The Book Project

Just a quick update on my book about Edisonades and other proto-SF in American literature.

I’ve taken the last few weeks to revise my revisions before I send out query letters to academic presses. Folks who are familiar with academic publishing know what this entails. Lots of double-checking references to be sure I’m correctly portraying someone else’s arguments, though most of that’s been moved to footnotes. Lots of micro-editing at this stage.

In addition to the manuscript itself, there’s the prospectus, which includes summaries, explanation of the book’s originality and contribution to the field, analysis of competing books on similar topics, and basically a “pitch.” There are a number of helpful sites for writing these things, including Tonya Golash-Boza’s wonderfully titled “Get a Life, Ph.D.”

Back to work.

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Steampunk Links from UC Davis Course

We just finished up this quarter’s Steampunk first-year seminar.  I thought I’d share a screenshot of the class’s SmartSite folder of external links and pictures to give a taste of what the students examined.

Steampunk SmartSite


As you can see, we read articles from the New York Times and Beyond Victoriana, along with essays on real-life figures such as Verne’s hero Nadar and morality cop Anthony Comstock (who was to 1890s sci-fi dime novels what Fred Wertham was to 1950s comic books).

More fun were the video links.

The clip from Fu Manchu contextualizes “The Doctor” from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  There’s only a shortened version of it on YouTube now, with steampunk laboratory.  The original clip went on to show him brag to his captives about his multiple doctorates from various Western universities (hence, he preferred to be called “Doctor”).

Similarly, the clips of Dr. Jekyll’s transformations to Hyde by John Barrymore (c. 1920) and Fredric March (c. 1931) were fun, esp. since the only transformation in Stevenson’s original is the reverse–Hyde turns back to Jekyll.

The clips from Portlandia and Sir Reginald Pikedevant are good for a laugh.  And we also watched a bit of the first episode of Wild Wild West from the 1960s before watching the 1999’s dismal film adaptation.

These weren’t the only online sources we consulted.  In fact, students brought in their own frequently.  There’s just a ton of steampunk stuff out there.



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Joe Ely and the Question of “Sci-Fi” Country Music

There’s a great article by Dave Heaton of PopMatters about Joe Ely, one of the great Texas songwriters.  Entitled “Do iPhones Dream of Boxcars”, it covers the recently re-released digital recordings Ely did in the 1980s (long after the Flatlanders split and after Ely toured with the Clash) and uses it to ask some questions about SF and country music.  The conclusion is great:

“Change is something country music doesn’t excel at. Change flows slowly, like rivers, like tumbleweeds blowing in slow-motion across the plains. Simply put, is country too reactionary and stand-still a genre for science-fiction, which is by its nature analytical, self-critical and forward-looking? Is that why the country musics that seem most ‘sci-fi’ to me are those most interested in getting more ‘contemporary’ in sound, and moving out of the past?”

Great questions.  It’s definitely an uneasy mix.  For me, SF and country music can work well, but it’s usually best when its not done too literally.  As with rock and roll in general, I’m less interested in someone trying to tell a “sci-fi” narrative, and more interested in someone trying to play with imagery/sounds that evoke a certain feel.  Maybe that’s why surf rock seems more SF to me than Blue Oyster Cult.

Is there sci-fi country music?  Heaton mentions The Highwaymen’s single, which works.  I’d add the Mekons work from the 1980s: “Fear and Whiskey” has that odd blend of compressed drums and guitar distortion with classic country (all sung with a British accent, so much the better).

And SF author Sanford Allen, member of San Antonio band Hogbitch, turned me on to this guy–The Legendary Stardust Cowboy–who (at least in part) inspired rock’s most famous SF persona:

And the totally bizarre story of his influence…

I’ve seen Joe Ely a few times.  The first time was an acoustic tour with John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark.  The last time was in Clear Lake, IA at the Surf Ballroom’s “50 Winters Later” show.

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Dime Novel Sci-Fi at “God and the American Writer” Symposium

At the end of February, I’ll be presenting a paper on the Frank Reade, Jr. dime-novel inventor series at a special symposium on “God and the American Writer” sponsored by the American Literature Association.

What do those early science-fiction stories–best known for their giant, anthropomorphic machines and multi-propellered airships–have to do with God in America?  Surprisingly, quite a bit.

I’m looking at three stories from between 1893-1895 that feature the globe-trotting adventurer encountering lost civilizations with ties to the Old Testament.  These are prime examples of science-fiction texts that really see the Bible as an authoritative historical source–a trend that becomes less prevalent as SF became codified in the early 20th century, but that continues in modern anti-evolutionary textbooks and other conservative counter-narratives to science.

More info is on the “Appearances” page.

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Rediscovering Michael Moorcock: Rock Music, Multiverses, and Buckaroo Banzai Nostalgia

On the last day of 2014, The New Yorker published a piece on legendary fantasy author and editor Michael Moorcock. I’ve been rediscovering Moorcock this year, mostly due to connections in SF, music, and 80s nostalgia.

As the NY article notes, Moorcock’s influence on all sorts of fiction is immense.  He put ideas like the “Multiverse” on the SF map.  He edited the ground-breaking New Worlds periodical that gave birth to “New Wave” science fiction in the ’60s.  He wrote some of the earliest modern SF set in Victorian times, making him a steampunk godfather.  And he famously inspired songs by Blue Oyster Cult, Hawkwind, and other bands.

I haven’t read a lot of Moorcock; there were a few impediments along the way:

A) As a kid, I skimmed a couple of Elric books at a time when I was already losing interest in all things swords-and-sorcery.  Elric didn’t rekindle my interest.  The timing was all wrong.

B) I just can’t get into Hawkwind’s music, and my enjoyment of Blue Oyster Cult is hit-or-miss. (Although “Burnin’ for You”, co-penned with rock critic Richard Meltzer, is a gargantuan power-pop classic.)

C) As I specialized in SF research, Moorcock sat just outside my area of focus on 19th-century and Modernist speculative fiction.

But 80s nostalgia saved the day.  My interest was really rekindled when I spoke to an SF scholar last year who was doing research on Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories.  He described it to me this way:

“Buckaroo Banzai.  He’s the prototype for Buckaroo Banzai.”

That’s all it took to re-ignite my interest in Moorcock.  I’m a huge Buckaroo Banzai fan.  My 80s nostalgia for that movie is deep.  I loved the idea of a hero who is both a Doc Savage-like scientist adventurer and a Bruce Springsteen-like bandleader.

Cornelius is a Moorcock superhero–a spy, a rock guitarist, a polymath scientist.  He predates Buckaroo by 20 years, and is in many ways a product of the swinging ’60s.  He’s a proto-hipster and an aloof intellectual; Cornelius isn’t for everyone.

But, man, there are so many ideas on every page.  In the first Cornelius story, we get a hollow earth trip, posthuman body augmentation, pinball, digressions on guitarists of the 60s, and more.  This is clearly the work of a writer having a hell of a lot of fun synthesizing a bunch of his interests into an action/adventure tales–and warping the very nature of action/adventure tales in the process.

So now I’ve read the first two Cornelius novels, enjoying them in a “how the hell did I not know about this?” kind of way.  I’ve also finished The Eternal Champion, and I’m planning to plug my way through Elric again this year–giving it the time and attention it merits.

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Songs My Old Band Covered (Music Nostalgia)

Every now and then, someone asks me “What did you old band sound like?”  I often answer this by listing a few of the bands we covered rather than trying to explain the music in words.

So, here’s a personal trip into musical nostalgia purgatory.  I think these are all the songs we covered, with a few situational notes tossed in:

  • Man in Need—Richard and Linda Thompson (we butchered it at our first show, never played it again)
  • Temptation—New Order (when sung with a twang, the chorus almost sounds like a Gene Autry cowboy number)
  • Gun Sale at the Church—The Beat Farmers
  • I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry—Hank Williams (Note: we killed this, >3,000 mph)
  • Little Red Riding Hood—Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
  • Never Even Called Me by My Name—Steve Goodman/David Allan Coe (Done fairly regularly until we realized everybody covers it)
  • Cold Water—Tom Waits (a Mule Variations classic)
  • Johnny Bye Bye—Bruce Springsteen (a favorite B-side)
  • Cadillac Ranch—Bruce Springsteen
  • Miracle Man—Elvis Costello
  • Suspicious Minds—Elvis Presley
  • Maybe Baby, Tell Me How, & Not Fade Away—Buddy Holly (at our annual “Buddy Holly Tribute” show, we’d play these, then let anyone who wanted to play a Ritchie Valens, Big Bopper, or Buddy cover take the stage)
  • Take Me Down to the Hospital—The Replacements (played while opening for the Scaries at El Torreon Ballroom, mostly so Matt Tomich would sing along)
  • Dignified and Old—The Modern Lovers (at EP release at Recycled Sounds)
  • Gun—Uncle Tupelo (sung at the end of a show with the Down Trunks, with me imitating Robert Pollard)

Now, we never played a show where we did all of these in one night.  Our shows were 80%-90% original material, but these were the songs I vividly remember doing onstage.

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Pop Songs in Science-Fiction Movies and TV Shows

This week, posted a list of songs that did (and didn’t) work in SF and fantasy TV shows and films.  Natalie Zutter, Emily Asher-Perrin and Leah Schnelbach compiled a fun list.

Face it–if you grew up without cable TV and before the advent of on-demand music, movies might be your only chance to discover interesting stuff that commercial radio had dismissed.  I first encountered a whole lot of my favorite songs on soundtracks to movies.

And directors can take a song that sounds “okay” on record and find something in it that the rest of us missed.  (Jonathan Lethem famously noted the way “The Man in Me” by Bob Dylan “blindsided” many long-time Dylan fans who heard it on the The Big Lebowski soundtrack, though we’d had the album for years; that’s probably the pinnacle of this sort of thing)

I won’t list a bunch of my favorites right now except to say “Yes!” to their thought on Guardians of the Galaxy‘s soundtrack (power pop and yacht rock in a space fantasy=genius), and “Hell Yes!” to their inclusion of The Pixies “Where is My Mind?” from Fight Club.

For the record, my personal favorite soundtrack to any SF movie:

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