Forget ‘Best of 2016.’ Here’s the ‘Catch-Up in 2017’ List.

I only get to read/watch a fraction of the things I want to during a year.  So I asked friends over on Facebook to recommend one thing from 2016 that I should experience, be it book, film, comic or otherwise.  Here’s a partial consolidated list with my comments:

  • Station Eleven (novel that clearly has staying power and crossover appeal)
  • Manifest Destiny (comics series)
  • Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger (album that I’ve really enjoyed over the year, esp. opening track, “The Werewolf”)
  • Providence (comics series by Alan Moore, which I will definitely read though I’m likely not cut out for his 1,000+-word novel, Jerusalem).
  • Swans, The Glowing Man (album)
  • Midnight Special (a film that I missed completely but will now seek out)
  • City of Blades (part of Robert Jackson Bennett series that sounds very cool)
  • Hark, A Vagrant (web comic series)
  • Miss Sloan (film)
  • This is Us (TV series)
  • Rotör (band, who clearly understand how to use röck umlauts)
  • Hell or High Water (I loved this movie)
  • The Book of Ralph (novel by Christopher Steinsvold with a pretty funny SF premise)
  • I Contain Multitudes (non-fiction book by Ed Yong)
  • Black Mirror
  • The Arrival
  • Westworld (these last three are shoe-ins that I just haven’t been able to fit in yet)


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Goodbye, Princess Leia

In mourning for Carrie Fisher until further notice.

The year has not been kind to science fiction fandom or music lovers.  The best quote I read yesterday was from Twitter’s Miss Texas 1967 who said:

“It is becoming increasingly obvious that David Bowie has established a better alternate universe and is populating it selectively one-by-one.”


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Chris Mars’s Video is “New Weird” Sci-Fi Goodness

The video for Chris Mars’s new song, “Down by the Tracks,” is like a cinematic version of a China Miéville novel as scored by the Kinks in 1968. (There’s more going on there, but that should grab the right people’s interest.)

Chris Mars, the former Replacements drummer who virtually abandoned music to become a painter of weird, disturbing landscapes and portraits, has apparently returned to songwriting. His website says he has an album coming out next year.

The tune features a psychedelic narrative about a “pancake marmalack” and “floating dice.” Like the material on Mars’s 1990s solo records, it has a distinctly British Invasion feel.

Clearly, Mars is  having fun blending his music with the iconography of his weird paintings and videos. The recent Replacements biography, Trouble Boys, notes Mars’ discovery of H.R. Giger as a major moment in his artistic development. When I saw the the video on Facebook, people mentioned Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman in the comments.

The video is an early Christmas gift for Replacements fans who like bizarre sci-fi visuals and catchy songwriting.

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2016 End-of-Year Items

It’s the end of 2016, and I’m using it for the usual shameless plugs.  A lot of my work from 2016 won’t be appearing until next year or later:

  • My non-fiction book is under double-blind peer review at a university press
  • Two articles should be out in book collections next year, one in the Cambridge History of Science Fiction and one in Routledge’s Centrality of Crime Fiction in American Literature.

The other professional highlights from this year:

  • Published a short story.
  • Presented a paper at American Literature Association.
  • Taught half of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s novel course at University of Kansas.
  • Helped run the academic-track at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City.
  • Traveled to Big Sur, Santa Cruz, and other regional sites.

I feel like I haven’t read/heard enough good stuff this year, at least not to have anything to champion right now.  I’ll post my to-reads and to-listens in a separate entry later.

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“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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