Really Denmark?

You see a headline about a blasphemy prosecution and assume it’s about some Third World dictatorship or Alt-Right fever dream. But dateline Copenhagen? Really? Per The Volokh Conspiracy (aggregating other sources):

A Danish prosecutor says a 42-year-old man in northern Denmark has been charged with blasphemy for allegedly burning the Quran and posting a video of it on Facebook.

Jan Reckendorff says it was the first time since 1971 that a person was charged for ‘publicly mocking a religious community’s religious doctrines or worship,’ adding it is punishable by imprisonment for up to four months or fine.

No prosecutions in my lifetime? Either the Danes are very pious or this is the kind of stifling speech law that gets used so rarely that it’s impossible to say what’s allowed and what isn’t. The other few cases that have been prosecuted suggest just that:

This marks the fourth time in history anyone has been prosecuted under Denmark’s blasphemy clause: four people were sentenced for posting posters mocking Jewish teachings in 1938; two people were fined for carrying out a fake baptism at a masked ball in 1946; and two programme leaders at Danish Radio were exonerated in 1971 for airing a song mocking Christianity.

I mean, come on, Denmark. You’re one of those magical European places that liberals like me point to and say, “see, if they can do all these humane things, why can’t we?” Then you go and do something like this. I guess nobody’s perfect.

But, still, Denmark – really?!?

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A New Layer of Beta Readers

Here’s a dirty little secret – almost no writers sit down at the keyboard (or with pen in hand, if you’re a retro kind of person), open the channels to the muse, and let flow a stream of writing that becomes the final product. Between blank page and finished product there are a lot of stages, some of which include input from other people. Generally we call those people beta readers. They read a work in progress and provide feedback. What the writer does with that feedback varies from person to person and suggestion to suggestion.

While most beta readers are just that – readers – sometimes you might need a beta with a particular background to provide feedback on a story. Writing a sci-fi story set largely in a genetics lab? You might want to have someone who’s worked in one read through it, just to make sure the little detail ring true. Writing a fantasy story that involves a lot of swordplay? Might want to have someone who knows about such things give it a read to make sure characters aren’t treating broadswords like fencing foils (or vice versa).

So it’s not a surprise that, as writers start to concern themselves more with diversity in their work, that a new crop of betas is emerging – sensitivity readers:

These advising angels—part fact-checkers, part cultural ambassadors—are new additions to the book publishing ecosystem. Either hired by individual authors or by publishing houses, sensitivity readers are members of a minority group tasked specifically with examining manuscripts for hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group.

 

On the site Writing in the Margins, which launched in 2012, the author Justina Ireland articulates the goal of this new fleet of experts: to point out the “internalized bias and negatively charged language” that can arise when writers create ‘outside of [their] experiences.’

While critics may bemoan such a development as just another example of political correctness run amok, the Slate article points out that it’s really down to the oldest of Western motivations – the profit motive. Younger readers, in particular, desire more diversity in their fiction, so this is a way to provide a product they want to read.

Besides, the ultimate issue with any beta reader’s feedback isn’t the feedback itself, it’s what the author does with it. For example, one author in the article talks about how she changed some bits involving a black college student because the feedback from beta readers was that students at historically black colleges wouldn’t speak the way she had the character speaking. It’s not a matter of offense, it’s a matter of trying to portray something unfamiliar as accurately as possible.

Having said that, the very subjectivity of the undertaking makes it kind of hit or miss. That’s obvious from a distinction the author of the Slate story makes:

Some sensitivity readers draw distinctions between offensive descriptions and offensive descriptions that appear to enjoy the blessing of the author. If Lolita had been written from Dolores’ point of view, Ireland said, “it might be useful to have an advocate of children’s rights, a childhood sexual assault survivor, or a psychologist read the manuscript and give critique”; but since it was told from the perspective of a pedophile—not regarded as a marginalized group—that wasn’t necessary. Still, it’s a messy project for one reader to suss out authorial intent. While sensitivity remains a positive value in most literature, and perhaps one of the greatest priorities for young adult literature, enforcing it at the expense of other merits, including invention, humor, or shock, might come at a cost. Cultural sensitivities fluctuate over time. What will the readers of the future make of ours?

Buried in that interesting observation is the whopper that pedophiles are “not regarded as a marginalized group.” In an already marginalized bunch (criminals), pedophiles are at the bottom of the heap. Consider the ongoing registration requirements for people convicted of such offenses, the closest thing the 21st Century has to a scarlet letter. That all may be for the good (a discussion for a different time), but to say they’re not regarded as marginalized is so erroneous that it questions the entire endeavor.

Which is a shame, because I think the development of sensitivity readers is, in general, a good thing. At the very least, it’s a tool for writers who want to do their utmost to tell a story that doesn’t offend anyone. More likely, it lets writers who aren’t part of a particular socio-economic, ethic, or racial group bring more diversity to their work by providing valuable feedback about characters they might otherwise not be familiar with. Like anything else, a sensitivity beta reader is a tool for a writer to use. Whether it’s a tool wisely used is, in the end, up to the writer.

Water Road Wednesday – It Returns!

Hey, everybody – remember these? I know it’s been a while, but I am beyond pleased to announce that the final chapter of The Water Road trilogy, The Bay of Sins, is complete! It will be released on March 22, 2017.

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What’s happening as the story roars to a conclusion? Glad you asked:

The war is over, but nothing is settled.

On the Neldathi side of the Water Road the clans are slowly pulling apart following a sudden murder. Hirrek is tasked with getting to the bottom of a mystery: was this killing the random act of a violent, unstable man? Or was it something more sinister, a hint of what the Neldathi thought they’d defeated during the war? The unity won in blood may be slipping away.

In the rebuilding city of Innisport, life is returning to something like normal. That’s largely due to Mida, given the task of rebuilding the city by Antrey Ranbren herself. After Mida hands power over to the Guild of Politicians, she finds herself on trial for her life, charged with treason and being a collaborator. Along the way she meets someone, a curious remnant of the war, who makes her rethink the way she sees those that destroyed her city.

In the meantime, Antrey returns from exile, escaping to the wilderness of Telebria. She gains new allies, including Rurek, and a new foe, the Sentinel Faerl. He’s best known among the other Sentinels as the man who let Antrey slip away once before, getting all his men killed in the process. Now he has a chance for redemption and revenge. But Antrey is willing to do anything to ensure that her legacy does not slip away.

The chase is on, as the saga of The Water Road barrels toward its explosive conclusion.

I’ll have more from The Bay of Sins in the next few weeks, all leading up to the big launch event on March 22.

Moore Hollow Is Free – Three Days Only!

For the first time, and possibly the last, my debut novel, Moore Hollow is absolutely free at Amazon, today through Wednesday.

Moore Hollow is about a guy, Ben Potter, whose life is a shambles. As a journalist he’s hit rock bottom, writing dreck about monsters and ghouls to make ends meet after a big story blew up in his face. As a son he’s a disappointment, unwilling to follow his father, grandfather, and great grandfather into the family business. As a father, he’s mostly just not there.

Now a new assignment could change all that. All he has to do is go from London to the hills of West Virginia to investigate the strangest of stories his great grandfather told. Did a sleazy politician really raise the dead to try and win an election? And if he did, what happened to the zombies? Could they still exist? Ben needs to find out, to solve the mystery and find a way to get his life back on track.

But once he finds the answer, Ben has to face a whole new batch of problems. Does he use what he learns to put his life back on track? Or is he compelled to do the right thing, even if it leaves his life a mess?

The hardest part of a mystery is deciding what to do once you’ve solved it.

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Get your free copy here before time runs out!

Free Stuff – Not Just Mine!

This weekend (through Sunday) myself and several other writers are giving away free stories and books!

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As you can see here, there’s a pretty wide array of genres and styles, so be sure a check to find something that appeals to you.

My contribution is “The Destiny Engine,” my steampunk take on a Brothers Grimm tale.

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All you need to do is click here, join my mailing list, and I’ll send you a copy in whatever format you want (within reason – I’m scrawling it out on parchment!)

Author Interview – Carter Taylor Seaton

Joining me this month is another local author, Carter Taylor Seaton. Carter has written a little bit of everything, with her latest release being a biography of a recently departed West Virginia political stalwart.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

Hey there, I’m Carter Taylor Seaton, a gal born and bred in Huntington, West Virginia, as we like to say. After raising a family, I spent about ten years in Georgia before returning to Huntington be sure my grandchildren knew their Nana. I’ve written novels, essays, magazine articles, a non-fiction book, and a biography.

As a Huntington native who left the area then came back, how does that experience effect your writing (fiction, in particular)?

My ten years in Georgia specifically informed my second novel, amo, amas, amat…an unconventional love story. While I lived there many of my close friends were gay, but when I came back to West Virginia I was shocked to learn that folks here, in the main, still were quite homophobic. In general, I think most novelists will admit that their lives always creep into their work, whether or not it’s intentional. I certainly see that in my writing.

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Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My latest project is a biography of the late long-term congressman, educator, presidential advisor, and WV secretary of state, Ken Hechler. West Virginia University Press is releasing The Rebel in the Red Jeep in May.

Hechler’s been a presence in West Virginia for as long as I can remember – what’s something you learned about his life that you didn’t know before he asked you to write his biography?

Actually, I knew very little about him other than the fact that he’d held public office for so many years, so almost everything I learned through my research and during our time together was new to me. Yet, for someone whose life revolved around serious issues, I was surprised to learn he loved to sing. Although he didn’t have a very good voice, that fact didn’t stop him.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I prefer fiction, but the non-fiction book, Hippie Homesteaders, was a project dear to my heart because I knew most of those transplanted artisans and musicians and realized no one had ever told their compelling stories. Ken Hechler actually approached me to write his biography. How could I say no to a living legend?

Why do you prefer fiction and are you hungering to get back to it after a couple of non-fiction books?

In a sense fiction is easier, which makes it more fun. Of course if you’d asked me that before I spent four years researching the biography on Hechler, I might have answered differently. I do enjoy the research non-fiction requires, but the footnoting and indexing are tedious to say the least. With fiction, there’s also research, but there’s no need to document it.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

My physical process depends on what I’m writing. If it’s fiction, it first involves a legal pad and a #2 pencil, then I enter it in the computer for edits and tweaks. If it is non-fiction, I start on the computer because all my research is there.

As a former English major, I’m also an outliner. Not one that’s set in stone, but regardless of the genre, I have to know where it is going. So I’m a ‘plotter,’ not a ‘pantser’ (one who writes by the seat of their pants.) The result of too many term papers, I expect.

I think I’m a bit compulsive about having one chapter as tight as possible before moving on. That means I don’t write an entire draft before I revise. I revise as I go. Works for me, but might not for others.

I proof by reading from the back to the front so I don’t get caught up in the story or the sentence structure. Here I’m looking for typos and omissions, not revision opportunities.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

I very much liked Cassie, the next-door neighbor of the protagonist in amo, amas, amat…an unconventional love story. It’s set in the 80s just as the AIDS crisis is beginning. She’s a lesbian yet, unlike most homosexuals at that time, she never bothers to hide it. She becomes the catalyst for the protagonist’s moral awakening. I’m currently in love with AJ, the headstrong, potty-mouthed gal in the novel in progress.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

Timothy Leary.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

I’m not suggesting writers avoid it, but deciding to self-publish requires a level of marketing that is hard for someone who doesn’t know how to do it well. It takes a tremendous amount of time that could otherwise be devoted to more writing. I did it once, but as a career marketing professional in my former life, I was comfortable with taking on the marketing tasks.

How does the “after publication” period – marketing  and such – differ between self-publishing and trade publishing?

It differs greatly. When you self-publish, there’s no one else to support the marketing efforts. Publishers do a great behind-the-scenes job of getting your book into the hands of distributors and stores, in front of reviewers, and entered into contests. Some of that, particularly the need for reviews and contest entries is much more difficult for the author than it is for the publisher. That being said, you still have to put yourself out there doing lectures, book signings, or appearances regardless of how the book is published. Publishers may book some of those gigs for you, but in reality you still must do lots of that yourself. And be willing to go where your publisher sends you.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

It wouldn’t change it much. I might buy a new laptop so I can work in places other than my “chick cave.”

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I love the way he tells the story from two POVs and how they finally intersect.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

I’m already working on a multi-generational novel.

Tell us a little about your multi-generational novel (if you don’t mind).          

Actually, a house that has been in a family for nine generations is as much the protagonist as the young woman who learns she’s inherited it. She has the option of accepting the estate or not, but the stories within the story are told her to woo her into leaving her much loved but hard scrabble life in West Virginia to assume the role of mistress of this Virginia manor. Will she or won’t she?

Carter on Social Media

http://www.carterseaton.com

Three (Very) Short Stories for Valentine’s Day

Last year Apex magazine announced that they were reviving their flash fiction contest. Each contest is set up around a particular holiday and for this one the holiday was Valentine’s Day. Each person could enter up to three stories, each no more than 250 words each. Since I’m not one of the winners (congrats to those who did – you can read their stories in February issue of Apex), I thought I’d share my stories here.

 Since I had three stories to play with, I decided to use them to deal with the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship. It’s not the same relationship, mind up – these stories are all set in different universes and involve different characters. I think they get at some universal ideas, however, so maybe they have more in common than I originally intended.

 Anyway, enough of my yakkin’ – enjoy!

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The Spoils

“Is this necessary?” Elvin said.

“He could give in,” said Ilori, one eyebrow raised.

“She could,” Danforth said. Even sixty feet away he could seeIlori was striking. Twilight deepened her mocha skin and added definition to streaks of silver in her short black hair.

“Over this?” Elvin held up the Tyrolian orb.

Danforth nodded. But it was about so much more.

“Very well.” Elvin put the orb down. “Whoever brings it to hand wins.”

They nodded.

Danforth said the incantation quietly – crisp and sharp, honed from years of formal training. The orb began to roll toward him. He was a pillar of stone.

Ilori was anything but. Her home-taught hedge magic, learned from mother and grandmother, was loud, with complex hand movements. It was like she was possessed. The orb reversed course.

Danforth started another incantation, tapping into deeper, darker magic, but quickly stopped. Losing might be winning this time. There would be another Tyrolian orb, someday, but there was only one Ilori. He let go.

The orb sped up, flying to Ilori. She caught it in one hand like the laziest fly ball then cried out in victory.

“She’s the winner,” Elvin said, walking over to him.

“I know.” Danforth was unable to contain a silly grin

Ilori skipped over with a wide smile. “Told you.”

“Fair is fair.”

“Hope you brought your wallet,” she said, bounding off. “I’m not a cheap date!”

Danforth turned to Elvin. “Loser buys dinner.” He winked and walked after her.


The Thrill Is Gone

The apothecary shook his head. “Does your wife not already love you and you her?”

Eric the Simple sighed and leaned against the counter. “Love, yes. Alas, passion is something altogether different. Have you nothing that might help?”

The apothecary looked under the counter. “Perhaps, if you’re certain there is no other option.”

“I’ve tried everything,” Eric said in exasperation. “The woman’s desires are a mystery.”

“Aren’t they all.” The apothecary took out a piece of parchment, grabbed his quill, and began scratching something out. Finished, he carefully slid the paper across the counter.

Eric mouthed the words as he slowly scanned the page. “Spine of newt? Spleen of badger?” He looked up. “And this looks like Latin. A spell?”

The apothecary nodded.

“A love spell?” Eric waggled his eyebrows and grinned.

The apothecary shook his head. “Summoning spell, to bring forth a stink demon.”

“A what?” Eric threw the parchment down.

“It’s a minor inconvenience – smelly, ugly, and sinister looking, but actually harmless. Your wife will take a fright, you shall vanquish the foul beast, and she shall be in your arms.”

Eric stepped closer to the counter. “This is the best you can do?”

The apothecary closed his eyes and rubbed the side of his nose. “There is one other option.”

“Yes?”

“You could sit down with your wife and talk about this, find out how she feels.”

Eric paused for just a moment. “Stink demon it is then.”

The apothecary nodded. “I’ll get the badger spleen.”


The Last Night

The chalice shook in Sir Kavus’s hand as he slipped into her apartment. After months of sneaking around his nerves were still on edge.

What he shared with Lady Edana had been wild, hot, and passionate in ways he hadn’t thought possible. But it wasn’t true love, of the kindhe shared with Wyon, who tended his wounds and gave him sons and daughters.Wyon was home.

After one last night of pleasure,Edana would drink the potion mixed with the wine and all would be well. She wouldn’t even remember Kavus’s name.

He set the chalice on the table as Edana stepped from her bedchamber, naked body aglow in the candlelight. “My knight.”

“My queen.” He took her in his arms. They fell into bed for the last time.

Later he rolled over, throat dry, alone in bed. Edana was in the doorway, diaphanous gown clinging to her curves. “Thirsty?” She was carrying two chalices.

Kavus nodded and took the one she offered, gulping down the sweet wine. It seemed to go to his head, sending him to a deep sleep.

He awoke in a strange bed, although he couldn’t say it was not his. There was a woman standing next to it wearing only a smile.

“My name’s Edana,” she said, crawling in beside him.

The name wasn’t familiar, but he wasn’t about to object to her warmth next to him. There was no other place for him to be in the whole world, he was certain.


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Legal Realism In the Wild

Ken over at Popehat poses an interesting philosophical question:

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make sound? If a right goes unrecognized and defied by the people charged with enforcing it, is it a right at all?

The answer may seem obvious, but it falls into what’s traditionally been a blind spot in legal philosophy.

A major enterprise of the philosophy of law is not only defining what a “law” is, but also identifying when, if ever, said laws shouldn’t be followed. To that end, there are two large camps among legal philosophers (along with numerous fringe theories that I’m just going to assume don’t exist for the length of this post).

Natural law theorists are that laws (or at least just laws) exist outside of human efforts at generating them. Therefore, human laws that conflict with natural law are invalid can be ignored. By contrast, legal positivists argue that what makes a law valid and just is the way its produced, thus making it completely a creature of human endeavor.

Both positions have serious issues. Natural law theory all but invites people to ignore laws they don’t like on the ground that it conflicts “natural law” (probably God’s law, but not necessarily). That’s fine and dandy if it’s not abiding by the Fugitive Slave Act, much less so if a modern Abraham decides he needs to engage in child sacrifice. But the legal positivist argument loses sight of broader notions of justice in favor of procedure. After all, lots of laws in Nazi Germany were properly proposed and enacted, but they were still vulgar and (at a gut level) invalid. Neither theory completely survives interaction with the real world.

So what happens in real life when, as Ken asks, a right is defied by the people responsible for protecting it? Something like this.

A woman in Georgia complained on Facebook that her ex-husband wouldn’t help out by making a drug store run when she and kid (the ex’s kid, too) had the flu. In other words, she called him a jerk (a friend chimed in that he was a “POS”). However, the ex just happens to be an officer in the local sheriff’s department. Thus, in a lawsuit she:

contends that her husband, a friend in the Sheriff’s Department, and a county “magistrate” put her in jail for her Facebook comment. According to her, Captain King filed a police report with his friend, Washington County Sheriff’s Investigator Trey Burgamy. Washington County magistrate Ralph O. Todd — who is not a lawyer, and who ran unopposed last year — issued a warrant requiring Anne King and Susan Hines (who had responded on Facebook by suggesting Captain King is a “POS”) to appear at a hearing. After a hearing at which Captain King was the only witness, Magistrate Todd caused a warrant to issue charging Anne King with criminal defamation: “SUBJECT DID, WITHOUT A PRIVILEGE TO DO SO AND WITH INTENT TO DEFAME ANOTHER, COMMUNICATE FALSE MATTER WHICH TENDS TO EXPOSE ONE WHO IS ALIVE TO HATRED, CONTEMPT, OR RIDICULE, AND WHICH TENDS TO PROVOKE A BREACH OF THE PEACE, SPECIFICALLY, SUBJECT DID MAKE DEROGATORY AND DEGRADING COMMENTS DIRECTLY AT AND ABOUT COREY KING, FOR THE PURPOSE OF PROVIDING A BREACH OF THE PEACE. Anne King also contends that Magistrate Todd threatened to “ban her from Facebook.”

The magistrate also falsely informed her that although she could call the ex a piece of shit to his face, she couldn’t post it on Facebook. Just to make it perfectly clear, the statute she was accused of violating was always a violation of the First Amendment, was recognized as such by the Georgia Supreme Court in 1982 and removed from the books by the legislature in 2015. In other words, neither the cop nor the magistrate had any legal authority to do what they did and the woman had a clear First Amendment right to say what she wanted (a few days later a “real judge,” as Ken puts it, dismissed the charge).

How does either natural law theory or legal positivism deal with this woman’s experience? Not well, which is why there’s a third way, one which I’ve subscribed to for a long time – legal realism.

Legal realism says, in essence, that law is whatever those with the power to make it and (more importantly) enforce it say it is. Higher notions of what law should be or what makes a “just” law don’t make any difference. If The Man says you’re going to jail, you’re going to jail.

My go to hypothetical for this used to be if the president signed a “Legal Philosopher Protection Act” that made a particular philosopher (John Rawls, Ron Dworkin – insert your favorite here!) off limits from academic criticism. Professor says, “that clearly violates the First Amendment” and duly proceeds to slag off on Rawls or whoever. Student reports Professor, who is hauled out of the classroom by a pair of US Marshalls. At some point things get sorted out, but not before an arrest, some period of custody/incarceration, and an awfully lot of bruised feelings.

Yet, that’s essentially what happened to the woman in Georgia – arrested for violating a law struck down during the Reagan administration for conduct that anyone with a working knowledge of the First Amendment knows cannot be a crime. And yet, there was an arrest. There was custody. And there are certainly hurt feelings.

There’s a meme that floats around about science:

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Law kind of works the same way. We can argue esoterically about the nature of law, what it really is, and whether any particular law is just. But at the end of the day, when the cops arrive at your door to slap the cuffs on, they’re not interested in any of that. What they say goes, at least for long enough to make things miserable. Any theory that doesn’t recognize that has serious issues.

Weekly Read: The Speed of Sound

Reviewing memoirs is a tricky thing. Essentially, it breaks down into answering three questions – Is the story of this person’s life interesting and worth reading about? Is the story told in such a way that elevates things beyond a simple “this is what happened” narrative? Does it say something profound about the world?

Thomas Dolby has the first part covered. If you only know him as the “She Blinded Me With Science Guy,” then his memoir The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology will be a revelation. Only half the book is taken up with his music career. The other half deals with his second life as a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, a career that is probably reaching into the smart phone you’re using to read this.

Dolby’s music career is, in itself, pretty interesting as a cautionary tale of just how fickle the business is. Dolby found his first synth in the trash after being fired from his job at a produce shop. Via tinkering and experimentation he mastered the still relatively new tool and wound working with a lot of other people, either in their band or as a hired gun in the studio (the synths on Foreigner 4? All Dolby). Finally he was able to record his first album, The Golden Age of Wireless, which wasn’t doing much of anything until “She Blinded Me With Science” (not on the album itself, originally) broke big in the United States, thanks largely to MTV.

Wireless is now regarded as a classic and Dolby would spend the rest of the 1980s trying to replicate its success. That he didn’t owes less to the quality of music he was making than it does to commercial factors that were well beyond his control. The Flat Earth (which is brilliant), for example, tanked commercially largely due to the fact that his record label fired its main promo person (resulting in non-cooperation from his former contacts in the media) and picked a losing fight with MTV. Unable to back up the commercial success of Wireless, Dolby’s other albums sank like stones.

Which isn’t to say he got some interesting stories out of it. If nothing else, he wound up working with and rubbing elbows with lots of stars. There are anecdotes about David Bowie’s fear of flying (Dolby played with him at Live Aid), Michael Jackson’s nerdy interest in cutting edge music gear (Dolby’s “Hyperactive” was written for Jackson), and Eddie Van Halen’s (who played on Dolby’s album Astronauts and Heretics) lack of amusement about This Is Spinal Tap – because Van Halen thought it was about them! It’s all interesting, and fun, but it’s not very deep or dramatic. As I said, the downward slide of Dolby’s music career was due largely to factors outside of his control and since he was always a solo artist there aren’t any nasty inter-band dynamics to spice things up.

After four albums and lots of other session work, Dolby left the music business, but he didn’t leave the business of music. Always the tech head, Dolby was interested early on in making music a big part of the Internet experience (he refers to it as “sonicizing” the Web). He started a company that eventually became Beatnik. You probably don’t know it, but you likely use its tech every time your mobile phone rings (Dolby even had a role in selecting the ubiquitous “Nokia waltz”). The business world didn’t really suit Dolby, either (some of the ups and downs, caused by outside forces, echo what happened in his music career), so he eventually cashed out, returned with his family to the UK, and started making music again.

One of the disappointments with the book is the short shrift given to this last part of his career (that he’s turned yet another new page, teaching at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is barely mentioned). In particular, I wanted to know something about the tour, the tech, and the conception of the tour that gave us The Sole Inhabitant, which is my favorite version of Dolby’s music. That’s par for the course, as the thing I wanted more of throughout was the nitty gritty of the music (I have the similar gripe about most music books or documentaries). We get a few tales of where songs came from (the genesis of “Wreck of the Fairchild” is particularly good), but little of the actual work of building up songs. Given Dolby’s nature as a tinkerer, rather than muse-inspired mouthpiece, I’d be interested in his process.

So, Dolby’s story is interesting, but that’s about all The Speed of Sound has going for it. The writing’s fine and pleasant, but nothing special. Dolby occasionally tells an anecdote that’s completely of its time, without meaningfully reflecting on it in any way (the Michael Jackson story ends with the appearance of neighborhood kids in their PJs, for example – this passes without comment). Likewise there’s nothing terribly profound in Dolby’s story. It’s a nice story about a guy who made a good life largely doing what he loves to do, which is mess around with music and tech stuff.  Good for him, certainly, but it doesn’t make for the meatiest of reads.

The bottom line is this – if you’re a fan of Dolby, or even just wonder what he’s been up to since he hit the “Where Are They Now?” file, The Speed of Sound is highly recommended. Otherwise, your time might be better spent elsewhere.

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