My Black Pages

One of the little bits of world building for the Unari Empire books that I had fun with was thinking through the newspaper situation in Cye. Given the steampunk(ish) setting, it’s the most plausible form of mass media and how it’s regulated says interesting things about the world. Hence, the “real” newspapers are known by how closely aligned they are with the Imperial regime, since to officially publish they need a literal seal approval.

When it came time to write Widows of the Empire I needed to expand my thinking a bit and figure what underground papers might look like and what they might be called. I settled on small papers crammed with type, so much that each page looked nearly black. Naturally, characters refer to them as the “black pages.”

This is not an accident.

Readers of The Water Road and its sequels know that I use a lot of musical references in my books. Lots of places in that series are named after musicians, the more obscure the better! The “black pages” are no different, as I’ve stolen the name from a song (or a few) by Frank Zappa.

Frank originally wrote “The Black Page” as a percussion feature, kind of on a dare. After an orchestral session, drummer Terry Bozio related that some of those players talked about the fear of facing “the black page,” prompting Frank to write his own. The song evolved from a short piece for drums and percussion into a song for a full band, in various guises.

In this video, musician Doug Helvering works through the first two versions of the song, with excerpts from the score to prove the that the song was well named:

A decade after that second version, the song morphed again, into a “New Age Version” that was performed on Zappa’s final tour:

Even laid back, it’s kind of a bear.

Names can be tricky for fantasy and science fiction writers. My suggestion – take inspiration wherever you can, even if it’s in an insanely complex song.

Why Not Just Write Fantasy?

Over the winter my wife and I discovered The Great*, the Hulu series about (very loosely) the early reign of Russian empress Catherine the Great.

While I’m not certain the series quite lives up to the title, it is very entertaining and, in spots, riotously funny. What it definitely lives up to is the little asterisk the end of the title (as displayed in the opening credits, at least), which notes it is either “An Occasionally True Story” (season one) or “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” (season two).

This post is very much not going to take the show’s creators to task for playing fast and loose with history, particularly since they admit it up front. Truth is, literature and theater and film/TV is full of examples of historical persons or events remolded for dramatic purposes. I know Salieri didn’t really work Mozart to death (they were pretty good buds!), but I still love Amadeus. Dollars to donvts Julius Caesar did not turn to Brutus and “et tu, Brute?” him in real life, but Shakespeare makes it work.

But as a writer, I wonder about the choices other writers made when playing with history. History is full of lots of interesting story fuel, after all. I’ve used some of it myself. I’ve said before that the idea for the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy came from seeing an “on this day” thing on Wikipedia about the anniversary of Napoleon’s return from exile to start the Hundred Days. I thought that sounded like something out of a fantasy series – a vanquished foe returning to the world to wreak further havoc – and wheels started turning in my head.

What never occurred to me was the make the story about Napoleon. I didn’t want to tell his story, but another one that might have echoes of his. Being a fantasy writer that’s not an issue, but with more traditional fiction things can get complicated. After all, a made up character doing made up things is the grist of fiction – sometimes everything even happens in made up places. But a made up town or neighborhood is one thing, what about a made up country?

I got to thinking about this again due to this piece in the New York Times about the recent glut of true-crime limited series that are all over streaming services. Things like Netflix’s Inventing Anna and Hulu’s The Dropout (both pretty good, though I’d go with the latter) are telling true-crime stories of recent vintage that, in most cases, have been thoroughly aired in other settings (Inventing Anna came out of a long-form magazine piece, The Dropout from a podcast of the same name). I don’t agree that just because these stories have been told in other mediums means the fictionalized TV versions are superfluous (not everybody consumes podcasts), but the author makes an interesting point:

Now, it is absolutely true that real life does not always give you neat “Rosebud” explanations; real people are often simply jumbles of unresolved contradictions. But that’s one reason we have drama: to make emotional, if not literal, sense of this kind of figure. (Hence Orson Welles reimagined William Randolph Hearst as Charles Foster Kane.)

Indeed, it seems much easier if you want to tell a story about a particular kind of person to do it with a fictional character rather than a real-life one. Legal issues aside, it allows you to mold and shape the story as dramatic (or comedic!) stakes dictate, without worrying about people complaining that you’re not “getting it right.” After all, fantasy only has to be compelling, not accurate.

So why not, if you want to tell a story that pretty much set in a fantastic version of a historical place, why not make it fantasy? What’s the pull of using a historical figure whose actual history you’re going to discard anyway? I suppose it’s easier to market a series about Catherine the Great (who’s not that well know in the US, anyway) with an ahistorical twist than it is to sell a bloody, bawdy, fantasy series nobody’s heard of before.

As I said, it’s silly to get bent out of shape about The Great’s lack of rigorous historicity. They’re doing something much more fun and not even hiding the fact. Nonetheless, it does make you think.

Come, join us in our fantasy worlds. The water’s fine – unless that’s not what you want! Huzzah!

“At Such Speeds, Things Fly”

Beginning in 1955, Donald Campbell piloted Bluebird K7, the world’s first functional jet-powered hydroplane, to a slew of water speed records. He didn’t just break the record, he shattered it over and over again – the record he initially broke was 178 miles per hour, while his last complete run, nine years later, was over 276 miles per hour.

On January 4, 1967, Campbell took Bluebird  to Coniston Water in England’s Lake District for another run, hoping to hit 300 miles per hour. After making the run one direction at over 297 miles per hour, Campbell began the return run. Then, tragedy struck:

It was big news in the UK, big enough that young Steve Hogarth, while not quite grasping what had happened, noted the emotional impact Campbell’s death had on his mother. Flash forward three decades and Hogarth, aka “H,” and his band Marillion release Afraid of Sunlight, my personal favorite album of theirs. One track, “Out of this World,” is about Campbell and his fatal voyage, complete with some snippets of radio traffic from that day.

So far not that interesting, right? A band writing a song about a tragic historical event is hardly rare (Marillion themselves have jokingly been referred to as a band specializing in songs about “death and water”). What’s really cool is what happened afterward. Bill Smith was not just a Marillion fan (he even sort of promoted a solo Fish show in Newcastle!), but an experienced salvage diver. Inspired by the song, he led a team that found Bluebird and raised it from the depths. The official photographer for the event? Steve Rothery, Marillion guitarist. You can hear more about that day on the latest episode of Hogarth’s podcast, The Corona Diaries, which includes an interview with Smith.

Again, that would be an interesting enough story, but it goes even further. Smith and his team restored Bluebird and, in 2018, it was in the water again, on Loch Fad in Scotland, where it hit 150 miles per hour.

Sadly, that wasn’t the end of things. There appears to be an ongoing legal dispute over where Bluebird should make its final landing. According to the BBC, the Campbell family promised Bluebird to a local Coniston museum (that has built a wing specifically to house the restored craft). Smith, however, argues that because some of the restored craft is made up of new parts, he “co-owns the craft.” Interestingly, in the podcast, Smith points out that the usual finders-keepers salvage law of the open ocean doesn’t apply to inland waterways.

I suppose it’s inevitable that when someone’s legacy is at stake the parties involved wind up at odds. I don’t think it’s a matter of money more than it is pride and obligation. I hope there’s a happy ending in there somewhere, a resolution that can please all the parties involved, if not completely.

All in all, there’s probably at least another song in all this.

“Louie, Louie” and the Wages of Satan

When I went to college most of the music I had was on cassettes recorded from the record collections of my brothers. As a result, I didn’t have the liner notes that came with those albums and, thus, no lyrics to pore over. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I did always wonder what Jon Anderson was singing about on old Yes albums.

I got online during my junior year of college and quickly discovered primitive websites devoted to bands I loved. Some of them even had song lyrics on them! So I dutifully dove into some of those old Yes albums and . . . didn’t really get any better understanding of the lyrics. Turns out Anderson was more focused on what words sounded like rather than meaning, so they were pretty vague on purpose – what on Earth (or beyond) is “cold summer listening” and how does “hot color melt the anger to stone,” anyway?

Still and all, Anderson never wound up in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover. And he never inspired , one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:

The joke works, of course, because nobody really knows what the words to “Louie, Louie,” are, which is pretty amazing given how much the song has seeped into our culture. How exactly did that happen? Turns out, it’s precisely because purveyors of moral panic can try to make the lyrics be any old thing they wanted.

This article in Reason tells the tale. The song was written in 1956, but didn’t really breakthrough until it was recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963 (it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart) and even then it took a while to get rolling. As the article points out, it’s not a particularly deep song:

It was nothing more than a lovesick sailor’s lament to a bartender about wanting to get back home to his girl. But because Jack Ely, the Kingsmen’s lead singer, slurred the words beyond recognition, it became something of a Rorschach test for dirty minds. Schoolyard rumors about filthy lyrics in “Louie, Louie” stoked parental fears, prompted fevered complaints, and ultimately triggered a prolonged nationwide investigation.

My favorite overreaction to this comes from the governor of Indiana who “claimed that the record was so obscene it made his ‘ears tingle’” and used his connections with radio stations to effectively ban the song in that state. That’s peanuts to the multi-year investigation that the United States government launched into the song, via the FBI and the fellas at the freakin’ FCC, among others. Even with all that time and all those resources involved, investigators couldn’t figure out what the Kingsmen were on about!

My other favorite detail is this – it took the crack investigators at the FBI 18 months to think to go look up the actual lyrics on file with the U.S. Copyright Office! Mystery solved, at least, right? Not really. There were “other versions” of the lyrics circulating in schoolyards and such, which seems to say less about “Louie, Louie” than it does about the hyper sexed minds of young adults everywhere.

There’s lots of other interesting stuff in the article, so I recommend the full read. I will go ahead and spoil the ending, though – “Louie, Louie” won, in the end, becoming its own kind of classic. Did you know that April 11 is International “Louie, Louie” Day? Now you do, just in time to celebrate and tell the censorious prudes to go fuck themselves.