Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #6

Stuff I’m Nominating for the 2017 Hugo Awards, Part One

By Chris M. Barkley:

Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form

Blackstar by David Bowie,  ISO Records – Columbia, Music and Lyrics by David Bowie with Maria Schneider, Paul Bateman and Bob Bharma on “Sue (Or A Season of Crime)”.

Album Personnel

David Bowie – vocals, acoustic guitar, mixing, production, string arrangements, “Fender Guitar” (3), harmonica (7)

Length: 41 minutes 17 seconds.

It has been a year and a month since the passing of David Bowie. His final gift to us, Blackstar, is a testament to his musical sensibilities and genius.

In the fall of 2014, Bowie and his longtime producer Tony Visconti secretly gathered together a group of New York City jazz musicians and began to record this album. Although he knew his days were numbered, Bowie desperately wanted to add one last note to his majestic musical legacy.

Blackstar is not a conventional rock album by anyone’s standards. If anything, his use of the jazz ensemble more resembles a throwback to the jazz-fusion era of the 1970’s and ’80.

Besides showing Bowie was well aware of his fatal cancer diagnosis, he was also keen to show everyone that he would not let death get in the way of his artistic and creative endeavors.

Blackstar’s Hugo worthiness, in my opinion, rests on the title track, “Lazarus” and the accompanying ten-minute music video of “Lazarus.” Reading between the lines of his lyrics, Bowie’s symbolism and longing for something beyond death are there, even though he doesn’t know exactly what it might be or what form it might be in. There is no morbidity or fear in these musings, just a sense of wonderment.

You can view the full version of the “Lazarus” video here:

Two previously released songs, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” and “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, were re-recorded for this album, replacing bridges that Bowie had originally played with new saxophone parts played on the latter song by Donny McCaslin.

Blackstar was released on January 8, 2016, coinciding with Bowie’s 69th birthday. David Bowie succumbed to liver cancer two days later.

Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form

Stranger Things (Eight Episodes, 395 minutes, Netflix) created and directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen and the Duffer Brothers. Written by The Duffer Brothers, Jessica Mecklenburg, Justin Doble, Alison Tatlock, Jessie Nickson-Lopez and Paul Dichter.

Starring:  Mille Bobby Brown, David Harbour, Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine, Finn Wolfhard , Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp and Shannon Purser as “Barb” Holland.

When I first heard about the premise of Stranger Things, my eyes rolled so hard they nearly catapulted from my skull. And I have never been more wrong and delighted in my life.

The setting:  Hawkins, Indiana, November 1983. When young Will Myers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing , a nightmarish chain of events is set into motion that include a government conspiracy conducted by a local science facility, an unhinged mother’s (Wynona Ryder) desperate search for her child, an alcoholic sheriff (David Harbor) involved in an investigation that’s way over his head, mysterious deaths and other disappearances of citizens and three pre-teen boys (Finn Wolfhard , Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin,) who happen upon an unearthly young girl with paranormal abilities (Millie Bobby Brown).

And there’s a monster.  A BIG ONE! From ANOTHER DIMENSION!

If you haven’t seen this phenomenal blend of horror, sf, fantasy, conspiracy thrillers and cultural tropes of the 1980’s, it would be criminal of me to say anything else do actually describe it. To those of us who actually grew up in that era (and I am one of them, to be sure), Stranger Things nostalgically calls out our cultural past and its tropes in practically every scene; Stephen King novels, the films of John Hughes, John Carpenter, Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas among many, many others.

The cast is uniformly spectacular and earned them all the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series for 2016 against such world-class competitors like as The Crown, Downton Abby, Game of Thrones and Westworld.

So don’t count Stranger Things out if (or when, more likely than not) it goes up against heavyweights challengers like Star Wars: Rogue One, Doctor Strange, Star Trek Beyond and Deadpool on the final ballot.

Best Novel

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, Mulholland Books, published 5 July 2016, 336 pages.

Victor, the narrator of this novel, is a clandestine US Marshal in contemporary America. His job is hunting fugitives. Victor does it and he does it well. But there are a couple of wrinkles to this situation:

Abraham Lincoln is assassinated before his inauguration and the Civil War never happens.

Slavery is kept viable through a series of political compromises by the ruling parties. By the 20th century though, only four southern states still have legalized slavery and the rest of the country is “civilly” segregated for everyone’s protection.

Victor is hunting African-American fugitive slaves under the Fugitive Persons Act.

Victor himself is black, is STILL a “Person Bound to Labor” and has the freedom to roam the country at will, but only at the brutal expense of the people he captures.

When Victor is sent to track down an outlaw abolitionist codenamed Jackdaw, he is forced to come to terms with his work, his life and the country he serves.

Even more daring than the plot of Underground Airlines is the fact that the author, Ben H. Winters, is white. A white author, even a well-meaning one, writing about such an explosive cultural topic today, with a black narrator, might seem to be professional suicide in the literary world. Winters, a skilled professional whose previous works have won the Edgar Award (The Last Policeman) and the Philip K. Dick Award (Countdown City) for Best Novel, has won over critics and readers with this brilliant alternate history thriller.

I will be very disappointed if Underground Airlines does not make the final Hugo Award ballot this year.

9 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #6

  1. I watched Stranger Things quite recently and my main reaction was to kick myself for not watching it sooner. It really is excellent. For example, there are many characters who could have been one note stereotypes (the sheriff drinking away a tragedy, the deadbeat dad, the slimy teenage boyfriend) but were all given at least a little bit extra to their characters, and a little bit more to do.

  2. I’m glad someone else appreciates Underground Airlines as much as I did. It really is fantastic. For comparison, I also just finished Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, and Underground Airlines is, to me, superior in every way.

  3. Stranger Things is the best tv show that Spielberg never made.

    Based on the best tale Stephen King never wrote, with the best monster H.R. Giger never designed and featuring the best score John Carpenter never composed.

    Yet it never really felt derivative.

    I thought Westworld, Arrival and – maybe – The OA (I still am not sure what, exactly, I think of it) were better long form dramatic presentations because they were a bit more thought-provoking, but I enjoyed the hell out of ST.

    I really wish Cage The Elephant had dropped the video for Cold, Cold, Cold a couple of weeks earlier so it would be eligible for short form. I Hope I remember it come next year.

  4. Pingback: 2017 Grammy Awards | File 770

  5. Even more daring than the plot of Underground Airlines is the fact that the author, Ben H. Winters, is white.

    Daring? I think not. Operating from a position of privilege is not daring. Too often when white people comment on racism it is embarrassingly under informed (I count myself in this group). If Winters has an intelligent take, that’s good to hear, and it makes me want to try the book. Still, “daring” is the wrong word.

  6. I just finished Underground Airlines and (bearing in mind that I’m white) I thought that it was very well done, in terms of giving insight into what life was like for slaves — and what things are still like for black people today. The protagonist is a very believable, ethically ambiguous character.

    My only disappointment with the book is that the only real speculative element (apart from a bit of tech which is probably not far from what exists today) is that it’s an alternate history of a U.S. where a President-elect Lincoln was assassinated before being inaugurated, shocking everyone so much that they hastily drew up Constitutional Amendments to allow 4 states to remain slaveowning forevermore, instead of having a Civil War.

    There’s not really any other science-fictional aspect to it — and the SF would be an important part of what makes a book hit my sweet spot.

    It’s definitely well worth reading.

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