Review: The appropriated world of The Guild of Saint Cooper

The Guild of Saint Cooper cover

The Guild of Saint Cooper, a novel by Shya Scanlon

Good artists copy. Great artists steal. — attributed to Pablo Picasso, among others

Discussion of cultural appropriation has surged in the last few years in the context of race relations. White culture has borrowed and stolen from black culture for decades, particularly in entertainment, usually without enough credit to the origins of a style of music, dance, poetry, or performance. What happens then, when a writer creates a fictional world wholesale out of another fictional world? Is he borrowing in order to comment on that world, or stealing from it because he can’t come up with a better idea?

Author Shya Scanlon appropriates shamelessly from a realm created by another artist, director David Lynch, to manufacture a post-apocalyptic Seattle in The Guild of Saint Cooper, published by Dzanc Books in April 2015. Lynch is best known for Twin Peaks, a quirky, strange, and beloved television series that aired just two seasons’ worth of episodes. The first season, the better of the two, focused on a murder investigation by Dale Cooper, an FBI special agent with his own methods and approach to detective work. Cooper’s character combines the calm certainty of a Zen monk with a fascination in the unseen anticipating another fictional FBI agent, Fox Mulder, who appears in a different TV series, The X-Files, which debuted two years after Twin Peaks ended. Continue reading

I Want to Believe in Planet Nine

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I want to believe in Planet Nine.

Once a week from 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling invited Americans to “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.” The Twilight Zone illustrated the permeable boundary between fact and fantasy, a region explored by science, which pushes the edges of the unknown, postulating things unproven, but inferred.

The announcement of the discovery of Planet Nine falls into this category of deduced reality. Astronomers and theorists examined odd behavior of the eight major planets and their poor cousins, the dwarf planets, as well as the Solar System’s population of comets and asteroids. The best explanation was another major planet, probably a gas giant halfway in size between Earth and Neptune, circling the sun every 10,000 to 20,000 years. They invited the world to hunt for this invisible titan, find it, or prove them wrong.

People now have a choice: Believe in Planet Nine or not. Scientists have proposed planets beyond the eight accepted “wanderers” before. All were debunked. Black holes were predicted, then found. Planet Nine lives in this secret sphere of maybe/maybe not, in a place where another one of my favorite shows, The X-Files, loves to hang out. For the entire run of the show, protagonist Fox Mulder attempted to prove the existence of the shadow world he believed in.

The timing of Planet Nine’s announcement could not have been better, coming a few days before the six-episode reboot of the adventures of Mulder and his partner, Dana Scully. In fact, one could postulate a conspiracy between FOX and Fox, or at least Fox’s inventor, producer Chris Carter. I’m hoping somehow Carter will work in a line from Mulder about the existence of Planet Nine. I’m guessing Fox’s heart is in the same place as mine. I want to believe.

Do you believe?

Star Trek 50th: Plomeek Soup? Again?

Kirk, Spock, plomeek soup

I suppose you’re going to make plomeek soup again.

The original Star Trek series marks the 50th anniversary of its first broadcast on September 8. It was just three weeks after my seventh birthday, but the series soon had a profound affect on my perceptions of popular culture. I don’t think I’d be who I am without Star Trek in my life. I’ll be posting my own interpretations of a half-century of “where no man has gone before” over the next months, maybe years. Let me know what you think!

For the uninitiated: Plomeek soup is a Vulcan comfort food that appears in the episode Amok Time, in which Mr. Spock suffers a Vulcan version of (sexist trigger warning) PMS.

Inspiration for writers and artists who fear rejection

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

For Martin Luther King Day 2016, here’s some inspiration for all writers and artists who worry that they’ll never be published or recognized, or that they don’t fit in to society in general. The quote is from a sermon he gave that addressed conformism, and as I see it, it calls on the creative person to ignore criticism and follow your path. For all you know, you may be the sane one.

A Tale of Disappointment and Two Endings

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You killed my favorite character in your book. It’s like you killed my favorite bunny.

Spoilers ahead, including details of book endings

You’ve invested days, maybe weeks of time in a relationship, but at the end, you’re disappointed. It happens in real-life relationships, and it happens to readers invested in a novel’s characters. Fortunately, the latter is a rare thing, but when it happens, it can be a gut punch. I was stunned by the ending of a book by one of my favorite authors, John le Carré, who’s best known for his espionage novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carré has a storytelling style that reminds me of peeling layers off an onion while blindfolded. It’s a labyrinthine journey of discovery.

Disappointment with Le Carré descended on me while I was listening to the last few minutes of an audiobook version of Our Kind of Traitor, the author’s 22nd novel. It’s the story of a young Oxford academic and his barrister girlfriend, who vacation on the island of Antigua and meet Dima, a Russian millionaire who came by his wealth by less-than-honest means. The plot focuses on a plan to rescue him and his family from the Russian mafia by giving him a new life in England. In exchange, he promises to tell investigators everything he knows about his money-laundering ways, betraying his criminal colleagues. Continue reading

What happens when you remodel your social media platform

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The writerly life is no longer just about writing stories, if it ever was.

If I were to list personal predictions for 2016, they wouldn’t include an email from an agent or publisher with a contract for one of my books. 2015 looked pretty hopeful for Carbon Run, with encouraging words from one agent, who suggested stronger interest if I’d only have a professional editor go over the manuscript. I’ve done that—twice—and the agent has gone silent, even after a couple of pings. Subsequent submissions to other agents have resulted in rejections or more silence. That means I’m facing a choice to keep submitting it to agents and publishers or self-publish the novel myself. I’d rather do the former, but I’m ready to do the latter.

Either way, I’ll need to build a marketing platform. Do I have to do it even if a publisher buys the novel? Yes. There’s a persistent myth among aspiring authors that once a publisher picks up your work, all you have to do is sit back and watch the royalties roll in. That may be true with the top 1 percent of revenue-generating authors, but for the 99 percent like you and me, you’re on your own as far as marketing is concerned. The main things that publishers bring to the table these days are distribution to bookstores, access to top-tier reviewers (really a marketing tactic), and the imprimatur of a brand in the case of the major publishers. In the case of independent authors, well, you have to do EVERYTHING except run the press. Continue reading

Poll: What genre does my current novel project belong in?

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Genres? Genres? We don’t need no stinkin’ genres!

Writers of a certain stripe hate fiction genres. Committed writers focus on character and plot, and the fact that a story takes place in space or another historical era is secondary. Writers can live with basic genres, such as science fiction or mystery, but when things get fine-grained, such as paranormal romance (the Twilight series, for example), they have a tendency to go ape-shit. The labels are too constraining, too arbitrary, they complain. And when you bring up the newest sub-genres, such as “solarpunk” or “climate fiction,” you get strange looks or outright hostility, pure and simple.

I once thought I wrote science fiction, but my editor on Carbon Run convinced me that it’s a dystopian thriller, more in line with Hunger Games than Star Trek. In truth, only booksellers care about genre, apart from the readers they’ve trained. Genres are simply conveniences that writers have to live with. Put another way, genres are the old solution to the discoverability problem: How do writers find readers and vice versa? You want sci-fi, you look on the sci-fi shelf, or enter “sci-fi” in the Amazon search box. Continue reading

Why parents should take their kids to see the new Star Wars

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Parents should pass Star Wars traditions to their children.

Star War: The Force Awakens has taken in $1 billion in ticket sales, and I’m betting a large share comes from parents taking their kids to see the blockbuster. It’s more than mom and/or dad looking for ways to occupy the young’ns on a long holiday weekend. What was once a triennial or quadrennial ritual reserved for sci-fi and fantasy geeks has become a sharing-time moment, not too far from parents and kids watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown together every Halloween.

My two daughters and I took in the latest Star Wars epic on Christmas night, after spending the afternoon with their grandmother and waiving goodbye to their mother, who was off to California on family business. The offspring are both in college, but all their friends had obligations on Christmas night, so I jumped at the chance to share my passion for the Star Wars story. For as long as they were able to mimic Dad saying “Luke, I am your father,” I’d tell the story of waiting for two hours in 1977 to buy a ticket outside a Seattle theatre for the original Star Wars movie, then wait another two hours to see the picture, and finding myself completely captivated by it. I bought the books, listened over and over to the recording (on vinyl) of the John Williams score, and waited like a bridegroom for the second, third, and so on installments of the franchise. Continue reading

What Catholic sci-fi writers can learn from Mormon writers.

Mormon gospel art

Mormon gospel art depicts scenes from the Book of Mormon. It reminds me of a mid-20th century style of science fiction cover art.

An unfinished version of this post appeared earlier by mistake. Apologies for my fat fingers.

A couple of days after Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, Washington Post contributor Matthew Bowman pointed out a long fascination by the Mormon community for science fiction and fantasy. Some of the most well-known and best-selling writers in the genre today, such as Brandon Sanderson and Orson Scott Card, are Mormon, and Bowman shows how the religion’s history and imagery encourages world-building and an appreciation for larger-than-life characters. I’ve never read the Book of Mormon, but the copy that a young, black-and-white clad man gave to me many years ago was full of “gospel art” rendered in a realistic style that highlighted a calm certainty in their beliefs. It seemed so much like the cover art of the science fiction that confirmed my own belief in science and good storytelling.

(I know what you’re thinking: Mormonism is homophobic, misogynistic, and just this side of looney. Just listen for a minute while I talk about our shared capacity for imagination.)

Reading the article reminded me of my upbringing in Yakima, Wash., where I learned a 1960s Catholicism straining to adjust to the historic structural reforms of Vatican II. My first-grade teacher at St. Paul’s School wore a nun’s habit, as all teachers in religious orders did in those days, and her style of discipline was a mixture of the Spanish Inquisition and Attila the Hun. We studied our faith as it if were a parallel government emanating from Heaven, confessed our sins and attended Mass in the diocesan cathedral, and believed that all other religions were a ticket to Hell. (I don’t remember a discussion of Mormonism specifically, but I’d bet that it was considered an express, first-class ticket, without the free liquor.) Continue reading

‘Bet’ now at Seattle Public Library; Poll: Change Joe’s name

Bet: Stowaway Daughter cover

Bet: Stowaway Daughter, my self-published novel, is now available for checkout from the Seattle Public Library.

Getting into the local library is one of the biggest challenges for the self-published author. I’ve leapt that hurdle with my one self-published novel, Bet: Stowaway Daughter, which I released as an e-book in 2009. It’s now available for checkout at the Seattle Public Library and the King County Public Library. Download it to your Kindle! (Oh, yeah, you can buy it on Amazon.) To find it at the libary, simply search the catalog on my last name, Follansbee. Here’s the blurb:

During the Great Depression, Lisbet “Bet” Lindstrom is the 13-year-old daughter of a sea captain convicted of theft and sent to prison. Bet is convinced her father is innocent, but she has no way to prove it. Desperate to free her father, she visits his old fishing boat, and spots a horribly scarred sailor who might know the truth about the crime. Ignoring the warnings of her friends, she secretly jumps aboard the ship, and sails to Alaska. She braves huge storms, performs daring rescues and faces the man who threatens everything she loves.

I’m still hoping an agent will pick up Carbon Run, my first science fiction novel. In case no one bites, the manuscript is ready to be self-published. Lately, I’ve been thinking my author name, “Joe Follansbee,” is a bit weak, and there’s evidence that author names without a gender get more traction for certain subjects or content. (Would you buy a Regency romance novel from someone named “Joe?”) I’m conducting a poll, asking what name you prefer. Help me change my name (or not) by picking one of the options below.


Any other thoughts? Let me know.