Endless Universes and Genre Soundscapes

Endless Universes and Genre Soundscapes


It’s been a fun couple of days. If you’re on Twitter and have Verified status, you probably found that you couldn’t post the other day for a while. Twitter experienced a major security breach, and it seems that the perpetrators got their hands on — or were able to get an insider to do their work for them — some admin tools and hijacked around 130 high-profile accounts, to spread a Bitcoin scam. As a result, Twitter shut down posting access for anyone with a blue check mark — an unprecedented action.

I’m a bit leery of that this was *just* a Bitcoin thing — this was a pretty brazen, high-profile attack, one that I don’t think is really worth the $300,000 or so that they made off with in Bitcoin from people who actually gave them money. It feels like it was a test or an effort to steal data or private messages.

There’s a lot to be said to the security of any online platform and this sort of attack, but it’s a really, really good reminder not to rely on something like Twitter or Facebook, or YouTube as a platform. John Scalzi put it best.

I’ve got my own site, and I specifically started up Reading List as a way to not rely so much on the arbitrary tides of the major social networks. Plus, I’ve always found long-form writing more appealing and able to convey more nuance. This is my roundabout way of saying thank you for signing up for this — I enjoy writing each entry, and I hope that you enjoy reading them.

ICYMI earlier this week: my interview with Mary Robinette Kowal went out. It’s a good one. This letter, I’ve got some thoughts on genre podcasts, some recent Star Wars news, as well as the usual roundup of interesting things to read from around the internet. Let’s dig in.

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Endless Universes… Again

Remember a couple of weeks ago when I wrote about how various shows within the Star Wars universe really shouldn’t be thought of as individual shows, but parts of a much bigger thing? This week’s news helps to reinforce that just a bit more: Disney announced a new, animated Clone Wars spinoff called The Bad Batch.

The Bad Batch were a group of Clone Troopers who were introduced in the beginning of Season 7. Where clones are supposed to be … identical, these guys aren’t: they have some quirks that made them all different. There’s the smart one (Tech), the sniper (Crosshair), the brute (Wrecker), and their leader (Sergeant Hunter), and they all have a reputation for unconventional tactics.

Their arc in Season 7 was aiding the main characters in rescuing a clone trooper who had long been presumed dead, and by the end, it’s clear that these guys have plenty of more stories ahead of them.

On one hand, I’m not surprised at all to see Disney go back to The Clone Wars well for inspiration: the series was extremely popular with fans, and there are so many things that they can do with the characters — something we’ve already seen them do with people like Ahsoka, Rex, and others.

On the other, I’m a little miffed: I thought that the Bad Batch was a bit too… tropey? It feels like we’ve seen this sort of thing — super specialized people who are suited for a specific job. I was also firmly in the camp that the series should have brought in a different team of fan-favorite Clones: Delta Squad, who were the main stars of the original Republic Commando games way back when, and who got only the briefest of cameos in the show’s third season.

But this all goes back to the inter-connected nature of the franchise, and I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see other things come out of Clone Wars or Rebels as Disney works to fill Disney + with new content. That final season of The Clone Wars featured another storyline ripe for spinoff treatment: Trace and Rafa Martez, sisters in the Star Wars underworld who run into Ahsoka. If warfare is one part of Star Wars, the criminal element is just as important. The Clone Wars really played with both equally, and we see those sort of manifest in the two standalone movies, Rogue One and Solo.

I’ve felt that Solo was an underrated film, in part because aside from putting a definitive origin to Han Solo, it featured some neats ties with the animated franchise, which this latest season reinforced. Trace and Rafa, while they weren’t as popular as the Bad Batch, would be ideal characters to see pop up elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Disney do something with them and Solo somewhere down the road. And there are some hints that Disney hasn’t relegated Solo to the dustbin for its sin of underwhelming at the box office: Alden Ehrenreich, who plays the titular character, noted this week that he’d return to play the character: “It depends on what it is. It depends on how it's done. It depends if it feels innate to the story.” When asked if Disney is doing anything, he didn’t say much, but enough to ignite a bit of hope in fans who have been wanting a sequel: “I've heard soooome stuff, but nothing concrete.” Hm.

But that’s the thing with these projects: they continually serve as story seeds for other projects down the road. Ultimately, I think that’s a key reason for why Star Wars is proving to be well-suited for TV and streaming: there’s just so many characters and angles to cover the larger story in. And because of that — and the synergy between the comics and novels — we’ll be seeing Star Wars evolve in some pretty interesting ways in the coming years.

Listen Up: Genre Audio

Are going to see a renaissance of audio genre projects, with podcasts thought of as equals alongside novels, television shows or comics? This thought has crossed my mind before, and it came back with a couple of news items a couple of weeks ago: Spotify signed a deal to produce a series of exclusive podcasts with Warner Bros. and DC Comics, and Orbit Books decided to adapt Jon Skovron’s novel Hope and Red as a podcast, which is now being released weekly.

Podcasting is a big and growing field — the success of Serial in 2014 gave everyone a wakeup call. Now, there are plenty of copycat shows, and plenty of people who are looking at the medium as a viable way to tell interesting stories.

Genre fiction has a solid foundation here already, with plenty of tie-in projects and original shows floating around. Marvel and Stitcher partnered to produce two Wolverine podcasts, Wolverine: The Long Night and Wolverine: The Lost Trail (which later became comics). The pair also launched Marvels last year, and partnered with digital storytelling startup Serial Box to produce a number of projects about Black Panther, Black Widow, Thor, and Jessica Jones. Those aren’t *quite* podcast projects, but they’re serialized and also available as eBooks.

Audible has done its share of projects, ranging from original audiobooks like Dennis E. Taylor’s The Singularity Trap and other straight-up audiobooks (including some tie-in work like its Alien audio dramas), as well as more expansive audio adaptations like Joe Hill’s Lock & Key and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which came out earlier this week.

Lucasfilm also has a long history of audio storytelling: it partnered with NPR to produce a radio drama of the entire Star Wars original trilogy, and well-known for producing great audiobooks. (Having the larger library of sounds and music from the franchise helps.) More recently, Random House has begun producing some original audio dramas: it released Dooku: Jedi Lost, an original, full-cast audio drama written by Cavan Scott last year, and next week, it’ll release another one: Doctor Aphra, written by Sarah Kuhn. I’ve been listening to an advance copy over the last couple of days, and it’s quite a bit of fun.

And of course, there’s the British, who are responsible for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, BBC Radio 4 produced two excellent H.P. Lovecraft adaptations The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Whisperer in Darkness, and there are endless Doctor Who audio dramas.

There are plenty of original podcast projects as well: Welcome to Night Vale is probably the closest thing that the genre world has to Serial, but there have been other projects as well: Tor Labs’ Steal the Stars was a fun story about UFOs, QCODE’s Blackout was a fun post-apocalyptic drama with excellent audio work, and Maximum Fun produced a fun project called Bubble. Another favorite of mine is The Hyacinth Disaster, an independently-produced science fiction story about a mining crew on a strange asteroid. Serial Box has a growing library of original content on its own platform.

As DC / Warner Media and Orbit Books jump into the scene with their respective projects, they’re approaching it from a couple of different ways.

Let’s look at DC and Spotify’s pact first. Spotify is best known as a streaming music service, but it’s made some big gains in podcasting in recent months — it signed Joe Rogan, one of the biggest podcasters out there, earlier this year and last year, it acquired Gimlet, a major podcast studio with its own catalog of original content. (How I Built This has a fantastic interview with founders Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber about the formation of the studio and its acquisition.)

This sort of arrangement makes a lot of sense to me: Spotify might have started as a streaming service, but it’s demonstrated that it also wants to be a home for non-music things as well, like podcasting. That also means that there could be new revenue sources for them, through the creation of new and original IP. The popularity of some shows, like Gimlet’s Homecoming, have translated over to television.

The studios that Spotify and others have been acquiring are working on developing their own original content, but publishers are companies that are made up of nothing *but* original content. Orbit’s foray into this seems to be a bit of an experiment (this is some conjecture on my part — Orbit provided an overly-brief explanation answer my queries about this), dipping their figurative toes into the audio waters to see if taking an existing audiobook would work well in podcast form.

Orbit says that it’s adapting Hope and Red because it was a novel that it felt was well suited for serialization, with the added bonus that Skovron narrated it. It’s a bit of an odd choice. It feels like a sort of loss-leader to see if it will generate interest in the author (who released a new novel in April, The Ranger of Marzanna) or to see if the listeners that it does attract will convert over into paying audiobook customers.

I can’t really see either case working out all that well in this case: the podcast is repurposing an already little-known book, an existing project that’s being shoved into a hole that’s not quite the same size or shape. Audiobooks and podcasts aren’t the same thing, and you can’t quite expect either to work in the other’s role. An adaptation of something James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes or N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season feels like it would make a bigger splash, but those authors really don’t need to do that. (Although come to think of it, I’d love to listen to a full-cast, original audio drama of either.)

This all comes during a period that’s akin to the end of the Wild West for audio. It’s a scene that’s famously resisted commercialization. That’s starting to change, I think, as companies, studios, and entrepreneurs recognize that a) there are lots of listeners (and thus a market) out there, and b) highly-polished projects can be profitable, and c) the medium has really matured. As a result, we’re seeing bigger studios coming in, like Marvel and DC, who recognize the potential here.

I don’t see this changing anytime soon — despite the pandemic depressing listenership a bit. A couple of newsletters ago, I mused about the possibility of other franchises jumping over to the medium: could we see a Star Wars serialized podcast? I think it’s likely at some point.

This certainly isn’t a sure thing. For every Welcome to Night Vale or Serial, you have thousands of projects that never approach their listenership. One example here might be Tor Labs, which produced Steal the Stars in 2018, and which seemed to be an ambitious initiative on the part of the company, which produced not only the podcast, but a novel adapting the podcast and an audiobook version. But Tor hasn’t produced another project since, and I’m not sure if they will. It’s not hard to imagine why: audio is expensive and time-consuming, and it doesn’t seem as though Steal the Stars really generated a ton of buzz. Podcast startup Luminary launched last year with high hopes of spurring on a closed ecosystem of podcasts, but it’s not taking off, despite having some excellent shows.

And of course, there’s the question of whether or not a massive studio should push their way into the medium and suck all of the oxygen out of the room. I’m sympathetic to what podcasting / audio represents for smaller studios: untapped territory in which they can make their mark. Some of those original podcasts that I mentioned? They’re really good, and there’s lots of room for up-and-coming writers, producers, and voice actors to make their mark. On the other hand, I do think that podcasting / audio allows those massive studios to explore the boundaries and experiment with form. Ultimately, there’s room for everyone, and what we are getting are some very cool innovations. Some will work, some won’t, but we have — and will — get some interesting stories for the effort.

Currently Reading

I’ve been steadily working through my book list the last couple of weeks. I spent the weekend with family in upstate New York over the fourth of July weekend, and burned through a small stack of books with me: Shorefall by Robert Jackson Bennett, and Red Dust by Yoss. I’ve also recently finished Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon, and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which I blew through and am still processing.

Currently, I’m still rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune, as well as Eric Nuzum’s Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling, which I’m really getting a lot out of. I’ve decided to set Chris Kluwe’s Otaku aside; it’s just not working for me.

I’ve got a couple of other books on my to-read list: next up is Mexican Gothic by Silva Moreno-Garcia (which I started and am really enjoying), and after that, I’ve got Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, Martha Wells’ Network Effect, Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song, Alexander Freed’s Alphabet Squadron: Shadow Fall, John P. Murphy’s Red Noise. I also recently picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.

Further Reading

  • Bookstore Browsing. Writer Mark Athitakis has a lovely piece up in The Washington Post called “There’s no replacement for the thrill of browsing in a bookstore”, about the thrill of browsing one’s local bookstore, how much he’s missed it during the pandemic, and how online bookstores and peeking at friend’s bookshelves doesn’t quite compare.
  • Cyberpunk Read. One book that I missed in my June book list is ARvekt, by Twitter friend Craig Lea Gordon. It’s a cyberpunk novel about a governmental assassin who steals secrets out of people’s heads who ended up damaged after a hit gone wrong. It looks like a fun read.
  • Dystopia Now / Utopia Soon: Texas Monthly posted a joint interview with Nicky Drayden and Christopher Brown, in which they talk about their respective processes for devising the worlds they create in their books.
  • Fantasy Magazine returns. Back in 2010, John Joseph Adams launched Lightspeed Magazine and later folded Fantasy Magazine into its offerings. Now, under the leadership of Christie Yant and Arley Sorg, the magazine is coming back. I chatted with the two of them about what their plans are.
  • Foundational. Apple unveiled the first trailer for its adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation the other week. It looks really interesting, and I’m definitely signing up for the service again when it drops.

“I don’t want you to be cold”. A heartfelt and touching essay from Ken Liu about his grandmother back in China:

A person’s story is knitted together from the single dimension of inexorably passing time, twisting, looping, knotting, winding through memory and experience and grief and hope and regret until it becomes something with a shape, with texture and tension and strength.
  • Microcollection. Adrian Tchaikovsky recently posted a short collection of his short fiction in PDF form called Short Changes.
  • Nazi Bronies. My former colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany has an interesting post up on The Atlantic about the extreme right and … My Little Pony. I’ve seen this sort of thing bubble up before: MLPs with Nazi symbols on them, and the post is an interesting read about how the right can infiltrate fan groups, especially when there are extremely permissive rules regarding content.
  • Printing Boom. Over on Cosplay Central, I’ve got a feature about why you might have seen 3D printers everywhere. The reason? A number of key patents expired and opened up the floodgates for new companies to start making their own.
  • Tremblay’s Back. Well, he didn’t really go anywhere. I’ve really loved Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World, and he’s just signed another three books with William Morrow: two novels and a collection. I spoke with him at Tor.com about it.
  • What a lovely day! I missed this back in May, but The New York Times put together a fantastic oral history of George Miller’s Max Max: Fury Road and the frustrating story of how it came together.

That’s all for today: as always, thank you for reading. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or via email — I always like hearing them.

Next week: audio from the Mary Robinette Kowal interview (for paid subscribers), and a handful of reviews (for the broader list.)