Reading List: The Future of Stranger Things, Lessons from Cadwell Turnbull, and more
I hope that you’re enjoying your summer! I’ve got some overdue features that I’ve promised you for this newsletter: some thoughts on Netflix’s Stranger Things, an interview with Cadwell Turnbull, and some other things.
I’m heading out today to Fort Ticonderoga in New York for some book research, and I’m starting to plan out the next couple of conventions that I’ll be headed to — Boston Fan Expo, and Dragon*Con. I missed out on San Diego Comic-Con this year (something I’m extremely irritated about), but Sneaky Zebra’s latest cosplay video helps a little.
Stranger Things and multimedia continuity
Netflix debuted the third season of its nostalgic, supernatural series Stranger Things on July 4th, after nearly two years after season 2 debuted in 2017. The series, if you haven’t watched it, follows a group of kids in the mid-1980s, who find themselves caught in the midst of an otherworldly plot: a US government experiment has discovered an alternate world, one that is home to some particularly nasty creatures. One of their friends gets caught in the Upside-Down, and later becomes a host to one of the creatures. (I *still* need to finish watching Season 3 — two episodes to go!)
The show has been an enormous hit for Netflix, which is working to keep its lead in the streaming video market as new competitors like Apple, Disney, and WarnerMedia launch their own streaming platforms. Netflix has been hard at work greenlighting its own content, trying to get the next, irresistible show, because it needs to keep its subscriber numbers up. It’s starting to have a hard time doing that: to help keep the money flowing to green-lighting new content, it raised its prices, only to lose a ton of subscribers and saw its growth slow.
And there are some indications that Stranger Things might not be around much longer. Matt and Ross Duffer, the show’s creators, have said that they had thought of the show as lasting for four seasons, and Netflix has a bit of a history of ending shows after 3-4 seasons as costs rise. Stranger Things feels like it would be a bit of an exception to that cancelation tendency, and I’m guessing if the Duffer Brothers had an idea to take the series beyond season 4, they’d get it. But I can't really see the show going on to last for more beyond 5-6 seasons.
But in the meantime, the folks behind Stranger Things have been exploring how to build the series out beyond the TV medium, creating their own expanded universe with a series of tie-in novels. Earlier this year, Penguin Random House released Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond, Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher, and Runaway Max by Brenna Yovanoff. There's been some other tie-in books along the way as well — behind-the-scenes types of things.
Novel franchises aren’t anything new with film and TV franchises. I wrote an in-depth examination of the Star Wars Expanded Universe a couple of years ago for Barnes and Noble’s Sci-fi and Fantasy blog, a long-running novel series that wildly expanded (and potentially revived) that particular franchise.
I spoke with both Bond and Christopher about what went into developing their respective books.
Christopher told me that he was “pretty much given free rein” when it came to coming up with a story, and that his directions were to write up a prequel that involved Chief Hopper. “I built the story around Hopper’s timeline, bas[ing] the character’s age on David Harbour’s age when he was shooting season 1.”
Once I had that sorted, including his tours of Vietnam, I realised I could place him in NYC during the infamous blackout of 1977. For me, that was perfect, as I’ve had ideas for a mystery story set there for years.
Bond noted that she took a similar path: her story would be about Terry Ives — Eleven’s mother — and drew on existing history to inform the story. Like the Duffer Brothers, she went back to some of the works that informed the series: “I took it upon myself to go back and reread a lot of Stephen King's early novels, as well as watching documentaries and reading about the late ‘60s.”
In both cases, the stories emerged naturally out of the framework that they came up with. The two noted that they were able to avoid an issue that sometimes trips up tie-ins: their books were largely set prior to the series, and they didn’t have to ensure that they were lining their stories up precisely with the events in the series. Christopher explained while the “framing story of Hopper and Eleven in the cabin is set between seasons 2 and 3,” he got yes-and-no answers about things that he could — and couldn’t — touch on.
These types of overarching projects are inherently collaborative. Bond explained some of the process: in addition to her editors at Del Rey, “we had a consultant (Paul Dichter) who is on the writing staff for the show, and was a direct link to the Duffer Brothers...Paul could literally go chase down one of the brothers on set and run an idea or concept by them to make sure they were good with it.”
Del Rey also has considerable experience working with tie-in fiction, which might be one reason why it feels as though its work generally stands out. There’ve been other big, multimedia projects from publishers that haven’t been successful or had quite the same impact, and I think a key reason for this is a lack of continuity of editors and publishers. One franchise that comes to mind is Microsoft’s Halo. Its first entries came from Del Rey, but eventually shifted to Tor Books, then to Gallery, and eventually to Simon & Schuster, which currently has the license. Star Trek feels as though it’s in a similar boat: Bantam Books, Ballantine Books, Simon & Schuster, Titan Books, and others have all published works from that franchise, and as a result, it’s quite a bit more fragmented. By comparison, Star Wars has been relatively stable: Bantam Spectra published the franchise between 1991 through 1999, when it transferred over to Del Rey. Both imprints were owned at the time by Random House, and the key editors pretty much remained the same, so there wasn't as much disruption. Plus, Lucasfilm keeps a tight rein on the continuity and story.
These various elements point to the importance that canon and continuity hold for these sorts of big, overarching, multimedia franchises: readers want to continue to dip into their favorite worlds for new (but similar) adventures. In instances like this, the work transcend the original or individual works and are instead a much larger story. That doesn’t mean that individual Halo and Star Trek novels aren’t good works, but a franchise that’s organized and has clear editorial and storytelling direction feels as though it’ll result in works that work better within that larger framework, individually and as a whole.
With Stranger Things likely coming to an end as some point in the nearish future, establishing some sort of direction for additional stories in that world in other mediums will keep diehard fans engaged with the franchise as a whole. As I’ve written before, we’re in an age where stories don’t really have an end, and I’m guessing that if an audience still exists, Netflix would be open to returning to the story down the road.
Cadwell Turnbull's The Lesson
I mentioned a couple of times that I was interviewing Cadwell Turnbull at a pair of bookstore events in Brooklyn and in Woodstock. We talked about a range of topics, and I’ve collected up a bunch of the high points.
The book is set over the Virgin Islands after an alien ship visits Earth, and while they claim to be benevolent, they mete out a harsh punishment for minor infractions, upending some level of social order of the islands. The book frames the alien invasion against the history of the islands, and is a fantastic look at gender and social politics in that environment. I can't recommend it enough: it's great book.
Here’s what we talked about:
There's a small, vocal group of science fiction writers from the Caribbean: Karen Lord and Tobias Buckell come to mind. What did the experiences of growing up in the Virgin Islands bring to your writing process, and your view of science fiction?
Caribbean SFF has been growing steadily and I’m looking forward to a lot more work coming out of the Caribbean, especially from the Virgin Islands.
I believe a specific view of language and culture has informed my writing because of where I’m from. Island communities can be small, but very rich, having their own deep history, their own ways of speaking and being that differentiate them from other islands. St. John, St Thomas and St. Croix are very different, for example, despite being sister islands. People live at the cross section of many cultures and histories, large and small. Growing up in the Caribbean makes that reality more apparent. I bring that understanding to my writing. I think it is a common Caribbean trait, to look at the small to illuminate bigger things. I bring that to my science fiction as well. Large from small. I try to tell personal stories from different perspectives to build into a larger speculative narrative. I don’t know if I always succeed, but it is an impulse that I believe comes, in some part, from my own experience of living in the world.
The Lesson introduces the Ynaa (pronounced EE-Na), an alien species that have come to Earth with some mysterious intentions. What's their background?
The Ynaa come from a large water planet called Sa, where several intelligent species developed on their own islands independently. On Yn, the Ynaa home island, they learned pretty early that toughness is essential to survival. During the age of expansion, when Sa’s intelligent races began reaching out beyond their borders, the Ynaa learned again to respond with disproportionate wrath as a means to survival. As they went out into the universe, they brought this socio-cultural context with them, which of course created conflict.
The Ynaa respond to even the smallest threat—a barking dog, a careless push—with often lethal violence. The local Virgin Islanders see this behavior as coming from a sense of superiority, a devaluing of their lives. Their perspective isn’t wrong, but I give the Ynaa a history that at least attempts to explain their behavior culturally. It doesn’t absolve them of their actions, but it does tell the reader why they’ve developed this response.
One of the things that struck me was how you wove in the longer history of the Virgin Islands with that of an alien invasion: they've essentially been invaded over and over again.
Yes, this is one of the things I wanted to highlight, that the people of the Virgin Islands would see this as a part of their history and would be even more on-guard because of that history of colonialism.
In truth, most places on earth have seen their own human invasions. The Virgin Islands were originally uninhabited before the first native population showed up. When other native populations arrive, conflicts ensued, and then again when Spanish explorers “discovered” the Virgin Islands, and again when European colonists started settling the islands and importing African slaves.
Go far enough back almost anywhere and you see patterns of aggressive invasion before the populations stabilized. Islands act as really good record-keepers, however, since their borders are so well-defined. I wanted to show that the Ynaa arrival isn’t just an isolated event, but a human pattern, one that the Ynaa, without knowing it, entered into.
Virgin Islanders would see their occupation as part of that pattern, and it would add an extra layer to their conflicts with the Ynaa.
The other thing that I couldn't help but bring away from this book was how relevant it seemed: a community going up against an incredibly powerful presence, which dealt out harsh retribution for small slights. How much of the news from the last 5-10 years was on your mind while writing this?
While I was in graduate school I was traumatized daily by cases of police brutality. It made it hard for me to focus on my degree work. I wasted precious time talking with people online, trying to convince them out of their prejudice and cavalier dismissal of black and brown lives. The videos themselves were frightening: the smallest actions leading to catastrophic responses, often death.
The Ynaa were inspired by a dream I had years before I started graduate school, but the way I wrote the novel was definitely influenced by those daily traumas. The protests by Virgin Islanders were also influenced by responses I saw to police brutality. It wasn’t my only influence—I wasn’t intending to make a direction connection between police violence and alien invasion—but it is in there for sure. There’s no way it wouldn’t be.
One reason this letter is late is because I was out about about on Saturday at the Vermont Lake Monster's Star Wars Night. It was fun, but very warm.
The book is progressing! I’ve gotten a couple of interviews under my belt, and I’ve been picking away at a couple of chapters: how costumers quickly begin putting together costumes quickly, and some of the technologies behind costuming, like 3D printing.
San Diego Comic-Con came and went, and one costumer caught my eye: Blair Imani, who dressed up as Jorgi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. She put her own spin on the costume: she’s a Muslim and incorporated a hijab into it.
There was the predictable, terrible reaction to it: fanbros explaining to her that it didn’t line up precisely with their interpretation of Gene Roddenberry’s view of the future (a post-religious society). They were pretty quickly countered by other fans, who pointed out the various examples of where Star Trek did feature religion.
Imani’s costume is a neat example of where cosplaying as a medium is a transformative one: regardless of the creator’s original intent, cosplayers can do whatever they want with properties, interpreting it through whatever lens they wish. This is a pretty spectacular example, one that really does adhere to the progressive vision of Star Trek, and with her own beliefs as a fan.
Audible angers publishers. Audible is planning to roll out a captions feature for its audiobooks. This is a concerning thing for authors and publishers: this isn’t something that Audible has the rights for, at least on its surface. It’ll be interesting to see what happens between now and September.
Awards and more awards. Two shortlists for big SF/F awards dropped this week. The British Fantasy Society unveiled its nominees for its 2019 awards: there are some great works included. The World Fantasy Society also unveiled its shortlist, which is also pretty great.
The Expanse returns! The most exciting news to come out of San Diego Comic-Con this year (for me, at least), was the announcement that The Expanse will be returning for its fourth season in December. I visited the set for season 4 last fall, and it was a fun trip. This season will be adapting Cibola Burn, and the trailer looks fantastic. Even better, Amazon announced this weekend that it was renewing the series for a 5th season. Presumably, it'll finish out whatever story they didn't finish for Cibola Burn, and will move on to book 5, Nemesis Games.
French FicInt. France’s Defence Innovation Agency is hiring a “Red Team”: 4-5 science fiction writers to come up with futuristic scenarios. It’s something that the US military does now (stay tuned: I’m working on a feature about this).
Hu(man) spaceflight. Mary Robinette Kowal wrote a fantastic article for The New York Times about how space was designed for men, and what ramifications there are for the future of space travel. This is something she’s pretty familiar with: her novel The Calculating Stars is all about how the US starts up a space program, and she’s done some extensive research into NASA and its history.
She points to things like the designs of space suits, (which was an issue earlier this year), and the earliest attempts to bring women into space. There’s a key point that she makes here:
“Women are asked to compromise about seemingly small things in order to participate. Every time we do that, we carry those imprints forward into the future.”
As a bonus, she has a fantastic thread on Twitter that illustrates some of these issues, and debunks a bunch of comments from people saying that the reason women didn’t go into space alongside the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts was because NASA couldn’t figure out a way to allow them to pee in space. Answer: not even a little bit true.
Marvel’s Phase 4. Marvel unveiled its next phase of projects, and it’s a big one: 10 films and TV shows in the next two years. There are some really exciting projects in the works: I really want to see The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Shang-Chi, and Thor: Love & Thunder.
Recent releases. I rounded up 15 new SF/F books that came out in the later half of July. There are some really good ones here.
There are three books that I’ve been picking away at: The Bayern Agenda by Dan Moren, This Is How You Stop The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, and The Moon by Oliver Morton. I’ve also got a copy of JY Yang’s final Tensorate novella, The Ascent to Godhood, which I’m really excited about picking up. I’ve also got a copy of Saad Z. Hossain’s The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, which looks pretty interesting.
I feel like I haven’t been reading as much lately: I’ve been caught up with rewatching Veronica Mars, ahead of the upcoming season 4 that just hit Hulu. I have one of the tie-in novels that I’ve been meaning to read for a while, and this might be a good opportunity to check that out.
That's all I've got for now. As always, thank you very much for reading. If you liked this, pass it along to someone or share the word, and let me know what you've been reading.