scop (noun):

Old English – bard, minstrel, storyteller

Moving Forward:
Life in a Science-Fiction Novel

April 24th, 2020

A few months back, while prepping for The International Conference on the Fantastic, I wrote a piece titled “Existential Threats” that considered how social media and digital tech were reshaping our culture. The essay centered on two sf classics, Ray Bradbury’s “The Murderer” (pictured at left) and Arthur C. Clarke’s “Dial F for Frankenstein.” Since the conference would focus on the Anthropocene, I figured the essay would fit nicely into the discussion of how technology is transforming the world.

Then came COVID-19. The conference was canceled, and the essay is now available in the current issue of Dissections, the British literary journal edited by Gina Wisker and published out of the University of Brighton, UK. You can read the essay here.

Reflecting in the essay now — just two months after it was written — I recall a review of Michael Crichton’s novel Prey that appeared in The New Yorker some 20 years ago. The review considers how scenarios in Crichton novels tend to ignore the technological changes that follow cataclysmic events:

[Crichton’s novels describe] things that could change the world—but don’t. The Andromeda strain of space germs mutates into harmlessness and goes away; the lost city of the Congo is wiped from the map by lava; in Sphere, the discoverers of the extraterrestrial artifact of untold power use that power to wish it into retroactive nonexistence. The fact that Crichton has no interest in showing what might have happened is what makes him a writer of suspense fiction, rather than of science fiction. A science-fiction writer would naturally want to see what would happen if the technologies stayed out of control (as most do), and might even want to ask whether the consequences would be all bad (as they often aren’t). Might not free-range dinosaurs make Costa Rica an even more interesting place than it is today? What if nanoswarms offered promise as well as peril? Prey, with its kill-them-all-and-get-out approach, is neither as frightening nor as fascinating as Greg Bear’s novelette of twenty years ago, “Blood Music,” in which the characters, transformed by the nanotechnology within them, become both far more and much less than human.

COVID-19 will certainly be a game-changer, with the potential to accelerate the development of digital communication and redefine the elements of human interaction. Consider just a few of the news stories and op/eds running today:

Clearly, digital media seems poised to change the post World War C world as dramatically as missiles and atomic energy did in the aftermath of WWII. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

A point I might have hit harder in “Existential Threats” is that the dooms-day scenarios of  “The Murderer” and “Dial F” are best read as cautionary tales, warnings of what could happen if change is handled irresponsibly. Such stories are not predictions, and they are balanced nicely by other sf works that look beyond momentary chaos and toward the promise of a new normal.

Fasten those seat belts folks. Stay safe, healthy, and open to the possibilities lie beyond the turbulence. As characters in a science fiction novel, we have no choice but to face the current challenge and move forward into a life 2.0.

Fiction for the Ears:
Storytelling for Shut-Ins

March 30th, 2020

[…] there would be three months of enforced isolation and leisure, between the harvest that takes place just before the rise of the swamps and the clearing of new farms when the water goes down […]. As the swamps rose, the old men found it too difficult the walk from one homestead to the next, and […] as the swamps rose even higher all activities but one came to an end […]. They drank and sang or they drank and told stories.

The above is from “Shakespeare in the Bush” (1966) by anthropologist Laura Bohannan. Recounting the activities of a Nigerian tribe during the rainy season, it serves as a reminder that social isolation is hardly new.

In the past, when nature forced communities inward, people relied on songs and stories to see them through. (And yes, they also drank, but that’s a topic for another post.) We see similar examples throughout history – from the traveling storytellers of Anglo-Saxon mead-halls (see earlier posts An Evening of 21st-Century Scops and  Scop 101) to the bards of ancient Greece.

Thus, to cope with what for us is a new normal, we can revert to the old – the transporting power of song and story.

If this were the Nigerian rainy season depicted in “Shakespeare in the Bush” or a long Anglo-Saxon winter in early Britain, we’d need to gather physically for a storytelling session. But we have other options.

Thanks to the good folks at The Wicked Library, I have a new story to share. It’s titled “The Other Kind,” and it centers on a man who has chosen a life of social isolation, a wounded warrior who finds uncanny meaning in his nightmares.

Are you with me? If so, I’ll meet you in the library. The doors are open. You can enter via Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, the Wicked Library website, or by simply clicking the player below.

Come inside. I have a story to share.

Listen to “TWL 1002: “The Other Kind”, by Lawrence C. Connolly” on Spreaker.

Images:

A bushman tribal chief acts out a story as a group of children sit around him, the southern Kalahari Desert in central-southern Africa, 1947. (Photo by Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Beowulf in the Mead-Hall by John Henry Frederick Bacon, from Hero Myths and Legends of the British Race, 1910.

The Wicked Library Season 10 artwork by Jeanette Andromeda. 

 

Surviving World War C:
Music to Span the Social Distance

March 24th, 2020

Last week’s post offered a list of “Podcasts for Shut-Ins,” which included what was then an unreleased installment of Inside The Hive. Although I had expected that podcast to feature an interview with screenwriter Scott Burns (Contagion), it instead offered a conversation with radio host Kai Ryssdal (Marketplace). Titled “Coronovirus against the World,” the interview concluded with Ryssdal giving some sage advice: “You got to know what the news is, but you don’t have to know what it is all the time. Just check in once or twice a day and then take care of yourself.”

So let’s assume that you have addressed the latter. You are stocked up, settled in, and asymptomatic. Situation stable. Now what?

This time, I’d like to offer some music recommendations. And, in keeping with this blog’s consideration of the writing life, we’ll focus on the work of contemporary writers who are also musicians.

Image: “Typewriter + guitar = steampunk,” guitarpang.wordpress.com

Up first: The Theatre of Time, an album of ambient music featuring the ethereal guitar of fantasy artist and author Martin Springett. I’ve written about Martin’s music before, in the posts “The River of Stars Suite” (April 2014) and “Ready to be Reborn” (October 2015).

Lately, I’ve been playing his collection The Theatre of Time in heavy rotation. The album opens with “Gypsy Caravan (Soul Of A Rose)” – a shimmering blend of eastern sitar, electric guitar, and acoustic twelve-string. By turns meditative and rollicking, the tune — like much of Martin’s music — has the power to lift the soul and take it for a cosmic spin.

You can listen to Martin’s music for free online, but you’ll likely want to pay the piper for the benefit of downloading and taking the magic with you. The music is the perfect accompaniment for a solitary walk, sitting in the grass — or any of your favorite social-distance activities.

You’ll find six of Martin’s albums available for instant play and permanent download at his Bandcamp page.

Keeping with the prog-rock vibe, I also recommend the album Symphony for a Million Mice from the band Horsefeathers. Featuring lead vocals by writer, director, producer Mick Garris, Horsefeathers began in the early 70s with a sound that the band describes as “commedia dell’arte rock.” Their vintage recordings (largely unreleased when they were together) have now been remixed, remastered, and released as a full-length CD that is as much fun as the band’s name implies.

You can hear the entire album at the Horsefeather’s website, where you can also order the CD in either a regular or signed edition.

If you’re interested in the work singer-songwriters, you’ll want to check out the music of sf writer Sarah Pinsker. According to the Windy City Times, “Pinsker’s original songs are catchy and hummable. They will lift your spirits […] and then set your spirit free.” I first heard Sarah when we performed together at the Baltimore Book Festival in 2013. I’ve been a fan ever since.

You can hear excerpts, download tracks, and order CDs at Sarah’s CD Baby page. You can also catch a terrific interview/performance recorded live at Paste Studios in NYC.

Another singer-songwriter dominating my playlist is Craig Spector, whose life story is as inspiring as his tunes.

After graduating with honors from the Berklee College of Music, Craig went on to become a New York Times bestselling author, screenwriter, editor, and songwriter. His solo albums Resurrection Road (2017), Outposts (2018), and Kicking Cans (2019) are distinguished by virtuoso guitar playing, soulful vocals, and powerful lyrics. Consider the opening lines of  “Gratitude,” from his forthcoming CD Dangertown: “Just as it seems that all is lost and everything is ash / comes a feeble bit of light like a preternatural flash, /and in that moment we can see the cost / and everything is clear.”

According to his website, Craig began living with stage-four cancer in 2016. Of the experience, he writes: “The last few years have been a journey, and what a strange trip it’s been.”

And what an inspiring one, considering the musical output that began with Resurrection Road and promises to continue with Dangertown.

You can read more of Craig’s story on his website, where you’ll also be able to play and order his music.

Finally, I’ve just received a preview CD from P.G. Sturges and R.C. Matheson, the writer-musicians who (along with Craig Spector) brought us Smash Cut, (reviewed here in August 2018). Titled Fool Skool, the new CD features Sturges on guitar and vocals, Matheson on drums, and a cadre of fellow musicians who together call themselves Pearly King & The Temple Thieves. The CD features ten tracks of indie rock that are about as solid as anything I’ve heard.

Executive producer David Pascal of Pascal Records reports that Fool Skool will be available within a month or so, and I’ll be posting a complete review with details on where to find it soon. In the meantime, their previous album Smash Cut is available on YouTube. Click here to play, and I’ll be sure to let you know as soon as Skool’s in session.

One final note (a public service announcement, if you will):

These days of social distance have been particularly tough on musicians. I speak from experience since the Celtic-influenced music of both the Laughrey-Connolly and Connolly-Davis Bands usually keeps me hopping on and around St. Patrick’s Day. For years we have played March shows to SRO crowd. But not this year.

Moreover, although there might have been a time when a reasonably successful band could rely on recorded music to earn its keep, these days the money is mostly in live performances.  Recognizing the challenge, the music platform Bandcamp recently held a sale to raise awareness regarding “the pandemic’s impact on musicians everywhere,” during which they waived their revenue share to “put much-needed money directly into artists’ pockets.”

So … if you enjoy the music featured above, and if you have the ability to do so, you might consider purchasing a few downloads. You’ll be supporting original music, and the tunes will be yours to play wherever you want.

For now, I’ll leave you with a video featuring the music and art of Martic Springett from the album The Gardening Club — sights and sounds to span the social distance.

Podcasts for Shut-Ins:
Tune In, Hunker Down

March 19th, 2020

I’ve been trying to track down a piece that I heard on NPR following the 9-11 attacks. I can’t remember who delivered it, but the voice in my memory sounds like Scott Simon. It was a reflective piece about the uncertainty felt in the aftermath of the attacks, a time when the country was bracing for an uncertain future.

As I recall, the commentator contrasted the moment with bombings in Europe during WWII, when people would hunker down and await the all-clear. The piece ended with the question: Will there ever be an all-clear this time?

That question seems even more relevant now.

Today, as we adjust to a world profoundly different from the one we knew a couple of weeks ago, it may be difficult to believe things will ever return to a semblance of normal. Yet, though there are never guarantees, the odds are in our favor if we follow the guidelines offered by the CDC and other reliable sources — all of which urge avoiding close contact as much as possible.

Unfortunately, isolation leads to other problems, not the least of which is a sense of disconnection and boredom.  If you’re lucky enough to be able to work from home, you already have part of the day covered. But what do you do with your downtime?

Books have always worked for me, and being able to download them from reliable vendors (a.k.a ones-that-pay-the-authors) makes it possible to access virtually anything without leaving the home. It’s the same with movies, where Universal is now making its latest theatrical releases available on your favorite streaming services. But lately, I’ve been turning to podcasts, where the conversations provide a sense of social connection. And unlike reading books and watching movies, I can tune in while walking, working out, cleaning my office, or doing home repairs that are not as easy to ignore as they used to be.

So what have I been listening to? Glad you asked. Here (in no particular order) are a few that work for me. Your mileage may vary, but all are worth a test drive.

First up is Inside the Hive from Vanity Fair. Hosted by tech-writer Nick Bilton, the blog covers technology, politics, and current events, with each show centering on a one-hour (give or take) conversation with writers, journalists, scientists, and political commentators. If you’re interested in checking it out, you might start with an episode from October titled “Sam Harris Explains Why There’s No Free Will” — just the thing to divert the mind from the fight-or-flight drive that seems to be running our lives today. Or, if you’re looking for an up-to-the-minute conversation about the current health crisis, you’ll want to check out this week’s show, where screenwriter Scott Burns (Contagion) is slated to talk about pandemics and other things related to the biggest challenge of the twenty-first century.

You’ll find it all at Vanity Fair, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. The interview with Scott Burns drops on Friday, March 20.

And if you want more conversation on the current state of affairs – and particularly if you like the Sam Harris interview on Inside the Hive – you’ll want to check out the most recent installments of Making Sense, where neuroscientist, philosopher, and best-selling author Sam Harris interviews Yale professor Nicholas A. Christakis (Episode 190), Johns Hopkins disease specialist Amesh Adalja (Episode 191), and psychologist Paul Bloom (Episode 192).

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a break from the challenges of the day, you might download Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast with Frank Santopadre, in which a hyperkinetic comedian (Gottfried) and a television writer (Santopadre) interview screenwriters, songwriters, comedians, directors, actors, and other folks who helped shape pop culture in the twentieth century.

Some of the best conversations are with people you may not have heard from in a while, like Michael Nesmith (guitarist for the Monkees) or Ron Dante (frontman for the Archies). The conversations are free-ranging and spontaneous, with the most interesting ones held together by Santopadre’s encyclopedic knowledge of each guest’s career. And Gottfried is hysterical, although there are times when he goes completely off the rails (as in a recent interview with Tony and Oscar-nominated Amy Ryan). You might find him an acquired taste, but when his antics work, there’s no one funnier.

And if you’re a horror fan, you might try Post Mortem with Mick Garris, which features interviews with some of the biggest names in scary movies. Currently produced by Fangoria, the podcast has featured conversations with Stephen King, Barbara Crampton, John Carpenter, and others. As a writer, director, and producer in his own right, Garris always makes the interviews sound like conversations between friends.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog might be the Post Mortem episode “Live at the Fantasia Film Festival,” recorded following the world premiere of Nightmare Cinema. It features directors Joe Dante, Ryuhei Kitamura and Alejandro Brugués along with writers Richard Christian Matheson, Sandra Becerril and the 21st-Century Scop himself in an hour-long conversation moderated by Fangoria’s own Tony Timpone. Pull up a chair and join us.

Also in the horror vein, there’s The Wicked Library, now in its 10th season of delivering novelette-length fiction for the ears. This year’s season kicks off just with the release of a new story by British writer Christopher Long. Read by Louie Pollard, scored by Nico Vetesse, and produced by 9th Story Studios, “Shiny Entrails” provides an interesting blend of psychological and ecological horror that rewards repeated listening. I found it a welcome diversion from the real horrors in the news streams of the day.

That’s some of what I’ve been listening to, but there’s lots more where that came from. Good thing too because it looks like it could be a while before we get the all-clear. Until then — hunker down, tune in … and scop on!