My Favorite Things with Scott H. Andrews

They might not be raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens, but that doesn’t mean that we love them any less. Welcome back to My Favorite Things, the weekly column where we grab someone in speculative circles to gab about the greatest in geek. This week, we sit down with Scott H. Andrews. Scott is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the five-time Hugo Award finalist online fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. This month BCS celebrates its ninth anniversary, with an ebook anthology The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Year Eight out on Kindle, iTunes, B&N, and elsewhere, plus a Ninth Anniversary Double-Issue featuring Richard Parks, Kameron Hurley, Rebecca Campbell, and more. That anniversary issue is already out on ebook at Kindle Store and WeightlessBooks, and it releases on the website this Thursday, September 28.

What does Scott love when he’s not toiling away Beneath Ceaseless Skies? Spoiler alert: a Trek parody with actual heart, a George R.R. Martin fantasy that has an ending, heavy metal marches to its own beat (and good luck finding it), breakfast beers, and boomtowns. Curious? Read on for more!

George R. R. Martin’s 1998 novella “The Hedge Knight” is one of my top several genre short fiction works ever. New fans of his novels and the TV show probably don’t realize that he won Hugo Awards in the 70s for his short fiction. His 1979 novella “Sandkings” is great, but I think “The Hedge Knight” is even better.

It’s set in Westeros, the land of his Ice and Fire novels, so the world is incredibly vivid and rich, but ninety years earlier, so the characters are all different. It’s also tidy in scope — only one point of view character and one major plotline. And it has an ending! 🙂  I love the novels, but they’ve gotten so broad in their cast of characters and layers of plotlines that the whole saga is difficult to digest, and of course who knows when we’ll finally get an ending.

“The Hedge Knight” itself is a clinic on great genre short fiction writing done in slightly unconventional ways. The opening is supremely emotive and brilliantly portrayed; I recommend it to any author who’s learning to write short fiction. It breaks several so-called rules, but it establishes the protagonist, Dunk, as extremely sympathetic and the situation as crucial for him. The plot then moves through several stages, some of which might seem tangential as they’re going by, but they all link perfectly together as the story unfolds. The suspense is just as gripping as the novels; Dunk faces seemingly insurmountable challenges, and he fails in the expected ways to overcome them but succeeds in unexpected ways that match who he is. The escalation is excruciating, just like the novels, and the ending is surprising, moving, and profound.

It came out in 1998 in an anthology called Legends, also featuring novellas by Stephen King, Robert Jordan, Anne McCaffrey, and others; many people credit “The Hedge Knight” for the boost in popularity of the Ice and Fire novels after A Clash of Kings. It’s been reprinted several times since, including in 2015 in a volume with its two sequels called A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.

Boomtown is a great TV show from 2002, largely unknown, by Graham Yost, who later created Justified. It’s a cop show set in L.A. that followed a couple detectives, a couple beat cops, and a D.A. and a TV reporter. It used an Ice and Fire type POV conceit, where a string of scenes would follow one character, and then another character’s name would be displayed and the next scenes would follow them. Each week’s case involved most of the whole cast, so the scenes from each POV would show other main characters and facets of the same plotline but would include different new scenes and often cross in and out of chronological order.

Boomtown‘s multiple POV structure, just like in the Ice and Fire novels, let the audience see the characters from close and farther away, showing the flaws they wouldn’t admit to themselves, and revealed different layers of the plot as they unfolded. The actors were great, including many who later had long guest-runs on Justified. The characters were quite deep, with secrets and lies and complex motivations. The plot of each week’s case and the character’s series-long arcs were often subverted by later revelations.

This was well before the era of original TV shows on cable, let alone original TV streaming online, and on a major network such a clever show lasted only a couple episodes into a poorly retooled second season. It’s hard to find online, because streaming wasn’t a consideration back then, but the first season is available on DVD.

Meshuggah, a heavy metal band out of northern Sweden, invented a new type of thrash metal in the early 90s. I love their 90s records and several of their recent ones, and they give a blistering live show. Even if you don’t like metal, there’s an interesting principle at play in their music that applies to pretty much any art form or media, including fiction.

Their songwriting uses a technique called hemiola or polyrhythm, where the rhythmic pattern has a length that does not layer in an even repetition over the beat or measures. For example, if you’re familiar with music, imagine an underlying beat of four notes per measure and a pattern made up of five notes. If you play that pattern over that beat, the pattern doesn’t repeat evenly with the measures; it repeats in an incomplete or discontinuous way. The pattern creates an overall rhythm of its own that clashes with the competing rhythm of the beat.

There’s genius in the way Meshuggah presents this clash of competing rhythms. During it all, the drummer keeps a steady one-note beat on one of the cymbals. It’s almost like a metronome, counting a simple, straight-ahead pulse over the intentional chaos.

That straight-ahead beat is a vehicle for accessibility. At Meshuggah shows, I’ll see some fans nodding along with the complicated rhythms, but most of them are headbanging to that one cymbal’s steady beat. That beat provides an easy entrée into the music. It gives listeners who might not be interested in the complex polyrhythms, or even realize that the music has them, a simple thing to latch onto and a way to enjoy the music at that level.

I see that same mix of complexity plus accessibility in many works that crossed over from their genre and became mainstream hits. Star Wars had space opera jargon and unfamiliar visuals, but with the accessibility of classic Joseph Campbell mythic structure. The Harry Potter novels have reams of fantasy backstory and magic system, but the characters are family members with basic needs and flaws as instantly understandable as our own. It’s a deft skill to balance those, but it makes for great works.

Galaxy Quest isn’t just a note-perfect parody of Star Trek, with the overly dramatic captain actor, the science officer actor who thinks he’s a thespian artiste, the second-tier cast who feel left in their shadows, and countless dry jokes pillorying Trek’s foibles and clichés. There’s also some deeper character stuff underneath.

The captain is the classic washed-up actor who hogged the spotlight, but when he meets real aliens, he’s excited not just for himself but for the whole crew, and he rushes back to bring them along. The science officer actor scorns all the pop SF trappings, but when the aliens’ lives depend on him, he embraces the trappings order to help. The actress character playing the ditzy blonde crewmember doesn’t like her limited caricature role, but she insists on doing it the best she can.

The aliens are mocked by the villain for their naiveté in basing their culture unknowingly on a fiction, but the movie itself never mocks them for that. They are never ashamed or regretful of having done that, and they don’t let the knowledge that their inspiration was a fiction diminish their belief in the worthy principles the fiction espoused. Those human touches, and the actors’ great portrayals of them, set Galaxy Quest apart from the many Trek parodies.

Image Credit: Scott H. Andrews

Founders Breakfast Stout is my desert-island beer, if I were stuck on an empty island and could only have one particular beer. Anyone who’s hung out with me at a convention knows that I enjoy beer, and stouts are my favorite style — the richer the better, all year round.

There are lots of great stouts, by breweries like Hardywood, Weyerbacher, Dogfish Head, Ballast Point, and many great styles, like coffee stouts, imperial stout, chile pepper stouts, stouts aged in bourbon barrels, but Founders Breakfast Stout is great all-around. It’s an oatmeal stout at its base, which is a classic British style, but brewed heavier and with coffee and chocolate. It balances all those flavors deftly, with plenty of body. Each year’s batch tastes a little bit different and changes over time as you cellar it, just like a great book being a bit different every time you reread it.

Plenty of other stouts are rarer or fancier or more celebrated, great in their own right, but Breakfast Stout is my go-to. Every fall when it comes out, I buy enough to last me until July. Cheers!

Scott H. Andrews is a chemistry lecturer, editor, musician, and writer. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review and his genre short fiction has appeared in Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales, On Spec, and Space and Time. He is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the online fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a five-time Hugo Award finalist and its podcast a five-time Parsec Award finalist. He lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, eleven guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world.

Author photo by Al Bogdan

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