Bang Theory.

The Big Bang Theory outperformed Game of Thrones every single season. It often doubled the viewership. Part of this is about network television vs. cable, certainly, and about CBS being a juggernaut among the sort of people that still watch television when it’s available for them, which means they’re decidedly after the audience, but what it says is that the number of people watching is not actually a function of the amount that people think/talk/write blog pieces about them, which is the thing people are talking about when they talk about “hugeness”.

But it ended, and it ended with huge numbers – even higher than the last episode of GoT, which got the highest numbers GoT has ever gotten, and nobody is lamenting that we’re seeing the end of the popular sitcom as we know it. What this all says to me is that there is definitely an avenue out there for something to become popular beyond Game of Thrones (given that something got more viewers but was less-talked-about), but also that this kind of talked-about-ness can be manufactured without having the giant audience that people are worried about not being able to be garnered 8. Since the size of the audience seems to be the primary casualty of the fracturing of the popular-culture firmament, I think it’s fair to point out that this is something of a canard – something can occupy a dominant place in the culture with a much smaller audience than is generally assumed. 

It’s further important to remember that the popularity of Game of Thrones was abetted by what amounted to the creation of a freestanding streaming service (the disconnected-from-a-cable-package HBO Go) in order to make it so the that numbers could climb all the way to half those of a popular network television show. Given that there are (conservatively) six hundred trillion streaming services, with another quadrillion or show lined up to come online in the coming couple of years, it’s trivially easy to imagine that there would be one of them that got ahold of some property and turned it into a gold-egg-laying goose.

In short, things are changing, and I think that what we’re seeing is less likely to be the end of event-style huge-viewership (for whatever given value of “huge” applies), and more likely to signal a shift in the general public perception from “geek”-genre-derived things into…..something else.

I’m not sure what that will be! And it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, I guess, but man, this seems like the kind of slate-wiping that ends up with people getting really into romance stuff 9 or historical fiction 10 or whatever it ends up being. So maybe we’ll remember the days when people were really into sff all the time, and that’ll be what marks the teens as a pop-cultural decade, and when we’re all gathered around whatever the next big water-cooler thing is, we’ll reminisce about all them thrones, and the games thereof.

So, to sum up: Game of Thrones was a pretty effective soap opera that managed to engage an audience that was heretofore unheard-of for its platform 11, even though it’s also the platform that is largely the birthplace of the “Golden Age of Television” with Oz, The Wire and especially The Sopranos, and also launched the much better and more satisfying boobs soap opera Rome 12. It wasn’t the most popular show even though it was the most talked-about, and it did a lot of its business on a previously non-existent (at least in the form it has now) streaming service, which means it also had to plow its own road in terms of infrastructure.

It seems to me, then, that there is a possibility to claim more of an audience 13, using whatever tools are currently available, to be a big huge thing, because it seems like people want a big huge thing. It’s true that nobody knows how to know what a big huge thing will be! But nobody ever has – Game of Thrones was produced, after all, but I’m relatively certain that even the most die hard Song-heads thought it would be the most talked-about thing in the country for as long as it was.

While I still think that a move away from the currently-dominant sff thing is probably coming, I will also, once again, put out there The Secret style my belief that The Chronicles of Amber is the greatest sword-and-sorcery series ever made, and that the upcoming television series is the soap-opera with swords in that we all want and deserve, and we should all pledge to watch it, write about it, talk about it, and generally invest heavily in its goings-on so that I can be happy. I will be happy for two reasons: 1) I will have a good adaptation of a thing that I love and 2) I have read those books more than nearly any other series 14 so I can totally be one of those buttfaces that has Serious Opinions about the things that the television show does differently.

  1.  I mean, to whatever extent. I’m just talking about a general publishing environment, and my awareness – I’m not deep into this stuff, you know? – of it, such as it is. 
  2.  which, to be honest, is what most adaptations do anyway, this isn’t unique to Game of Thrones. 
  3. with, admittedly, some episode-timing leeway in the later seasons 
  4. well, mostly. Sometimes it’s also about how things used to be popular and aren’t any more, and occasionally it’s about sandwiches. 
  5.  we’re actually two decades into the “golden age” of television, but the idea of every single corporation owning a streaming service, and every single streaming service having original television, means that the idea of there being more “good” television than we can individually keep up with is about a decade old. 
  6.  this sounds more snooty than it is: I like some television fine, and like it a lot more now that I can watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it. I did not like television much at all when I was limited to watching something when it was on, or at other times that were still not under my control. For the reasons outlined above, I think dramatic television has a long, steep hill to hoe a row all the way up, although given the constrictions I think it succeeds admirably often (there’s almost always some kind of serious television drama on the air that I like), and is best suited for funny things (jokes are easy to structure around episodes and ad breaks than non-jokes) and shows where people cook. 
  7.  word on what the spin-offs and prequels are has been pretty thin on the ground, and the over-ambitious plan of making, like, a zillion of them appears to have been tooled down, but I will go so far as to say that if all that business with Arya in the last couple of episodes – the horse, the being-miraculously-unscathed-from-dragonfire, the fact that there isn’t going to be an Arya spin-off (as told of in this story here) is a huge surprise to me. 
  8. it would be interesting, actually, to look at the numbers for Orange is the New Black or Stranger Things, each of which have managed to have a stranglehold on public opinion for less time within the span of the airing of Game of Thrones, but of course Netflix famously has nothing to do with publishing their own viewership numbers. 
  9.  this is kind of my guess for what’s about to take over, but it has a lot of freighted baggage on it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the sort of idiot that won’t get into it for its own sake is numerous enough to prevent this from happening 
  10. actually, this is probably my real guess. 
  11.  an undeniably impressive feat, which I didn’t get into above, but which I won’t take away from it. Y’all loved it, and that’s pretty cool. 
  12. that’s right, I said it. Rome was better than Game of Thrones. So was Starz’s Camelot. 
  13.  I mean, even just from a regular-old no-thought perspective, an audience that I am a part of, for example. I am almost certainly not unique in my opinion here. 
  14.  there are individual books that I have read more times, but as far as series go, I think only The Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker’s series have a claim at it. I’m counting the first five books in the Amber series as a complete series of their own, and I’ve read the second set a few times (I think three), but they’re completely different and not the thing that I’m talking about here.  

Making a Living Selling Buggy Whips, Part 8: A New Chart Frontier

So someone wants to unseat Billboard, primary longtime maker of charts, as the primary maker of charts. This is very exciting to those of us that have blogs focused on things that are popular, and why.

Taking an interest in what’s popular took the form, for me, of an early obsession with the charts. It started out as just a generalized sort of fascination – knowing what was listened to alongside what the things I liked were listened to. Eventually, as I got older and realized that most of what what makes such charts is there because of concentrated marketing efforts, and only in the most tangential way represented what people actually wanted to listen to 1, it became a sort of exercise in trying to see what the marketing “handle” was.

As time has gone by, the record-selling industry has become less able to manufacture things directly, and while the charts themselves are still more or less a function of people being marketed to, there’s a much more accurate sort of idea about what is actually liked, since instead of the radio creating a sort of captive audience in terms of the casual listener, the existence of whatever given streaming service makes it possible for them to avoid the stuff they don’t want to hear while they’re driving to work, and therefore makes it more difficult for something to be “good enough” 2 for someone to listen to it a bunch of times.

In light of all this, charts are still something I have a passing interest in (if not with the fervor I had for them when I was a kid), but more as an empathy exercise. I can’t, for example, imagine listening willingly to an Ed Sheeran song even one time, but I do enjoy considering what it is that the people that listen to his songs many millions of times (collectively) are getting out of them. Non-focused, algorithm-abetted music listening, generally, is a pretty foreign notion to me 3, and so while the answer is sometimes apparent, it’s still worthwhile to me to get into the mindset of another person (a trait I think is valuable) and consider what it is that they are into. There are plenty of things I’m a casual fan of, so I get the idea that not everyone is specifically-directed about everything all the time as a general idea, but seeing a list of what is made popular by people who are doing something for a different reason than me is an interesting way of seeing what I could have in common with them as a listener.

So it comes as some interest that one of the reflexes of a record-selling industry that is painstakingly making its way into some kind of “progress” in terms of evolving to fit the times is that one long-running magazine (Rolling Stone) is currently taking on the current standard-bearing long-running magazine (Billboard) in terms of assembling music charts.

An editorial aside: I know that Rolling Stone comes up a disproportionate amount here, and I have no real reason for this, other than that their attempts to reframe their magazine repeatedly over the course of the last decade has meant that they do a bunch of weird shit, and I love when old-guard popular stuff does weird shit. Plus, I like Matt Taibbi, so I pay attention to it generally.

Anyway, the Variety article linked above cites the press release, which takes specific swings at Billboard, and positions it as a specific attempt to take on the role of chart-purveyor. It’s an interesting move, to say the least, given Billboard’s synonymy with the music charts in general – when people talk in terms of “hits” and “#1s” and whatnot, they are talking, generally, about the position inside the Billboard apparatus.

This is not something that is, inherently, a bad idea. Billboard itself is a pretty different animal from the one that was originally founded 4. At the outset of their chart-delineating (ca. 1940) they were just tracking sales of records, as well as records that appeared in jukeboxes. In the eighties they started to variegate their chart-making, but the data gathered was from self-reporting record-store folks. In the nineties, they partnered with the company SoundScan (a part of the Nielsen conglomerate), which tracked actual point-of-sale numbers. I jumped on shortly after here, but what this notably did was made just about any pre-SoundScan numbers somewhat suspect, as it was immediately apparent that certain things were being over- or under-reported, whether through malfeasance, marketing hijinx, or sheer memory loss 5. As streaming has become the dominant form of consumption, they’ve done some weird patched-in counting measures (“album equivalent streams” operating on a multi-tiered level and not taking YouTube into account at all) that make the whole new thing seem as unreliable as the whole old thing.

What all of this says, then, is that it seems perfectly reasonable that someone who wants to make better, more accurate charts would be able to see an opportunity to do so. To their credit, Rolling Stone has advertised their “transparency”, which is another major failing of the Billboard folks – nobody really knows how the things are counted, such as it is, despite it seeming to be pretty straightforward. They’re also going to update daily, which seems more of a canard than anything else – the week-to-week charts change precious little, and it’s unlikely to matter that the interval in between chart publication dates is getting smaller. But the point is that RS is willing to position themselves as a “real” chart that makes sense and is responsive to the audience as it exists. Or so they say.

It’s also impossible (for me anyway) not to notice that this comes after two things: the first is the news that the profitability of the record-selling industry is on the upswing, thanks largely to streaming, which is the thing that Billboard does the worst job (or the weirdest job, anyway) of tracking. This, presumptively, would make the idea of being a new chart-making service appeal to the parts of that industry who use said charts as a metric of their own efficacy – agents, publicists, label people, that kind of thing. These are the people whose jobs/livelihoods are most at stake, and being able to point to something and say “no see, we are actually more effective than it appeared previously” is probably a real boost to those folks. Since those are the people that also provide much of the grist that is milled in RS’s pages, it’s appears that it would be in everyone’s best interest to go along with it.

It’s also right after the Lil Nas X controversy, which the rapper released a song that was largely perceived, by the audience for it, to be a country song, and which Billboard removed from the “country” charts, proclaiming it not actually a country song 6. This was an unprecedented display of editorial shutting-out, and does leave a lot of us wondering just what, exactly, the role of the magazine that makes the charts thinks it should be exhibiting in terms of gatekeeping (i.e. it seems pretty obvious that the answer to the question “How much gatekeeping?” should be “None.” None gatekeeping.) So a new purveyor that says “we are transparent and daily and just reporting things as they are” would help the people that consume, or are interested in, such charts feel that they were looking at more “pure” data, rather than at a curated form of said data. Whether that’s true or not is up to the individual chart-gazer, and remains to be seen in any event.

What makes it more interesting, however, is that it marks a major philosophical 7 shift: the Billboard charts used to be an abstraction that was useful for the business. “These are the records that are selling,” they say, “so if you are someone that is involved in an aspect of the business for whom this data is useful – a record store owner, say, or a bar-owner who’s stocking a jukebox or something like that – you have this information now.” It’s a guide of sorts. Now, charts are more of a confirmation. Without the hidebound nature of radio playlisting and stuff like that, there’s a degree of remove between the direct application of the data (i.e. stocking the jukebox from earlier in the paragraph) and the assumptive application of the data (i.e. trying to figure out to whom you should point the “Ariana Grande singles-release cannon”).

All of this must be considered, also, alongside the knowledge that this isn’t being done altruistically for the health of the record-selling industry, this is a move by a magazine that’s currently trying to position itself as a greater cultural force in the name of profitability 8. I’m not a board-room dude, and I’d love to know what the general endgame goal here is, but it appears to be pretty directly trying to eliminate a competitor in a way that seems inefficient.

Of course, that’s all based on an assumption that I’m unsure if it could possibly be effective. I have no idea what part of the business is based on chart-gazing, and even though I can see (as detailed above) ways in which this could turn out well for many of the people involved, it all rests on some other portion of the record-selling industry adopting Rolling Stone’s charts as the new industry-standard ones. I guess we’ll see how it all shakes out.

Me, I’m just hoping that they get enough traction that I can start writing about the Rolling Stone Music Awards television broadcast. That’d be a real interesting one. Maybe I’ll start idly looking forward to it anyway.

  1.  that is to say, while it’s true that the things at the top of the charts are there because they are the most popular of the things that are on the charts, or that are attempted to be (pardon this verb construction, I’m thinking of taking lessons) on the charts, they are still of an available pool that is the direct result of the marketing concerns that put them there, rather than a stock of all available things, about which continue reading. 
  2. as it is, then, the marketing abilities that used to cause something to become a successful hit or what have you are now more likely to help someone hear about something in the first place, rather than just drill it into people by sheer numerical repetition. There’s a lot of things that come as a result of this shift in the causal music-listening fandom (such as it is), and I’m probably not going to get into them here. Maybe next time. 
  3.  i.e. I’m a pretty obsessive person, and I can’t imagine giving over my listening experience to someone else’s taste generally, outside of certain fairly-specific parameters. 
  4. of interest is the fact that Billboard stopped covering movies because Variety, whose link is above and who provides much of the information found herein, was too hard to compete with on that front. 
  5. Frederic Dannen’s excellent Hit Men isn’t specifically about the charts, but would give you an idea of the kinds of things people used to be willing to get into in order to make something a “hit”. 
  6. without getting into the muddy waters of intent or whatnot, I’m of two minds here – the first is that it probably isn’t a country song, as it appears to actually have its roots in playing Red Dead Redemption rather than in making country music. The second, however, is that the decision is much bullshit, since the dominant paradigm in country music is the “bro-country” nonsense that makes constant feints at appearing to be more hip-hop-ish with every passing year, which is made different by….well, it’s pretty obvious what makes it different, and it’s pretty obvious what Lil Nas X doesn’t have in common with, say, Florida-Georgia Line. 
  7. that’s not really the right word for it, but there isn’t a better one. I guess maybe “intentional”. 
  8. which is, of course, also what Billboard was doing. 

The 2018 Nebula Awards

Hey guys! The Nebulas are here! They’re named after the year all the books came out in, which is why the title looks weird! This is the first of the book awards I write about every year 1, which means it’s always exciting to look out upon the vasty expanse of finding the right things to say about all of these books, some of which I will address at least two other times over the course of the year.

This year, unfortunately, talk of the Nebulas is necessarily dominated by the accusations of slate-voting that are plaguing some of the nominees. The author Jonathan P. Brazee posted to the Facebook group 20booksto50k a list of indie authors that were eligible for Nebula awards this year, with special notation for the ones that were close enough to having enough nominations to actually make the shortlist.

Now, several of the nominees here below were on this list 2, and while there’s certainly things that one could surmise, given that the SFWA has allowed indie works into the Nebula nomination process since 2013, would eventually have bubbled up 3, it’s also true that some of the indies here promoted are in fields (military science fiction, mainly) that aren’t exactly commonly-trod (if not exactly impossible or unlikely) territory.

The accusations of slate-building, especially as it’s so close to the Hugos being basically completely turned aside for a couple of years there by slating antics 4, led to tensions running fairly high and people running fairly hot on the issue. The SFWA, for its part, says that it wants to take this sort of thing seriously and is looking into ways to try to keep stuff like this from taking over, without (as of the time of this writing) mentioning what steps it may be taking. I suppose that’s fine, but it’ll be interesting to see if anything is different about the nomination process next year.

Brazee himself, such as it is, insists that it was a SFWA-approved recommendation list that got out of hand and was phrased poorly, which I guess is a fair thing to allow for, except if that’s true, why would the thing go to such great pains in the first place to mention that it’s specifically not a slate? 5. The apology exists, anyway, so I guess there’s that. I’ll be interested to see how it goes forward, especially given how efficiently the SFWA dealt with the last time a slate-voting problem popped up.

Nevertheless, it’s a weird idea that became a bad one as it became more obviously a vote-influencing attempt, and turned into a rather ugly situation as tempers flared and the (reasonable, well-held) objections were met with a weird entrenchment and counter-arguments that seemed to be based more on an imagined idea of anti-indie prejudice than any actual situationally-appropriate counter-arguments 6. A bunch of books got nominated that wouldn’t, by any of the available secondary data, seem to fit into the general schema of the whole thing, and that means that it’s a weird, distortionary thing that has happened, whether it was specifically meant or just a side-effect of a poorly-planned outreach idea.

That said, there’s still lots of good work in here, and while there are some deserving works that almost certainly got squished out by this deformation, it isn’t quite the same rockslide-ruination that the puppies managed, so we can wade in and fish out the worthy winners from the pack without too much trouble.

Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book

I generally struggle with YA – I have no real natural head for it, but I read it when it’s here. I enjoyed a bunch of these (or at least a numerical majority of them, anyway), and have, as always, just chosen to evaluate them in the same way as everything else, since I pretty much can only come at things from my own perspective anyway, and trying to figure out how it fits into the picture of YA as it exists is basically impossible for me 7. I keep meaning to work on it. If I find my time-stoppage crystal and can catch up on everything I need to read to be more expert in things I’d like to give better due consideration, it’ll be near the top of the list. Sigh.

A.K. Duboff’s A Light in the Dark is one of the Brazee nominees, and it’s also the easiest one to discount. It’s the second in a series of books set in a universe where everything can be reset, so that the people doing the rest knows what’s coming. It’s openly inspired by video games and isn’t, in and of itself, a particularly bad idea. The book moves quickly and runs on its depiction of Cool Shit, but pretty well fails to dig into anything that would make the characters or stories vivid, moving from plot point to plot point almost like reading someone describe…a video game. If you’re interested in imagistic action-heavy space opera that’s all plot, then this is certainly some of that.

Rachel Hartman’s Tess of the Road is a spin-off of Hartman’s previous Seraphina books 8. It’s got a lot of society in it, and a pretty richly-developed world. It deals heavily with its cranky antiheroine, and spends a lot  of time in her head, with her frustrations and often short-sighted actions. It’s not my thing, but it’s well-rendered and the world is suitably complex, and a couple of the things that aren’t the lead character’s place in society (which especially dominates the early part of the book, perhaps necessarily) are really interesting.

Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Sword and Skate wins full marks for the weirdness/bonkers originality of the world it takes place in. It’s also funny, which is nice, and throws a bunch of stuff into its slight-fantasy (there’s some magic, and it takes place in a made-up place, but that’s about it, in fantasy-type terms) blender and manages to keep the story together. That the story itself is the sort of thing that comes out several dozen times a year isn’t necessarily a mark against it – clearly the “fish jumps out of water to go to fantasy school” story is popular enough to keep being retold 9 – but the lack of swords in a book with “sword” in the title definitely is. It’s not a bad read, but it’s too long, and it plays a lot of its fairly-standard beats as though they were a much bigger deal than they are.

Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time is part of the Rick Riordan Presents line 10, and deals in Hindu mythology. It’s well-written, a lot of fun to read, and also funny. If it isn’t a front-runner here, that says a bit more about it succeeding at a relatively-minor set of ambitions, and at lacking any real resolution, in favor of revealing itself to be a setup novel at the end. It’s the first in a series, so some of that is to be expected, but the remaining two books in the category are also setup novels for series that manage to swing an actual ending, so it’s muscled out of the way here.

Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is a bit of alternate history that exist in a world where it was the emergence of zombies that caused the end of the civil war. The protagonist starts out at a school that exists to train black girls to be zombie-killers for rich people, and it goes from there. It’s a lot of fun to read, and deals with a lot of the things that you’d expect a post-Civil War novel about a black protagonist to deal with, and does so capably. It also runs pretty hard on Cool Shit, but earns its Cool Shit, which is always nice to see. Some of the imagery in the book is positively indelible (the last active scene – the scene after the climactic battle – is especially great, and I think of it often). You can probably consider me signed up to keep on reading however many of these there end up being. It’s only the presence of a veritable nine hundred pound gorilla in this category that keeps it from the top spot.

Tomi Adeyimi’s Children of Blood and Bone is a pretty unassailable work of god-magic-oriented fantasy 11. It tells the first part of what is clearly a huge, sweeping story, but also manages to end the first part successfully. The prose itself is wonderful, and conveys both the story and the sense of rage and agitation that seems to propel it 12. While it wasn’t the book that entertained me the most effectively, it’s definitely the one that said the most. But even in the entertainment sense, the way that magic exists and is used in the book is really good, and I look forward to seeing how it motivates the remaining books in the series.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Tomi Adeyimi, Children of Blood and Bone

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

This is, I’m comfortable saying, about as good as this field has ever been. None of this is bad, and any of these could win and I’d be pretty happy about it. Of course, part of the reason I feel this way is that movies (and an episode of television) don’t really mean as much to me as books, so it’s easier for me to take it lightly.

Dirty Computer is a concept album by Janelle Monae, and is a pretty good album for all that. It’s less conceptually-sturdy than her other records, but also a bit better. All told it’s fun that it’s here, but I don’t think it’s the winner.

A Quiet Place is this year’s entry in the “cerebral horror movie that people go apeshit over.” It’s fine. The concept is good, John Krasinski clearly has an affinity for the form, and I’m, again, not sad to see it here or give it consideration as a potential winner, but I still don’t have much to say about it other than it probably shouldn’t win.

Sorry to Bother You is a fine comedy that makes its sff bones by being based on a (literally) fantastic premise, and is a strong plank in my platform for putting Lakeith Stanfield in absolutely everything. As a piece of sff it isn’t as good as the superhero/sitcom efforts, but it’s definitely up there.

Black Panther has only a few competitors for the best superhero movie ever made 13, as it actually grapples effectively with what voluntarily-assumed superpowers mean to the people that use them and the people that follow them, and what the responsibility (which is great, because it comes with great power, see) actually is to using it, and to using the mechanisms by which it is granted/implemented. It also has a first-rate villain, some amazing production design, and at least two first-rate action scenes. Great work, Mr. Coogler.

It’s difficult for me, in what might be the first time since the show premiered, to not declare an episode of The Good Place the rightful winner in one of these categories. “Jeremy Bearimy” is a phenomenal episode, and handles the time-weirdness aspects of The Good Place and is, thus, one of the more capable science-fictional things on television. It’s great, and I love it, and I’ll definitely watch it a bunch more times before I’m through.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, however, is the best super-hero movie ever made. It’s got everything one could ask for from a super-hero movie, from the best of all possible visuals to a hero learning how to behave heroically to defeat a villain. It’s got coming back from against the odds, it’s got a tremendously humanist message, and it delivers these things without weighing them down with “significance”/”import”. Without turning this into a very long missive about a movie, I will say that there is absolutely nothing that I have gone looking for in superhero stories that isn’t represented in Into the Spider-Verse. Literally not one thing. Plus, it delivered a bunch of stuff I didn’t know I was looking for in the first place. Salut, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, for you are made of great stuff, and I am very happy that you are in the world.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Game Writing

This was probably a long time coming, but man, you can multiply everything I said about YA up there by ten when I’m talking about my non-expertise when it comes to game writing. In a busy year, I play half a dozen games, and play a couple of them to anything like completion, and thus have no real idea. I’m generally listening to music while I’m playing them anyway. I am, in short, so wildly, hideously unqualified to write about this category that I’m going to declare a winner and move on in the interest of not embarrassing myself.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER (such as it is): The Road to Canterbury, which is really more of a sort of lightly-interactive story thing anyway, and thus has a better ability to guide the player through the narrative. Or at least to preclude people just listening to music while they shoot monsters or whatever.

Short Story

There is very little thematically or subject-matterly linking this set of stories, which makes it hard to write a headnote here. Pity poor me, who must then blather words into this sentence for the sake of consistency. WOE! WOE IS ME! OH WAILY WAILY!

Richard Fox’s “Going Dark” is another of the Brazee nominees, and boy howdy can I not imagine it getting as far as the ballot in a year without the unseemly boost. It’s about the way that post-human bodies might fail in a military context 14, and about the duties of the military and also about shooting guns at things in extreme detail.

Rhett C. Bruno’s “Interview for the End of the World” is a little better, if only in the sense that it tells an actual story and doesn’t just hint at one. It takes place in the run up to a planet-ending collision with an asteroid, and is a sort of prequel series to a set of books about a post-Earth space colony, which I haven’t read. It may have been more satisfying if I had – it felt like it was trading on a lot of “significance” that it didn’t really earn, and it really hammers its message home. I’d skip it 15.

Sarah Pinsker’s “The Court Magician” is mid-level Sarah Pinsker (which is to say that it’s great, but not as great as the stuff she’s done that’s really great), and is an extremely well-written bit of business about loss with an inventive magic system. It hits all the right notes, but it’s not as good as some of the other ones in the category.

Alix Harrow’s “A Witch’s Guide to Escape” is a beautiful story about literalizing the portal aspect of portal-fantasy, and about rules-flouting librarians. It’s very moving, and tells itself well, albeit by being fairly reference-heavy. It does contain a bit about developing a seemingly-inexplicable attachment to books that are less “good” than other, similar books that should ring true to anyone that reads a lot, which is nice. It’s a good story, but often feels like fan-service, so it’s probably not the best one here.

P. Djeli Clark’s “The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” is a wonderful story about the personalities that still inhabit the teeth of slaves that actually real-life were incorporated to George Washington’s fake teeth. Or, well, his replacement teeth I suppose. The teeth are real teeth, they just didn’t start out in his mouth. You know what I mean. Anyway, it’s very good and is actually composed of several mini-stories, which is a device that I love. It also manages to use its grounding in history to tell real stories, through the stories about magic and possession. Good job, P. Djeli Clark.

A.T. Greenblatt’s “And Yet” is tops of this bunch – it starts out being about a weird haunted house, and ends up being about all sorts of other things. I say often that any given story is about “loss”, which is probably a weird thing to say 16, but this one is more about the way that the things we lose influence the things we gain, or perhaps the nature of gaining things that were once lost, or aw jeez just read it already. It’s great.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: A.T. Greenblatt, “And Yet”


This is also a strong group for novelette’s, a story-length that I go on and on about every year when I write a headnote for these writeups. It’s a weird length for a story, and I think it works better as “teeny tiny novel” than as “extra-long short story”, although I also confess that the distinction there is almost certainly as arbitrary as it is idiosyncratic. Anyway.

Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi’s “Messenger” is probably the worst of the slated nominees. It’s easy enough to appreciate an approach to invasion fiction ideas that beings with the premise “aliens would probably start by attacking the centers of population, i.e. Asia,” so I do admire that. The actual execution here is made up primarily of the worst parts of the most boring military sf, and the bits of it that are ok (some of the physical descriptions, and the general ending divorced of its execution) aren’t really enough to get through it. It might be an easier read if you’re into military sf 17, but I found it pretty challenging to invest enough in to get through.

Lawrence M. Schoen’s “The Rule of Threes” is a nifty first-contact story that also trades in non-standard ideas about the selection criteria for where an extraterrestrial would choose to start their earthbound work 18. It trucks mainly in its philosophy, and by the end takes a stand that is the exact opposite of the one it appeared to be working toward (which is nice, because I wasn’t real into where I thought it was going, call it a win for making it all the way to the end of the story). It’s nice, and clearly well-thought, but Schoen has created better work. There’s no way it would have worked as a Conroy story, certainly, but I would have liked a buffalito all the same.

Andy Duncan’s “An Agent of Utopia” answers the heretofore unasked question “what if Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was kind-of remade with the head of Thomas More? It’s funny, if nothing else, but it’s a little too long.

Jose Pablo Iritarte’s “The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births” is a story about reincarnation, and manages to also be about revenge in a way that doesn’t make my stomach feel awful 19. It’s got a lot of romance-type overtones that aren’t entirely unwelcome, but that kind of drag it down more than I’d like. That, again, is a matter of personal preference and I can very easily see how it could be someone’s favorite in the category.

Tina Connolly’s “The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections” is also an excellent non-stomach-pain-inducing revenge story, about a baker who can bake magic feelings and memories into his pastries and such. The story takes place over the course of a banquet at which the pastries are consumed, and is comprised largely of the memories and feelings that are thus invoked. It’s fantastic 20 and beautifully-written, and loses out only because this is another category with a 900 pound gorilla. Or elephant, as it were.

Said 900 pound gorilla, or elephant, as it were, is Brooke Bolander’s peerless The Only Harmless Great Thing 21, which uses the real-life existence of both radium girls and Topsy the elephant to tell a story about constant, systematic oppression, and the reflex against it in the most tragic, moving, incredible way possible. If there were a Nebula award for “best thing in the whole entire field regardless of length,” it would probably be my winner for that, also.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Brooke Bolander, The Only Harmless Great Thing


It’s not super-pertinent, but this is the one category in which I was familiar with all of the authors going into it. It was the most consistent category in terms of baseline quality 22, and it’s also the one about which I probably have the least to say about the entire field. The upshot here is that of all the rightful winners here declared, this one is probably the least-sure, and I could see just about any of them (except one, which I’ll get to in just a moment) winning.

James P. Brazee is the guy who started the whole giant controversy, and he’s also nominated here for Fire Ant, which is the one that I think is probably the least-likely to win. It’s more military sf, this time about a civilian who is plucked from poverty and terrible conditions to be a hotshot fighter pilot. The beginning bit, about the oppressive corporate structure that’s keeping the protagonist down, is fantastic. Once it gets decidedly military it’s still a relatively-good pilot story, and doesn’t manage to get too swamped out by its descriptions of dogfights 23. It’s pretty exciting though, and certainly not a waste of time to read, but it’s pretty outclassed in this field.

Aliette de Bodard’s The Tea Master and the Detective is a clever detective story with a clever setting, and her usual flair for prose makes it a lot of fun to read. It is, however, at the end of the day, still a detective story, which is yet another of those things that make something not for me. There was a lot of that this year. Actually, there’s a lot of that every year. Turns out everything isn’t for everyone! More’s the pity.

P. Djeli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums is almost certainly the most praised entry here, and is probably the real actual front-runner if you’re looking for some prognostication. It takes place in a steampunk New Orleans, and does some cool stuff with old gods possessing folks. I’m pretty into any story in which saving the world is the stakes, even if it is steampunk alternate history, so I enjoyed it mightily, and I think I’m happy to officially declare myself a fan of Mr. Clark, even though he works in idioms I don’t usually go for. Read it, it’ll probably win, but it isn’t a time-travel story so it’s not at the top of the list for me.

Martha Wells’s Artificial Condition doesn’t have any time-travel in it either, but it does have Murderbot. The Nebulas don’’t have a best series category 24, but if they did the Murderbot series would be a shoo-in. This one is good (better than the first one, even!), and avoids the middle-book problems in and of themselves, but still doesn’t feel like a complete work. I can’t wait to read the whole thing to the end to see how it all hangs together, but each installment feels more like a part, even if it’s a relatively self-contained part, of a whole, so it’s not the best one for this kind of award.

Kate Heartfeld’s Alice Payne Arrives is a time-travel story (you see where this is going, right?), which is nice, and it’s also a story about people trying to prevent wars, which is also nice. It’s an extremely exciting, well-plotted read, and I really like the main couple of characters a lot. The only way I could like it more is if you threw in some eco-horror and some evil corporations.

So that leaves us with Kelly Robson’s amazing Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach which is a time-travel story with evil corporations, the grinding suck of academic livin’, eco-horror and also a squid-woman (that’s the main character there on the cover, see). The fact that it’s also a gripping, well-told, fantastically-thought-out story is like the reward for thinking the premise and outset are cool as shit. What a terrific book. Even the title is amazing!

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kelly Robson, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach


So one of the things that’s true of this year’s Nebulas is that we’re in a kind of in-between, wide-open period, where the ongoing series that have dominated the category in previous years aren’t here because they either ended 25 or are, for some reason, not here 26. And a couple of these are first-time novels, which is pretty cool. All told this is another category that could go to just about anyone, and most of the differences here are down to personal preference.

R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War has a lot of things going for it. She’s writes fantastic prose, and the recasting of the Sino-Japanese war as an element a god-magic inflected invasion story is pretty great. It’s extra-super grim ‘n’ gritty, which is forgivable, but it’s also fairly predictable, which is rather less so. Still and all, the words and the character-building are good enough that I fully expect to someday be a fan of Kuang’s work. Just not this one.

CL Polk’s Witchmark is also lovely, and also contains some really first-rate writing, as well as an interesting world with some interesting social dynamics. I managed to not figure out a major plot thing was happening for the first two-thirds of the book, which is entirely my fault 27. The stuff that isn’t the primary plot is heavily romance-inflected, and the ending seems to all happen at once, as though Polk needed another 30 pages and didn’t have it. It’s not bad, and it’s worth your time if you want a story about wizards who fall in love, but it’s not the best thing here.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is the first of two prequel novels to a short story (I know). It’s brisk and exciting, and deals well with the social issues of its setting. It’s elevated in my estimation by being largely joyful – it deals with its problems honestly and with clear eyes, but isn’t really a novel about the oppression, so much as the overcoming thereof – and not in the least bit meditative. It loses some points for containing tonnes of extra sex scenes 28, and by feeling a bit like half a book. Not a lot of points, just some points. Figuratively, I mean. I do not assign things points literally. But if I did it would lose some of them. Just not a lot of them.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is another plot-heavy, fun-heavy work of monster-hunting and god-magic. It’s also got some mysterious past stuff, and an eco-apocalypse that is mostly just backdrop for the actually-vivid world that it contains. It feels a lot like a cool Western, and if it’s a little too reliant on graphic violence and a gun-happy attitude, that’s just about its only problem. As the first book in a series, it’s terrific, though.

Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City is more of his excellent work, centering around the titular, which is one of the few places remaining that is hospitable to human life in an eco-apocalyptic future. It features a weird memory disease, a woman with an orca and a polar bear, and much chicanery in the name of taking back and/or destroying existing power structures to benefit the proletariat. While I think a couple of the books were better, this one was the most satisfying, and probably the one I’ll re-read the most. I’m already looking forward to re-reading it, in fact.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time 29. It’s a sort of evolution of her short story with the same title. It’s pitched as a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, which it mostly is, but it also hits all the notes I like fantasy novels to hit – it deals with responsibility, and what it means to have power over someone, and class imbalance, and the way that people take advantage of one another, and the importance of working to not do so, however unintentionally. It also has a cool fire demon in it. I’m pretty uniformly in favor of this sort of thing, and would happily read a hundred books just like it.

THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver

That’s it for the Nebulas. I’ll write about the Locus Awards (kind of) in July, the Hugo Awards later in July, and the World Fantasy Awards in October. Stay tuned!

  1.  last year I wrote about four, which included the Shirley Jackson awards, but this year I won’t be writing about SJ’s for a number of very-boring but nothing-special reasons. I’ll be replacing it with the Locus Awards (kind of).  
  2.  Brazee is insistent that his intention was not to create a slate, and the original missive contains language to skirt the idea of it being one, but the effect is indistinguishable from if he had intentionally created a slate and put it out into the world as a slate. 
  3. Brazee’s own Weaponized Math, for example, was nominated for a Nebula last year with no such slate boost, so it’s not like it’s too far out of the question in at least one of the available cases. 
  4.  it is perhaps coincidental, but worthy of noting, that many of the authors who are included in the slated works, and a couple of the nominated ones, are associated with/previous nominees to the Dragon Awards, not to mention a specific publisher, which is the awards ceremony created by the puppies in their own image. There are a couple of reasons that this could be that are fine and non-sinister – the Dragon Awards tend to have a lot of indie writers in their ranks, as they deal in modes that aren’t particularly commonly found among trad titles, for example, but also this list was assembled by a military SF writer of folks that he knew enough about to make the list, which, perhaps necessarily, are military SF works themselves, which genre is richly and thoroughly represented at the Dragon Awards. There’s probably not actually any sinister chicanery here, is what I’m saying. I mean, none beyond the initial list itself. 
  5. not to mention that he feinted, or appeared to feint, at this last year. 
  6.  I’m pretty squarely on the side of Annie Bellet and J.A. Sutherland in the linked argument, in that slate-voting is gross and bad and makes the award less useful for posterity, in addition to less impressive even in the short-term. 
  7.  i.e. I read up to 10 YA books a year, between this and the other awards (there’s usually significant crossover), and have basically no idea what the rest of the field even looks like. 
  8. which I have not read 
  9.  and, hell, works often enough that it can’t even be said to be particularly played out 
  10. and, full disclosure, is the only one of them I’ve read, although I’ve read some number (7? 8?) of Rick Riordan’s books. I need that time-stopping crystal, see. 
  11.  there is almost certainly a better way to describe a sub-genre to which it belongs, but I don’t really know it. 
  12.  I should at least acknowledge the academic lit crit idea of the pathetic fallacy, if only to say here that I’m not one of those people, and I don’t really think that it should be discarded. We’re reading this stories to be communicated to, and the feelings that go along with the words are an important part of that communication. It’s not the only important thing, but it’s in there, and in a book like this, it’s definitely a big part of it. 
  13. one of them, however, is right here in this category. 
  14. it reminded me of Peter Watts’s much-better story “ZeroS” while I was reading it. 
  15.  this footnote doesn’t have a better place to exist, so I’m putting it here. The entries that come with the association to 20booksto50k are explicitly written by people who are writing books with the intent of making money – the founding thesis of the group is that if you write and publish 20 books, you can make an annual salary of $50,000. I don’t care why people write books, and I’m certainly not categorically opposed to people making money, or doing things to make money, but if you’re writing things with the goal of amassing a certain number of them to make a certain amount of money, your writing is coming from a place I don’t really understand, and the set of other things that are liable to go along with that approach/attitude are likely to also be things I don’t understand. I’m sure there’s good work in there – I’ll have some positive things to say about Fire Ant in a couple of categories, for example – but a lot of it is going to come from people whose interests and relationship with their work isn’t very much like mine, and that’s going to mean that it’s already starting from a fundamentally different place than I’m used to. It’s nice to branch out, and I suppose if there’s a positive take-away from the whole kerfuffle it’s that I read a bunch of stuff I would not have ordinarily been interested in, but most it really didn’t work for me, and I think that’s part of why. I feel I need to articulate it because otherwise it does come across as kind of anti-indie (which I’m not), when it should just come across as “this stuff really just isn’t my bag”. 
  16. almost every story includes at least one of the characters losing something, after all. 
  17. after all, it did get voted on, slate or not, enough to get it here, so somebody is into it. 
  18. it turns out to also be Asia, in fact, albeit for different reasons than those of Wijeratne/Virdi 
  19.  usually revenge stories make my stomach feel awful, see. I don’t think that’s come up before. 
  20. I’ve never made an official list, but Tina Connolly might actually be the most consistent producer of excellent fiction currently operating. Certainly up there with Maria Dahvana Headley, whose The Mere Wife was robbed in the novel category, and probably right above Sarah Pinsker and Sam J. Miller. 
  21. the rest of these novelettes were published in the manner of short stories, and so get quotation marks. I read The Only Harmless Great Thing as a free-standing book with pages and covers and everything, so it gets the italics. 
  22.  i.e. the worst of these isn’t bad, but the best of these doesn’t hit the heights of some of the other categories. 
  23. of all the things I don’t particularly like about military sf, descriptions of dogfights have got to be right up there at the top. 
  24. but the Hugos do, so I’ll get to vote for it there probably. 
  25.  i.e. The Broken Earth books 
  26.  i.e. Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers books or Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun 
  27. I’m trying not to give anything away here, but I’ll say that it has a lot to do with the fact that you can add “murder mysteries” to the list of things I don’t have the capacity to get. I’ll probably even skip them when I find that time-stopping crystal, because I’ve tried and tried and tried and can’t get there. 
  28. I am, if you haven’t caught on by now, a bit of a prude. 
  29.  the best fantasy novel I’ve read in a long time is Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, which also came out last year, and was, as I previously mentioned, robbed. You’ll hear all about it when I write about the Locus awards. 

A Considered Look at Every Inductee Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part 11

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a place that I find, as an institution, vexing. The actual, physical hall of fame – the pyramidal building on the lake in Cleveland – is pretty cool, but it is spoken and thought of often as an intangible – as a sort of arbitrating body on the worthiness of the body of rock musicians. My thought, for many years upon surveying lists 1 and the like was to think that they have about a fifty percent success rate for getting it anything like right.

But what if it doesn’t? Previously I listened to and considered each of the best-selling albums of all time, and learned that they were considerably more of a mixed bag than I had thought 2. So what if the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the same sort of deal?

And so it’s time to dive in and take a look at what the nominees and their enshrinement actually are.

Click the links for Part 1,Part 2,  Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, and Part 10 of this series.

Class of 2004

Jackson Browne

WHO HE IS: An excellent sleep aid, at the very least. Probably at the very most, also.

WHY HE’S HERE: Because he played ball and was able to get a bunch of hit songs through, which I guess accounts for something. The world looked up and cried “we need a different, shittier John Denver” and Jackson Browne was there for them.

AND….?: Hey guys! I don’t like his music! Not one little bit!


The Dells

WHO THEY ARE: A fifties vocal group. They had a hit with “Oh What a Night”.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because the people inducting people to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at this point would not rest until everyone who had ever been in a damn doo-wop group got their spot.

AND…?: “Oh What a Night” is a terrific song. They weren’t objectionable, just not special.


George Harrison

WHO HE IS: The third Beatle (the quiet one!) inducted as a solo artist.

WHY HE’S HERE: Because he was a Beatle. There’s probably some ostensible reasons related to his willingness to bring in Indian music and stuff to his records, but it was probably an inevitability from the moment he joined the Beatles.

AND…?: I like George Harrison just fine.



WHO HE IS: A teeny-tiny guitar player and pancake enthusiast.

WHY HE’S HERE: He made a string of incredible records in the eighties that sounded great and sold a jillion copies, and then he managed to follow his weird little muse wherever it took him, which was largely down an increasingly-complicated tunnel of paranoia and self-indulgence. Whether this is an admirable example of using your capital to do whatever you want or a cautionary tale about what happens if you don’t ever stop to think about how what you’re doing would be received 3 as he is often painted in jokes and such is up to the listener.

AND…?: I used to vacillate on how much I liked Prince, for reasons that I can’t really articulate. I’m pretty into most of it full-time now, although I concede that there’s too much of it for it to work as a totality.


Bob Seger

WHO HE IS:A long-running rock and roll nostalgiast. Nostaliga-ist? Nostaligitast. Something.

WHY HE’S HERE: Boatload of records. He also played seemingly every single city in the country, and was, by all accounts, a tremendous live performer 4. It’s hard to call what he did “innovative,” in that he was pretty well just doing what a bunch of other people had already done, but he did it honestly and for a long time, so that probably counts for something.

AND…?: I can’t fault him for existing, certainly. I don’t think that this sort of thing needs to be in a hall of anything, and he wasn’t a patch on Meat Loaf, who did almost all of the same stuff but made cooler records, and also is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.



WHO THEY ARE: Uh…they’re the foremost organ-dominated band of the late seventies?

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Because someone lost a bet? Because someone owes Steve Winwood money? Because someone made a Faustian bargain to get anyone else in? Because people wanted there to be a year of inductions that was clearly the worst year?

AND…?: Man, if you lab-engineered a band specifically to be “nothing-special middle-of-the-road nonsense” it would look an awful goddamn lot like Traffic.


ZZ Top

WHO THEY ARE: One of Texas’s finer power-trios.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They were awesome in the seventies, and parlayed that into being mightily successful in the eighties. They did transition from just being an awesome band to being a band that traded fairly well on their image in the eighties without diluting their music too badly, which is a kind of admirable accomplishment such as it is.

AND…?: I like their first few records, certainly. I didn’t know that for a long time because I really hate anything they did after the advent of the music video, but those first few records are awfully good and buy a lot of forgiveness.


Jann Wenner

WHO HE IS: The founder of Rolling Stone magazine

WHY HE’S HERE: Because he founded Rolling Stone magazine, and also helped found the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself.

AND…?: He’s an idiot, but I like Rolling Stone magazine well enough. I wonder if he’s also a big Traffic fan, and that’s why they’re here.

RIGHTFULLY INDUCTED: It’s hard to say no, but jeez I kind of want to. But yeah, he should probably be in there. He probably should have been in there before now, honestly. Unfortunately.

Class of 2005

Buddy Guy

WHO HE IS: An extraordinary guitar player who was also the guitar player on a wheelbarrowful of old Stax records.

WHY HE’S HERE: He was an extraordinary guitar player, who was able to play in half a dozen styles well, and generally stuck to making up his own styles, especially in his prime. He was the sort of monolithic talent that it’s almost impossible to not respect the hell out of, even if he’s written of almost exclusively for his ability to play the electric blues. And even then, his ability to play the electric blues was pretty much unparalleled.

AND…?: Oh, I don’t like any of his music. I like a lot of the records he played on, and I think his oeuvre is impressive in its breadth and consistency, but none of it is my cup of tea. I admire that he did it and I respect his ability, and it all stops just short of me ever wanting to hear it.


The O’Jays

WHO THEY ARE: The best doo-wop band ever to come from Canton, Ohio.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: So one of the things that’s happening as this goes on is that the stock of early performers is getting thinner and thinner. These are, as a result, getting harder to write about, because I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about the O’Jays, even in an objective, what-they-accomplished sense (see above w/r/t Buddy Guy for an example of this sort of thing). So they had some hits and I guess people wanted to get a vocal group in there every year, and here we are.

AND…?: I like the songs I know, which aren’t very numerous, and I don’t like them that much outside of “Love Train,” which is pretty good.


The Pretenders

WHO THEY ARE: They were one of the first of the trickle of new-wave bands to get in there.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: Well, they’re easy to like and talk about on the strength of Chrissie Hynde, who is a fascinating and tremendously entertaining person. People liked their records a lot at the time, and I suspect that most of the induction-people are of the age that liked them. I do sort of wonder what someone hearing them for the first time in 2019 would think of them, which is not something I always wonder, but I’m not entirely sure that’s significant.

AND…?: I don’t have much use for their music, but I’m glad Chrissie Hynde is famous enough to give interviews and star in amusing anecdotes.


Percy Sledge

WHO HE IS: He has some feelings about what happens when a man loves a woman.

WHY HE’S HERE: He was an awfully good singer. Somebody clearly liked him. Did you know that part 12 is not going to be from this particular set of two years and that this won’t be nearly as hard going forward? Seriously, this is a dire couple of years of inductions.

AND…?: He’s a good singer, I grant. So was the aforementioned Chrissie Hynde, and the O’Jays, and Steve Winwood. None of them are transformative, and none of them used those voices to do anything but sing songs loudly. I’ll pass on all of them.



WHO THEY ARE: Every attempt I’ve made at writing this line has dissolved into a bunch of incomprehensible podcast in-jokes 5, so: they’re a rock band from Ireland that are stupid huge.

WHY THEY’RE HERE: They successfully subsumed a lot of the UK post-punk/new-wave thing into an arena-sized sound, in the process making records that were extraordinarily popular, and also pretty great by just about any measure. They also did so with no lineup changes over the course of going-on four decades (three and change at the time of their induction), which is pretty incredible.

AND…?: Oh I like U2 a whole heck of a lot.


Frank Barsalona

WHO HE IS: A booking agent.

WHY HE’S HERE: Somebody probably said “we need a booking agent in here” and this is the guy who is most qualified among other booking agent. Did you know there’s a documentary about this booking agent? Did you know that the world we live in is completely insane, and full of completely insane people?

AND…?: How on Earth would I even go about forming an opinion about a fucking agent?


Seymour Stein

WHO HE IS: The founder of Sire records, among other things.

WHY HE’S HERE: Sire was pretty awesome, and they’re clearly trying to make inroads into the post-punk bands that were, largely, on Sire.

AND…?: I have much less problem with a label dude being here than a goddamn agent, certainly.


  1.  also the centerpiece of the museum itself, for those that have never been there, is a very long video encapsulating each inducted class, with clips of performances by most of them and things like that, and is generally a pretty cool thing to behold. 
  2.  although they did, as you can read here and going back from there, skew toward “pretty bad” 
  3. For the record, I think it’s the former, and don’t think the latter is a consideration. 
  4.  The only Bob Seger album I’ve ever played of my own volition was Live Bullets, and that was a long, long time ago. I liked it then, though. It’s probably still fine. 
  5.  specifically the excellent podcast U Talking U 2 2 Me 

The Best Records of May 2019

Sunn0))) – Life Metal (I mean, every Sunn0))) album is great, but it’s probably not a coincidence that this is one of their best and it’s the one with Tim Midyette on it)

The Tallest Man on Earth – I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream. (It’s bleak and miserable, but man is it an effective record)

Ryan Dugre – Humors (this came out of nowhere for me – I wasn’t familiar with him prior to hearing this, but this is some fantastic solo-guitar work)

Cocaine Piss – Passionate and Tragic (don’t touch her cake, guys. She seems upset about it.)

Marissa Nadler & Stephen Brodsky Droneflower (I guess it was a good month for dark, moody music.)