Reading List, November 2nd

Alternate Apollos, the future of Star Wars, and more.

Hello!

I’m writing from my hotel room in Rhode Island, where I’m spending the next couple of days to attend Rhode Island Comic Con, the last big convention that I’m planning on going to this year. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and I’ve got a handful of links to share, as well as some thoughts on some media-related stuff that I’ve been watching and listening to.


Alternate Apollo

Apple launches its big streaming service today, the inelegantly-named Apple TV + (really?), part of the company’s big push into services beyond just selling computers and devices. Those sales have gone down in the last couple of years — it’s suffered a bunch of quarters where it’s registered a loss, and it’s not hard to see why. The iPhone is no longer this novel thing that everyone has to buy to be “cool.” I think that they still make some really great products — I’m typing this on an iPad Pro, listening to music (purchased on iTunes) on my iPhone, and I generally work on an iMac. I’m locked into their system. In the global market, there’s a feeling that they’ve largely exhausted how far they can reach — how many people can buy or want to buy an iPhone, especially when you have companies like Samsung (product disasters like the Galaxy Fold or the Galaxy Note 7 nonwithstanding), Huawei, OnePlus, and others making pretty good products? There’s a point where you reach a hard limit if you want to keep expanding.

Apple’s iPhones certainly aren’t going away, but they’re getting into incremental updates. (Charlie Wetzel has a good thing about this from a month or so ago) With all of that in mind, Apple’s been expanding into a new sector: services. This isn’t strictly new: they’ve been running Apple Music (a subscription music service) for a while now, and streaming television is the latest venture. I’ve seen a couple of the shows already, and reviewed its science fiction series, For All Mankind over on Polygon. My early impression (based off of watching eight episodes) is that it’s a solid service. For All Mankind and The Morning Show are solid dramas, with decent characters and promising stories. They aren’t perfect — but then again, what show has been perfect right out of the gate? (Okay, Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica were both pretty great from the get-go.)

What’s notable with this is that these shows are essentially designed to be bolted onto a new Apple device. Buy a new iPhone and iPad, and they’ll throw in a year’s subscription to the service for your trouble. I don’t know if saving $60 a year is *really* worth buying an entirely new device, but’s it a handy perk that could easily turn someone who’s wavering over into a returning customer.

Now, this’ll only work if the shows are any good. And, based on the eight or so episodes that I’ve watched, Apple’s put together a pretty good slate of programs.

I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of For All Mankind here — you can check out my thoughts on it on the review — but I do think that it’s an interesting thing for Apple to tackle. The show is something I suspect will broadly appeal to Apple customers (alternate space race), it has high production values, has generally good stories and characters (once you get to know them), and I’m certainly planning on watching the next couple of episodes to see how Season 1 ends up. The Morning Show is also pretty interesting — I suspect that it’ll appeal to the type of person who really likes The West Wing — and it’s topical and moves along quickly. I haven’t checked out Dickinson, See, or any of the others yet. But Apple does seem to have understood that they need good, solid dramas for this to work, and at least initially, it’s done the job. Plus, this is a perk that will get better with time, if anything because as the years pass, there’ll be more and more episodes and shows for people to check out. Hopefully, the quality will continue to improve, because that means that they have the potential to do some really great television. Apple has deep pockets, and they can afford to really dump money into production design and stuff like that.

In the meantime, my Apple TV app shows that you can download the first two episodes of For All Mankind for free, and I don’t think it’s a waste of 2 hours to watch those. What I’m really excited for is the upcoming adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. That should be interesting to watch.


The Future of Star Wars

In other media franchise news, there were some rumblings on the Star Wars front. Earlier this week, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss announced that they were leaving the franchise, of which they’d already had a trilogy announced, to be released between 2022 and 2026. With that news came the tittering from predictable quarters of the internet: that LFL chief Kathleen Kennedy didn’t know what she was doing, that the franchise is doomed, DOOMED, and so forth. Others cheered the news — there weren’t a ton of people really clamoring for this? — because they’d made a bit of a mess of the final seasons of Game of Thrones. The official story is that they had too much on their plate, and wanted to get to their projects for Netflix. Fair.

The story that’s emerged is that there have been some consistent tensions between the pair and Kennedy. They apparently wanted to do up a film series about the origins of the Jedi, and that both camps were having issues finding a common vision. That seems like a suitably ambitious project, and as I noted in my piece for Tor.com, Lucasfilm’s done this before, and to great acclaim: the video game Knights of the Old Republic is extremely well-liked, and people have been clamoring for an adaptation of it (presumably, what was rendered non-canon can be re-added).

I think that there’s issues with that, and that it’s part of an argument that goes to the heart of the recent grumblings about the state of the franchise from annoying fans who are pissed at how The Last Jedi did things. There’s no way that Lucasfilm could do up an adaptation of KOTOR without the fans revolting. It would never, ever come close to their vision of what would be a good story, because that’s such a subjective thing — especially when you’re dealing with a vocal segment of your audience that isn’t really composed of good actors. You see this with a bunch of things — Fans upset with how The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi turned out, because it didn’t line up perfectly with their expectations. Both of those films have their flaws — some serious — but on the whole, my view is that they did just what was needed. TFA was a familiar, soft reboot that showed the larger audience that Lucasfilm understood what they liked. TLJ showed that they’re willing to take risks and throw out the franchise’s tropes in service of a good character story. I think everyone’s waiting with bated breath to see where the upcoming Rise of Skywalker falls. Hopefully, it’s good.

I’ve heard and been part of a bunch of these discussions (which I dread) where people complain about The Last Jedi, recycling the same arguments from bad actors — Mark Hamill said X, Y, and Z to diss TJL, Luke’s character wasn’t treated with respect, Rose didn’t serve any purpose, etc. I’m sick of hearing these arguments, because they’re not really arguments. They’re just rehashed forum garbage that gets churned up whenever a couple of anti-TLJ people get together. I hear the same thing at play when people talk about Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters — the same, specific arguments that are patently sexist when you think about them.

At the end of the day, I think the bigger question about franchises like this are how they approach established fandoms. The original Star Wars was a novel film — eight films later, you’re locked into expectations. To his credit, George Lucas’s complaint about The Force Awakens is that it didn’t push anything. It rehashed some of the same plot points that the prior films had. Say what you will about the Prequel trilogy, but he really did do some unique things there. But should franchises cow-tow to fan expectations, or lead them in new directions? TFA did the former, TLJ did the latter.

Personally, I think that fans shouldn’t have as much of a say in the process. It’s a filmmaker or storyteller’s job to create something interesting and exciting, and if you design something that is intended only to fit the expectations of fans, you loose some of that spark that made the thing special in the first place. That, among all things, is why I really liked TLJ, even if it took me a viewing or two to really comprehend what Rian Johnson was doing with it. Rogue One took some similar risks, telling a very different sort of Star Wars story, which largely paid off. Solo was fun, but it doesn’t feel like it’s really all that memorable or consequential in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully, The Mandalorian will do something interesting, along with the other shows and projects in the works.

HBO’s Watchmen

Ever since HBO announced it, I’ve been sort of at a loss for how to approach its “adaptation” of Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s Watchmen. It was first described as a “remix” of the original source material, but it’s not that. No, this is more of a sequel, but one that is basically just set in the same canon/world as the graphic novel. Two episodes in, and I’m enjoying it, I think?

This is a pretty interesting example of how a network or studio can play with a world. Moore and Gibbons put together a fantastic alternate world for Watchmen, but it was in the service of a very specific story. Like any alternate world, there are a number of differences between our world and this fictional one, and those appear in big and small ways, like Robert Redford being president for 30 years, or tiny squids falling from the sky periodically.

I can see why people were stumbling over the “remix” and sorta-sequel labels, and I don’t know that there’s a good word for this thing, other than “successor”? This story pretty much stands on its own, with cops dressing up in costume to fight against white supremacists, something pretty far removed from the original story. It’ll be interesting to see what the entire story turns out to be, and the relationship to that original story.

Take Me To The Moon

Lillian Cunningham’s Moonrise podcast has wrapped up its run, and man, this is probably the best series that I’ve listened to. In interviewed her when the series started, and coming to the end, I’m not quite sure that I expected a thoughtful meditation on the nature of stories and how they can push a population to do something as massive as the Apollo program. She weaves together the histories of science fiction, world war 2, space, and a politics to put together less of a technical history (how we went to space), and more of a motivational one: why did we go to space? It’s well worth checking out.


Further Reading

Afrofuturism vs Africanfuturism. I’ve really enjoyed Nnedi Okorafor’s works (her Binti novellas are very good), and I’ve seen her talk adamantly about wanting her works to be identified as an Africanfuturist, as opposed to Afrofuture stories. She has a good post outlining the differences in worldview here, which I found enlightening.

Audible Universe. Marvel has made hay with their superhero cinematic and television franchises, and they’ve played a little with podcasts. Now, they’re dipping a bit more into that world: Deadline reports that the company is launching a partnership with Siris XM for five podcast shows: four about individual heroes Wolverine, Star-Lord, Black Widow, and Hawkeye, and a fifth in which they team up. It feels very much like the Netflix model (which did something similar with Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist), and I’ll be really interested in seeing how these shows come out. Should be some super listening.

Burning Books. LitHub has a good piece about a problem with physical paperbacks: they’re slowly disintegrating, because of the cheap paper that they’re made of. Those paperbacks that you have that are yellowing? They’re not going last long, because they’re literally burning up because of the acid in the pages.

Closing the Iris. MGM announced that its Stargate streaming service is shutting down. I really liked Stargate Command — it’s basically an annual subscription to an entire franchise’s worth of material. First of all, there’s not many franchises that you can do that with — Star Wars, Star Trek, maybe? Those are certainly good carrots to put out to entice subscribers for a streaming service, but putting together a dedicated streaming service for three shows and a handful of movies? That was just bonkers, and fun. If you wanted to buy all of the episodes, that would cost you, but this made it easy to catch up on the entire franchise quickly. I kind of wonder if this is happening to pave the way for something else — maybe MGM is launching something bigger? Who knows.

Full Throttle. I interviewed Joe Hill for The Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, which was a bit far-ranging and fun. His latest collection, Full Throttle, is loaded with some great stories, and he has some good thoughts on the creative world. And working with his dad.

Handmaids’ EU. Gerry Canavan is an SF academic that’s written a lot of good literary criticism, and he’s reviewed Margaret Atwood’s latest novel The Testaments over in the LA Review of Books. I haven’t picked up the book yet — I will hopefully get to it soon — but he makes some really good points about revisionism:

The Handmaid’s Tale has officially been rewritten to make one of its most odious characters the secret hero of the story, a martyr working diligently behind the scenes to both save herself and save the day, and I guess we all just have to live with it. 

LA Architectural Noir. My buddy Francis French (who’s written some excellent books about the history of the space race) has a neat blog post up about the future-noir architecture of LA, just in time for the future promised to us by Blade Runner.

The Mandalorian speaks. Disney dropped a new trailer for The Mandalorian earlier this week, and man, I’m excited for this show. It looks fantastic (even though critics won’t be able to talk about it or see episodes prior to the release), and I’m really eager to see what it does to the Star Wars universe.

Nightmare fuel. Over on The Washington Post, Avi Selk has a really cool piece about a subreddit called Nosleep, dedicated to realistic horror stories. Users post their own short, horrifying stories about strange happenings in their world, to the point where police have had to issue a statement saying, ‘no, no horror things happening here.’ What was really interesting about this is how people have figured out a way to game the system, posting at certain times to optimize when they’ll get the best number of up votes.

Westeros continues. This week was quite the rollercoaster. First, word broke that HBO killed off its next big Game of Thrones prequel projects, The Long Night, which I think everyone expected to head off to a series. Then, hours later, we learned that while that project wasn’t moving forward, a different one was, House of the Dragon. It’s going straight to a series, rather than filming a pilot first. Game of Thrones is too valuable of a property for HBO to give up quietly — of course they’re going to continue to milk that world for as much as it’s worth. It’ll be interesting to see how this one turns out, whenever it shows up. (My money’s on 2022.)

Wolfe out at Saga. In some industry news, Navah Wolfe, one of Saga Press’s editors (the imprint that’s working on my book tentatively titled Cosplay: A History) has had her job eliminated. This is truly a WTF moment, if anything, because she *just* earned the Hugo Award for Best Professional Editor this year. She’s edited a number of fantastic novels, such as Cat Valente’s Space Opera. Hopefully, someone will snap her up quickly.


The book

Work on The Book continues! As noted, I’m at Rhode Island Comic Con this weekend, where I’m hoping to take some more pictures of cosplayers, and conduct a couple of specific interviews with people I don’t see in person on a regular basis.

Progress thus far has been a little slow — I’m still doing research, and recently finished up doing some reading on the history of Halloween, which will be a portion of the history here. The history of the holiday is a weird set of twists and turns. I’m also going through newspaper archives to see what was written about costumes in the early 1900s as well, which is pretty interesting.

Currently Reading

I’ve finished a couple of books lately. I blew through Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut Star Wars novel Resistance Reborn, which was a lot of fun. I reviewed that for the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, looking at how it’s about how difficult is for evil to triumph over good, and how it seems like it’s a pressingly relevant story this particular fall in 2019.

I also just finished Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, the second installment of his Book of Dust trilogy. This is another one with very overt anti-authoritarianism overtones (again, hugely relevant), and handled in some interesting ways. It feels very much like it’s taking into consideration the rise of this mode of thinking that we’re seeing in Europe and elsewhere in the world, but he also touches on extremism and some other things. It’s a very strange book, and I have some thoughts to unpack for a formal review. I finished it just in time for HBO to premiere its adaptation of His Dark Materials, which I’m very excited for.

I also recently re-read Watchmen (as noted above), which remains a brilliant graphic novel.

Also on the reading list is Gideon the Ninth, which is fun. I listened to a bit of These Truths: A History of the United States, which is beautifully written. I’ve been struggling through Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s short book This is How You Lose the Time War. Beautifully written, but… I don’t know. It’s not catching me. I have Cixin Liu’s Supernova Era which I need to read next. I also really want to get through Myke Cole’s The Killing Light, which comes out next month. There are some other short ones that I should burn through as well.

That’s all for this weekend. I’m headed off to the convention with a couple of costumes in tow. I’ll be posting pictures up on Twitter later this weekend in the evenings, if you want to see who I saw. In the meantime, tell me what you’ve been reading, and any thoughts you have.

Andrew