Jonathan Coulton Musical Revue

By Martin Morse Wooster: Flying V Theatre is a Washington-based company that specializes in productions with sf-related themes.  I’ve seen four or five of their productions, and they all have sf elements in them.  What I remember is one about the Mario Bros. video game that was fun if weird and one about pirates that would have been a rollicking two-hour show except that it was three hours.  I think they pride themselves on being Millennials but this Baby Boomer has enjoyed what they’ve done in the past.

I haven’t heard from Flying V in a while, but they are now at the Black Box Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland for the month of February, with “It’s The Rest Of The World That Looks So Small:  A Theatrical Revue of Jonathan Coulton”, which was conceived and directed by Jason Schlafstein and Vaughn Irving, with music by Steve Przybyski and Jon Jon Johnson.

You know about “theatrical revues,” those evenings where singers belt out 20 songs by Sondheim or Kander and Ebb? Well, Flying V’s production was like that—except it was for geeks!

I confess I had not heard of Jonathan Coulton or “JoCo” until now.  But I now know from his website that he was born in 1970, was graduated from Yale in 1993, and was a member of the Whiffenpoofs (you know, like Cole Porter!).  He worked in software until 2005 when he quit to become a full time songwriter/performer.  In 2013 one of his songs was swiped by Glee and his battle with the TV show was dramatized on The Good Wife.

Where he intersects with fandom is the annual JoCo Cruise, which is scheduled to be held later this month on a Royal Caribbean ship.  A brochure on the cruise’s website for an earlier version promised customers “absolute dominion over an entire cruise ship filled with free food, fruity drinks, and swimming pools.”  Who wouldn’t want that?  They say they’re a cross between a music festival and a con, but what this reminds me of was the failed 1988 Worldcon bid for the cruise ship.  They’ve held this cruise five times, and the guests this year whose names I recognize include N.K. Jemisin, Patrick Rothfuss, John Scalzi, John Hodgman, Mark Frauenfelder, and Wil Wheaton.

Coulton says he writes “geek rock,” and he has geeky fans:  one video I saw on YouTube had some heckler, after he said he was going to perform his last song, responded, “There’s always the null set!”  Flying V performed his songs with an orchestra of four and a cast of about six, of whom four were on stage at any time.

Songwriting is theatre for the mind, and mundane theatrical revues work because the music works for talented singers who don’t need stage tricks to convey the point of the song.  What Flying V did was try to turn the songs into actual theatre.  This was a mistake.

For example, one of Coulton’s more famous songs is “Code Monkey,” which is his tribute to his days coding.  The song was not improved by having one actor wearing a rubber gorilla head while singing. “I’m Your Moon” is Charon’s consolation to Pluto after Pluto couldn’t be a planet any more.  Having a cardboard moon confused the point of the song, which I didn’t fully get until I went to YouTube. “Skullcrusher Mountain” was not enhanced by having two singers in trench coats.

As for the guy singing “Mr. Fancy Pants,” his pants were certainly fancy.  Yes, they were.  That’s all I’ll say.

Jonathan Coulton is a talented guy.  I’m sure I’d enjoy his concert, particularly with fruity drinks.  I’m sure other people could sing his songs, just as I’m sure he sings works by other songwriters.  I bet the JoCo Cruise is a lot of fun.

But all the props and choreography drowned Coulton’s songs in treacle. Flying V should realize that the point of a theatrical revue is to showcase the songs.  Minimalism should be the order of the day and the cast should work to show the audience how special the songs are.  This means resisting the temptation to run up and down a two-story stage, and having far too many costume changes.  And I’m sorry to spoil Flying V’s fun, but for this production they should have left their zap guns at home.

I’m grateful to Flying V for introducing me to Jonathan Coulton’s songs, but It’s The Rest Of The World That Looks So Small doesn’t work.

Amazing Stories Kickstarter Campaign Coming March 1

The Experimenter Publishing Company under Steve Davidson will open a Kickstarter appeal on March 1 to raise seed funding for the revival of Amazing Stories as a print magazine. The first issue is planned for August, to be available at Worldcon in San Jose; several unspecified well-known writers have already committed to contributing to it. The magazine will be published on a quarterly basis thereafter.

Hugo Gernsback published the premier issue of Amazing Stories back in April 1926. It was the world’s first science fiction magazine and Amazing went on to publish works by writers now recognized as giants in the field, such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and others. For the last five years, Amazing has been a social website that has published primarily non-fiction articles, although it has also produced three issues of fiction, as well as reprints of classic issues.

The Kickstarter premiums will include: subscriptions, signed copies of books; editing of short stories; getting your image on the cover of the magazine; and more.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association Celebrates New Board Members and Its 40th Year

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) has voted in F.J. Bergmann as their new Vice-President and Renee Ya as their new secretary. A SFPA press release gives brief bios for each:

F.J. Bergmann is no stranger to the SFPA and has stepped away from her five-year run as the editor of Star*Line Magazine to step into the role as Vice President. She is the poetry editor for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and is the managing editor for MadHat Press. As she completes her 10th year of membership with us, we look forward to her experience, insight, and vision assisting our efforts in building vibrant cultural spaces around the world for speculative poetry & poets.

Renee Ya is a Hmong American writer, photographer, and space shaman who has volunteered at SFPA for the last three years. When she’s not saving the world, she’s a Project Manager in the video game industry. Her skills and firm grasp of the underpinnings of the SFPA will be of use as the SFPA expands our programs and outreach this year.

40th Anniversary: SFPA is an international organization celebrating its 40th year in 2018. The organization presents the Rhysling, Elgin, and Dwarf Star awards, and hosts talented science fiction, fantasy, and horror poets in its publication Star*Line.

What is science fiction/fantasy poetry? The definition is broad with results as diverse as speculative fiction. It’s poetry with some element of speculation—usually science fiction, fantasy, or horror, though some include surrealism and some straight science. Yes, that means alien love triangles. Yes, that means ghost cats and ghouls. Yes, that means epic sagas and magic. And poets in cosplay.

To participate in SFPA’s international community dedicated to “the weird, wonderful, and wickedly written” visit them at Facebook, on Twitter at @sfpoetry, their website, or their blog

2018 Philip K. Dick Film Festival

The 2018 Philip K. Dick Science Fiction Film Festival has announced its full lineup of critically acclaimed films, exclusive premieres, panel discussions and virtual reality installations. Screening in the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens in New York, the festival will run from February 23-25, 2018. The sixth annual event will feature appearances by show business heavyweights Armand Assante, Charles Baker, Vincent Pastore, Tom Sizemore, Melvin Van Peebles, Chuck Zito and more special guests.

This year’s festival has expanded its tribute to the father of science fiction, Philip K. Dick by broadening its scope of official selections. “Every year our films cover different themes of the PKD spectrum,” said Daniel Abella, the founder and director of the festival. “This event focuses heavily on inner worlds, transhuman realities and other types of films including speculative fiction, magical realism and surrealism. Just like PKD, we are very eclectic in our thinking and do not subscribe to one single unitary form of entertainment.”

The festival will feature appearances by numerous award-winning actors, filmmakers, scientists and innovators who are among the most successful individuals in the entertainment, medical and technology industries. “Real human exchange between ?the stars and the audience is a wonderful experience going back to classical Greece,” said Abella. “We are social creatures and need to be with others to find communion and transcendence.”

Abella added that the festival’s mission to represent society’s issues stands for the work and views of its namesake. “PKD was a modern-day prophet who foresaw the collapse of humanity under the colossal weight of data, technology and ecological devastation,” he said. “Narrative themes in these films are more effective in shaping popular thinking than a new review or manifesto. In our own modest way, the festival represents a resistance against monolithic hypercaptialism and rapacious technology. Think of it as technology with a soul.”

The schedule follows the jump.

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Review of “The Dog Must Die”

By Martin Morse Wooster: How do you judge an sf play by an 18-year-old?

That’s the problem I had when I saw The Dog Must Die, a play by Madison Middleton, a high school senior from Washington, DC.  Her play was produced by The Highwood Theatre, a semi-professional troupe.  The theatre is located in a nondescript office building in Silver Spring, Maryland with sf roots; one floor below, the office directory told me, was the Planet of Accounting.

When I was in high school Scott Edelstein (not Scott Edelman, but someone else) was famous for, at age 16, selling a short story to Swank, a magazine he could not legally buy.  The equivalent transgression today is that in Middleton’s play, there are many adult beverages being consumed.

The Dog Must Die is set in 2033.  The planet is ravaged by ecological disaster.  Savage fires and floods have pulverized the earth, and the government has selected a few people to live in a bunker for a year to survive the environmental apocalypse. Produce has largely vanished, and Thanksgiving turkeys have been replaced by mystery meat.

Good times!

The five people all have different skills.  We meet a doctor, an architect, a high school philosophy teacher, an agricultural specialist, and a guy who spends most of his time on a couch moaning for reasons that are not quite clear.  Backstory scenes show the philosophy teacher in a park playing chess and (less convincingly) the doctor stressed after a patient dies in her office.

But the agricultural specialist has a dog, who has muck on her feet.  She explains that the government has given her protective gear and a dog, so she can plant seeds and the dog can smell where the best soil might be located.  But why does she get to go out when everyone else has to stay in the bunker?  With all the cast members racked with cabin fever, anything could happen….

The problem with The Dog Must Die is one of world building.  We know that enough of the world’s infrastructure has survived that the head of “the International Union of World Governments” can broadcast globally.  Why can’t the characters access the Internet?  Why can’t they spend their days watching Khan Academy videos or binging on TV? Why don’t they have any books?

Moreover, what I saw in the play didn’t convince me that people had to stay in the bunker for all that time.  Middleton told me after the show that the world she created had been nuked, but that information came from the scene where the global leader broadcast, and I could hear very little of the speech, even from the front row.  I told her she should study John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, that magnificently gloomy novel of ecological disaster, and study how he shows how his world is collapsing.

I can’t judge The Dog Must Die the way I would analyze a play by a professional.  But if I were a college admissions counselor at a highly competitive school, I would be very impressed by Middleton’s talent.  I hope she ends up at a school with an excellent drama department that has professors that make her write a lot.  If that happens, she could be someone that, in 2030, is recognized as a rising talent in the theatre.

The Philly Pops “Star Wars Concert” and Music of John Williams

By Steve Vertlieb: Shelly and I together with the always delightful conductor of The Philly Pops, Michael Krajewski, in his dressing room following the recent Star Wars concert and John Williams program at The Kimmel Center on Saturday, October 21, 2017.

  • Shelly, together with esteemed Philly Pops conductor Michael Krajewski in his dressing room.

  • Here with conductor Michael Krajewski.

  • Shelly and I encountered these Imperial Storm Troopers at the Kimmel Center following The Philly Pops Star Wars concert.


Pacific Rim Uprising – Official Trailer 2

Pacific Rim Uprising in theaters March 23.

The globe-spanning conflict between otherworldly monsters of mass destruction and the human-piloted super-machines built to vanquish them was only a prelude to the all-out assault on humanity in Pacific Rim Uprising.

John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) stars as the rebellious Jake Pentecost, a once-promising Jaeger pilot whose legendary father gave his life to secure humanity’s victory against the monstrous “Kaiju.” Jake has since abandoned his training only to become caught up in a criminal underworld. But when an even more unstoppable threat is unleashed to tear through our cities and bring the world to its knees, he is given one last chance to live up to his father’s legacy by his estranged sister, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi)—who is leading a brave new generation of pilots that have grown up in the shadow of war. As they seek justice for the fallen, their only hope is to unite together in a global uprising against the forces of extinction.

Jake is joined by gifted rival pilot Lambert (The Fate of the Furious’ Scott Eastwood) and 15-year-old Jaeger hacker Amara (newcomer Cailee Spaeny), as the heroes of the PPDC become the only family he has left. Rising up to become the most powerful defense force to ever walk the earth, they will set course for a spectacular all-new adventure on a towering scale.

Pacific Rim Uprising is directed by Steven S. DeKnight (Netflix’s Daredevil, STARZ’s Spartacus) and also stars Jing Tian, Burn Gorman, Adria Arjona and Charlie Day.


Music By James Bernard: Themes for A Tapestry of Terror

By Steve Vertlieb: James Bernard was the musical heart and soul of England’s premier horror picture studio, Hammer Films.

Creating the symphonic pulse quickened by luminaries Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and the lovely Veronica Carlson in such films as Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, Frankenstein Created Woman, Taste The Blood of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Scars of Dracula, and She (Who Must Be Obeyed), as well as Hammer’s groundbreaking 1950’s science fiction masterpieces, The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass 2, and X, The Unknown, James was a joyous, symphonic force of nature. Jimmy and I became close friends in the last years of his life, and I loved him.

Producer James Fitzpatrick at Tadlow Records has just announced that he will be recording two of Jimmy’s most spectacular scores, presumably Horror Of Dracula, and Curse Of Frankenstein, both created by Hammer Films, and starring the wonderful Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, for a whole new generation of film music enthusiasts.

These two pieces look back at the frighteningly haunting, and prolific career of composer James Bernard.

“Music By James Bernard – Tapestry of Terror” at American Music Preservation.

Jimmy and I became close friends in the last years of his life, and I loved him. Here is a short documentary film remembrance of our friendship, and of the frighteningly prolific career of composer James Bernard. It is a melancholy tribute to a legendary artist and composer.

While science fiction in cinema has always enjoyed enormous popularity around the world, dating back to George Melies 1902 experimental short A Short Trip To The Moon, few would argue that the cultural renaissance of the well worn genre occurred during its most prolific flowering from 1950 until 1959.

“Steven Vertlieb Remembers James Bernard – The Musical Heart & Soul of Hammer Films”

In June 2014, cinema archivist / historian / educator Steve Vertlieb took time before our documentary cameras to reminisce on his special friendship with legendary film composer – the late great James Bernard, best known to many as the primary musical voice of the classic 1960’s era horror and sci fi films of England’s Hammer Studios…