When Gods and Vampires Roamed Miami September 16, 2014 When Gods and Vampires Roamed Miami Kendare Blake A Goddess Wars story As Good As New September 10, 2014 As Good As New Charlie Jane Anders She has three chances to save the world. Tuckitor’s Last Swim September 9, 2014 Tuckitor’s Last Swim Edith Cohn A hurricane is coming. Headache September 3, 2014 Headache Julio Cortázar Translated by Michael Cisco.
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Showing posts by: joshua starr click to see joshua starr's profile
Mon
Nov 21 2011 6:00pm

Planet of Sound: Robyn, “Fembot”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

There’s this thing music geeks like to do, where we point to a lesser-known artist with a catchy pop sensibility and say, “Look at them! If only more people heard them, they would be huge stars already.”

In the case of Robyn, a Swedish pop singer who’s technically more indie than the Arcade Fire, the lament may be unnecessary; even after leaving a major label to release her albums herself, she’s had a couple worldwide hits and the love of a significant portion of the music-listening Internet. But, to Robyn fans, that doesn’t seem like quite enough – nobody mentions Robyn along with Rihanna, Beyonce, or Lady Gaga, and her album sales are miniscule by comparison.

Most likely, the things standing in her way are some of the same things that make fans love her: her down-to-earth relatability, her oddball humor, and the sense that she’s not “larger than life,” but in fact just life-size – your size. But there’s also the reason we’re gathered here today on Tor.com: her continued fondness for robots and science fiction metaphors.

Sci-fi’s gone mainstream now, sure, but I’m still not certain Top 40 radio is ready for an idol who goes on about androids quite as much as Robyn does.

[Fembots and robotboys and time machines, oh my...]

Mon
Nov 7 2011 5:30pm

Planet of Sound: The Mae Shi, “Pwnd”

Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.

Here’s a post for those of you who like the weird ones: from the album HLLLYH (pronounced either “Hallelujah” or “Hell yeah”) by experimental Los Angeles punk band The Mae Shi, a cacophonous chant-along about the Second Coming and the Rapture, titled with a juvenile gamer joke which seems to suggest that God views life on Earth as something similar to a violent video game.

Well God gave me very specific instructions, he said,
“Go down there and start some eruptions and floods and mass destruction.”

[“You can keep the bodies, we’re here for the souls…”]

Mon
Oct 24 2011 6:00pm

Planet of Sound: Kanye West/Lady Gaga/Michael Jackson, “Monster”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

What is a monster?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to break out the Merriam-Webster’s on you. It’s just that Halloween’s a-comin’, and for Tor.com’s Monster Mash I wanted to offer something other than a covers collection for the Bobby Pickett hit. And while thinking about “monster music,” I realized that two of the most controversial, fascinating performers in the current pop music landscape Kanye West and Lady Gaga both released tracks with that one-word title, “Monster,” in the past couple years.

And then, with a little bit of Spotify-ing, I saw that the progenitor to them both, Michael Jackson, had a song with the same title on his 2010 posthumously released album, Michael.

[A whole bunch of Monsters...]

Mon
Oct 10 2011 6:00pm

Planet of Sound: Danger Doom, “A.T.H.F.”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

There’s a certain segment of the population—let’s take a stab and guess “geeks and stoners who graduated high school between around 2000 and 2006”—for whom the initialism A.T.H.F., and therefore the subject matter of this chilled-out alternative rap track, will be immediately recognizable, but for the rest of the populace, perhaps I should explain.

A.T.H.F. stands for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which was the name of an animated show on Cartoon Network/Adult Swim that showcased the adventures of anthropomorphic fast food items Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad, along with their neighbor Carl. (The show still airs, but has since been renamed Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1—and has, to most accounts, diminished drastically in quality.)

The show was sci-fi, I suppose, in that aliens and robots and suchlike made regular appearances (also in that its protagonists were anthropomorphic fast food items), but mostly it was related to the genre in the same way, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was — its brand of absurdist, sometimes silly, sometimes surprisingly dark humor garnered a cult following that included many of the same sorts of kids who’d have spent late nights in the basement playing 1st edition D&D in the 70s, and Magic: the Gathering at the turn of the millennium.

[But where does the rap come in?]

Mon
Sep 26 2011 6:00pm

Planet of Sound: Devo, “Space Junk”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

Planet of Sound: Devo, “Space Junk”

In recognition of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, which fell to Earth this past weekend, here’s Devo, one of the world’s great art-rock bands, weighing in on such phenomena with “Space Junk” — a jittery new-wave lament/ode to the truism of what-goes-up-must-come-down.

“Space Junk” appeared on Devo’s 1978 debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!, which released a bit less than one year before Skylab came crashing to ground amidst a frenzy of media hype in July 1979. Considering the dates, I don’t believe Devo would have had Skylab itself in mind when writing the song, but the timing seems fortuitous nonetheless. The song begins: 

“Well she was walking all alone,
Down the street, in the alley.
Her name was Sally.
I never touched her.
She never saw it…”

[What happened next?!]

Mon
Sep 12 2011 5:57pm

Planet of Sound: Nellie McKay, “Clonie”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.) 

“This is about the evils of science, so I think it’s perfect…”

Nellie McKay’s introductory comment before performing “Clonie” at a February 2008 TED Conference, where her audience was surely filled with people who put quite a lot of faith in science, does not actually tell us much about the song itself… but it does tell us something about Ms. McKay, who has always enjoyed putting provocative statements in unexpected contexts.

To be unfairly broad about it, her 2003 debut Get Away from Me was all about delivering heavy leftist satire via eclectic cabaret pop. And while it would be a rather cheap trick if the only kick in the music came from that contrast, the real thrill was in the mischief, glee, and cleverness with which McKay invested her tinkling piano melodies and warm show-tune vocals.

[“I guess you’re just my fatal attraction-y, you’re my…”]

Mon
Aug 22 2011 5:10pm

Planet of Sound: The Apples in Stereo, “Floating in Space”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature)

Planet of Sound: The Apples in Stereo, “Floating in Space”

You don’t always have to go for the masterpiece.

Not every album has to be an opus. Not every track has to command the undivided attention of the room the moment it bursts out of the speakers. There’s something to be said for the small-scale success, the perfect execution of something more subtle. That’s something indie-pop innovators The Apples in Stereo and frontman Robert Schneider have always understood, and knowledge they put to good use even in the middle of a sci-fi-themed, not-quite-concept album entitled Travellers in Space and Time.

[Ever want to go floating in space?]

Mon
Aug 8 2011 5:36pm

Planet of Sound: The Pogues, “Turkish Song of the Damned”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

Planet of Sound: The Pogues, “Turkish Song of the Damned”

Such mighty oaks from little acorns grow….

Shane MacGowan, founding singer for The Pogues, one of the most beloved Irish bands of the 80s, has said that “Turkish Song of the Damned” got its name and initial inspiration when he misheard a German fan’s question about another punk band of the era, asking if he liked “The Turkey Song” by The Damned.

But sometimes, such odd genesises geneses result in unanticipated brilliance; would anyone have expected a movie based on a theme-park ride to be as excellent as the original Pirates of the Caribbean?

[I promise, there’s a connection…]

Mon
Jul 25 2011 6:30pm

Planet of Sound: Tokyo Police Club, “Citizens of Tomorrow”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

Tokyo Police ClubMost of the songs thus far featured in Planet of Sound come from bands and singers with lengthy, well-respected discographies, which I’ve liked for a long time and am simply enjoying the chance to revisit in a new light and potentially introduce to a new audience. However “Citizens of Tomorrow,” a handclapping emo-pop elegy of robopocalypse, comes from Tokyo Police Club, an Ontario-based band whose members have all been alive for less time than Warren Zevon, Tom Waits, or James Taylor have played music.

This is a single song that caught my attention from a band I hadn’t previously heard anything else by, and it’s especially interesting both for the completeness with which it commits to the sci-fi dystopian narrative in the context of a mainstream-indie song, and for the utterly pessimistic attitude these young’uns  take, at least in the space of this one song, towards their own future.

[Read more...]

Mon
Jul 11 2011 4:33pm

Planet of Sound: James Taylor, “The Frozen Man”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

Last thing I remember is the freezing cold
Water reaching up just to swallow me whole
Ice in the rigging and the howling wind
Shock to my body as we tumbled in

James Taylor, the original JT, may not be most people’s idea of cool these days—but what’s cooler than being cool?

How about being frozen?

Inspired by the exhumation of the ice-preserved body of John Torrington, Taylor gave us the first person narrative of a 19th century sailor not merely exhumed, but revived, in “The Frozen Man,” off his 1991 album New Moon Shine. In other words, the man the New York Times referred to as the “foremost contemporary composer of what you might call American lullabies” here offers a gentle, folksy song about primitive accidental cryonics.

[Lord have mercy on the frozen man.]

Mon
Jun 20 2011 5:28pm

Planet of Sound: Tom Waits, “Black Wings”

Tom Waits(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

Tom Waits is one of music’s preeminent storytellers, and the stories he tells fit the voice he tells them in: whiskey-soaked, growling, broken-down, and sinister. Waits has been rasping out tales of the desperate and the damned since the early 70s, and as he’s aged, he’s done the opposite of mellow—he’s gotten even darker and more dramatic.

An admission: when I first heard Waits’ voice, in high school, I boggled that anyone could even listen to it, let alone love it. It seemed both abrasive and jokey; I thought he had to be trolling, seeing what sort of ridiculousness he could get away with passing off as “singing.” But over time, I’ve come around. For the right songs, that voice fits like nothing else.

“Black Wings,” the bleakly cinematic tale of a Stranger Come to Town, is one of the songs that voice is made for.

[“Well he once killed a man with a guitar string…”]

Mon
Jun 6 2011 6:02pm

Planet of Sound: Devin Davis, “Giant Spiders”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

Devin Davis moved to Chicago at the turn of the millennium, without any friends or musical connections in the city, and recorded his debut album over several years in a home studio, playing ten instruments and a giant gong along the way. He stuffed the album full to bursting with compact, propulsive guitar pop songs, wrote with a lyrical sensibility determined to find the humor in every heartbreak, and titled it, see above, Lonely People of the World, Unite!

Get it? Because if the lonely people of the world united, then….

[Yeah, you get it...]

Mon
May 23 2011 5:02pm

Planet of Sound: Mastodon, “The Last Baron”

Planet of Sound

(Planet of Sound is a weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

Something you may or may not know: there are a whole lot of metal bands that like a whole lot of fantasy. Horror, too, of course, right back to Metallica’s Lovecraft-inspired “The Thing That Should Not Be” and beyond, but not only death metal horror and gore. Quite often songs from major heavy metal bands involve fantastical narratives that, in a rock or pop song, would relegate the band to “geek” or novelty status.

One of the foremost modern metal bands (at least as far as those who cross over to other rock audiences) is Mastodon, and Mastodon’s most recent album, Crack the Skye, is a halfway-metaphorical conceptual project about astral projection, wormholes, and a journey through the spirit realm that takes a totally wrong turn into Tsarist Russia.

Um. Maybe I should let lyricist Brann Dailor give his own explanation?

[Read more…]

Mon
May 16 2011 5:34pm

Planet of Sound: Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London”

Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon

(Planet of Sound is a weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

The title of Warren Zevon’s song “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” was appropriated for a 1995 crime drama, but “Werewolves of London” is the one that really could have cashed in on cinematic treatment.

In his biggest hit, Zevon does for werewolves what Anne Rice did for vampires—except Zevon was writing in the 1970s. Brad Pitt’s a bit too shaved-chest smooth to star in this one. It’s more a Burt Reynolds role:

“I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s / His hair was perfect.”

[Read more...]

Mon
May 9 2011 5:59pm

Planet of Sound: Pixies, “The Happening”

The Pixies Bossanova

(With a hat tip to Frequency Rotation, Planet of Sound is a new weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

I can trace the inspiration for Planet of Sound, a new SFF music column on Tor.com, to one song, so why begin anywhere but at the beginning?

Pixies, the band, are indie-rock legends, cited as an influence by everyone from Nirvana on down, with a critical reputation about as solid in their field as, say, Isaac Asimov’s in the genre. However, frontman Frank Black had a bizarre attraction to the most hokey science fiction ideas—the kind more likely to appear in the National Enquirer than Analog. And somehow, what he does with them elevates both the music and the stories to something transcendently weird.

[Read more]

Wed
Mar 2 2011 6:32pm

Stephen King’s Next Book is a Time Travel Epic

New Stephen King novel 11-22-63

Today, Stephen King and his publishers announced that his next novel will be titled 11/22/63... and yes, that date does mean what you think it means. The book summary released on StephenKing.com begins as follows:

On November 22, 1963, three shots rang out in Dallas,
President Kennedy died, and the world changed.

If you had the chance to change history, would you?

Would the consequences be worth it?

[Read more]

Mon
Feb 14 2011 4:02pm

Foundational gamebook series Fighting Fantasy comes to Kindle

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain ebookFighting Fantasy, the series of single-player roleplaying gamebooks (think Choose Your Own Adventure with stats and dice) that began in 1982, has entered the e-book era, beginning last week with the Kindle release of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and continuing with a new book in the 60-book series to be released each month by Worldweaver Ltd.

A quick look back: Fighting Fantasy was one of the first, and probably the most popular, roleplaying gamebook series to appear in the 1980s. The tagline above the enthusiastically pulpy art on each installment promised a thrilling fantasy adventure in which YOU were the HERO! For a young, book-loving proto-nerd such as I, who had not yet so much as heard of Dungeons & Dragons but certainly got a kick out of the idea of grabbing an (imaginary) sword and slicing up (imaginary) baddies, the concept was electric. By the time I was browsing for fantasy gamebooks, there were RPGs available for the computer—but even then I remember feeling that the pictures authors painted with words could far outdo what a programmer might manage with 16 colors of pixels on a 640x480 display.

[Read on for more details, musings, and nostalgia]

Fri
Sep 17 2010 3:32pm

Beware of Zombies Bearing Metaphorical Significance

(or, Zombies! But Not White Zombie)

Several years ago, on the occasion of a particularly misguided review of Kelly Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” (“...and those zombies—are they supposed to be a metaphor?”), Scott Westerfeld had this to say about zombies, stories, and science fiction:

“Allow me to explain... Sure, zombies can ‘be a metaphor.’ They can represent the oppressed, as in Land of the Dead, or humanity’s feral nature, as in 28 Days Later. Or racial politics or fear of contagion or even the consumer unconscious (Night of the Living Dead, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead)... But really, zombies are not ’supposed to be metaphors.’ They’re supposed to be friggin’ zombies. They follow the Zombie Rules: they rise from death to eat the flesh of the living, they shuffle in slow pursuit (or should, anyway), and most important, they multiply exponentially. They bring civilization down, taking all but the most resourceful, lucky and well-armed among us, whom they save for last. They make us the hunted; all of us.

[Metaphors seem harmless until they eat your brain...]

Wed
Jun 9 2010 11:13am

Justin Cronin: The Passage Release Day, NYC

“It’s been a day,” were very nearly the first words out of Justin Cronin’s mouth Tuesday evening*, as he took to the podium at the Columbus Circle Borders for a reading, discussion, and signing of his newly released sci-fi/horror epic, The Passage. That day began with an appearance on Good Morning America (“I was on TV” he said, grinning), which was interrupted by no less a luminary than Stephen King, who called in to impart his blessing: “Your book is terrific, and I hope it sells about a million copies. You put the scare back in vampires, buddy!”

*They followed a gracious “thank you” to the Borders employee who introduced Cronin with a summation of all the fuss about the book, and who concluded with the sentiment that despite his excitement for the event, he kind of just wanted to go home and finish reading instead.

[More below. No spoilers greater than you’d get from the book’s flap copy.]

Thu
May 20 2010 11:23am

Nightmarish monstrosities, arena battles, spontaneous communal creativity

or, ZOOFIGHTS V: BRUTES FIGHTING BRUTES IN A WORLD THAT COULDN’T GET ANY WORSE

Croctopus! vs. Pride & Prejudice

“Zoofights is an ongoing mission to determine the true king of beasts through increasingly abstract and horrific arena battles.”

In real life, forcing animals to fight each other for the amusement of a cheering crowd is unethical, cruel, illegal, and a bad idea all around—just ask Michael Vick.

[On the internet, however...]