Star Trek and the Echo Chamber of ‘fandom.’

I came across an announcement that Star Trek: Picard had been renewed for a season 2 already. Attached to that article was this comment:

And, well… sigh. Talk about wishful thinking. This is right up there with NeoCon talking points. This is the kind of viewer who is so ensconced in his echo chamber that he has no idea what’s going on outside.

First of all, that’s not how the TV industry works. If a show is greenlit for a season 2, it begins work months before the airdate. In this case, the show is set to begin filming season 2 in March 2020, which means that the writing staff, art production staff, SFX people, etc. are already working, even if only in the planning stages. It is already a significant financial risk, because now if they cancel season 2, it means they paid a bunch of people for a project that went nowhere, wasting money.

More importantly… On what planet is Star Trek Discovery a “flop”? The show has been widely praised. Ratings are solid. The show has won several awards, and not just in the usual Sci-Fi categories of costume and makeup. Yes, it has the usual haters who are upset about gay people in Star Trek, or black women as main characters, and there are a few others who don’t hate those things but who think the show is sub-standard for whatever reason. But as far as I can tell, the vast majority of fans have welcomed the show, and enjoy it.

Star Trek: Beyond did underperform in the box office, but it did well among critics, so I’m not sure the box office is all that meaningful. Yeah, I know, the Box Office take is considered super important, but to me a good movie that didn’t do amazingly at the box office is not the same as a flop. Movies underperform for lots of reasons; quality is only one possible measure, and not always the most important. Beyond premiered in a summer crowded with “geek movies,” and it still did pretty well, especially compared to most of the other Trek movies.

But what really gets on my nerves is this phrase, “what sounds like the complete abandonment of Roddenberry’s optimistic future.”

What?

No, really… what? Has this person even watched STD or the STP trailers? For that matter, have they ever watched any Star Trek?

Yes, Roddenberry’s future is an optimistic one, but it’s also one drenched in blood and horror. Look, we’ll set aside anything made after Roddenberry died and look only at the stuff he was part of. The United Federation of Planets, even in Gene Roddenberry’s original writing, came out of a period of death and destruction. Earth alone suffered under the Eugenics Wars, then World War 3, then the Earth/Romulan War. The Vulcans went through a period of savage warfare that nearly destroyed them. TOS opens only a decade or so after a period of open war between the Federation and the Klingons. And even in Roddenberry’s scripts, there is acknowledgment of the failures of the Federation.

Star Trek: Discovery’s entire first season is about the Federation losing its way in a time of war, and how it fights its way back to the ideals upon which it was founded. Hell, the main character is convicted of a crime because she gave up on those ideals, and spends the entire season reclaiming and redeeming herself.

In Season 2, the show is very much back in the optimistic vein of Roddenberryesque optimism. I am left to conclude that the commenter above didn’t watch the whole show.

STP is positioned in much the same way. We know Picard resigned from Starfleet, seemingly disgusted with the direction in which Starfleet was moving, and the show looks like it’s going to be about his fight for those ideals. So, how was Roddenberry’s optimism “abandoned?”

It wasn’t. It’s still there, but this isn’t 1966, and we can’t just show a perfect future with no struggle. So we’ll see the fight for the future that must happen if we’re to make it better than the past. Let’s watch Picard fight for the future we want. Let’s watch Burnham fight for the future she’s lost.

I bet we’re going to enjoy the hell out of that ride.

Rise of Skywalker: What I Liked/What I Didn’t Like

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I watch the movies and the shows, I read the books, I wear the costumes, I spent more money than was perhaps warranted at the time for a custom lightsaber for my costumes, I wrote a book heavily influenced by Star Wars. So how did I like the latest movie?

I didn’t want to post about it too close to release, but now enough time has gone by, and I’ve seen the movie twice, so I feel I can give it a reasonable take. The tl;dr version is that I liked the movie, but there were some aspects of it I would have done very differently, and that didn’t work for me. Of course I’m not going to leave it at that, but you need to know that after this, I’m going to spoil the crap out of it, so if you haven’t seen it yet and you care about spoilers, you should probably stop reading now.

Beware: Beyond this point, spoilers lurk!

Okay, so the beginning held some issues for me. The opening crawl tells us THE DEAD SPEAK! and then goes on to say that a message from the long-dead Palpatine has been heard throughout the galaxy, threatening revenge.

Well, first of all, it’s just one dead guy, so THE DEAD SPEAK! is perhaps a bit of crappy writing. A DEAD MAN SPEAKS! would have been more accurate, but okay, it’s sensational to use the plural. I’ll concede that.

What I cannot countenance, though, is doing it in such a lackluster, drama-free way. Instead of being told that was happening, imagine if we’d seen it. Imagine if Poe, Finn, and Rey were consulting with Leia in Resistance HQ when the message came over the wire, Leia sagged in horror, and someone else of Leia’s age recognized the voice? Wouldn’t that be better? How about if we saw the horror and fear throughout the Galaxy as the Emperor’s voice streamed across the hypernet?

Maybe they’d have done that if Carrie Fisher had been alive for this one. Maybe not. But I can’t help but feel that the opening we got was substandard.

As for Palpatine’s return, I’m not bothered by that so much, but that’s probably because I’m one of those EU nuts. Palpatine’s return is a story that has been told before; it didn’t take much of a stretch for me to assume it happened the same way. And while Dominic Monaghan gets his line about “ancient Sith cloning techniques,” it’s a throwaway line I get the feeling was missed by a lot of people, judging by the “how did he survive?” questions I’m seeing online in the wake of the film’s release. They could have spent more time on that, I think, and less time collecting plot coupons.

Poe was handled well; he’s matured from where he was in The Last Jedi, and is ready to command–even recognizing he needs his buddy Finn to lead with him is a sign of that maturity; he’s not the guy to go it alone anymore. I loved the little bits of his past we saw, and the discussion-through-expressions alone he had with Zorii at the end was a thing of beauty.

Finn also got some good screen time, though his big emotional moments seem to have hit the cutting room floor–we never find out what he was going to tell Rey. Hopefully that’ll be in the novelization.

Rey’s arc, I loved. I know a lot of so-called fans hate Rey and her “mary sue” tendencies, but I don’t consider her a Mary Sue at all, and I have no problem accepting her innate and intuitive understanding of the Force, or her swift learning once she’s got a teacher. She redeemed Ben (with some massive help from Leia), and she earned her place as the last of the Jedi. I’d love to see where she goes from here; I really hope they don’t abandon the new characters as the Star Wars machine moves on from the Skywalker Saga. If anyone from Disney Publishing reads this, I’ve got some ideas on how Rey moves on from here for the books. Drop me a line, guys!

I didn’t really love the use of old footage for Carrie; Leia came off as speaking in non sequiturs several times, and the effect was flat. I’m not sure what else they could have done, but it didn’t work for me 100%. That said, Leia’s end was fitting. She saw in her vision with Luke that her son would die at the end of her Jedi journey. She was wrong about how that would come about, which was fitting–in my opinion, none of the Skywalkers have ever correctly understood any of the prophecies around them, from Anakin’s “bringing balance to the Force” to Leia. She stopped, but her last act was to reach out to her son as a Jedi, and help turn him away from the Dark Side. And in doing so, both of them died. Prophecy’s a hell of a thing.

Ben, a man who killed literally billions, spent his last moments returning life to one who had been his enemy. It was fitting, and while I cringed as they kissed, I was relieved when a moment later he faded out of the world. Maybe he’ll show up as a Force ghost someday (I have some ideas there).

I absolutely loved Babu Frik, and I was very pleased to see him alive at the end of the story. I really liked the world of Kijimi, and I was upset they destroyed it in the story. But the little guy survived, along with Zorii, whom I also really liked, despite her being in only a couple of scenes.

However, one thing I really hated was the sidelining of Rose Tico. Rose is a great character, played to great effect by Kelly Marie Tran, and I was upset that she was given next to nothing to do. Her plotline with Finn went nowhere, she was just an exposition machine, and she could have been replaced by just about anyone. Tran and her character both deserved better, and I’m annoyed with Abrams for not giving her what she deserved. I’ve read the screenwriter’s explanation, and I find it wanting. I mean, I believe Terrio, but I also think more effort could have been expended to make things work better–maybe by dropping Leia from those scenes and rewriting them for Rose to shine.

Despite that, Rise of Skywalker was a fitting end to the story that began with A New Hope (or The Phantom Menace, take your pick), and while there were things I’d have done differently, or not at all, I think Abrams delivered a Star Wars experience I could be happy with. I saw it twice in the theater, I’ve preordered the home release. I look forward to more in this universe, in all the forms it takes.

Rant: Self-Checkout Machines and Why I Hate Them

When self-checkout registers first showed up, I thought “This is amazing; I can check out without annoying small talk about random crap in my basket!” I happily got in line.

Now? Now I hate the things.

I want to like them. I want to use them. But the bloody things were programmed by enemies of all humankind, after centuries of research into how to piss off normal, otherwise-intelligent human beings and make them feel like complete idiots.

The anti-theft scales are so sensitive they know if you place a paper bag on them. You can tell it you’re using your own bag, but there is no way to tell it the bag is theirs, so you’re supposed to scan all your crap and pile it up on the not-very-big scale, and then bag your stuff. I keep trying to tell it to ignore the bag, but it won’t.

Half the time I try to use the bloody things, the machine makes up phantom items on the scale and tells me to remove the “unknown item.” But there’s nothing there it hasn’t already scanned, and if I try to remove something that should be there, then it’s suddenly telling me to remove that. You can’t win.

When I go to weigh produce, about half of the time, it accepts the weight even before I’ve finished putting the veggies on the scale. There’s a button there for me to accept the weight, but the stupid machine at my store does it automatically, and then I’m left with half the produce still not on the scale, even if I’m using a bag.

So now I only use them if I have only a few very small, very packaged items. And they still drive me insane with their chattery instructions that nobody actually needs to hear. “Please complete sale using the keypad!” I’m already halfway through that process, you idiot machine. Maybe don’t tell me to do the thing I’m already doing?!

My First Drop-in Bookstore Signing!

Today’s my birthday, and I decided that if I couldn’t get the local bookstores in my area to stock my book, I was going to go to a place that did and see it on the shelves for myself!

So the family jumped into the car and drove the 65 miles to Dublin, CA, where the Barnes & Noble had a couple of copies left. They enthusiastically welcomed my embarrassed inquiry as to whether they’d like me to sign them, and one copy was immediately snatched up, allowing me to personalize it for the customer.

Now we’re in San Francisco, staying in a nicer room than we normally could afford (thank you, Hotwire). Tomorrow morning we plan to drive to Napa for breakfast, then return to Sacramento for a family event, where I’ll meet an aunt we’ve only known existed for a year or so (the 40s and 50s were weird, folks).

Overall, a good birthday. Even if I do have to admit I’m getting closer to 50.

Debut Diary, Part 8: Two Months Post-Release

Here we are, two months past the release of The Widening Gyre. How does it feel?

Weird, man. It feels weird.

I’ll elaborate on that, but first, some answers to FAQs:

How are sales doing?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I get sales reports quarterly, but because the book released two weeks before the end of the quarter, I’ll have to wait until the next one in August before I get any sort of solid answer to that. Having said that, I’ll admit I’ve done some calculations. I figure I’ve sold at least 200 copies since release. Amazon’s NPD BookScan link tells me I’ve sold 64 copies. I know from other writers that Bookscan can be inaccurate as hell, but given that I’m not sure how many actual brick & mortar stores have TWG on the shelves, I’m not sure how far off Bookscan is–it could be pretty accurate.

That said, Bookscan doesn’t account for all sales. WorldCat, a website that searches for books in libraries around the world, tells me I’m in 97 libraries in the US, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand so far. Back when it only listed about 60 libraries, I actually spent an hour going to every library website WordCat linked to and counting the number of copies the library had. At that time, there were 104 verified copies on library shelves, with 25 of them checked out at that moment. I haven’t gone back and checked again, and probably won’t–it was a moment of weakness.

How are the reviews?

They’re not bad. In fact, they’re pretty great, and even the most critical reviews had some good things to say.

Publishers Weekly gave me a decent review, with some negatives, but they called my book a “flawed but promising” debut. Booklist gave me a starred review, and said “Johnston, with skillful plotting and impeccable world building, takes the tale of Tajen and his crew searching for home and shapes it into an unforgettable journey.” Others have said some equally good things.

The book is holding at about 3.94 on Goodreads, and 4/5 stars on Amazon.

How are you?

Well, and here is where we get to “weird.”

It’s very cool that my little book is all over the world, and people I’ve never met are reading it. I’m glad the reviews so far are mostly positive.

I’m also paralyzed with fear and exhaustion, and it’s affecting the writing of book 2. I’m working on it, and I’m still hopeful I can kick into high gear when school let’s out, but for now it’s hit-or-miss. Some days I get 1000+ words, other days I can barely get 300 out. I second-guess myself a lot more this time around.

I feel like I have four jobs: Teacher, dad, writer, and promoter. The day job and being a dad take precedence, but writing used to be ONE job, and now it’s two. It’s doable, but I’m such a beginner that I don’t know what I’m doing.

All in all, I’m very grateful that I’m here. But as many writers say, getting here isn’t an end; it’s just a beginning. In RPG terms, I’ve “leveled up,” and I have a whole new set of skills and “powers,” but I also have more and bigger issues to deal with.

The One Where Michael Worries About a Deadline…

Lately I’ve been a bit panicky, because despite having a contract and a synopsis, I’ve been really stalled on book 2. But somehow I seem to have broken through my brain’s resistance, and now we’re getting off the ground in a big way.

I’m still a little bit nervous, because I’m just now reaching 20%, and the MS is due in July. And I’d really like to get it at least polished once before turning it in. But considering a week ago I was at 13%, I guess I should take the win, right?

In any case, I seem to be making good on my wordcount goals, and I’m getting to a point where it isn’t too hard to keep moving. So hopefully, I’ll be proud to turn in my MS in July, and not secretly terrified of my editor.

Authors For Families Kicks Off April Auctions!

Starting this month, I’ve joined Authors For Families, a collective of authors (and other publishing professionals) offering various items and services at auction to support organizations that seek to reunite immigrant children with their families and fight against inhumane immigration policies.

We support:

• CASA in Maryland, D.C., Virginia, and Pennsylvania. They litigate, advocate, and help with representation of minors needing legal services.

• Women’s Refugee Commission advocates for the rights and protection of women, children, and youth fleeing violence and persecution.

• Kids in Need of Defense works to ensure that kids do not appear in immigration court without representation, and to lobby for policies that advocate for children’s legal interests. 

• The Florence Project is an Arizona project offering free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children in immigration custody.

• RAICES is the largest immigration nonprofit in Texas offering free and low-cost legal services to immigrant children and families.

My offerings:

A signed, personalized hardcover book.

This isn’t anything super special; it’s just a book, autographed with a personal message to whomever the winning bidder chooses. I can either write exactly what the bidder wants, or just come up with my own message; your choice.

Name a character in The Blood-Dimmed Tide

The Blood-Dimmed Tide is a more violent, bloody book, as the Remembrance War kicks into gear. The winning bidder gets to name a secondary character, AND they get to choose: Will the character die in a blaze of glory, or live to the end of the book?

Follow the links to take part in the Silent Auction.

Well, here we are: Release Day!

As of today, The Widening Gyre, my little space opera novel, is (theoretically) on store shelves!

If you can’t find it in hardcover or paperback at your local bookstore, you can either order it from them or you can order it from the links here on this site. Pick your retailer; we’ve got ’em all.

For you ebook fans, the book is available on Amazon, Kobo, and Apple Books.

Audiobook lovers can find it on Itunes, Audible/Amazon, and Google Play.

Over on Mary Robinette Kowal’s My Favorite Bits feature, I wrote about my favorite part of the book and why I liked writing it so much.

If you see the book in the wild, I’d love to see it! You can post pics on Twitter and @ me at @MREJohnston, or Instagram, where I’m @michaelr.johnston.

Good reading!

Debut Diary, Part 7: Launch Week Nerves

Here we are, 3 days and change from release. I’m mostly sanguine about it, at this point. The book is written and printed; the audiobook is recorded, the ebook is waiting for release–and of course, the only part of that I had anything to do with is the writing.

So I can sit back and relax now, right?

Well, no.

I’ve got an AMA scheduled on Reddit’s r/sciencefiction community on Monday the 11th, and there are several posts about the book going up for a little over a week–most of these I don’t have to write, but I do need to do more than sit back on my laurels. I need to be pushing the book, in as unobnoxious a way as I can, for at least a week, maybe more.

I’ve discovered that a lot of readers assume this kind of self-promotion is only the domain of self-published or Indie authors, the but the truth is, even writers published by Big 5 Publishers have to do a fair amount of this.

The truth is, though, that at this point, there is very little I can do. The book is edited, printed, and shipped. People will either buy it or they won’t. I obviously hope they do, but I’m also terrified about it.

My stuff. Out there. In people’s hands. The horror!

But also:

My stuff! Out there! In people’s hands! The joy!

I’ll keep updating as this whole thing continues.

Debut Diary, Part 6: ARCs

I am, even as I write this, looking at an Advance Reader Copy, or ARC, of my book.

The whole point of this Debut Diary series is to show debut writers not yet at this stage what it really feels like to publish your first book. So how does this moment feel?

Well, at risk of annoying my aunt, it feels fucking amazing.

I mean, how could it not? I am holding a book I wrote. It has my name on the front, and my picture on the back. And best of all, inside, there are actual words I wrote, in the order in which I wrote them.

I won’t lie–I’ve opened it randomly several times and read the pages. I’ve read the dedication and the acknowledgements, I’ve even read the bibliographic information in the front matter.

I’ve also addressed envelopes and put the ARCs in them. I’ve sent review queries (and gotten requests for the book from some of them). I’ve made lists of local bookstores to drop by and give a copy.

But right now? Right now I can’t stop looking at it.

50 days ’til release day! Order now wherever you like to buy books!