If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be New Colonia

The hubbub over Confederate has spurred Amazon to reveal that they’ve been developing a new alternate-history series of their own which likewise has its point of divergence in the 19th century:

In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.

That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.

Black utopianism? Now that’s what I’m talking about!

I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.

No Bad Ideas

Last week Variety reported that HBO is developing a replacement for Game of Thrones: a counterfactual drama wherein the Confederacy successfully seceded. Suddenly everybody has strong opinions about alternate history!

“Confederate” chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

My Twitter TL was awash in negative reactions, many of them authored by GoT fans. The sexy-time adventures of Dumblesticks the diddling dwarf? A-OK! But grays exiting the USA? NO WAY!

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t there a popular what-if miniseries on Amazon Prime that posits an Axis victory over the US, based on an award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick that even has its own amazing album produced by Danger Mouse? Maybe HBO is trying to make a couple of Reichsmarks on the same sort of idea?

Nope! But don’t take my word for it — here’s TeenVogue, of all outlets, to piss on your Land O’Smiles:

To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.

You see, the Germans are totally sorry for the Holocaust whereas Americans are like totally not sorry for slavery! That’s why a show such as Confederate is nicht gut! What are you, woefully uneducated? God!

To be fair, the reason why Man in the High Castle is well received and the mere suggestion of Confederate isn’t may be because the latter hits a little too close to home. After all, I’m unaware of any Nazis-win-the-war shows coming out of Germany. On the other hand, the fact that High Castle‘s point of divergence occurred more recently — there are still people alive who experienced the 1930s and 40s — suggests that familiarity isn’t the whole explanation either.

Now if you’ve just slid from the timeline where this blog is a one long string of poop emojis and you’ve never read my writing before, let me be glacially clear: the Civil War was initiated by bellicose and arrogant slave-owners for horrible, selfish, and stupid reasons. Outmanned and outindustrialized from the get-go, the Confederacy never had a chance of winning, and the fact the war lasted as long as it did is due less to any effort by the rebels than to confusion and Federal mismanagement early in the conflict.

That said, it’s certainly symptomatic of social-media’s outrage culture that the simple idea of a fictionalized southern secession drove folks to stuff the Internet’s complaint box.

Many of those instant-coffee Turtledoves seem unaware of the deep library of Civil War-based alt-hist literature already out there. How Few Remain alone spawned ten sequels. There’s Robert Conroy’s 1862. I can recommend Terry Bisson’s odd little novel, Fire on the Mountain. The most well-known is undoubtedly The Guns of the South. And most recently there’s Ben Winters’s 2016 novel Underground Airlines, nominated for several prizes. So many trees have been killed on the subject you need an entire page on Wikipedia to keep them straight, and I have to wonder if HBO, like Amazon, would be better off adapting and expanding an existing book rather than generating an IP whole cloth.

Among alt-hist writers, in fact, the what-if-the-South-seceded trope is so common it’s cliche. The first two alt-hist stories I ever wrote involved the Civil War. “Galveston” has Johnny Reb trying to enlist an independent Texas to the Lost Cause, while “Glorieta Pass” posits an underground abolitionist resistance in the post-secession territories. If those concepts sound familiar it’s because they are — I look back on those stories now and cringe at their banality. That recognition pushed me to write better stories.

But here’s the thing, a lesson that any true creative can tell you: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. A monster terrorizing a group of people is the plot of countless schlocky horror movies but only one of those films is Jaws. For every million landscapes painted there’s The Starry Night. Every book or movie or artistic endeavor is, at it’s core, conceptually the same as something else, some other work.

Confederate hardly has a monopoly on iffiness. Hey! Wanna hear my pitch for a show about a bunch of inmates in a WW2 POW camp? It’s like The Great Escape only it’s a sitcom where the Nazis are a bunch of buffoons and the one guy goes, “I know nothing!” a lot! It’s funny because he’s fat and has a mustache! Ha ha!

And yet if you turn on TV Land or dig deep enough into your television’s channel guide, you can watch the execution of that concept right now, still in syndication years later.

The point is, it’s not so much the elevator pitch that matters, it’s how an individual work is rendered that distinguishes it. It wasn’t the ideas for my stories that stunk. It was my execution of them.

Personally I’m a hundred times more excited to watch Jordan Peele’s production of Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed here, BTW) than I am Confederate. Maybe the show will be terrible, in which case viewers will be sure to let HBO know. Maybe, like High Castle, it will be brilliant.

But it’s a little rich for dorks who nerd out over E.L. James-scribed Dungeon & Dragons fanfic to shut down an idea before it even steps across the drawbridge. It’s even more ignorant for some of those same people to be writers and artists. They ought to know better.

Down the Memory Troll

O’Brien’s original artwork, right, along with its appearance in Favorite Tales.

Proving yet again that one’s childhood is an endless vein of gold for a writer to mine, I have an article at Atlas Obscura about Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls, a 70s-era children’s book that still haunts my dreams (and those of others, apparently):

It may seem counter-intuitive to mimic the hellscapes and grotesqueries of such paintings as The Garden of Earthly Delights or The Last Judgment for a children’s book, but the plan sure worked for John O’Brien. He’s the illustrator behind Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls, a 32-page picture book first published in 1977 by Random House. To this day, nostalgic readers still go online to enthuse about it.

Whole thing here.

This week is Children’s Literature Week at Atlas Obscura. When I first learned AO — a site devoted to the odd or forgotten that I’ve enthused about before — was hosting the theme, I immediately thought of O’Brien and Favorite Tales.

Turns out O’Brien lives and works very close to where I grew up in South Jersey, so it was easy to meet him at his studio. He’s an incredibly generous and funny man, everything you’d imagine a children’s illustrator to be, and it was wonderful to have my questions answered about a book that’s been lodged in my brain for more than thirty years (it was also fun to discover why the book is stuck in my brain). I wish I could’ve fit all of O’Brien’s stories into the article, stories about how he landed his first agent (it involved O’Brien acting as the alibi for a couple to meet for sex) and being a young artist in New York at a time when you could go through the white pages and call art directors on the phone.

So what youthful memories should I convert into cash next? How about an essay on selling old toys and action figures on eBay, or perhaps a digression on the symbolism of Disney World to my family?

Meantime, ICYMI, here’s me reminiscing about other childhood reading material.

Mourning Dove

I have a weird Western called “Mourning Dove” in the anthology Principia Ponderosa, now available.

She rose and walked to the press. “My husband started this newspaper to compete with the other established dailies in town. Every one of them printed a single edition per day. He realized he could gain an advantage by running two editions every day, and jump the competition by putting a morning edition on the streets for folks to read while they ate their bacon. But publishing two newspapers every single day is hard work, and doesn’t leave time for much else. So he invented this press to write the morning edition for him.” She patted the metal. “Thing is, he went ahead and somehow made a machine that wrote news before it happened, saving him the trouble of having to write about it afterwards.”

Certain recent aspects of my personal life have entailed me staring through a telescope into my future and I haven’t always liked what I’ve seen. I asked myself, Would anybody really want to know what lay ahead if they could?

Principia Ponderosa is available for Kindle and in paperback. The art above isn’t the cover; editor Juliana Rew used it for flavor when she sent around her submissions call and I love its digital whimsy, located somewhere between deco and 16-bit.

Open Loops

Office Politics by Shag. Copyright is his, illustration reproduced for discussion purposes only, please don’t sue.

Over at Electric Lit, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has an interview about his second novel, Universal Harvester, and his reliance on beta readers to provide “gentle reminders that I have to close loops” in his fiction:

There’s a scene where they’re editing video tapes, and originally there were cryptic labels on these canning jars that suggested something besides jam would be going into them — who knows what. Blood, or plasma, or whatever, right? It was creepy as hell, but you can’t plant that seed and never say anything about it again. You can’t. If I introduce something to the scene, I have to — at the very least — acknowledge that something has been left unknown there. I can’t just say something and never refer to it again … but the appeal of that is very strong and hard to resist.

I have to wonder if Darnielle is a Robert Aickman fan. Aickman wrote what he called “strange stories,” stories that aren’t horror and don’t always involve the supernatural but were intended to leave the reader unsettled, often via a lack of explanation or full context. This has given Aickman a reputation for being baffling, though this is an exaggeration; more accurately, the vitreousness of his work spans the gamut from dirty windshield to outright opacity.

Take, for example, his best known story (and for good reason), “Ringing the Changes.” It involves a pair of newlyweds — Gerald being much older than his attractive wife Phrynne — arriving in the small seaside town of Holihaven for their honeymoon. They arrive in late afternoon only to learn there is one night during the year when tourists most certainly should not visit Holihaven. By the story’s end it’s fairly clear what has transpired — there’s little confusion — though the motivations of some of the characters are oblique. Over and over, the townspeople chastise the owner of the hotel, Mrs. Pascoe, for accepting the couple’s reservation on that most notorious of nights. Why did she endanger her two guests? But they, and we, never hear a clear response.

It was so dark where Mrs Pascoe was working that her labours could have been achieving little; but she said nothing to her visitors, nor they to her. At the door Phrynne unexpectedly stripped off the overcoat and threw it on a chair. Her nightdress was so torn that she stood almost naked. Dark though it was, Gerald saw Mrs Pascoe regarding Phrynne’s pretty body with a stare of animosity.

A favorite visual artist of mine is Shag, aka Josh Agle. He’s well-known in tiki and mid-century modern circles; his paintings are populated by lithe women and dapper men drinking cocktails while spy jazz presumably plays softly in the background. But often his canvases also feature other, more inexplicable details, like anthropomorphic animals or sinister characters and scenarios. In an interview (which I can’t find now), Shag stated he likes creating ambiguous scenes in which full context is unknowable, thereby forcing the viewer to create her own unique narrative of what’s taking place inside the frame.

“Office Politics,” shown above, is a perfect example. The woman in the foreground carries a broken bottle, presumably to use as a weapon. But on whom — the man? The woman? Both? Meanwhile the other woman entertains the man with a puppet. But wait — the puppet is a pink elephant, a common symbol for drunken delirium (and a recurring motif in some of Shag’s paintings, most notably “Pink Elephants,” “Seek Help,” which he said was about him quitting alcohol). So does the puppeteer represent alcoholism and the broken-bottle woman sobriety, each vying for the man’s soul? There’s no wrong answer, and that’s the beauty of Shag’s work — he engages the viewer into a subjective experience. Two people can see the same painting and walk away with very different stories about it.

In college I took a drawing class in which I became fascinated with the concept of pareidolia — the phenomenon of the brain forming faces or other recognizable shapes and patterns out of random meaninglessness, like clouds. My final project consisted of a long scroll of paper on which I had quickly jotted hundreds of squiggly lines. Once the scroll was hung on the classroom wall, yes, I could see a few faces within the lines — though whether anyone else could, I don’t know.

When I discovered Aickman a few years ago, he helped ease my anxiety over open loops in my fiction, of tying every string’s end into an explicit, visible knot. It was OK, said Aickman, to leave things unexplained and let the reader connect the dots, even if the shapes created by those dots weren’t the ones I had intended. That designed pareidolia is something I have since resuscitated in my fiction: let the reader have his own interpretation. Maybe Aickman could work the same medicine on Darnielle for book number three.

Black to the Future

Over at Electric Literature, you can read about my childhood fascination with Marvel Comics’ Black Panther, and more specifically with his native land of Wakanda:

Black Panther is a hero in the Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark mold, a super-wealthy bachelor who uses science and athleticism to pound on bad guys. There are no secret identities — everyone knows who BP is: he’s T’Challa, the king of the African nation Wakanda, which is a mix of grass huts, deep jungle, and 1970s futurism.

The essay is a departure from my usual stuff, very loose and free floating, a sepia stream of consciousness about comics and growing up in a household where futurism was literally just laying around on tables or bolted to the roof. Whereas Panther’s color resonated with many black readers, it was the setting that captured my imagination, and still does: I nearly jumped out of my seat at the brief glimpses of Wakanda at the tail end of this year’s Captain America: Civil War.

As of this writing my essay has received 20 retweets and a dozen likes on Twitter, more than my book ever did, suggesting maybe I should write about pop culture more often. Unfortunately I’m poorly qualified for the job: I generally hate TV (some exceptions may apply), I can count the frequency I go the movies in a year on one hand, and the number of video games I’ve played to completion since 2011 tallies at exactly three. I love music but not being a musician myself I feel I lack the vocabulary to adequately speak about it. Which leaves book blogging, something I’m hoping to do more of in the new year.

Rereading my old BP comics within the full and complete context of “Panther’s Rage” has been gratifying, with Wakanda coming across as smaller than I remember (the sci-fi technology is largely confined to T’Challa’s palace) and yet bigger (more dinosaurs! snowy mountain wastelands chock full of yetis!). It’s interesting being at an age now where I can experience a phenomenon both as contemporary futurism and as retrofuturism. Something like Vernean steampunk will forever be out of reach as a potentiality and exists only for us as a quaint, even naive, vision of how things were supposed to be; but by simply living past tomorrow we can experience both the very real possibility and the hindsight of existing in what invariably turns out to be a different future. I was recently talking to my dad about the solar panels on his house, which are solely for heating water. When I asked him whether photovoltaic panels were available in the 70s, he told me no, not commercially — the technology was in its infancy. And yet as we spoke while driving through the streets of his town, we spotted several houses with PV arrays on their roofs. Wherever you go there you are, but almost never where you thought you’d be.

I’ll be there on opening day in 2018 when the MCU Black Panther movie drops, and I’m sure I’ll have many opinions about it. Maybe I’ll even write some of them down. Meow.