Thursday, April 18, 2019

Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang Visits Piedmont Park

Andrew Yang, businessman, philanthropist, and Democratic presidential candidate, stood on a podium at the Promenade at Piedmont Park in Atlanta and said something that one doesn't expect in these days of political polarization.

"Donald Trump got a lot of the essential problems right," he said. He said that Trump pointed out many problems facing modern America, to which the Democrats simply claimed everything was fine. This, much more than Russia, Facebook, or the FBI, was the reason that Trump won the election and Hillary Clinton didn't. However, although Trump diagnosed the problems, his solutions were all wrong. "It's not immigrants," he said about the losses of jobs. "It is technology."

Millions of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest had been automated in recent decades. Once prosperous blue-collar communities had been hollowed out as workers were replaced by machines and it's not going to stop with industrial work. He cited the case of malls and other retail outlets closing due to competition with Amazon, something that's a real problem given how retail workers represent the majority of American jobs. He also pointed out that advances in artificial intelligence would put call-center workers and truckers out of work as well. Although convoys of self-driving automated trucks would be more efficient and save lives (no drivers to fall asleep at the wheel after long drives, for example), millions of truckers would be out of work and towns that provided lodgings, food, maintenance, etc. for truckers would wither. This is what he called "The Fourth Industrial Revolution."

The solution, Yang advocated, is a universal basic income (UBI) like Alaska's. However, instead of oil funding what Thomas Paine called a citizen's dividend and what Martin Luther King Jr. advocated in Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, it would be funded by technology. This "trickle up economy" as he called it would set the economic wheels spinning as people spent their money and would encourage entrepreneurship. This dividend, which Yang said would be $1,000 per month, would solve many of the problems Democrats talk about. Many women, for example, remain in abusive or exploitative jobs or relationships because they lack the financial means to get out. Democrats talk about empowering poor people of color and this dividend would accomplish that.

In addition to UBI, Yang advocated "Medicare for All" and thanked Bernie Sanders for making the idea mainstream. He rhetorically asked how "Medicare for All" would be paid for and said that the existing private insurance system is a network of middlemen who don't add value. He also advocated legalizing marijuana and what (to me) sounded a lot like forgiving $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt. This way young people can get out of their parents' basements and buy houses, start families, etc. He also criticized the idea of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the best measure of American progress. Although robotic trucks would increase the GDP they'd be bad for humans. He also cited how his wife's care for their two sons, one of whom is autistic, isn't measured in GDP either. He advocated for what he called "human-centered capitalism" and suggested an "American Scorecard" would be better to measure the well-being of the country.

Yang joked that as an Asian who liked math he was the opposite of Trump and ended his speech by citing his support from different factions in American politics. He said he had Trump supporters (a few made their voices heard) as well as Libertarians (these were louder). Louder still were those who identified themselves as "progressives."

"It's not left, it's not right, it's forward," Yang said, capping off his speech.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Digital Fiction Publishing's Great December 2018 Publishing Binge

As most of you all know, I have a Lovecraftian horror novel out called The Thing in the Woods through a small press called Digital Fiction Publishing, which has also published (or re-published) many of my short stories. Late last year I sent them the sequel, The Atlanta Incursion. Although I haven't gotten an official yes or no on it, the boss did like the stock art I sent him to use for the cover, so I'm optimistic. There's not really a regular release schedule, but last December the company went on a binge. Six books, more if you count the fact that a whole series got released (or re-released).

(In the interest of full disclosure, the company operates on a revenue-sharing pool, so I benefit whenever somebody purchases one of these. That said, I haven't read any of them yet, so I'm not slanting things one way or the other.)

The Invisible City by Brian K. Lowe: This is the first in a series of three books--the whole series was ultimately released by DFP and you can get the whole box set here. Basically in a future where humanity has been conquered by aliens, a man ends up getting transported one million years into the future. As one might expect, trouble ensues. Several of the reviews compare it to the John Carter books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, although I haven't had the chance to read it.

Home by Carson Buckingham: A woman inherits a farmhouse and upon taking possession of it, begins to mutate. And things seem to get weirder from there. I haven't read it, but based on the reviews there's a good bit of Irish mythology in there (perhaps in the vein of Raymond Feist's Faerie Tale, which is a pretty good book) and one of the reviewers even puts it on the same level as Stephen King.

Disappearance by Trevor Zaple: The Rapture (or something very similar) happens, but instead of a Christian end-times scenario coming to pass, instead we end up with the remaining powerful people o the pre-apocalypse world fighting over the remains. Shades of Avengers Endgame perhaps? It looks a bit more like Dean Koontz's The Taking, if the aftermath was the main focus rather than the apocalypse itself.

Invasion at Bald Eagle by Kris Ashton: Hippies! A sex cult! An alien invasion! This book has it all, and it sounds like a comedy. Once I clear out my KU library (more on that below), I think I'll definitely check this one out.

The Evil in the Tower by Debra Robinson: Ghost stories, possessions, and a lengthy feud between two families. Haunted-house stories aren't my cup of tea usually, but it does have a good-looking cover. I'm getting a bit of a Crimson Peak vibe off the whole thing.

Samurai by Timothy Manley: I've read the beginning of this one. It looks begins like an alien-invasion novel from the perspective of a Native American-level civilization encountering a spacefaring society, but based on the cover art and broader description it seems like a space opera. I'm reminded of the novel Scythian Dawn, which features extraterrestrials deliberately preventing the development of urban civilization on Earth...until some steppe hordes manage to steal one of their ships. :)

I've got a Kindle Unlimited account so I can read these novels without buying them outright, but KU only lets you borrow ten books at a time and I've got 10 already. One of the ten is Powerlines, another monster-in-the-woods story that's also from DFP. I'll definitely check some of these out when I have more time, especially Invasion at Bald Eagle.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Book Review: Blood Street (2018)

My Lovecraftian horror novel The Thing in the Woods was published by Digital Fiction Publishing, a small press headquartered in Canada. DFP went on a roll late last year, releasing a whole bunch of books in a relatively short amount of time. One of the most recent ones is called Blood Street, written by Carl Alves.

(In the interest of full disclosure, DFP pays its writers as shares from a common pot based on word count, so more sales from any DFP novel benefit me financially. However, this is an honest review.)

I checked the novel out via Kindle Unlimited and burned through it pretty quickly. How did I like it? Well, here's the review.



The Plot

A member of a Philadelphia crime family is killed (not just killed, but straight-up butchered) and his mob boss starts hunting for the killer in order to make them pay. There's one small problem--the killer isn't human. The killer is in fact the reckless and arrogant vampire Alexei, part of a clique of bloodsuckers who've taken up residence in Philadelphia. Soon the FBI gets involved, as do other vampires who don't want Alexei's idiocy to jeopardize their secret existence.

Shenanigans ensue (as author Mary SanGiovanni's cosmic horror podcast would put it) as blood runs in the streets and alliances are formed and broken. Who will live and who will die?

The Good

*I like the overall concept. I'm only aware of one vampire story involving the Mob--the film Innocent Blood, which I've never seen. This story, however, is much more complex, with Mafia, federal, and vampire factions all pursuing their own agendas and working with and against in each other in different combinations of alliance and betrayal.

*The book is a quick and entertaining read. I definitely enjoyed it. And there's room for more stories set in this universe if Mr. Alves chooses to go that route.

The Bad

*Since Alves holds to a tight third-person POV, other characters are well-described in terms of their appearance but the POV characters themselves are much less so. I'm not sure what a lot of them look like.

*The ruler of the vampire brood and the Mafia boss both don't seem particularly decisive in dealing with dangerous or idiotic subordinates. A lot of trouble could be avoided if they were a bit more ruthless with their underlings.

*A character makes a fairly drastic decision toward the end of the book, but it's not well-foreshadowed. And there's another character involved in said decision--their role in this decision doesn't really gel well with his characterization earlier.

*Per the above, the ending felt a little bit rushed.

The Verdict

A fun Kindle Unlimited read. Very absorbing. 9.0 out of 10. I would definitely recommend it.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Giving Gun Shows Another Spin This April

Last May, I attended one of the Eastman gun shows in Gwinnett County to sell books. Although I sold fourteen print copies of The Thing in the Woods and seven print copies of The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Vol. 2 (and likely sold at least some e-books with my cards), I didn't make too much profit owing to the high costs of the table, underpricing the books for lack of small bills, and not yet knowing how to best attract people to my table. I also wasn't yet aware of the importance of getting e-mails for the mailing list, reducing my long-term profit opportunities from the event. I decided to lay off gun shows until Little People, Big Guns (more obviously a "gun book" with the cover and repeated reference to "Stand Your Ground" laws) or The Atlanta Incursion (the sequel to Thing that people might buy with it) was published and focus on science fiction conventions in the meantime based on the $160 profit I made at The Atlanta Sci-Fi and Fantasy Expo the previous March.

However, after ordering a lot of books to ensure I was adequately stocked for a planned summer of sales, I found myself with many books and a lot fewer venues than I'd anticipated. Although I'm definitely going to the Northwest Georgia Comic Book and Collectible Toy Expo, I'm on the waiting list for Augusta Toy and Comic Show and the "standby list" for the Atlanta Comic-Con (where I made an absolute killing last year and was hoping to sell lots this year) and I don't know when the next Atlanta Comic Convention (where I made a decent profit last December splitting the table with Robert Jeffrey) will be. I intend to work shifts with the Atlanta Horror Writers of America chapter and the Atlanta Writers Club at the Decatur Book Festival Labor Day weekend and I've queried MultiverseCon and am considering Monsterama, but those are farther out. Based on how people at this year's Atlanta Sci-Fi and Fantasy Expo remembered me from the last convention and how I didn't make as much money as I anticipated, I'm worried that I might be "tapping out" the Atlanta SF/F/H crowd with Thing and HFQ.

(Little People, Big Guns won't be released by Deadite Press until November 15 and I doubt I'll get Blood on the Border done over the summer like I planned. And only two books doesn't really justify out of state travel--I lost money on last year's Lizard-Man Festival and that was with convenient relatives to crash with. Although I'd probably have better luck with events in big cities like Charleston and Columbia, I'm a high school teacher and most of the South Carolina events seem to be during the school year. The Soda City Comic-Con might work, since it's close to relatives I can stay with and it's before the school year starts and it seems to be a much bigger deal attendance-wise than the Lizard-Man Festival.)

So I've decided to give gun shows another spin, taking into account the reasons I didn't make much money the last time. I'm going to the Gem Capitol show in the last weekend in April that's got cheaper tables than the Gwinnett show. I'm also splitting the already lower cost with T.S. Dann, who is a gun enthusiast and an artist with lots to display in addition to being a writer. I'm going to make sure to have lots of small bills to make change and try to be more engaging with passers-by like I was at Atlanta Comic-Con. I'm also going to collect e-mail addresses this time, to build my fan-base much like Larry Correia did. Even if I sell the exact same number of books as last time, I'll make significantly more profit due to lower costs and a higher per-unit price. I'm feeling a bit more optimistic and less naive this time. :)

If this works out, there are plenty more gun shows in metro Atlanta and Georgia this year. Eastman is having events in Marietta/Cobb in later June, July, and December. And if it doesn't work out, then it's back to the original plan of waiting for LPBG and TAI so I've got more to sell.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

All Art Is Political: Yes or No?

Lately something I've seen a lot on Twitter, where I follow a lot of writers and other creative types, is the notion that "all art is political." Here is a detailed explanation of this belief from someone who popularized it and here is a rebuttal. I first heard of this notion many years before from a college acquaintance who's now a minister in a very conservative non-denominational church and an active Christian home-schooler (he said that all art has "a message" and essentially there's no neutrality), but it has gained especial prominence in recent years with the rise of various social justice movements online.

Coming from who it does (conservative Christians and the Internet social justice crowd), the whole idea sets my teeth on edge. Although historically the former has had more power than the latter (disapproval by the Catholic Legion of Decency could doom a film), political criticism of art and culture has become more prominent lately with the young-adult fiction controversies. The author-withdrawn novels Blood Heir and A Place for Wolves (the links go to discussions of each controversy individually) are two significant examples. Seriously, the apologies the YA community (or at least some of its more belligerent members) have extorted from the writers in question sound like something out of a Cultural Revolution "struggle session" (I'm not the only one to think that) and speaking as a historian this also brings to mind things like McCarthyism. It sets a precedent for political critique of works not intended to be political and, at worst, political control.

(The U.S. constitutional arrangements make legal censorship all but impossible, but the outrage machines on both sides of the political spectrum can lead to books or movies getting shelved, creatives' careers getting ruined, etc. Criticism isn't censorship, but it can become that de facto if the critics can intimidate the object of their critique or convince gatekeepers like agents, book studios, movie publishers, radio stations, etc. Look how #NoConfederate is threatening to deep-six HBO's first alternate-history project since Fatherland or the hammering of the Dixie Chicks' career.)

However, whether all art is truly political or not depends on how one defines "political," as the rebuttal article above points out. Some books or films are clearly "message fiction"--Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale as a response to the growing power of the Christian Right and the Iranian Revolution and the TV adaptation is clearly about Donald Trump, while It Can't Happen Here is a warning of possible fascism. Get Out is about how even white liberals can be dangerous to minorities and Starship Troopers was written in response to the US limiting nuclear testing and the Soviets breaking their promise to do likewise and has a lot of commentary on citizenship and responsibility. Less subtly there's Orson Scott Card's Empire and the neo-Nazi The Turner Diaries (nope, not linking to it) or the gun politics of Newt Gingrich's 1945.

(German commandos mow down nuclear scientists and their families in Oak Ridge while gloating about how banning guns from the site only made them defenseless against armed attackers and are ultimately defeated and left hogtied by Tennessee good old boys led by either the recently-demobilized Audie Murphy or the retired Sergeant York. I'm not a fan of gun control but this is seriously overplaying one's hand. I would have depicted the good old boys ambushing the Germans, killing a bunch and slowing them down enough for the scientists to escape, but not defeating them so thoroughly and not without taking significant losses themselves once they lose the element of surprise. Considering how poorly 1945 sold, a bit of nuance would've probably been helpful.)

By the above standard, most literature isn't political. I can't think of any sort of "message" in the monster movie Deep Rising or The Hobbit (the book). Tolkien himself objected to the idea that The Lord of the Rings was "really" about World War II or that Mordor was Germany and even described what the story would have looked like if that were the case.

However, if you define "political" to include "reflective of the author's values" or "reflecting the historical or cultural context in which they're written" rather than explicit author soapboxing, things get a bit broader. Tolkien's work in general is all about human fallibility (and there's a lot of criticism of industrialization and nostalgia for rural England) and the story of the hobbits in particular is about how the humble can be more important than the great. The film adaptations of The Hobbit included the new character Tauriel because Tolkien's original book lacked female characters completely and although there were a few women in The Lord of the Rings, their roles were not substantial compared to the men. Meanwhile, Highlander has a moral of self-sacrifice--the Immortals are sterile and Connor's refusal to abandon his wife leaves her to grow old and die without the children she wanted (something she blames herself for). To avoid repeating this mistake (and save himself the pain of watching his lover age and die while he remains young a second time), Connor eschews romantic relationships for centuries.

Now to examine some of my own currently-available work to see how it counts as "political," especially if one incorporates a more expanded use of the term.

Political

The Thing in the Woods-I didn't intend for this to be a "message book" but it does reflect my values in that it's pro-gun and anti-racist. And the context of the early 2000s in the United States plays a major role in the characterization of most of the cast. Although I didn't go in intending to write a "message book" (I was inspired by a Call of Cthulhu scenario about "Lovecraft country" getting suburbanized and wanted to set it in Georgia and not New England to be different), the tale grew with the telling. The immediate sequel The Atlanta Incursion (with the publisher now) ties in with Black Lives Matter, while the in-progress third novel The Walking Worm ties in with the opiate crisis. Early 2000s cultural-political context ahoy!

Nicor-The story is antiwar even though it's on the surface an action-adventure monster story. Also a commentary on the things a man will do for women, particularly in a warlike and patriarchal society--the protagonist hopes to get enough loot and glory from going a-Viking to get a wife "or two."

Ten Davids, Two Goliaths and Discovery and Flight-Two novellas written in Lindsay Buroker's Fallen Empire universe, during the rebellion against the tyrannical Sarellian Empire rather than the troubled aftermath. Although my stories avoid the shades of gray of Buroker's work (which I've noted resembles the Arab Spring), that the Empire created its own enemy by drumming the protagonist out of the Navy for disobeying orders by destroying the bridge of a hijacked ship with beam weapons rather than blowing up the whole ship with a torpedo and his friend is a recovering drug addict who'd been sentenced to personality-altering medical treatment of questionable value is a moral judgement. The world-building I did for Buroker goes into detail about how the Imperial system and its Alliance successor state function and that's definitely political. Basically the Empire is corrupt and abusive toward dissidents, politics and big-big business are incestuously entwined, and many of its economic policies are focused on make-work projects to keep the masses busy while the Alliance in seeking to avoid the tyranny of the Empire is rather weak militarily and perhaps a little too hands-off.

Lord Giovanni's Daughter-I didn't plan for this to be a "message story" either, but Adriana is deliberately characterized to not be a passive "damsel in distress." I also wanted to subvert the fantasy-barbarian stereotype with protagonist John Fiore, who wants to build a library with his mercenary wages. Encouraging women to take initiative? Statement on the importance of education?

Illegal Alien-This started out as a joke about the different meanings of the word "alien," but I wrote it at the time of the Si Se Puede immigrant marches and deliberately hoped to play on that. Plus the protagonist and his friends wouldn't be trying to sneak into the U.S. illegally if there was a guest worker program like the WWII braceros and the hero's back-story touches on NAFTA's effects on Mexico.

Ubermensch and Needs Must-Two stories featuring an Indian-American supervillain protagonist and his rivalry with the hero Silverbolt. I did write an Indian-American protagonist because I actually agree with people's concerns about the lack of representation. The superhero antagonist Silverbolt hates guns due to a domestic violence incident in his past and one character is a stripper and totally unapologetic and unashamed about it. Plus there's a whole lot of Nietzsche quoting. :)

"Coil Gun"-Part of the Pressure Suite collection, this one depicts global nuclear war as survivable (albeit still extremely, extremely sucky) with proper civil defense preparations and ground- and spaced-based missile defenses. It's also critical of racism and religious bigotry, as is the Afrikanerverse in general. You can see my discussion of that here and here.

Picking Up Plans In Palma-This one gets more into religion than politics in that a character (a Catholic) being in a sexual relationship with another (a Protestant) but not married is a major plot point, but it does share the same anti-bigotry moral of "Coil Gun." There's also the added twist that it's a critique of complementarianism and "biblical patriarchy" from a Christian perspective, something I also discuss in the above blog posts.

Debatable

Melon Heads-Not written with any political intention. However, the frat boys of Pi Iota Gamma are much more dangerous (and morally worse) than the titular Melon Heads, who are already suffering from diminished mental capacity and have been reduced to an essentially animalistic state by medical mistreatment and decades living in the woods. A #MeToo story written nearly 15 years early? And in the original draft the frat boys were a drug dealer and a couple of his goons, so you could argue the story makes moral judgments on drug dealing.

The Beast of the Bosporus-I started writing this as essentially "a Lovecraft story in the Ottoman Empire and not New England," but I elaborated on Sokolli's Janissary bodyguard a bit due to concerns from members of my writing group that the story could be interpreted as anti-Muslim. Now there's a Muslim character who isn't a drunk (Sultan Selim II) or a practitioner of dark magic with possible anti-Semitic tendencies (the protagonist Sokolli). Still not a "message book" and not intended to make a statement about anything.

Not Really

I am the Wendigo-My first story for which I was paid and most definitely not a "message book." However, it's also incredibly short. Furthermore, one could wring a moral out of it--the human father is a predator (albeit under utterly extreme circumstances) and is prey himself. However, that's really pushing it.

Lord of the Dolorous Tower-Two young men go meddling in the tomb of a fallen Dark Lord and trouble ensues. One of the two is clearly the dominant party in the relationship (stronger personality and somewhat more educated) and both parties' motivations include impressing girls so one could make some kind of sociological commentary, but really?

Sam-A Doberman vs. a monster that only it can detect. Perhaps a commentary on not being believed when one warns of danger? That's pushing it too.

So getting back to the original point, based on my own work alone I argue that not all art is political, but the stories that are longer and have more depth often touch on significant political, social, or cultural themes. And in the long run, it's these works that have staying power. The Handmaid's Tale will be discussed for years to come, while many schlocky paperback space opera or monster books written at the same time are sold at library book sales for a buck each. It is my hope that The Thing in the Woods is and its sequels are remembered as "horror of the early aughts" and discussed by cultural historians and the like in the same way as, say, the horror of the 1980s.

What do you think?