Category Archives: indie

Review: 100 Episodes of Night Vale

Welcome to NightvaleFor four years now a surreal horror story has been broadcast over the tangled nodes of the internet. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale has appeared in twice-monthly installments since June 2012, making it one of the longest running fictional podcasts around. The 100th episode has gone live, which is a good excuse to talk about it. This show has everything: Battles, intrigue, revenge, subterfuge, love, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence, and interns.

The genius of the show is its format. It’s presented as a radio show, which makes Welcome to Night Vale one of those rarest of fictions – a second-person format that works. As a listener, you are presumably within the isolated town of Night Vale, and affected by and involved with everything that happens there. The format lets the story wander between third-person reports of events in the town and first-person commentary by Cecil, the presenter. Although eminently likable, he is an untrustworthy narrator, projecting his emotions and judgments onto whatever he is reporting. It’s fun hearing the monologues of other people in the town and getting completely different perspectives — it’s a good storytelling technique to have people present their own versions of the truth instead of a monolithic narrative agreed to by everybody. The format also allows for repeating segments, such as the existential nihilism of Traffic and the musical tones of the Weather.

Night Vale is a Poeish and Lovecraftian place, ruled by hooded figures, terrorised by glow clouds, invaded by cities hidden under the bowling alley, and generally harassed by secret government agencies. Anything that happens in an episode, no matter how throw-away a punch-line or bizarre a revelation, is maintained throughout the show. The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives In Your Home was introduced as a creepy concept, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon, was a metaphor taken literally, but they ran against each other in the Mayoral election. This is what allows the show to work – from the viciousness of librarians to the completely forbidden nature of the dog park, everything is retained and becomes a normal part of the Night Vale world.

Cecil is the announcer of Night Vale Community Radio, and it is his dulcet tones which make up the majority of the podcast. The fact that his voice is so nice to listen to is a main element of the success of the podcast. The normal manner of reporting the weird phenomenon is a sublime juxtaposition, used to great effect. He also adds the main personal element to the show, particularly through his relationship with his boyfriend, delightfully revealed in wistful digressions, interviews and phone messages. A good argument could be made that the show is love story.

Like any great fiction, a lot of meaning can be read into Welcome to Night Vale. The show satirises pretty much everything, starting with the terrifying nature of our bosses. For politics there is a huge race for mayor, complete with dirty tactics and outright threats, but the votes are ignored and the winner (spoiler alert) is ultimately decided by pulses coming from Hidden Gorge. There are arbitrary rules of society that must be followed, places that are off-limits for no explained reason, constant manipulation by secretive organisations, and the peppy evil of conglomerating corporations.

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale has a peculiar aesthetic that will enchant fans of folk horror and bizarre circuses … but beyond that it is a marvelous story, that is well-constructed and superbly performed. Start from the beginning and enjoy the show. The podcast is free, with the writers and crew earning a living by touring live shows, selling related merchandise, and soliciting donations. There’s also a book out.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Radio Monash

Review: Blink

Blink is a dimension-hopping secret agent story. Agent Smith works for the Utility Company, a top-secret US agency that deals with the sort of issues that can’t get reported in more pedestrian secret agencies…you the know the drill. His latest case is the result of one scientist’s successful effort to breach the barriers within the multiverse and allow travel between two parallel realities. One of them starts messing with the other, and the inevitable complicated conflict arises.

This is a fun read. There’s plenty of action and twists and turns to the plot to keep it fresh. It clocks in at 107,000 words so the length is good value – there’s even two interludes, allowing you to relieve yourself the restroom or buy more popcorn if you wish. The main difference between the realities is reasonably well thought out and surprisingly realistic, although the tone may cause non-Americans to roll their eyes.

On the downside, the novel could have done with a good line editor. Also, while complicated plot twists are an inherent part of this genre, some of the twists in this book – especially towards the end – don’t bear scrutiny, to the point where it can break the suspension of disbelief. If you’re willing to dive back into a fun story after a WTF moment – for example, if you like James Bond movies – you should give this book a try.

Review: Miniature Symphonies

Miniature Symphonies is a book of song-inspired vignettes, ranging from flash fiction to short essays to emotional soliloquies to the occasional rant. The songs range from heavy metal to jazz to rock to rap, an eclectic mix that means you’re bound to recognise and enjoy at least some of the songs, and be left scratching your head over what some song you’ve never heard of must be like to inspire the piece that was written. The same treatment is applied to books about music and musicians, and films about music and musicians. According to the author: “This book is to offer up the idea of inspiration and how close writing, music and film can be.”

F.J. Gouldner has a distinctive voice, and a worldview that is chock full of freedom and individuality and anti-government libertarian anarchism. This comes through in his interpretations of the songs that inspire him, screeds of individualism and fighting-the-power. There’s also a healthy dose of a desire to protect close family and friends. Then there are pieces like Carny, which look at how a life can go very wrong. There is a (seemingly) autobiographical bit at the end which gets downright disturbing, and is a brilliant piece of writing if it’s not completely true.

If you’re into music, looking for short pieces and celebrate freedom, try this book. FJ Gouldner blogs here.

Why Be Vain When You Can Be Yourself?

Ah, publishing… guaranteed to start more arguments about writing than anything except the literature vs genre debate. Barnes and Noble has a piece about the worst book of all time, one that was deliberately written to be bad by a coalition of SF/F writers. The aim was to expose PublishAmerica as a vanity publisher – the main issue being that PublishAmerica insisted it was not a vanity press, but a traditional publisher. Well, Atlanta Nights effectively exposed that to be a lie by being truly terrible (B&N has some examples) and being accepted for publication anyway.

If you don’t know the differences between different publishing methods Taneeka Bourgeois-daSilva has a good, if somewhat dated, explanation of the differences. It’s dated because it doesn’t address the notion of e-books, so the self-publishing section talks about print-on-demand and off-set printing, when I think the vast majority of self-publishers these days concentrate on the digital market, and only print a book if it becomes popular or to demonstrate the savings the e-book offers. She also failed to mention the difference in royalties, which is pretty significant.

Vanity publishing may have had a use in the past, but not any more. There’s a hell of a lot of scamming that goes on in the industry, including over-charging authors, selling the useless additional things or charging for things that should be included, and sometimes even claiming copyright over the work. If you can self-publish an e-book at no cost except that of creating the document, and if you can use a print-on-delivery service and only print and pay for a book once it has been sold, why would you spend many thousands of dollars on a vanity publisher? I can’t imagine that particular part of the industry will remain in business much longer.

Review: Homeworld Blues

This debut novel by A.J. McMillan is a cracking good read. The writing style is fast and fresh, the characters mostly well-written and the world-building brilliant. It’s a good length, too.

Homeworld Blues is in the science fantasy genre, which combines technology and magic-as-science-we-don’t-understand…like the Force in Star Wars. In this universe, Earth as we know it shares an interdimensional axis with two other planets in two other worlds (or dimensions, or branes, or planes, or however you want to think of them) and certain people know how to leap between the worlds, which ability they use to transport refugees from Earth to the paradisiacal Breorl, via the hellscape of Darsa. All the locations are richly detailed and realistic, and I often paused my reading and spent a while imagining what I would do in each place. The books starts off in a claustrophobic colony ship, jumps quickly to a desert world, then to a magic jungle tree with dizzying rapidity that often made me wish McMillan had spent longer in each setting.

Still, this is the first book in a trilogy (the second one is planned for 2015 some time) so I’m sure the plot will return to each place over the course of the series. The characters are fleshed out and likeable – and you’ll find some annoying and some pretentious and so on based on your personal preferences, which is a sign of diverse characters. McMillan follows the lead of George R.R. Martin in being perfectly willing to kill off characters that the reader has become attached to and which appeared as if they would have a major role to play throughout the series.

Apart from a few minor scientific errors, the few things which jolted me while reading concerned a couple of characters. Zepp is a great character, but a touch inconsistent. At one point he looks at a woman “in a whole new light” because she was wearing a sexy and revealing dress; but he had the hots for her the moment he met her and his increase only increased throughout the novel, so I’m not sure what the “whole new light” would have been. At another point he admitted to himself that he deserved to be distrusted because of his actions, but he’d never been anything except completely open and honest throughout the novel – to the point where some other characters chastised him on his openness. At one point I got the impression that Zepp had originally been two characters that had been merged in editing.

Trayia, the protagonist, is awesome. She’s a strong character – not just a strong personality, but a character with good depth and believable motives and beliefs. Still, she gets accepted as the leader/saviour pretty easily by everyone else despite her extreme inexperience and lack of broader knowledge. One guy got told by the Goddess that she’s “the one”, so that’s fair enough, but a lot of other experienced and highly capable people give her undying loyalty based on not very much. I’m not saying she doesn’t deserve it, just that her actions in this book didn’t really warrant it.

All in all, they’re minor issues in a well-written book, and I think we can expect McMillan to get better as the series progresses. So if this is a genre you like, buy the book.

A.J. McMillan’s blog is here.

Cross-Selling Yourself

In relation to what I posted yesterday about the removal of gatekeepers meaning that successful Indie creators will be those who are best at promoting themselves, I saw some advice from Raj Kotecha, the DJ. (The link is to a video).

Here's how I use pics of food on Facebook to make actual money.

Can you cross sell your own skill sets? The answer is Yes. Here's how I do it. Thanks to host Mikey Bharj Comedian.Please share if you know someone who could use this tip.

Basically, the idea is that by posting across various social media on things you like doing or are passionate about people who like those things will pay attention to you, and that puts your name in their mind. So when they look at posts on cooking by Raj the DJ, when they need a DJ they’ll think of Raj. So I thought of how I could apply that.

I did a video (below), but I’m a writer so I’ll write out my ideas as well, for those who prefer reading to listening.

Aside from writing, I also garden – I enjoy gardening. So, for example, on a recent afternoon I was looking after the kids, and I saw the Frangipani my wife is growing in a pot. A year ago she took a bit of Frangipani stem and stuck it in there, and the great thing about Frangipanis is that they’ll grow from a stem like that. And it was growing well, but I noticed that there were weeds growing in the pot, grass and some other plant, and they were crowding out the light from the Frangipani and sucking up all its nutrients. So I thought I’d pull them out, and I pulled out the one plant and threw it off the roof, but when I tried to pull out the grass I saw its roots were tangled around the roots of the Frangipani, and if I pulled out the grass I’d also pull out the Frangipani.
So instead I got some big shears to cut the grass, so that at least it would take less light and less nutrients. And I put the shears beside the Frangipani stem, and around the grass, so I could cut the grass without cutting my wife’s plant. And I went SNIP and cut the Frangipani clean off at the base. It just fell over, and the white bloodlike sap oozed out… I don’t even know how it was physically possible, because the blades were at the side of the plant, so maybe when I opened them the back of the blade sliced through the Frangipani, on the backswing as it were. But I stuck the bit I cut off in in a pot, and hopefully it will grow, and then my wife will have two Frangipanis.

So, that’s another string I have to my bow that I can use to promote myself. Gardening.

This is the Most Terrifying Thing I’ve Ever Read*

Indie publishing is great! Because it cuts out the middle man! No more gatekeepers!

This is all true, but there is potentially a pretty unpleasant downside, as detailed in the New Republic.

In a world without major labels, then, the most profitable artists are likely to be those whose main genius is for self-promotion. Jack & Jack use their artistic freedom to be more mainstream than the mainstream, turning R&B and hip-hop into bland, hearty cheer, suitable for consumption by middle-American tweens of all ages. Performers who are more focused on music, or whose music and image doesn’t so thoroughly occupy the middle of the road, are unlikely to duplicate Jack & Jack’s commercial success…

if Jack & Jack’s success is any indication, independent superstars need to be more flavorless, and more single-mindedly entrepreneurial, than even their major-label counterparts.

Of course, most indies are happy to make a living rather than achieve megastar super-success, but the point remains the same – writing well can be secondary to marketing well in terms of making a living from your art.

*That was hyperbole, but not by much.

A shadow on the future of our kids

Will the Future Be Post-Scarcity because Labour will be Underpaid?

One of the things that makes me nervous about the future of my children is the gradual disappearance of opportunities to earn a living. There are a few aspects to this, including the automation of many jobs and processes – and I know that “other jobs will be created”, but never at the level that jobs were lost…and in case you haven’t noticed, the global population is growing pretty rapidly. Here is an example of job-killing automation: Self-driving Trucks (and yes, if you go through the comments and come across Peculiarist, that’s me).

However, this post is inspired by this post: Adapt to What? – An Open Letter, by David Newhoff, about the devaluation not just of artistic work, but all work in general. He makes some very good points in a very clear way.

there’s like 80 million of you millennials in America, and the digital-age market only has room for one or two (usually one) major player in any category at a time. So, in terms of realistic ratios, even if a million of you might invent killer apps or become YouTube stars, neither of those enterprises will create and sustain real jobs for the the other 79 million.

I’ve seen this point before, and it’s a good counter to the “progress creates jobs” mantra that is mindlessly repeated. Industries in the past are often held up as shining examples of job creation, but they don’t correlate to modern technological advances. In the Self-Driving Trucks post above, someone argued in the comments that “people were worried about telegraph operators losing their jobs, but the invention of the telephone created a lot more” – which was irrelevant to the discussion, because having a telephone in every house was a completely new service greatly enhancing communication, whereas self-driving trucks are not a new service and won’t result in extra freight being trafficked. Even new services aren’t creating jobs – most of the tech startups that are being sold or floated for billions of dollars have employee numbers in dozens, so while they’re making a few people very wealthy they are not creating the jobs that, say, Ford did when he started mass-producing automobiles. In the past, one person with a good idea would create jobs for hundreds of thousands of others, but nowadays they simply don’t.

read between the lines in any number of trends and we see a hyper-efficient, data-centric view of the world, of culture, and of market value that appears to be fueling the growth of monopsonies empowered to dictate terms to every kind of worker from book authors to carpenters to truck drivers. And it occurs to me that for all its fluffy futility, OWS demonstrated that many of you were on the right track. You should be pissed off at the 1% and angry as hell at Wall Street. But I’m sorry to say that the business models of the digital age are not the antidote to Wall Street; they are its worst intentions on speed…major business owners in many sectors seem to be learning from these tech-based models how to take advantage of your talent, your time, and your costly educations for pennies on the dollar. They know the more that labor is devalued across multiple sectors and the more desperate your circumstances become, the more bargaining power they have.

If the above quote doesn’t make any sense to you (maybe because you’ve been in a steady job for 30 years, or maybe you’ve just gotten lucky) go and read the full article, it’s definitely worth it. It’s true that Amazon has created a way for independent authors to sell to a wide marketplace, and I’m grateful for it, but let’s never forget that the entity which profits the most from Amazon’s business model is Amazon. At the moment its goals often align with those of authors and readers, but if its (meager) competition disappears it’s likely to start getting aggressively awful. They’ve already done some things like this, such as the pay-per-pageview move recently introduced (I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but it’s a good example of them dictating to the market). That’s why I think giving Amazon exclusivity is a bad idea in the long run, because it’s better for authors if there are multiple markets for their books. However, as long as Amazon’s interests align with those of authors, everybody wins.

I picked Amazon because I’m an author, but it applies to everything – someone might make a few extra dollars driving for Uber, but it’s the creators of Uber who are pulling in the billions. So everything might be on demand and appear cheap, but that’s because people are getting underpaid for the services they provide. Buying local is a good start, but as Newhoff points out piracy also directly funnels money away from content creators and to major corporations. It may seem like there’s no way to derail this train of wealth inequity and hard-scrabble living the future promises, but there is: The consumer has the power here. When you buy something, you are tacitly supporting someone in the most effective way possible, with cash. To quote Newhoff again: “It may not occur to you that it is contradictory to hate on Wall Street and then order up an Uber car or pirate a movie or a book, and the VCs whose names you don’t know are counting on you not to notice.” You don’t have to change all your consumption habits, but just changing a bit will make a huge difference.

(Seriously, read his open letter).

Where’d My Nerd Culture Go? Oh, There It Is.

When I was a kid I loved comics – I started off loving Archie, moved on to loving Spider-man and the Silver Surfer, and finally migrated to Hellblazer and Sandman. These were my escapist fantasies: Archie was full of dorky characters who nevertheless had friends and – quite often – girlfriends; Spider-man was the ultimate nerd who beat up the bullies and got the cute girl, while the Silver Surfer was not trapped on this “planet full of madmen” but could roam the galaxies on a cool surfboard; Hellblazer and Sandman were more complex stories, but still offered the dream that life wasn’t as fixed and staid as everyone kept insisting it was. Of course the characters were powerful and beautiful and had proportions that never exist in the human species, but no-one really expected an accurate anatomy lesson*.

My sister and mother had different escapist stories, Mills & Boon and Harlequin books where men were always impossibly handsome and brooding and just couldn’t resist the protagonist, who was normally strong and independent yet desperate to be swept off her feet. Or there were other books, Pride and Prejudice clones, where the normal-looking woman attracted the attention of the most sought-after rich, handsome and unattainable man, aloof and yet unable to maintain his display of disinterest around the protagonist.

Some stories we shared, such as Piers Anthony novels, TV sitcoms and the like.

groinvillainThat was when I was a kid. Now, superheroes are mainstream culture. They’re no longer nerd escapism, they’re intended to be entertainment for everyone, and as such they have to appeal to everyone, which means jettisoning a lot of the wish-fulfillment parts that attracted nerds in the first place. This has happened with a lot of “nerd culture” that I enjoyed growing up, to the point where there isn’t really a nerd culture anymore. This means a lot of people feel not only that their escapism stories are under attack, but that they personally are under attack. If the situation was reversed, and millions of men had started reading Mills & Boon novels, the same type of outcry would be underway but with different segments of the population.

So, the traditional nerd culture that I grew up with has been co-opted, has sold out to the lowest common denominator. And who is to blame for this? I’ll give you a hint: Nerds. I’m not talking about growing up and getting good jobs and suddenly having a lot of purchasing power and so on; I’m talking about the way we took it all too seriously.

Nerds forgot that what they were enjoying was escapism, and started treating it as high art. Batman was an exploration of the psychological damage trauma could cause, Superman a biting commentary on the burdens placed on those with the power to save the world, X-Men an intelligent discourse on the problems faced by the different and dispossessed… We punished cookie-cutter scripts and tepid art and lauded Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Todd McFarlane and Sam Keith, which would have been all to the good if we didn’t also loudly and persistently try to convince everyone else that comics were a valid form of literature that everyone should read, lending copies of Alan Moore and Will Eisner willy-nilly, pushing books by Frank Miller and Jeff Smith onto all and sundry. Of course they all liked it, of course comics became popular, and of course the big entertainment industry began making blockbuster movies about them (something everyone had clamoured for) and of course those movies were targeted to a general audience. What did we expect?

batkissThis will never return to the escapist fantasies of old, and we wouldn’t be happy if it did. Underlying a lot of the you’re-not-a-real-nerd rage is the fear that once “nerd culture” falls out of fashion we will again be mocked for liking it, and further mocked for trying but failing to be cool by liking something that’s gone out of fashion. We can form enclaves where we can enjoy superheroes in our traditional nerdy ways, but whenever they get good they’ll just be invaded again. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for the mainstream superhero appreciation – the escapist comics would work better as b-grade movie schlock rather than Hollywood blockbusters anyway, and there’s a lot of great shows on TV plus the cosplayers at cons are really cool.

Nothing is meant to last forever, and I think this is hopefully also true of the need for escapist fantasies. It’s time we remembered that nerd culture, like any subculture, is just that: A subculture. It’s not mainstream, it’s on the fringes, it’s small groups of people enjoying what they like together rather than desperately flooding friends and family (and social media) with it in the hopes that people will belatedly realise how cool it is, and therefore how cool we are for doing it.

So, I think we should just enjoy the new versions for what they are, ret-cons and inclusiveness and all, and focus on following our passions irrespective of what society is up to – just like we’ve always done. It’s back to the indies for us, the self-published section on Amazon**, the band putting up their songs on YouTube, the pub or cafe meetings to argue about the finer points of radiation protection in space. Stop bitching about people not really understanding what we like, and just concentrate on liking it. The Mills & Boon crowd have done it – just look at the romance section in online bookstores, there’s everything from monster porn to romances that cleverly satirise international politics being published. As far as I can tell they’re just ignoring the bitching about Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey and getting on with enjoying what they like.

* That being said, comic book art did later morph into the realm of ridiculousness.
** I know, this could seem self-serving, but I’ve always waded in the indie section.

When nerds fight amongst themselves.

When nerds fight amongst themselves.