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Science Fiction Audio Dramas

These science fiction audio dramas include some of (what I imagine are) the most complicated podcasts in their writing, acting, and production. This genre also includes what are my two (maybe three) favorite audio dramas, so I, at least, appreciate all the hard work.

One of the pitfalls of such production is that the warts can be more evident and more disruptive than in simpler podcasts. Audio quality is really important, especially in maintaining a comparable audio volume and clarity among all the actors. I suspect this is a lot easier to say than to do, as there are some clearly-very-high-production podcasts which don’t quite get this right. I try to cut them some slack, but it does take me out of the experience. One actor being noticeably quieter than the others, or a slight hiss in the audio for one voice, can be very distracting unless there’s an in-story explanation for it. And when it’s two people who are supposed to be in the same room having a conversation, it jars. While this isn’t likely to make me drop a podcast I’m otherwise enjoying, it might keep me from sticking with a new one I’m having trouble getting into.

Reminder: I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas which are still ongoing (longer for a few I’m catching up on), so some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • Girl in Space: If you asked me to pick the single best audio drama in production now, it might just be this one. (And if it’s not, then it’s the next one.) The main character, X, is a young woman raised by her scientist parents on a decaying research ship orbiting a peculiar star. Her parents disappeared years ago, but she continued their work. Then a corporate fleet shows up to claim her ship and work for their own. The first-person-present narration works brilliantly, and X’s musings on existence and her peculiar situation – as well as the jerktastic behavior of many other humans she meets – is human and insightful. There’s an ongoing mystery which gets revealed in little bits over several episodes, and it all adds up to the most engaging audio drama out there. If it has a flaw it’s that the supporting characters are a little too stereotypical, but I suspect that’s actually the effect they’re going for (you can hear the sneer of the lead heavy whenever he speaks, for example); it’s just a bit odd next to the humanity of X.
  • The Strange Case of Starship Iris: After the war against the aliens, a revolution leaves humanity governed by an oppressive Republic. Violet Liu is the last survivor of the research ship Iris when she’s rescued by a group of smugglers. Their adventures take them around the edges of human civilization, as well as encounters with some interesting aliens, as they try to figure out what was going on aboard the Iris and to what extent Violet was (knowingly or not) involved. The cast and dialog is first-rate, and there’s clearly something going on behind it all. I feel like the newer episodes have lost focus a bit (perhaps the long hiatus after the first five episodes had an impact on the creator’s plans or approach), but I still look forward to each one.
  • ars Paradoxica: A 21st century scientist’s project goes wrong and throws her back to the Philadelphia Experiment in 1943. She starts a new life as part of a secret war project, trying to replicate her discovery and figure out how it works, and maybe get back home. I’m only a few episodes in – up to the end of World War II – and each episode has been clever and engaging, with a strong period feel and fun cast of characters. And of course time travel and other high-tech hijinks. I believe the show recently concluded, to rave reviews, so I’m really looking forward to making my way through it. I’m enjoying it at least as much as the two above.
  • Wolf 359: Another heralded series which recently ended, about the hijinks aboard a space station orbiting the star of the series’ name, presumably no relation to the Star Trek battle around the star. Communications officer Doug Eiffel narrates the events; he’s a hedonistic slacker who butts heads with the commander and the chief scientist, and the stories so far slot right in alongside other comical SF series. But there’s a hint that the first contact with aliens is coming, and I imagine that will concern much of the series once it happens. Each episode so far is basically a set-piece for the quirks of one of the three characters on the station, which makes it lightly amusing but not (yet) remarkable.
  • Startripper!!: The web site’s summary reads, “Follow Feston Pyxis, a former file clerk who left it all behind in search of the best times the galaxy has to offer, on a road trip through the cosmos!” And that just about covers it: The exuberant Feston flies from place to place to sample the many experiences the universe has to offer. Three episodes in, it’s difficult to figure out if Feston is naïve and lucky, or secretly up to something. The high-energy tone of the series – which feels like a more optimistic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – suggests the former. Lightweight but fun.
  • All’s Fair: A 6-episode series about a Victorian woman who invents a time machine and travels to humanity’s future, where she repeatedly encounters a man in increasing positions of importance in government. Things don’t go well. Smart and to-the-point.
  • Tides: One of the most-lauded audio dramas currently running, about a scientist who gets stranded on a planet with an unusual and massive tidal cycle, exploring the local ecology and trying to stay alive until her crewmates on the ship orbiting the planet can rescue her. Julia Schifini as Dr. Winifred Eurus might be the single best acting talent I’ve yet heard in the audio drama universe, with a tremendous range of emotion and amazingly clear enunciation. And the podcast needs her because the story is very uneven. The suspense of her trying to stay alive is engaging and suspenseful, but the long asides of her describing the local fauna does not hold my interest at all. Maybe it’s a matter of what kind of science-fictional nuts-and-bolts interests you, as the brief description of the local cosmology around the planet was way more interesting to me than all of the biology bits put together. Your mileage may vary. I presume the status quo will get shaken up sometime soon since I can’t see Dr. Eurus remaining alone and wandering around like this for much longer, as the set-up is getting repetitive.
  • Marsfall: Another current audio drama which has gotten rave reviews, but which I’ve struggled to embrace. Certainly it shows a tremendous amount of technical ability in its production, and the acting is generally strong, but I’ve found the story to be pretty shaky. It’s about one of several commercial missions to colonize Mars later this century, with a commander who has an art background (that’s an early plot point), and an AI supporting the colony which is less frightening than HAL, but more suspicious than Data. Things go wrong as soon as the colony arrives on Mars, with several waves of mayhem over the first seven episodes. But I’ve been frustrated with the frequently-unprofessional behavior of these supposedly professional colonists. I also guessed one of the big surprises in the first season very early on, which made me wonder why none of the characters figured it out, since the evidence seemed to be screaming it at them. It feels like it’s aimed at casual fans of SF television shows as opposed to serious readers of SF (basically the opposite audience from Tides). Hopefully the second season will have a tighter story with characters acting less erratically.
  • Athena: An “audio journal” about a young woman growing up on a starship who decided to steal a shuttle and head to Earth. Episodes are short, so with me being 5 episodes in there’s not much backstory so far (for example, how can Athena and her people be human given their background?). Athena’s voice – which I assume is the podcast’s creator – has unusual vocal mannerisms which gives Athena an unusual feel. I’m hoping this will be more than a coming-of-age story, as it sounds like it will be a fairly short story when it’s finished, it might not be.

Next time I’ll run through some suspense and horror audio dramas.

Conspiracy Fiction Audio Dramas

After several years of Magic, poker and science podcasts, I dipped my toes into fiction podcasts – or, as most of their creators prefer to call them, audio dramas – with Welcome to Night Vale and a couple of other podcasts from the Night Vale Presents network (which I’ll talk about in more detail in a future post). But it was just a sideline to the nonfiction podcasts until…

I don’t remember where I heard about The Polybius Conspiracy, a 7-episode documentary about an urban legend surrounding an early-80s video game, which seemed like a great piece of niche investigative journalism. Or at least, I thought it was a documentary, but it turns out it was mostly fiction. Something about it seemed too good to be true, but it was so well done it fooled me. Which left me pretty mad.  But there was a silver lining:

In the form of Wil Williams and her blog. I found her review by searching for information about the Polybius show. Exploring her site and following her Twitter, I found – well, I honestly don’t know which shows I found first through her, but a year(ish) later most of my podcast subscriptions are audio dramas, including several completed ones and some long-running ones I’m catching up on.

So I’m going to survey the ones I’ve listened to in groups, starting with what I think of as “conspiracy fiction” audio dramas: Podcasts which present a conspiracy or urban legend as if it were real. But they’re a lot more enjoyable when you know that they’re fiction.

The biggest risk with podcasts of this genre is that they’ll dance around the edges of the story and not get to a satisfying payoff. That basically happened with Polybius, which kind of petered out at the end. I think of this as “X-Files syndrome”, where an unwillingness or inability to take the story to (or at least towards) a satisfying ending drove me away from that show in its third season. (The fact that The X-Files was running opposite Babylon 5 – while B5 was smoking all the other genre shows with its deliberate storytelling – probably didn’t help.) The journey is enjoyable up to a point, but the payoff is a critical part of stories like this. I don’t think everyone agrees with me on that (evidence: the persistent and baffling popularity of The X-Files), but to me it’s make-or-break: If the writers just want to do weird stuff and don’t have a fairly concrete payoff in mind from the beginning, then I’m probably going to find it more frustrating than enjoyable.

Note that since I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas and catching up on some older ones, some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.

  • TANIS: It seems it’s just about impossible to get into this genre of podcasts and not eventually end up listening to TANIS, from the Public Radio Alliance. Host Nic Silver (an alias of writer/producer Terry Miles) explores the lost city (?) of Tanis starting from a few hazy clues, but quickly going down the rabbit hole of deaths, disappearances, shadowy figures, and corporate espionage. He’s aided by his new friend, the hacker MeerKatnip (MK). The show is in its fourth season, and I’m nearing the end of the first. I definitely worry about X-Files syndrome with TANIS, but so far the ride is enjoyable. The interactions between the out-of-his-depth Silver and the snarky MK are the highlights of the show so far.
  • Rabbits: Another PRA production, which ran for one season (a Kickstarter for a second season failed), and arguably it’s even better than TANIS. Host Carly Parker is searching for her missing friend, and ends up being dragged into the latest iteration of a centuries-old game called Rabbits, which has mostly avoided appearing on the Internet. While the last episode is a little less than I’d hoped for, it does have a satisfying conclusion, and there are a lot of neat cultural Easter eggs along the way to read about on Wikipedia. If they do somehow do a second season, I hope they delve into the mechanics and outcomes of the game some more (even though I’m sure they haven’t really thought about those, but I think they have to in order to keep interest).
  • The Last Movie: Another PRA creation from Nic Silver, this one dropped all six of its episodes at once earlier this year. Nic and MK investigate the rumored “Last Movie” of the 1970s, which supposedly kills everyone who sees it. A pretty good introduction to the PRA style, but it’s not as good as TANIS or Rabbits.
  • Limetown: The first season (back in 2015) concerned a fictional corporate town in Tennessee, all of whose inhabitants disappeared ten years ago. Reporter Lia Haddock investigates what happened to them. I’m not as high on this story as some people are, as I wasn’t wild about the revelations or the conclusion, find them all a bit pedestrian for fantastic fiction. But I enjoyed it well enough to see if they develop it in a more satisfying manner in the upcoming season two. From what I’ve read that this was one of the first of the modern wave of podcasts, so with several years since the first season ended, simply assimilating what others have done in the form in the meantime might make for a more satisfying story.
  • Mermaids of Merrow’s Cove: A public radio reporter goes home to her town in New England to investigate apparent kidnappings and murders of young women who appear on the beach and which locals suspect are mermaids. I’m 3 episodes into this 6-episode series, and it’s pretty good, though I find it not as polished as PRA’s offerings; in particular I find the story and acting to feel a bit contrived. The high points so far have been the reading of the journal by an early inhabitant of the town.

Next time I’ll cover the science fiction genre, which include some of my very favorite audio dramas I’ve discovered to date.

Nonfiction Podcasts

Last time I ran through the gaming-related podcasts I listen to, so here are the other “nonfiction” podcasts in my feed.

Public radio podcasts

Many shows from public radio outlets are also released as podcasts. Some of these include bonus material, but they also come with reruns which may or may not be of interest. This is a great way to listen to shows that aren’t available in your area, or which are broadcast on a schedule that doesn’t match your own.

  • Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!: NPR’s weekly news quiz show, which has been running for over 20 years, hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis, with a rotating panel and a weekly guest. Always entertaining, often informative, I probably started listening not long after it started and I’ve never stopped. I still hold out hope that Charlie Pierce will come back someday.
  • Ask Me Another: Hosted by Ophira Eisenberg with musician Jonathan Coulton, this is a trivia quiz show with one or more weekly guests. Not the laugh-fest that Wait! Wait! is, but a fun diversion.
  • Says You: A long-running panel game show revolving around language and wordplay, I often forgot to catch it because it airs here Sundays at 4 pm, and for a long time you had to pay to get the podcast feed. Now it’s freely available, and it’s very funny. Sometimes the games are fiendishly clever.
  • Serial: A podcast from This American Life which focuses on a single topic each season. I listened to season 2, on Bowe Bergdahl, which I found a bit overlong for its topic. The season 3 teaser just dropped a week or two ago.
  • S-Town: A spin-off from Serial, about a man in a small Alabama town who invites a reporter down to investigate a suspicious death, and then things take a disturbing turn. This 7-episode podcast is complete, and while there is some extraneous material, there’s also a lot going on, and since it’s reporting on true events, not everything gets tied up in a bow. However, I think the central mystery was given a perfectly satisfying conclusion at the end. Atmospheric, creepy, tragic, I found S-Town very compelling, and superior overall to Serial. (For a different opinion, see Wil Williams’ review.)

Scientific American podcasts

I listen to a couple of podcasts from Scientific American, which – along with Wait! Wait! – might be the ones I’ve been listening to the longest:

  • 60-Second Science: Despite the title, these are 2-to-4 minute reports on recent developments in science. Releases every weekday.
  • Science Talk: A longer-form usually-weekly podcast usually focusing on a single topic – an interview, a book, etc. – with special episodes each year when the science Nobel Prizes are announced. Both of these podcasts cover the full range of science, so unless you’re interested in everything in science there are bound to be some that won’t grab you. Nonetheless both are informative and engaging.

Political & legal podcasts

I’m not a big political wonk (my occasional Twitter rant aside), but in the last year I’ve added a couple of new podcasts in this area to my subscriptions:

  • Congress, Two Beers In: From the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. One of the hosts is Matt Glassman, who I discovered through Thinking Poker. What appealed to me about him is that he talks less about politics per se, but about government – how it works, how politics affects it, etc. – which is an angle not often reported on in the mainstream press. This is in this vein, and I find it very informative, especially given the current governmental clusterfuck we’re living with. Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Make No Law: By Ken White of Popehat, who is a popular figure on Twitter. This podcast focuses on developments in first amendment law throughout U.S. history, including Supreme Court rulings and the national scenario and individual actions which led to them. Releases approximately monthly.

Progressive rock podcasts

As you may know, I’m a big fan of progressive rock music. There are several streaming radio stations I’ve listened to, but not many podcasts that I’ve found – or at least not ones that hit my particular style that strongly. But I do listen to two:

  • Progtopia: A bi-weekly podcast that when I discovered it typically had a single interview with an artist or band each episode, including playing a few of their songs. Now it includes one or more shorter interviews, a roundtable with the main host and some other people involved in or covering prog, and an opinion essay. I think I liked the old format better as the newer content doesn’t add much for me.
  • NewEARS Prog Show: This is a radio show by the New England Art Rock Society which airs on WEMF in Boston. Each episode is 2 hours, and it seems to run in seasons, with season 4 having finished earlier this summer. As a radio show it plays a bunch of music and then has two or three interviews. I’ve discovered a few bands through it already, and I only found this show earlier this year. Plus, you can’t beat the Boston accents!

Others

  • The Geekbox: A weekly podcast about geek hobbies. This used to be a roundtable with several people who worked in or around the videogame industry, plus the guy who owns the comic shop I go to. Life developments have recently reduced it to just two hosts, which has not grabbed me as much. Plus, the non-videogame content has been reduced, and since I don’t play many videogames – and no console games – that limits its appeal for me. So after listening to it for almost 8 years, I’ve recently dropped it.
  • Retropod: A short several-times-per-week podcast about historical events, especially ones which have been in the news recently, e.g. because some new information about them has come to light. I just started listening recently.
  • Fiat Lex: All about dictionaries and how they work, by two people who have each worked in the business for years. (Did you know dictionaries are a business? They are!) Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Query: A bi-weekly podcast answering tech questions from listeners, with an emphasis on Apple products. Some useful stuff in here that you might not easily find out about unless you obsessively follow the tech press (and really, who has time for that?). Recently had a co-host switch as one of the original hosts was hired by Apple.
  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: Paula Poundstone and Adam Felber are both hilarious on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, and this is their second stab at a podcast after last year’s Live From the Poundstone Institute. Both shows have struggled a bit to make their conceit feel natural, with the new show being based around interviewing experts in a couple of subjects and then having Paula offer (humorous) advice on what they’ve learned. The first two episodes were really rough, and although it seems they have an audience, it’s not as evident as in the last show. It’s gotten better since then, but it feels like it could use some editing to get down to the best stuff. Releases weekly.

Next time I’ll dive into my latest hobby: Audio dramas.

Gaming Podcasts

I’m breaking up the “nonfiction” podcasts I listen to into two entries: Gaming podcasts, and everything else. As I said in my intro, a few Magic: The Gathering podcasts have been key in keeping me motivated in running. I also listen to a couple of poker podcasts. I’ve listened to several others of each, some of which have ended, some of which I’ve dropped, but the ones included below I’ve been listening to for quite a while.

One common thread in these podcasts is that the hosts clearly put a lot of work into planning out their episodes and staying on topic (presumably through skillful use of editing and post production in some cases), so you know what you’re going to get: A consistent product, and a clear indication when an individual episode is going to be different. I’ve listened to a few podcasts in each category which don’t exhibit this discipline, and they often end up running 90-120 minutes per episode, and/or spend a lot of time in rambling digressions which don’t hold my interest.

So, these really are the cream of the crop that I’ve found for each game, at least as far as what I’m looking for in these podcasts goes. YMMV.

Magic podcasts

  • Limited Resources: Probably the podcast I look forward to the most each week, LR covers the limited (draft & sealed) forms of playing Magic, which are the formats I mostly play these days. Besides being a clinic in playing, LR is also a clinic in producing a professional-grade weekly podcast on its topic, with insight, humor and depth. I discovered LR back in 2012 because I figured there must be a podcast on Magic drafting out there, and this was honestly the only one I could find at the time. It had already been around about 3 years by then, and it was already very solid. Host Marshall Sutcliffe also does commentary on the Magic pro tour. Co-host Luis-Scott Vargas is in the pro tour hall of fame, also does coverage, and brings great analysis and usually-great humor to the show. Both of them show their enthusiasm for and expertise at the game in every episode.
  • Good Luck High Five (formerly Magic the Amateuring): The GLHF hosts have backgrounds in improv comedy and so they’re the rare podcast which is able to dive into off-the-cuff humor and make it work – but I think it’s because they have the discipline to not let it get away from them. They cover all forms of Magic in a friendly and upbeat way, and have both played competitive magic and worked in coverage of competitive events. They’ve recently picked up the proverbial baton of keeping their listeners apprised of developments in the MtG world, which I enjoy even though I’m not strongly plugged in to that side of the scene.
  • Drive to Work: By Mark Rosewater, the head designer of Magic, who records it while – you guessed it – driving to work. He releases 2 episodes each Friday. Rosewater has a great mind for game design and his podcast is worth listening to if you’re interested in Magic design, game design, and to some extent any sort of design.
  • Kitchen Table Magic: An interview podcast about the personalities and histories of the game. Host Sam Tang does a great job bringing out his subjects’ love of the game, and in the cases of long-time players their historical perspectives on the game. For anyone who’s watched the Enter the Battlefield video series, KTM is a more in-depth and regular feature with many similarities. Organized by “seasons”, it comes out weekly with some gaps in the middle and end of each season.
  • Allied Strategies: As a rule I’m not a fan of podcasts in a “friends hanging out” format, but this one makes it work, and I think it’s because they’re very good at knowing when to ad lib and when to rein it in. Two of the friends have been professional Magic players, and all three are entertaining and insightful. Not every episode is deeply interesting to me, as they rotate through a variety of Magic topics, but I listen to most of them. They usually end the episode with an amusing story from a recent event.

Poker podcasts

  • Thinking Poker: Much like Limited Resources, this is a fine example of producing a focused podcast. Co-hosts Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis open with a usually-short intro (a bit longer when they themselves have been playing in major tournaments), then launch into a strategy segment analyzing one or more hands. The rest of the episode is usually an interview with someone from the poker world. Some of the most interesting interviews have been with people who are only tangentially part of the poker world, and the hosts are excellent interviewers. Episode 200 is a good sampler of interviews with several of their best guests.
  • Just Hands: This podcast started off as what its name implies, individual episodes analyzing poker hands and that’s it. It’s been extending a bit into interviews, especially as one of the original hosts has recently left and the other is having a different guest each week. It’s a good listen, though I think their strength is in hand analysis.

Next time I’ll cover the rest of the nonfiction podcasts.

Podcast Person

A few years ago I started running again, and I’m still going. I’ve tried it before and haven’t stuck with it, but what’s kept me going this time, in no small part, is that I listen to podcasts while I do it. They keep my mind occupied by something other than how much running sucks. 😃 And I’ve used my OCD to keep myself going, because if I miss days then I fall behind on my podcasts!

My podcast app of choice is Overcast on my iPhone, using AirPods for listening. I was initially skeptical of AirPods, but their connectivity and convenience has been great; I think I’ve only ever once had one fall out of my ear, and never while running. I understand that they don’t fit all ears naturally, but they work great for me.

I listen to most podcasts at 1.3x-1.5x speed since I’m more interested in consuming the content than the ambience the podcasts provide – although I’m more likely to listen to audio dramas at a slower speed than nonfiction podcasts, since in those the ambience is more important. Some podcasts can be listened to at higher speeds, depending largely on how fast people talk. Once a podcaster I listen to at 1.3x guested on a podcast I listen to at 1.5x, and it was… interesting.

While running I almost exclusively listen to podcasts about Magic: The Gathering. But I listen to lots of other podcasts at other times: While driving by myself or with Debbi, while walking after lunch or in the evening. I don’t often listen to podcasts while doing other things (working, reading, writing), though I have a couple of music-oriented podcasts for which I sometimes make an exception. I’ve listened to some other nonfiction podcasts since about 2010, as well as some “infotainment” shows such as NPR’s Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!

Last year I dove headlong into listening to audio dramas (having previously listened to only a few Night Vale Presents shows), and now they make up the bulk of my listening in the car. I’m only about two months behind in listening to them! There are podcasts I have in my feed whose first episode I haven’t even gotten to yet! Heck, the total running time of podcasts I’m trying to catch up on (at a rate of about 1 episode per week) might be longer than the running time of podcasts actually released during the week. But I should catch up – eventually. Assuming no other great podcasts get started in the next, oh, eight months or so. That’s totally possible, right?

Over the next few posts I’m going to survey many of the podcasts I’ve listened to. Mainly podcasts that I’m still listening to (even if they’ve completed their runs), and ones that I enjoy, although I’ll also touch on some that haven’t worked for me. There are a few “big name” podcasts that haven’t worked for me – but there are also some that hit me just right. Maybe you’ll find a few that appeal to you.

Lazy Labor Days

It’s been a nice holiday weekend around these parts – not least because it’s we’ve had seasonable temperatures getting up to the early 80s, as opposed to last year when it somehow got up to 112° according to our little weather station. That was so hot the A/C couldn’t keep up. Much more pleasant this year, with the windows open and a fan going occasionally.

The weekend started with me going down to a friend’s house to play some poker. With 10¢ blinds, we played five-handed for about 4 hours, and I ran my $20 buy-in up to $44. Not bad. I think I made a few good plays, and I tried some stuff that didn’t work. Plus I got fairly lucky. So all in all a nice mix. Plus I got to see my friends’ two young cats who are now all grown up – they were small kittens last time I saw them.

Saturday we made our way over to Half Moon Bay and had breakfast at the Main Street Grill. It seems the old owner, who had run the place for as long as I’ve been going (and longer), sold it in the past year, but other than a little of the memorabilia having been taken down, it’s the same place – which is great since I love it. Especially the best coffee in the region. We went for a walk along the coast, and then came back into town to go to Ink Spell Books where I found a copy of Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, which no dealer had in stock at Worldcon two weeks ago. We came home for a quiet afternoon on the couch before heading down to San Jose to dinner at Maggiano’s.

Sunday we had planned a small BBQ with friends, but it turned out that some folks were out of town, some were busy, and some got sick at the last minute, so it ended up being a very small BBQ with just our friends Itai and Jessica and their two daughters.  Nonetheless we had a good time, with the girls blowing bubbles and kicking balls around the yard. Their older daughter was bewitched by the cats (the cats did not feel the same, though Jackson and Sadie were their usual people-friendly selves, and Roulette hid under the bed). The younger one was scared of them at first, but by the end of the day was meowing at us. We spent another quiet afternoon and just picked up pizza and a sub for dinner.

Today we slept in, but I got up and went running anyway. I also made ice cream, and Debbi cooked dinner. We got to watch the Red Sox – who have been uneven lately – thump the Braves on national television. We considered going out to buy a new mattress, but we didn’t. We need to check whether our box spring needs to be replaced anyway – it would be nice not to have to replace it this time around. But I did some work up in the study and then we had a quiet evening watching Harry Potter movies.

Somehow it’s already back to work tomorrow, but for a short week.

Worldcon 76

I took a few days off to have a 5-day weekend in order to go to Worldcon 76 in nearby San Jose. This was my fourth Worldcon, and maybe the first SF convention I’ve been to in about 10 years. Fortuitously, my other three Worldcons have all been since I started my (old) journal, so you can read about them if you wish:

The weekend started off a little bumpy, though: I took Thursday off planning to go down to the con in the afternoon, while having lunch with Debbi and visiting her new workplace. However, I went out to my car and it wouldn’t turn over. I called AAA and they came out and replaced the battery – a little annoying since I’d just had the car in for its annual service a week earlier, but a friend of mine says he once had his Eos‘ battery die on him without warning. By the time it was done it was too late to meet Debbi for lunch, but I did drive to her work and we swapped cars just in case there was something else wrong with my car so I wouldn’t be stranded. (My car worked fine all weekend, so hopefully the battery was it.)

By the time I got to the con the check-in line for badges was long, and I was in it for about 45 minutes. I think I was there at the worst point, as the line was half as long when I got out of it. I did get to see my friend Jeanne from Minneapolis, whom I don’t think I’ve seen since the 02 Worldcon, and we ended up going to dinner together as her partner was seeing some sights in Silicon Valley and ended up getting stuck in bad traffic.

There was not a lot going on Thursday. I wandered through the dealer’s room and said hi to a few people (such as Anna from Illusive Comics; I’m always a bit surprised and flattered that she recognizes me). I skipped the opening ceremonies and decided to head home early to save energy for the rest of the weekend.

On Friday it was time to hit the panels. I went to a few which I thought were so-so – mainly because the panelists lacked focus or didn’t really have much to say on the topic – but I also went to some really good ones. I particularly enjoyed “A Geek’s Guide to Literary Theory” by M. Todd Gallowglas, which led me to insta-follow him on Twitter; if anything the talk was a bit too condensed and could have benefitted from another hour! I also went to see him read in the evening – he’s a very entertaining speaker. I talked to him at his booth in the dealer’s room later at the con, too, and bought his book of writing from his year finishing his MFA (I’m a few dozen pages into it as I write this and it’s good!). I did not, however, note how much his Twitter icon resembles Sean Bean. I could probably have talked to him some more (e.g., about his thoughts on writers who write novels which are in a way commentary on their earlier novels – such as Tehanu by Le Guin – or about my obsession with story structure), but always worry about overstaying my welcome when talking to authors.

I also went to a remembrance for the late editor Gardner Dozois, featuring George R. R. Martin, Pat Cadigan and John Kessel. (I ran into my friends Ceej and David there, too!) As expected, it was a series of touching and funny reminiscences, but it also felt like a sort of pre-wake for 70s and early 80s fandom: Most of the people attending were 60 and older, and had probably broken into fandom between 1970 and 1985, as the panelists did. I got a sense that Dozois’ passing had stirred something, maybe a realization that the older members of that generation were getting up there in age (Dozois and the panelists are all early Baby Boomers) and that they should consider seeing and appreciating each other while they still can, especially at Worldcon since they might not often see each other otherwise. Maybe I’m off-base about this, but that was the feeling I got. (In 15 years my generation of fandom – the late Boomers and most of Gen X – will be there ourselves.)

My last panel on Friday was on Imposter Syndrome, which ironically is what I always feel at conventions. (Heck, look at the first of my entries on the 2004 Worldcon and I was keenly feeling that back then!) I could go on about this some more here, but let’s just say that Friday night I went home early rather than going to parties where I wouldn’t know anyone, and Saturday I ended up at loose ends for dinner in the evening, had a long wait before eating a pretty good meal at Il Fornaio, basically wasting several hours by myself. Ugh.

Saturday I went to a session on libraries and library technology, which was pretty interesting. It’s all stuff my sister works with every day, I think. I introduced myself to Lynne M. Thomas, whom my sister has known for a while and whom she urged me to introduce myself to. It’s sounds like they’ve had somewhat parallel careers in some ways.

The session I took the most notes on all weekend was on plotting a story, by Kay Kenyon, an author who frankly has been on my list to read for a while but I haven’t gotten there yet. (Ah, the curse of the slow reader.) I found her breakdowns really thoughtful and useful, fleshing out some things I already knew about the three-act story structure. Should be useful if I ever actually write something!

There was also a small protest outside the convention center in the afternoon, which most attendees avoided (I certainly did, although I enjoyed reading some updates on Twitter). It was over 90 degrees in the afternoon so that must have been fun for the protestors.

In the evening I had my ill-fated dinner adventure, but I did end up at the party hotel where I ran into my friend Mark and Yvette, and met their friend Miri, and we had a good time chatting in the lounge (the acoustics of which were way too good for the volume of the band playing there).

Sunday I went to a panel on recommended webcomics, which as you might guess is a subject right up my alley (inasmuch as I have about 125 active webcomics in my RSS reader). The panel was kind of split between discussing the history of webcomics and making recommendations, and it also had 7 panelists, which made it a bit unwieldy. It was fun, but felt like it could have used more focus.

But I spent more time on Saturday searching out books in the dealer’s room, and getting autographs. The dealer’s room was pretty good, but it did feel like there were fewer used book dealers there than in the past, which is perhaps not a surprise due to the rise of digital books, but it is a bummer for me since I was hoping to score some specific items from my want list. I did find a few, but some others were just not in evidence. And it’s nice to pick them up in person to see their condition first-hand, and not deal with shipping. There was one George R. R. Martin book I was going to buy, but when I went to pick it up – having determined that it was the best combination of condition and price in the room – Martin was at the booth signing their stock, and when they put it back on sale they’d marked it up by $25. No thanks! But I guess it’ll make someone else happy.

I did get a different book autographed by Martin, though, and I stood through the long line to have John Scalzi sign a few more books. But I can’t complain because John is a truly nice guy, and he was signing multiple books for many people, as well as taking pictures and having conversations, yet the line was still moving along anyway. I spent most of the time chatting with the person in front of me, and I took a bunch of photos of him meeting John. I first met John back in 2002 at Journalcon, and I’m flattered that he’s remembered me when I’ve seen him since. If you’ve seen him speak or be on a panel, when he can be very much in his “Scalzi the performance artist” mode, rest assured that he’s very personable in the autograph line – or elsewhere, from my experience.

In the evening I went to dinner with Ceej and David and a couple of friends of theirs. I haven’t seen Ceej in years, and we really ought to see each other more often than that! I decided to skip the Hugo Awards ceremony, and instead finally got myself up to the Borderlands Books suite for their sponsors, which was a nice quiet space and I had some good conversations with the few people there. I wish I’d made myself go up earlier in the week!

I’d taken Monday off as well, but there wasn’t really anything I wanted to do at the con that day, so I decided to take it as a day of downtime as well.

Overall I had a good time, though 2002 is still my personal high water mark for Worldcons. This con had some behind-the-scenes controversy (which spilled over into a broader audience, or else I wouldn’t have known about it), especially regarding programming. As someone who wasn’t really affected by those issues I thought things went reasonably smoothly – at least compared to my experience at other cons – but I understand why people who were affected have some hard feelings. The biggest issue for me was that the programming rooms were often too small for the panels – about half I went to were standing room only when I arrived. Given the site I’m not sure what could have been done about that – the San Jose Convention Center is a pretty stark and unforgiving facility. (But it does have excellent wi-fi!)

So it’s been 14 years since I last went to a Worldcon, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to one next. Though there have been 4 west coast Worldcons in this century, plus ones in Las Vegas and Denver, so there will be opportunities. Despite some of my anxieties, it is a fun experience.

Open House 2018

Saturday we held our eighth annual open house – eighth even though we skipped the seventh, as we didn’t get our act together last summer with everything we had going on. Last week in additional to prepping we were watching the weather hoping it would cool off by Saturday from the highs in the mid-80s, and it did cool down some, with highs in the low 80s. Still, better than our 2013 open house when it was well up in the 90s, which made us close the doors and turn on the A/C! (And a good thing we didn’t hold it in late June like we usually do, since our home weather station claims it got up over 100° around then!)

So we closed the cats in the guest bedroom, bought and made food and drinks, scattered balls and bubble wands around the porch and back yard, and opened the doors around 2 pm.

In the last two years I’ve acquired several new cow-orkers, and Debbi got a new job this spring at EPRI, so we had a lot of new people to invite – and lots of them showed up! A few of our regulars weren’t able to make it – lots of people are busy in mid-August with weddings, vacations and family events – so it was a different mix of people, but with all the new people it might have been our largest party since the first one. We both gave a bunch of tours of the house to people who hadn’t been over before (we’re more than a little proud of our house, I’ll admit), and tried to spend at least a few minutes with everyone who came in.

I was glad to see that the kids had a good time playing in the yard, as we had a different mix of kids than usual, including a lot of first-timers. I think the only mishap (that I heard of, anyway) was that I went to clean bubble fluid off the face and hair of one girl, but that’s not so bad.

We learned that our friend Emma – who I met through Madison fandom in the 90s and who had moved to California before I did – had worked at EPRI as her first job out here, and knew a couple of Debbi’s cow-orkers who came to the party. Maybe I’d known that at some point, but she’d moved to another job by the time I came out here, so maybe not.

I was happy to have my previous admin, Cyndie – who retired last year – and my current admin, Debra, came to the party.  And that my cow-orker Anders and his teenaged daughter came, as they have a very busy schedule and this year’s party happened to fall on a day they had some time available. Also, my cow-orker Jake, who started earlier this year, came with his wife, and gave us a (I think) pen-and-watercolor drawing she’d done of our house, which looks awesome!

Things wrapped up around 8 pm, and our friends Lisa and Michel and their kids hung out for a little longer and helped us clean up a bit (such as taking down the canopy they loaned us).  Once they left we vegged out for a bit, and called it a night.

Sunday we alternated between cleaning up and lying on the couch, but mainly being really happy with how the party turned out. I hope everyone who came had as much fun as we did!

Beach Vacation

We’re back from a 2-week vacation to Massachusetts – which I think is the longest vacation I’ve taken since our Hawaii trip in 2011. We had originally planned this trip as part of Debbi’s sabbatical, but then she changed jobs so it became its own thing. Moreover, I haven’t taken much vacation time in the past year because of a big push at work, so I was due. (The last time I went a year taking so little vacation was 2005, but both times were for good causes. This coming year I’ll take more time off, if only otherwise I’d hit our vacation cap!)

Anyway, this trip was our annual visit to see our families – well partly, but I’ll get to that shortly. We took the red-eye flight from San Jose, landing in Boston the morning of Saturday June 24, picking up our rental car and driving to my Dad’s house. Red-eye flights are getting harder to weather so I don’t know how much longer we’ll keep doing them; at least I’ve learned to sleep on planes a bit, but Debbi hasn’t.

We had breakfast with Dad, took a late-morning nap, and then had lunch. Otherwise we just hung out for part of the day before driving down to Debbi’s family’s place where we had dinner and hung out some more. All three of the teenaged niephews [sic] hung out too, which shocked all (well some) of the adults. Sunday, we… well, again I’ll get to that in a moment. And then we drove back to my Dad’s and had dinner at the Regal Beagle. We got caught in a rainstorm on the way home and spent some quality time hanging out in the Arcade Building, checking out some of its corners that we’d never had reason to visit. (It’s not that interesting, but the century-old decor is unusual today.)

Inside the Brookline Arcade Building
The interior of the Brookline Arcade Building

Monday we drove up north to visit Nancy, a high school friend of Debbi’s, and her husband Dan (and their cat, who I followed around until I convinced her to let me pet her). I didn’t really know Nancy in high school, but I knew who she was – which frankly was about how well I knew Debbi in high school! Afterwards Debbi drove back to her family and I spent a few days with Dad.

Dad and I made some of the usual rounds, including visiting my Mom’s grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery, and going out to Waban where I grew up, having lunch at Barry’s Deli, which is very nearly the last thing left from my childhood town that hasn’t changed much. I’ve written before about Mom’s house being replaced with a much larger home, and now the large house on the corner – on a huge lot, and which I understand had been built around 1890 – has been torn down and replaced with two large houses. What will the neighborhood look like in another 40 years, I wonder?

I wanted to wander in to the Waban Library Center, but they weren’t yet open. However, walking up I remembered that one of the attorneys who had probated her estate had bought a memorial brick there, so I found it and took a picture. There are actually two bricks, and I don’t remember who bought the other one. (I might have a note of it somewhere, or it may remain a mystery.)

Memorial bricks at the Waban Library Center

The other place we went was That’s Entertainment, which is a huge comics, game and hobby store in Worcester. I remember why I only go every few years, because it takes over an hour to drive there! This trip was well worth it, though, because I managed to find all but 4 issues of two different runs of comics I’d been looking for. As with most series I’m currently collecting, they’re both not valuable and not in demand, so hardly anyone stocks them. I also managed to stump several employees with a question, which went down the line of four employees before someone knew the answer. (The answer, alas, was that they didn’t have any old issues of Dragon magazine in stock.)

We had originally planned to go to the Museum of Science on Thursday, but the weather dissuaded us. Instead Debbi drove up and had lunch with us, and she and I took the train into the city to have lunch at Faneuil Hall and look around. It was a little soggy, but not too bad. I bet parking and crowds at the museum would have been bad, though.


For the second half of our vacation: Well, a couple of years ago we bought a beach house on the south shore on Humarock. It was a keep-it-in-the-family purchase, and it’s mostly my in-laws who use it, but we arranged this trip so we could spend a chunk of time there, including the July 4 holiday.

The house had sustained some damage from the strong winter storms earlier this year. It sounds like these storms were the strongest in a generation, if not more, and we saw pictures of many houses hit much harder than ours. We ended up with some roof leaks, and some damaged furniture, but not much more than that. In particular it sounds like we avoided any serious mold issues. We hired a great contractor who put on a new roof, aired out the attic, repaired some damaged walls and ceilings, and discovered that the bedrooms have hardwood floors under their ancient 70s-era carpets. Even better, almost all of the work was done by the time we arrived.

So the first Sunday we went with the in-laws to check things out, and move some of the furniture back into place, as well as figure out what projects we wanted to do while there. We met with the contractor to go over some things, and also bought a new grill as the old one was getting pretty rusty. Then on Wednesday Debbi and Shawn (the brother-in-law) picked up some furniture at IKEA.

Friday we arrived to find a worker replacing one of the windows, so we left him to do his work and went out to get lunch and pick up stuff at Target.  Many of the furnishings were still jammed into the undamaged bedrooms, and we weren’t sure whether some things – like curtains – survived or had been kept, so we bought more than we needed to.  When we got back, we moved the bed back to the master bedroom and moved around some other things, and found that several items did in fact survive, so we were able to return some stuff later! Then in the evening I drove into Boston to meet my old friend Bruce, whom I haven’t seen in about three years.  We had dinner at Maggiano’s, and caught up with the latest developments.

Saturday the in-laws arrived with the IKEA furniture and Shawn, Debbi and I spent most of the afternoon putting it together in fairly hot and humid weather (alas, the house does not have A/C), with the World Cup games on in the background.  The in-laws are big soccer fans and were following them closely.  I’m not much of a soccer fan, but it’s an interesting break from baseball.  While people didn’t stay overnight with us, we did grill dinner together, and then they headed home and came back the next day for a much lazier day.

Monday Debbi and I drove into downtown Scituate for lunch and to walk around the harbor area.  We also drove over to Old Scituate Light, which is in a surprisingly built-up area, but is worth the visit nonetheless, for the view if nothing else.  Supposedly the battle which resulted in the line “Don’t give up the ship!” occurred near there as well.  We also made another run to Target, where I embarked on a small project to replace many light bulbs in the house with LED bulbs, since the heat from the incandescent bulbs was pretty nasty in hot weather.

Old Scituate Light
Old Scituate Light

In our driving around we also worked our way through the first (and so far only) season of a conspiracy-fiction podcast called Rabbits, which we both enjoyed quite a bit.  I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately and need to do an entry or three about them soon.

And indeed Tuesday was probably the worst day for heat and humidity that we had, and we spent most of the day lying around the house like slugs.  We did make a run to the grocery store, where the A/C tempted us to wander the aisles for longer than we would have otherwise.  Thankfully, it cooled off late in the afternoon when the fam arrived, and we were able to hang out on the beach after sunset and watch the fireworks.

But wait! you say, Tuesday was July 3!  Yep, Humarock has a long-standing tradition of fireworks on July 3 rather than July 4.  Up and down the beach – several miles of visibility in each direction – people were shooting off fireworks, probably thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars worth.  All perfectly illegal, I’m sure.  But it sure was a great display.  There were also a couple of people launching fire lanterns which would drive over the ocean and into the clouds.

Wednesday July 4 was another great day weather-wise, and we spent much of the day on the beach. Around the time the fam was heading home, Nancy and Dan showed up for a few hours, to hang out and grill dinner.  They headed out a little before sunset, and I spent an hour meeting one of my last goals, walking up to the end of the sandbar peninsula on which our house sits. I had to book it back before it got pitch black, but despite the rush it was a nice hike with some great views.

Fourth Cliff just after sunsetThe ocean side of Fourth Cliff just after sunset
(click for larger image)

We’d planned on Thursday to hang out around the house until late in the afternoon and then head back to Dad’s, but it turned out to be another humid stinker, so we actually called it a trip around noon, had lunch on the way out, and then drove around for a bit before heading back.  It was sad to go – other than the weather – but we had a good time, and a good mix of Getting Stuff Done and Enjoying Ourselves.  Unfortunately at Dad’s we went back to the Beagle for dinner, but their A/C was out so it was kind of a downer of a meal.  (Not as much of a downer as it was for the wait staff, I’m sure.)

Finally, Friday it was a rainy day and we mostly hung around at Dad’s until it was time to drive to the airport and catch our plane.  It didn’t rain enough to delay our flight, so we got home more-or-less on time, said hi to the cats, and collapsed into bed.  Then we had the weekend to recover and get ready for a new work-week.I think this was the longest vacation I’d taken

All-in-all a great trip, though as usual we were ready to come home to our own bed and our cats by the end of it.  But we’ll be back.  Because ocean.

The Last Jedi Redux

I’m not a fan of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but lots of people are. I find this odd, but enh, I don’t have a deep love of Star Wars generally. Still, sometimes people I follow post how much they like this film and it makes me think:

Toy with tropes? Subvert expectations? Did we see the same film? I found its storytelling ham-handed and elliptical, struggling to find its meaning and message. But Rachel’s hardly the only person who sees meaning in what I see as clumsiness. Is this just a matter of different peoples’ minds seeing different patterns in the same content?

I’m not going to try to answer that question here (speaking of elliptical). Rather, her tweet made me think further about what sort of meaning there is for me in the film, inasmuch as I think Star Wars is not generally a deep franchise, and it’s generally pretty simplistic in both world building and storytelling. This led me in a roundabout way (which is code for “I don’t remember all the details of how I got to this point”) to thinking that the end game for this trilogy could be something different from what people are expecting. To wit:

The Force Awakens contained a lot of beats that seemed lifted from the original Star Wars, and The Last Jedi drew some comparison to The Empire Strikes Back, which perhaps leads people to conclude that the next film will evoke Return of the Jedi, and in particular an expectation that the trilogy is going to wrap things up in a fairly conclusive manner. After all not only did Jedi do so, but there’s likely still a lot of fanthink that these three movies are going to finish off the 9-film arc that George Lucas had teased decades ago.

But it’s pretty clear to me that Disney has strayed far from that path already, since Force and Last Jedi build upon, but don’t really continue, the arc of the six Lucas films. So what if the goal here is to not evoke the closure of Return of the Jedi?

What if the endpoint is instead to have our heroes suffer a crushing and total defeat, as happened at the end of the prequel trilogy?

After all, we didn’t really “get to” experience the shock of the heroes utterly losing in the prequel trilogy, because we all knew it was coming, but this is an opportunity to surprise and shock the viewers.

I’m skeptical that this is what would really happen, since it’s not very Disney-esque, and J.J. Abrams’ work doesn’t indicate that this is the direction he’s likely to take the final film. But it could be quite effective, and could lead in to another trilogy, maybe a couple more decades down the timeline, with a new group of characters trying to put things back together. (Finn: “It’s all true: Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron, the Skywalkers, all of it.”)

The Last Jedi ended on a pretty grim note, so how much worse can things get? Well, just as one possibility, which seems entirely plausible based on how the story’s been going, I have two words:

Empreror Rey.