“Stranger Things” Soundtrack Makes Best Albums of 2016 List

Rolling Stone just listed their “50 Best Albums of 2016” and there’s a surprise appearance at #47 by the soundtrack to Netflix’s sci-fi/horror series, Stranger Things.

The recognition is for the theme and incidental music, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (not for any of the 1980s pop tunes that appear in the show). Like the rest of the series, it’s mostly referential to the era. The music’s synthesizer beats and creepy/tinny keyboards evoke a 1980s when John Carpenter was scoring his own movies using what sounded like a cheap, toy-store version of a Casio keyboard.

Fans of the music to Halloween, Escape from New York, or Big Trouble in Little China obviously love it. It’s also not hard to picture my students, who’ve never seen those films and weren’t alive in the 1980s, grooving to this soundtrack on earbuds while doing math homework at the library.

In hindsight, Stranger Things was probably the retro-SF event of 2016. It was engaging, fun, and pulled off the not-easy task of being kitschy and serious at the same time. It mined some elements of the 1980s that hadn’t been resurrected ad nausem yet: Stephen King mini-series adaptations, Spielberg’s Goonies and E.T., and all things Winona Ryder.  Stein and Dixon’s music is part of that too.

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Replacements Fandom: Celebrating The Skyway’s 100th Issue

With very little fanfare, the day before Thanksgiving, an email landed in my inbox.  It was the 100th issue of The Skyway, an internet mailing list about legendary Minneapolis band, The Replacements, that has been published since 1993.

The 100th issue features a poll of over 1,000 ‘Mats fans about their concert experiences and favorite songs.  (Confession: It also had a link to this page buried in the content, so if you’re here because of that, “Hi! Welcome!”)

I can honestly say I was there at the beginning.  Sometime in 1993 or late ’92, I was walking through the Student Union at Truman State University (which was just switching from being called Northeast Missouri State).

Standing at a public computer terminal, typing furiously, was Matt Tomich.  Tomich was the guy you called if you needed a ride to a rock show in Columbia or Kansas City or St. Louis.  Tomich and a batch of his buddies in Dobson Hall called themselves the “Bastards of Young” and did everything they could to foster Kirksville, MO’s little music scene.  He took me to my first Guided by Voices show, and I think I drove him to see Superchunk for the first time.

“What’s up, Matt?” I asked.

“I’m creating a listserv for Replacements fans. It’s called the Skyway.”

“What the hell’s a listserv, Matt?” I said.  (In 1993, that was a completely appropriate response.)

“It’s a mailing list that a group of people sign up for, and it sends them content over the Internet to their email.”

“What the hell’s an internet, Matt?” (Again, 1993, and totally appropriate.)

From that start, Matt Tomich launched the first computer-age, online venue for Replacements fandom.  He connected people across the country, creating a fan network that led to bootleg cassette tape sharing, band creation, and probably a few marriages and a baby or two.  Fans sent him content and he consolidated it into regular “issues” that are now also hosted online.

Even backward-ass luddites like myself eventually signed on as the technology became prevalent, then outdated, and now sort of pleasantly nostalgic.

Happy 100th issue to The Skyway!

As a tribute to all the bands who connected via The Skyway, I’m attaching a video from one of Matt’s former bands.  (Did I mention he was a sought-after bass player in Chapel Hill during 90s/00s?)


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Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

I’m really happy about today’s announcement that Bob Dylan is the first songwriting musician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Dylan’s career is fascinating.  I love that he has shifted his style/tone over several decades, right up to the folk-drenched, humorous fatalism of his early 2000s work like Love and Theft and Together through Life, taking the kind of risks I’d expect a Nobel laureate to have taken over a life’s work.

He also embodies something that’s quintessentially American: he’s drawn to anger, but he resists it.   In his early folk-singer phase and his later born-again period, he showed a predilection for taking sides and cutting down his enemies with words.  Songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Property of Jesus” come out of real frustration at humans inability to do right by each other.  He took that attitude and turned it on romantic relationships in albums like Blonde on Blonde and  Blood on the Tracks.

But his best stuff–material on Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Love and Theft--portrays a narrator with a talent for taking sides who shuns that talent.  He’s wise enough to know that path only goes so far.  It’s the wisdom of a person trying to escape a world that rewards them to for being constantly angry.

Another Nobel laureate, W.B. Yeats, famously said “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Dylan’s best songs are about trying to uncompromisingly live in the world between those two extremes, never giving up on honesty, searching for some kind of integrity, and finding comfort in a sense of dark humor.  Some of my favorite examples:

  • “My Back Pages”
  • “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”
  • “Every Grain of Sand”
  • “I Shall Be Released”
  • “Highlands”
  • Modern Times


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My Full Worldcon Schedule

I’m listing my full events schedule for the 74th World Science Fiction Convention (MidAmeriCon II) in Kansas City.  I’ll be at these events for sure–on some as a panelist, and moderating or assisting others.  I’m rounding up the end times (they all end at 10 minutes before the hour, mostly in 50 minute blocks).

Thursday, Aug. 18

  • Utopia: Past and Present, 6:00-7:00 pm, 2504B (panelist)
  • Campbell and Sturgeon Awards & Reception, 7:00-9:00 pm, 2501D (attending and assisting)

Friday, Aug. 19 

  • Preserving the History of the Future (SF Libraries & Archives), 3:00-4:00 pm, 2201 (moderating)

Saturday, Aug. 20

  • Campbell Conference Roundtable, 9:00-11:00 am, 2201 (attending and assisting)
  • Trojan Horse TV, 11:00-Noon, 2204 (moderating)
  • Ancient Greece and Rome in Science Fiction, 4:00-5:00 pm, 2201 (moderating)
  • Economics of Scarcity and Cold War Rhetoric, 5:00-6:00 pm, 2201 (moderating)

Sunday, Aug. 21

  • Third Rock (and Roll) from the Sun, 11:00-Noon, 2207 (panelist)

A couple of elaborations to add.  The panel on “Third Rock (and Roll)…” is about pop music in science fiction and fantasy (not the 90s TV show).  There’s also a panel specifically about David Bowie that I may try to attend on Saturday.  The academic panel on “Economics of Scarcity” will feature readings of classic ’50s invasion films like Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers.  Should be interesting.

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Read My New Short Story at Sockdolager

I have a short story in the Summer 2017 issue of Sockdolager Magazine.  It’s called “River Styx Leads to Athens: The Nearly Complete U.L.O. Story.”

It’s probably better the less I say about it.  Read it before you read the rest of this post.  If you’ve seen me read at ConQuesT in Kansas City, MO or Aimee’s Coffeehouse in Lawrence, KS more than once, it’s likely you’ve heard an earlier version of this one.

As usual, there was a lot of stuff floating around in my head that went into the story: the closing of a few music venues where my old band had played, the cutback in independent music reporting in local weekly tabloids, and whatever debt I owe to four musicians I’ve never met from Athens, Georgia.  Seems a weird way to pay that debt, but also weirdly appropriate.



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Science Fiction Novels I’ll Be Teaching

As I mentioned previously, I am teaching the second half of the University of Kansas’ flagship Intensive Institute on Science Fiction Literature. I’ll be teaching the same novels used in previous years, so I can’t take credit for the curriculum.  It features the following novels:

  • The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
  • The Languages of Pao, Jack Vance
  • Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
  • Gateway, Frederik Pohl
  • The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  • Timescape, Gregory Benford
  • Darwin’s Radio, Greg Bear
  • Dawn, Octavia Butler
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Accelerando, Charles Stross
  • Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks
  • Perdido Street Station, China Miéville

It’s a lot to cover in six days, but that’s part of the class’s allure: it’s two weeks of immersion in the history of SF.

If you want more info on the program or context, see the Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s website.

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Science Fiction Panel at ALA San Francisco

The panel I’ve helped put together for the American Literature Association’s conference will be at 8:10 a.m. on Friday, May 26, 2016 in San Francisco.  ALA has posted a draft of the full program if you’d like to see who is appearing.

Our panel is called “American Science Fiction: Utopian Technologies and Feminist Spaces.”  Joining me are Bridgette Barclay from Aurora University  discussing the comic book Bitch Planet, and Michelle Yates from Columbia College Chicago talking about Mad Max: Fury Road.  I’m going to cover two polar utopian novels: The Great White Way by Mark Twain’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine and Arqtiq by Anna Adolph, a work that features (I think) the first female inventor hero, one who builds her own airship and brings her family along for the ride.

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