Weekly Watch & Read: The Damned United

When I latched onto Leeds United as my favorite team outside the United States I didn’t do it with any sense of the club’s history. Sure, I knew they’d been around a long time, but it was their then-current form that lured me in (and led to years of heartbreak – alas, that is the truth of the beautiful game). What I didn’t know at the time was that for about a decade leading up to my birth they were one of the, if not the, best team in England, winning the top division twice, the FA Cup once, and finishing runners up in both competitions several times between 1964 and 1974.

What I also didn’t realize was that they did so with a bit of a reputation. Think of the infamous Philadelphia Flyers team known as the “Broad Street Bullies” and you’re on the right track, except there were twice as many of them and at the time there was only one allowed substitute in soccer. Any injury often meant the other team playing a man down.

That Leeds team was the product of manager Don Revie who, after the 1973-1974 season ended, left the club to become manager of the England national team. His replacement, Brian Clough, was a former player who had worked wonders as a manager at Derby County, dragging the team up to the top flight and to the league title. One the one hand, it looked like following on from one brilliant manager to another.

On the other hand, well, that’s the story of The Damned United, first a novel by David Peace and then a movie, directed by Tom Hooper with Michael Sheen (current Wales national team hype man) as Clough. They cover Clough’s rocky 44-day stint at the helm of Leeds and the culture clash that led to his ultimate downfall. It’s never a good sign when the new boss comes in and declares that all your prior success was down to “cheating” and you were going to start winning the “right way” now that he’s here.

I saw the movie first around the time it came out, based more on the good reviews than any particular interest in the story itself. Sports movies tend to be built around cliches leading to the “big game” and, honestly, once you’ve seen a few what’s the point of another? What makes The Damned United so interesting is that it turns the cliche on its head – rather than being about a coach who pulls together a group of underperforming misfits into a team of winners, it’s about a team of winners slowly falling apart. Honestly, it would be a good case study for a management class or something, a cautionary tale of how someone so convinced of his own brilliance can get things so wrong.

The biggest difference between the movie and the book was Clough’s motivation and general attitude about all this. Both portray Clough as a supreme egotist, convinced that he’s right about everything related to soccer (Peace uses the word multiple times in the book, so back off) and everyone else is wrong. In the movie, this comes across as more hopeful delusion than anything else. He has a better way to play the game, one that prioritizes attack and frowns on the “dark arts,” and that’s what’s driving him. He wants to improve things, elevate them.

Novel Clough is, by contrast, a complete rage-driven asshole.  This is evident in the book because we’re entirely in Clough’s head, privy to all his thoughts and the loathing he has for just about everyone and every place. While his wife and children come out unscathed (though they’re press so far to the edges that he might as well have been a bachelor, for the book’s purposes), he even goes after his assistant manager/partner Peter Taylor, with whom he had already had (and would again have) great success. It’s unclear at points whether he really wants to reform Leeds or drive them into a ditch. Clough’s head is, for the most part, a frightening place to be.

To be fair, the novel gives Clough some basis for his anger, giving us more detail on his playing and prior managerial career than the movie does. Primarily, we get Clough’s bitterness at his playing career being cut short by a knee injury. I think movie Clough mentions his goal-scoring tally at one point, but book Clough returns to it again and again. It is impressive – 251 goals in 274 games – but comes with a major caveat: all but a handful of those came in the Second Division, making Clough sort of a Crash Davis of English football, without Crash’s recognition that records in a lower league don’t mean all that much.

The other pillar of novel Clough’s anger is his belief that he should be manager of the England national team. This makes his taking over Leeds all the more fraught, given that he thinks Revie doesn’t deserve the England job. It adds an additional layer to the way that Revie haunts Elland Road (Leeds’ stadium) after he’s gone, like a millstone ghost hung around Clough’s neck. That he goes so far as to destroy and burn Revie’s desk is extreme, but you can kind of see where he’s coming from.

Aside from that, the novel and movie tell the same story. I think the movie does it better, partly because I found Peace’s style – which makes copious use of repetition of words (usually in threes) – annoying. As usual, I consumed the book via audio and even with the narrator’s cadence giving it some life, it felt overdone, as if the book (not that long to begin with) could have been a third shorter without it. And I can see why Clough’s family was upset with both the book and movie. One review I read noted that the three main characters – Clough, Revie, and Leeds midfielder/captain Billy Bremner – were all dead at the time the book came out. You can’t libel the dead, after all. Another Leeds player, Johnny Giles, did win a libel lawsuit about the book, although given British libel laws I’m not sure how much that means about what is, after all, a work of fiction.

That said, I kind of wish both book and movie had an epilogue of some sort. If you weren’t a soccer fan you’d think that Clough crashed and burned at Leeds and that was it, his days of success over. In actuality, he went on to even greater heights afterwards, leading Nottingham Forrest to not one but two European Cups (what they call the Champions League these days), an amazing feat for a club that size. Never got to manage England, however.

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Artists Need to Eat, Too

There’s been some interesting talk online about some of the economics of writing or, rather, being a writer. I have a day job I love that pays the bills, so this isn’t something I lose a lot of sleep about, but if you enjoy reading books or watching movies or listening to music, it’s worth remembering that the people that make them have all have bills to pay and families to feed, too.

Things sort of got summed up by John Scalzi on Twitter over the weekend:

I suppose this is an offshoot of the idea that artists need to suffer to make great art, which always kind of mystified me. Yes, there are writers and musicians that are tortured souls and managed to turn that into great, moving works of art. But there are just as many who seem pretty well adjusted and just love doing what they’re doing, the only real suffering coming from when people expect them to continue entertaining them for free or, worse, “for exposure.” “Happy” and “artist” should be used in the same sentence together a lot, I’d thihk.

Growing up, I sort of assumed that anybody who wrote a book or released an album made their livings doing that. It really wasn’t until I dove into the progressive rock world in college that I realized how many amazing musicians actually had day jobs to pay the bills (hopefully in music or some related field, but oftentimes not). That sort of opened my eyes about how economics and the arts intersect in the United States.

Now in the era of streaming services things are even worse for musicians. The per-play rate for a song on even the most generous service is pennies (and often a fraction of that). Fans need to realize that if they want more of their favorite music, they need to do more than just stream it. Buy LPs or cassettes, if your that particular kind of hipster. Or buy downloads directly from the band (or via something like Bandcamp) as a way that puts the most money directly in their pockets. Love and adulation is great, but it doesn’t pay the rent.

But whatever you do, don’t buy it, listen to it, and then return it.

I didn’t even realize this was a thing until posts like this started circulating from writers no Twitter:

As this article explains, Amazon allows you to return Kindle books within a week after purchasing them. Although this is to allow refunds for “accidental” purchases (mistakes happen, after all), some folks have spread this as a “hack” to allow readers to buy a book, read it quickly, and then return it for a refund:

It’s not immediately clear if new videos about returning e-books in the form of a “Kindle hack” were being spread around, but it was the subject of discussion on BookTok several months back as a debate over whether returning a fully read Kindle book could be considered “stealing.” Some who think the claim is nonsense compare returning a book you don’t like to returning a top that doesn’t fit or being comped for a meal when you find a bug in your food.

It should be obvious that returning a book that you read to completion is nothing at all like returning a piece of clothing that didn’t fit or getting bugged food for free. In both of those situations the product you received was defective in some way. They analogize to situations with books where you honestly buy the wrong one, get something other than is advertised (it’s a short story, not a novel, for example), or the file is corrupt and unusable.

But if you buy a book (or an album or a movie) and you read it then that’s it, you’ve got no right to a refund. It doesn’t even matter if you didn’t finish it because you thought it sucked. There’s a certain about of buyer beware that applies to any purchase, but that’s doubly true for art. It’s simply impossible to buy something to which reactions are so subjective with an expectation that you’ve got a money-back guarantee. Trying a new author or checking out a new band is an act of faith, of hope that it will be amazing, but you’ve got to be willing to accept that it might not be.

To return to the restaurant analogy, if you and a friend decide to try a new place that has a great reputation and seems just up your alley, but you don’t find that it met your expectations, you still have to pay for the meal. Sometimes, where matters of taste are involved, things don’t work out the way we want them to. That’s life.

A good rule of thumb for negotiating the world or books, music, or any other artistic thing in the modern era is to ask, “is this going to mess with the livelihood of the person (or persons) who created this?” before doing something that impacts their bottom line. If the answer is “yes,” think long and hard as to whether that’s justified. Deep down, I think you’ll realize it very rarely is. At the very least, before you start demanding your money back it ought to rise to this level:

The Month of Lists – My Favorite Books

To wrap up the months of lists, it’s only natural to turn our attention to books. Just choosing ten favorite books is tough – so I’m going to cheat. A few years ago I did a post about ten books that were “particularly important to me,” spun off from a Facebook thing that was going around. Those are all favorites, right? Sure. There’s a difference between “favorite” and “important,” but I’m not sure that’s a hair worth splitting.

That said, I’ve read an awful lot more books since I did that, so rather than take apart that first list, I’m just going to add to it. So, these ten books are all recent favorites (recent to me, at least) and I love these and the old ones so much I don’t want to knock any of those off to make room. It’s my list after all, right? Speaking of, if Saga, by Bryan K . Vaughn and Fiona Staples was complete, it would be on this list in a heartbeat, but I worry about them sticking the landing (it’s still only about halfway through, after all). Thankfully, that leaves an open spot on the list (for now).

The only other cheat for this list is that I decided to consider series as a single entry, so I could consider those in their entirety. Other than that, no rules. Also apologies for the wonky order, as I originally had them listed by series title but the formatting looked awful. Honestly, they’re in alphabetical order! That said, let ‘er rip . . .

The Mechanical (2015) – The Rising (2015) – The Liberation (2016)

by Ian Tregillis

As I said in my initial review of the first two books in this series:

QUOTEIt’s 1926, but not the 1926 we remember. There is no Lost Generation following the First World War, no Jazz Age, no impending economic collapse. Instead, the world, or at least the largest part of it, is ruled over by the Dutch. How have the Dutch managed this feat? Magic, of course.QUOTE

That’s the basic setup for the Alchemy Wars trilogy – one of the “clakkers” created by a combination of Dutch magic (here called “alchemy”) and steampunkish technology gets a case of free will and a war of liberation is on. Along the way, we get a heavy dose of live in the world’s only non-Dutch outpost – a rump New France based around Montreal. The Mechanical is a brilliant opening book, full of world building and questions on the nature of being. The Rising gets a little too action heavy, at the expense of the philosophical questions, but The Liberation rebounds, bolstered by some temporal sleight of hand that shouldn’t work as well as it does.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (2016)

by Jeffrey Toobin

Just by growing up when I did and sitting in the culture I knew the outlines of Patty Hearst’s story – she was a rich young woman who was kidnapped by radicals and eventually wound up taking part in some of their violent activities. I was vaguely aware of the debate about whether she was really transformed into a believe or just going along out of fear. Toobin’s (yeah, I know) book does a really good job of filling in not just her specific story, but the time period out of which it arose. I had no idea bombings were so common in the 1970s! He also manages to dig into the argument on Hearst’s culpability deeply enough to allow people to draw their own conclusions, if you even can (I’m not sure I have). Super bummed that any adaptations of this book apparently aren’t going to happen.

The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer (2006)

by David Goldblatt

While soccer is my favorite sport, I admit that I’d not really dug too deeply into the history of it. I had a handle on the big stuff – Uruguay’s early success, our upset of England in 1950, Pele – but the development of the game itself was mostly a black hole for me. No longer, having absorbed this deep history of the development of the beautiful game. What amazed me is how much of the game’s reach today is the result of British influence overseas, both through empire and commercial power (Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs have English or Scottish origins). There’s such a wealth of interesting history that plays into the current state of the game that it’s easy to overlook some of the “you are there!” portions that try to describe game action but can only come up short.

The Fifth Season (2015) – The Obelisk Gate (2016) – The Stone Sky (2017)

by N.K. Jemisin

I mean, these books only won the Hugo Award back-to-back-to-back, a feat never before accomplished, so it’s safe to say they’re pretty good. The Fifth Season is flat out brilliant, a structural bit of leger de main that completely reconceptualizes all that came before when you reach the end. The other two can’t quite reach that height, but that’s no slight. The world building is amazing. Jemisin has an amazing knack for brilliant scenes, the basic building blocks of writing. They’re not light reads, but well worth the emotional toil they’ll wreak upon you.

Children of Time (2015)

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The main characters in this book are spiders. That is not a joke. They’re jumped up, hyper-evolved spiders, benefiting from a fuck up in human settlement on another planet. Science fiction has the ability to put readers in the head of truly alien creatures and Tchaikovsky did that here. But there’s also a second story line, of another ship full of humans (some on ice) where things are going to shit. They cross paths, of course. The next book in the trilogy, Children of Ruin, is just about as good. The only think keeping me from putting the whole trilogy on here is that it isn’t finished yet!

Leviathan Wakes (2011) – Caliban’s War (2012) – Abaddon’s Gate (2013) – Cibola Burn (2014) – Nemesis Games (2015) – Babylon’s Ashes (2016) – Persepolis Rising (2017) – Tiamat’s Wrath (2019) – Leviathan Falls (2021)

by James S.A. Corey

I’ve sort of concluded that the trilogy is the ultimate best length for a series. It’s long enough to tell tales of grand scope, but tight enough not to get away from the author. As a result, I rarely go more than a couple of books into a lengthy series unless I completely love it. Clearly, the fact that I’ve read all nine books in the Expanse series (and consumed all of the excellent TV adaptation) means that I loved this. It’s not all brilliant (looking at you, Cibola Burn), but the world that’s built is amazingly realistic (it feels that way, at least) and it’s full of characters I came to really care about. And, I have to say, I think the writers really nailed the ending in a way that was satisfying and felt complete. If you’re looking for a near-future space opera to simply lose yourself in, this is it.

The Half-Made World (2010) – The Rise of Ransom City (2012)

by Felix Gilman

The world of The Half-Made World looks a lot like the American west during the late 19th century, with white settlers streaming into “untamed” territory and finding conflict with the natives, not to mention each other. What really distinguishes this world is an ongoing (never-ending?) conflict between The Line (the embodiment of technological process in sentient train engines) and The Gun (chaos and immorality) that plays out in a world that is literally still in the process of being made. It’s a brilliant setup and serves to bring to life one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever encountered, John Creedmore. An agent of The Gun, Creedmore is a killer and a thug, but he’s also in thrall to a demon that lives in his gun. His struggle to leave it behind is exceptionally well done. Set in the same world and sharing some characters, this is more a pair of great standalone books (with The Half-Made World getting the nod) than an ongoing serious. Unless Gilman decides to give us another glimpse.

Hogfather (1996)

by Terry Pratchett

Generally speaking, I don’t reread books. It happens every now and then, but for the most part I’d rather move on to newer things, given the increasingly absurd size of my to-be-read pile. That is to say, Hogfather has a special place in my heart as I read it every year during the Christmas season. It’s a story of Hogswatch, the Discworld variant of Christmas, in which someone is trying to kill the Hogfather (i.e., Santa) leaving Death to fulfill his duties and Death’s granddaughter to stop all of existence from coming undone. It’s funny, sweetly nostalgic without overlooking how narrow nostalgia can be, and just all over brilliant. It warms my holiday cockles in a way that nothing else much does.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2018)

by Patrick Radden Keefe

Speaking of rereading books. I just went through a jag reading about Irish history, finishing up with a history of the (provisional) IRA, so I decided to dive back into Say Nothing, which covers The Troubles but on a more personal and street-level way. It also deals with questions of memory and how we talk about, and study, the past. It’s simply brilliant on every level. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sex Criminals (2014-2020)

by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

When I saw a story somewhere about a comic called Sex Criminals I thought it might be about the kind of people I represent in my day job as a defense attorney. How surprised I was that it was about people who had sex and then committed crimes! That’s because time literally stops when the two main characters (and several others, as things go on) have an orgasm, allowing them to get up to all kinds of nonsense (one of them takes the time to drop a shit in a plant in his boss’ office). If that was the entire joke the series couldn’t have run for more than thirty issues, but the series builds into a deeper exploration of relationships, depression, and other things. It wrapped up in 2020 in pretty satisfying fashion.

That’s it! The end of lists! Regular programming returns next week (probably).

Hey Kafka (Or, Ruminations on Dead Authors and Duties Owed to Them)

Five years ago I wrote a post about dealing with requests from writers to destroy their unfinished (or other) work upon their death. It was sparked by the destruction of the recently passed Terry Pratchett’s hard drive by running it over with a steamroller, per his desire. As I wrote then:

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchett’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

I got to thinking about this again reading Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

What I thought was going to be a particularly timely look at the social or political factors behind drives to ban books was actually a love letter to libraries and archives and the need for society to protect and support the collection and retention of knowledge. No great surprise, I suppose, given that Ovenden is the librarian at the famed Bodlean Library at Oxford.

In a couple of chapters, Ovenden discusses particular situations where authors either took affirmative efforts during their lives to destroy their unfinished work or asked executors/family to do the destroying once they were dead. In some instances (like Franz Kafka) it was unfinished work, where some others involved personal papers like letters or notes. Ovenden’s point of view is clearly that any loss of this information is a cultural travesty and implies that the heroes here are people who go against the wishes of their friends/loved ones and preserve their work anyway.

I get that, on the one hand. Destroyed knowledge is pretty much gone, after all, without any hope of getting it back. The world is undeniably richer for having Kafka’s unfinished work or the papers of someone like Sylvia Plath that gives insight into a writer’s life and process. But whose decision is it to make that determination?

The author’s wishes deserve at least some consideration, right? Maybe because in one side of my life I’m a writer and in another I fight battles to vindicate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy (usually unsuccessfully, alas), but airing things the original author never wanted to see the light of day seems like a violation. I’m not sure the world is entitled to anything the author doesn’t want to show it.

As is happens, after Burning the Books, I decided to read one of the most famous posthumously published works, Kafka’s The Trial.

I’d had it in my collection for a while but never got around to it. I’m glad I did, just to have been able to say I’ve read it. As a lawyer, you’d think it would be required reading, although the deep secret buried in The Trial is that there never is an actual trial that takes place. I sort of know that’s the point, but I expected a little bit more procedural chicanery – the kind of stuff that happens in regular courtrooms that get dubbed “Kafkaesque.”

The Trial definitely feels unfinished. My understanding is that the first and last chapters were actually written and designated as such by Kafka, but the rest was assembled by his executor, Max Brod, after his death. That said, it does have a memorable ending, so it doesn’t just peter out. I also found the atmosphere to be more dreamlike than nightmarish. The main character, K, is more frustrated and aggravated by the situation than he is terrified. In a way that makes it worse.

While there is no trial per se in The Trial, lawyers and the court system come off pretty badly. The part that stuck with me the most is a scene where K is in the court building and passes a group of litigants just huddled around not doing much of anything. It’s explained that they’re waiting for rulings in their cases, some of them for years, and that all they can do is continue to wait. That put me in mind of several of my clients who have watched their cases languish in court, just waiting for the judge to make a decision. They’d rather the judge get it wrong but actually get it done – at least then they could move on to the next phase of things.

My ultimate conclusion about The Trial is that I think K was dead the entire time. The suddenness of the accusation, the ultimate futility of fighting the charges, and the references to K needing to defend his entire life make me think that he’s in some kind of limbo (from which he’s ultimately released in the end). The way “the law” is discussed, too, sounds more like a religious concept than a purely legal one. It doesn’t ultimately matter, but it’s what jumped to mind while reading it.

Since I was on a Kafka kick, I decided to wrap things up with a book that dove more deeply into the battle over his literary legacy, Kafka’s Last Trial, by Benjamin Balint.

The titular trial here took place in Israel in this century and was a battle over where Kafka’s literary legacy would have its home. It stems from how Brod dealt with Kafka’s literary estate and whether it should be retained by the descendents of his secretary or should be taken into the National Library of Israel as a cultural treasure of the Jewish people (or even in an archive in Germany). The legal wrangling isn’t that interesting (it turns on technical distinctions between different kinds of gifts – you can read up on it here), but the question of legacy is really fascinating. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the issue of whether Kafka was a German writer (though he lived in what is now the Czech Republic) who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who happened to write in German and what the answer to that question means.

Of course, that issue could be hashed out regardless of whether Brod had destroyed Kafka’s unfinished works as asked (assuming Kafka became a big enough name without it). And it would have avoided an awful lot of expensive litigation generations later. So, in the end, is it better to encourage executors, friends, and families to abide by the wishes of the writers who trust them to do so?

I’m inclined to think so, but I also think that the question may be moot. After all, once a writer is dead he or she isn’t going to know what their executors do one way or the other. One pleasant thing about death is you don’t have to worry about your reputation. Weighing all the considerations, maybe Brod was on to something in the first place.

The Book-to-TV Pipeline

Coming late to this, but last June there was an interesting article in The Atlantic about the rise in literary adaptations on television (broadly defined to include streaming services). It’s fascinating because there’s some evidence that there is so much adaptation going on that it’s actually impacting the publishing process.

Why is that? Part of it is just because there’s so much TV content being generated these days that producers are turning to extant products to fill the demand (per another, more recent article, the same demand is also creating a new boom in work for “older” actresses). But there are also certain features that are prevalent in titles that are optioned for adaptation (although not present in all), including “episodic plots, ensemble cases, and intricate world-building.” While, certainly, there are books (or short stories) that lend themselves more easily to adaptation, I think the story overlooks one important thing and gets another wrong, both of which are important in thinking about the current TV landscape.

What the article overlooks is that the definition of “television,” and what a TV show is these days, has changed radically with the rise of streaming services. Not only are there more TV shows than ever before, but they’ve gotten more compressed compared to the sprawling network series of the past. Where a new series once had to produce two dozen episodes per season (for multiple seasons), TV is now awash with series with only eight or ten or twelve episodes per season. Beyond that, the limited series – one season and done – has gained popularity, too. Those shorter seasons (and series) fit book adaptations particularly well, giving creators enough time to cover all the events of the book without the need to create ongoing stories to feed additional episodes/seasons.

Beyond that, the TV audience is so fractured at this point that bringing already-established fans from a book to the TV show is a solid way to build some viewership. To give some perspective, the 1993-1994 season of Seinfeld (the show’s fifth season) averaged about 30 million viewers, while the top episode of scripted TV last year (from NCIS) couldn’t even manage half that. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, pulled more than five million viewers for its first episode (across multiple showings), demonstrating the value of a built-in base audience. Even if the book being adapted isn’t a huge, sprawling series, it can bring a certain bit of gravitas to TV just by being a book!

What the article gets wrong, I think, is that “episodic” books are more likely to be snapped up for adaptation. This is presumably based on the idea that such stories lend themselves to the episodic nature of TV, but that overlooks the fact that TV is getting less and less episodic as we go along. Not only do lots of current short-season TV shows tell single, ongoing stories, they often don’t really bother making the individual episodes work on their own. To go back to Game of Thrones, episode breaks there were often purely down to time restraints, more than anything else. It would be hard to take most episodes of that show, pull them out of sequence, and show them to someone with any hope they’d know what’s going on or be hooked enough to watch more.

Truly episodic TV has a better chance to do that, at the risk of losing the overarching narrative drive. I’m thinking of two long-running series that I got into in the middle, because of episodes that told complete stories.

One was Babylon 5, famous for being designed to tell a five-season story in novelistic fashion. That said, each episode could generally be consumed as a discrete chunk (occasional multi-part episodes to one side), such as “No Surrender, No Retreat,” the first episode I saw. Now, there’s an awful lot of backstory in that season four episode that I didn’t learn until later, but the basics – who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, and who might be neither – were clear. There was an objective that could be obtained or not, within the space of the episode. It wasn’t merely a set of events playing out from the prior episode and into the next one.

The other was Doctor Who, for which my entry episode was “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which involves Agatha Christie and explains her famous disappearance. Now, Doctor Who isn’t nearly as tightly serialized as Babylon 5, but there was, again, a lot of lore, backstory, and character development about which I had no idea. But the episode told its own story, with a beginning, middle, and end. It was a great hook.

None of which is to say the super-serialized series that are so popular these days are doing it wrong (although maybe they sometimes do). But it does suggest that what’s drawing TV developers to literary titles is not their “episodic nature.”

Ultimately, I think it’s great that more and more books are being developed for TV series. There’s lots of great stuff out there and it beats pointless reboots of series from decades ago. The series usually bumps the popularity of the books, too, so authors get a couple of benefits from it! I’m all for more of that.

On Time Jumps

As it happens, I wound up reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series not too long before the TV show began. As a result, as the TV series went on I read the next book in the series just before the new season dropped. Now that the TV show has finished, after six seasons, and the book series has wrapped up, after nine volumes, I decided to plow through and finish the books in one go.

The first of the last three (The Expanse is sort of three linked trilogies, really), Persepolis Rising¸ starts with a pretty audacious gambit – it skips the story forward three decades.

Before we dive in further, let me specify just what I mean when I say “time jump.” I’m talking about a narrative (either within a single work or across multiple ones) where there are large breaks during which a large period of time passes. I’m not talking about the usual passage of time – most sequels or new seasons don’t pick up right after the prior one, after all. Nor am I talking about flashbacks or flashforwards or stories about characters who, to borrow a phrase, have come “unstuck in time.” I’m talking about situations where the main narrative is still driving forward, but it’s like somebody’s picked up the needle and we’ve skipped some tracks.

It’s a bold gambit because, presumably, the world of the story continues to exist during the time that’s skipped over. Things change, just as they do in regular life over years. Picking up months or years in the future should be a means of exploring how those changes impact the characters.

A good example of this I recently read is Middlegame by  Seanan McGuire.

In the world of Middlegame, an alchemist in the modern United States is using semi-fraternal twins as a means to bring about the presence of a great power he wants to tap into. The book is the story of two twins, Roger and Dodger (the rhyming names are quite intentional) who, in spite of attempts to keep them apart, keep finding themselves over the years. The book proceeds in hunks (while also skipping around in time), first when the two are young kids, then when they’re college students, and then grown adults. Between hunks, years pass and it matters. Not only do the characters change, but their relationship to each other does, too, partly because of the passage of time.

Another good somewhat recent example is the jump in time between seasons two and three of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. At the end of one season Gaius Baltar is installed as president. At the beginning of the next a year has passed and we can see what “President Baltar” really means – everything goes to shit and the Cylons return! The time skip moves the plot along while providing the writers a good way to show what went on in the interim and the impact it’s had on the characters.

Sadly, Persepolis Rising doesn’t handle the time jump nearly as well. I understand the bind  James S.A. Corey (actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck working in collaboration) was in – the story needed to jump ahead decades in order to play out, but what to do with the characters you’ve spent six books lovingly developing? The answer here is mention a few extra aches and pains and leave it at that. For the crew on the Rocinante, thirty years passing was just like thirty minutes.

Which is supremely disappointing! The five folks on the ship are in exactly the same shape they were in at the end of Babylon’s Ashes: Holden and Naomi are still together, Amos and Clarissa have their weird connection, and Bobbie and Alex have whatever they’ve got. Alex has, in the intervening decades, been married and divorced again, but the only outgrowth of that is a son off screen he occasionally worries about. There’s no aggravation/shifting of loyalties that have occurred over three decades of doing the same damned thing in the same damned (small) place.

All of this violates what I’m officially dubbing Rufus’ Rule of Gullibility, which I discussed in a book review many years ago:

There’s a scene deep in Kevin Smith’s Dogma in which Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, explains to a credulous Bethany who she can be a descendant of Christ. ‘Mary,’ she points out, ‘was a virgin.’ Rufus explains that while it’s true Mary was a virgin when Christ was born, she was married to Joseph for an awful long time after that. Why assume she stayed a virgin? He concludes: ‘The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.’

I just can’t believe that five people could live in such close quarters for three decades and nothing changes. This fall I’ll will have been in my current job for just twenty years and there has been a consistent churn of turnover among my coworkers the entire time. And we don’t have to worry about the rigors of space travel! It’s just not plausible that things stay the same all those years (after all, as the song says, things change).

Which is a shame, because where the crew ends up by the finale works really well and changes the game up significantly. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have other flaws – the bad guys aren’t nearly as interesting as those in prior books and the POV bad guy, particularly, is a dweeb – but it’s still a really good read about characters we’ve come to care about.

Time jumps can be a valuable tool when writing, but you have to ask yourself two questions if you’re going to play around with them. First, why do you think the story needs to jump ahead so much? Second, what are the effects on the characters moving that far forward? If you don’t have good answers to both of those questions, probably start rethinking.

My Fantasy Confession

If you’re reading this, you probably know that as an author I primarily write fantasy stories. As I’ve said before, I love that fantasy basically has no rules and, so long as the world you build makes sense on the page, you can do anything you want. Given that, I figure it’s time that I came clean about my deep, dark secret as a fantasy writer:

I have never read a word by J.R.R. Tolkein.

It’s not that I have anything personal against ol’ JRR. I’ve seen all the movies! Not the super-extended versions that take entire years to watch, but all the ones as released in theaters. I enjoyed them, too (well, the actual Lord of the Rings ones). But if I’m honest, the Tolkien link that has the most meaning to me is the fact that Marillion was originally called Silmarillion, before changing their name early on to avoid any legal problems.

Nor was this a case of conscious avoidance of Tolkien’s work as a reader. I just never really was that interested in diving into it. When I was young and first encountered traditional fantasy books it was the first couple of Narnia books and, particularly, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, which I really enjoyed. But once I finished those my tastes turned more towards science fiction.

I wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really dug back into reading fantasy, thanks mostly to my wife, who introduced me to Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. While both of them would, assuredly, note the influence of Tolkien on their work, their stuff (or at least the stuff that appealed to me) isn’t very Tolkienesque. Gaiman’s work like American Gods and the Sandman series showed me that “fantasy” was a much broader thing than stories about wizards and goblins and the like. A Song of Ice and Fire draws deep on Tolkien-style world building, but does so in the service of a story that’s more about political maneuvers and human failings than it is about grand quests.

That part of the fantasy world hasn’t appealed to me that much lately. I’ve got nothing against a good quest – I’ve got a quest story percolating I hope to write one day – but I was more drawn to weird worlds and things that didn’t require the explanation/technobabble of science fiction. That’s where I found my inspiration to tell stories in worlds that aren’t our own, but aren’t necessarily filled with magic.

Am I missing out on something? Possibly. Am I going to try and rectify that situation? Not necessarily. I read for pleasure and so I’m not likely to decide to read something as homework just because most others might. Hell, I write for pleasure, too (that others enjoy the end product is a bonus), so I can’t see taking the time to force feed any particular author’s work.

The bottom line is I know enough about Tolkien to understand the memes and spot the references in progressive rock songs. Right now, that’s all I need. Plus I got to play the first movement of this in high school:

Doesn’t that count for something?

2021 – My Year In Media

It always drives me nuts that when the start of December rolls around (sometimes even earlier!) we begin to see “best of . . .” lists for that year. As if nothing interesting ever happens in December. So, to buck the trend, I wait until January to talk about stuff I found interesting in the year prior. With that said, here’s what most interested me about media – books, music, TV, and movies – last year. Not all of these are 2021 releases, keep in mind. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Books

In term of fiction, the only new-for-2021 book that really stuck with me was The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne (no relation, so far as I’m aware).

The story sprawls out across three separate timelines, each 1000 years apart (basically the far past, the present, and the distant future) and leans more heavily in to fantasy than sci-fi for me, but ultimately the label doesn’t matter. The stories playing out in the three eras tie together really well and there’s a lot of interesting ideas tossed around to chew on. Highly recommended.

In terms of endings, I have to give a shout out to Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the comic/graphic novel that wrapped up its run in late 2020 (I didn’t get the sixth and final volume until January of last year).

The series never really reached the heights of the first volume again – the pages (three-and-a-half of them!) where Suzie sings “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a bar, with all the words covered over with exposition explaining how expensive it is to quote song lyrics in a comic – still leaves me rolling. It touched on a lot of interesting things along the way and was never less than interesting. The ending worked, too.

As for things I got caught up on in 2021, a lot of it was historical, not fiction. I’ve recently written about The Invention of Murder and how interesting it was. Another bit of history I really enjoyed digging into was  The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom by James R. Green.

It covers the tumultuous history of labor organization in the WV coal fields, generally referred to as the Mine Wars. Very in depth, with lots of necessary background context, but also very readable.

I’d also  recommend  The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson.

It’s probably the most tragic thing I read last year, given that it tracks how the initial enthusiasm for fighting Communism curdled into dictator-propping-up realpolitk cynicism. Oh well.

Oh, and I read an awful lot about the history of the beautiful game.

Music

2021 was a weird year, musically. Several of my favorite artists – Mogwai, Steven Wilson, St. Vincent, Resistor – released albums last year. All of them are good – I even like Wilson’s electro-pop driven The Future Bites better than most proggers – but none of them really grabbed me. Maybe they’ll grow on me in the future, but for now there wasn’t anything in 2021 really worth taking note of.

As a result, last year was more about getting caught up in some things I’d overlooked – in some cases for a long long time.

Speaking of Steven Wilson, my history with his old (and new again!) band Porcupine Tree is that I preferred the “newer” stuff, from Stupid Dream on, to the older material. The Sky Moves Sideways just feel tedious to me, for instance. But poking around Bandcamp (my happy hunting ground) I found a recent rerelease of the band’s 1996 album, Signify.

That album really hits a sweet spot between the spacier stuff and the tighter, song-driven rock stuff. I also love the recurring samples that mostly touch on religious themes (the guy on “Idiot Prayer” switching from his LSD trip being nearly rapturous to just repeating “please help” does it for me every time).

I’ve given some time over the years to reevaluating music that was popular while I was growing up in the 1980s. Part of that is due to getting into electronic music, including the synthpop of my youth. Part of it is just maturing as a listener to realize that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s crap (95% of it is, of course). So when I came across this article written by a professor who used pop culture to open discussions of how people felt during the Cold War I was inspired to go dive into some of the music, including the second Men At Work album, Cargo.

The singles are good and some of the deeper cuts are just as good. “No Sign of Yesterday,” which closes out side one is great. It’s fairly recognizable pop/new wave, but with just enough weirdness to distinguish it.

Finally, another pleasant discovery from Bandcamp was the album Prophecy by Solstice:

Solstice were part of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s, but with definite folk and Celtic shadings. They only released one album back then, but have released a few more over the years, with Prophecy coming in 2013. It’s great melodic stuff. Wonderful find.

Television/Streaming

You don’t need me to tell you we’re living in the era of peak TV. There’s just so much good stuff out there that I couldn’t touch them all. So let’s focus on pleasant surprises  – things that I thought might be decent, but turned out to be really good.

The poster child for this approach is Landscapers.

On the one hand, it’s a true crime story of a married couple who murder the wife’s parents and bury them in the garden then go on the run for fifteen years. On the other, it’s a close study of a couple shut off in their own little world where reality only sometimes intrudes. It’s shot with a grab bag of styles related to classic cinema and includes a bravura scene where the police interrogation room is pulled apart to reveal a set while the scene resets. Brilliant? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t like anything else I saw last year.

I feel somewhat the same about Only Murders In the Building, in that I thought it might have potential, but didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did.

The Martin Short/Steve Martin pairing is as good as ever and Selena Gomez slipped into the mix very well. I’m not sure the actual mystery made much sense, or that I really cared about it, but given the light-hearted nature of things, who cares?

Staged, on the other hand, I was relieved was as good as it was.

I missed the first season in 2020, even though David Tennant and Michael Sheen doing comedy should have drawn me in. That season chronicled their involvement with rehearsals of a play that never actually happened (delayed by COVID and then collapsing). Shot via Zoom (or some similar platform), with their significant others playing themselves it managed to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. The second season, from last year, expands a bit as an American remake is in the works – one which isn’t going to use either one of them as stars (since, apparently, we don’t like them over here). It’s more meta and sillier, but equally good.

Finally, I’m giving a provisional shout out to Yellowjackets.

The first season hasn’t even finished as a write this and it may go way off the rails in coming years (it’s allegedly going to run for five seasons) but so far it’s been engrossing.

Movies

I can’t say much about movies in 2021 since I didn’t set foot in a movie theater all year (the pandemic and all). I watched a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but nothing that really wowed me. As a result, I think the “movie” that stuck with me most from the year was Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic excavation of The Beatles. I already wrote about that here.

That’s it – on to the new year!

Thoughts on Christmas Stories

A confession – I’ve never seen Die Hard. I’m not really an action movie guy, so it’s not really in my wheelhouse. I was kind of surprised when it started popping up described as a “Christmas movie,” but I suppose it takes place during the holiday, so why not? Then early this week I saw an interesting push back against that argument – basically that while the movie takes place at Christmas it doesn’t actually have anything to do with Christmas or what it means. That got me thinking about what makes a Christmas story and whether you can have a Christmas story that doesn’t even have Christmas in it.

I’m kind of into the “if it takes place at Christmas it’s a Christmas story” argument, because then I could force my wife to watch one my favorite movies, Brazil, under that rubric.

Make no mistake, Brazil is not at all what anyone would call a “Christmas movie.” It takes place at Christmas time, but aside from satirical asides on the consumer side of the holiday – one little girl asks Santa for a credit card, while there’s a running joke of people repeatedly gifting the kind of meaningless doodad gift you do when you’re forced to (everyone refers to it as “a gift for an executive,” so it says something about those folks, too) – the holiday doesn’t really enter into it. There’s certainly no “Christmas message” in it, given that it’s a dystopian nightmare in which the “happy ending” is the main character going insane.

That’s not a really good metric. Don’t you need some tie-in to actual Christmas and the holiday? Think of something like Gremlins, which, again, is more set at Christmastime than a “Christmas movie,” but at least you’ve got the horrible back story of Kate’s father, who died trying to pull a Santa to surprise the family. Still, there’s not really much of a message to that movie (aside from “don’t feed them after midnight,” of course). Let’s concluded, then, that we need at least “Christmas plus . . .” something, although I’m not sure what. That eliminates Brazil, but I can’t say if the same is true for Die Hard (this article makes a pretty good argument that the movie works as well as it does precisely because it’s merely “Christmas-adjacent”).

The “plus” is mostly going to be some kind of message, right? Lots of classic Christmas stories have some moral component, from A Christmas Carol (don’t be a dick to the poor at Christmas or the rest of the year) to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (don’t be a dick to people celebrating Christmas). I like those. I’m particularly a sucker for variations on Carol, my favorite being Scrooged.

Any movie that puts Miles Davis and other jazz greats in a band of street musicians for a throwaway joke is OK by me. Of course there’s also the religious angle, probably pulled off best by A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I love even though I don’t buy into the theology. I suppose we can also ditch the messages altogether and just focus on nostalgia, as in A Christmas Story, which manages the impressive task of selling that nostalgia to an audience who largely are too young to wallow in it.

I feel much less favorable toward what I call “you’re doing Christmas wrong” movies, wherein somebody dares to celebrate the holiday in their own way, only to have their individualism squashed by some kind of hive-mind celebratory conformity. Seriously, is there any reason to look at how somebody else does (or does not!) celebrate a holiday and decide you need to fix them? Drive me up the fucking wall.

So if we agree that a real Christmas story is “Christmas plus” something else, what if we don’t have the Christmas part, at least technically?

My only real routine for the holiday season is to reread (relisten, in actuality) Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett.

The Hogfather is the Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus, basically. His holiday, Hogswatch, is a combination of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, combining the gift giving aspect with the midnight revelry.

I love Hogfather in a way I don’t with many things. It’s brilliantly funny throughout. Lots of characters from the other Discworld books show up to play their part in a really clever plot – someone hires the Guild of Assassins to kill (or “inhume,” as the head assassin prefers) the Hogfather as means of bringing some order to the universe. Turns out the human imagination is both a destabilizing thing – it makes folks to wacky things – but it also inspires us to grander things. Thus we have this truth from none other than Death himself (hence the all caps – he talks that way): “HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”*

Death shows up in Hogfather to do the fat man’s job while he’s disposed, thus shoring up the role of belief in the universe. This allows Pratchett to do a lot of commentary on the holiday and what it means to different people. He shows up at a mall to give kids exactly what they want, even if they really can’t have them (he tries to give one kid a real sword, then announces to a little girl that there’s a pony in her kitchen). He butts in as a king tries to pass of his leftovers as an act of benevolent charity. He actually forgoes collecting the soul of the “little match girl,” concluding that it’s unfair for someone to die alone and cold on Hogswatch, even as his pixie henchman Albert (a fabulous character in his own right) explains that touching stories of that kind of death make other people feel better at Hogswatch. It’s through this relationship that Pratchett deals with the economic inequality of the world, which shines through during the holidays just as it does all year ‘round.

None of this message, commentary on what it means to knowingly celebrate a story you know not to be true, would land if the rest of the book wasn’t so funny, if the characters weren’t so sharp and memorable. But the Hogfather (much less Death!) isn’t Santa and Hogswatch isn’t Christmas, so does it count?

Here’s where I’ve come down on all this – if something’s a Christmas story to you, then that’s all that matters. We all find meaning in different places and different days. At no time is that more true than when all these competing winter celebrations are underway. However you celebrate, whether it’s with Die Hard or not – Happy Holidays (whatever your holiday may be)! See ya’ in the new year.

* The book’s loaded with great lines. Here’s another, from Death’s granddaughter, Susan, who’s the heroine of the story: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.”

Weekly Read: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Plus ca change
Plus c’est la meme chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
– Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres

Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.

Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder  it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.

Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.

For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.

This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.

That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.

Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.

One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.