Newsletter Changes

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I'm making the switch from TinyLetter to Substack. Subscribers won't need to do anything — Substack allows me to port people from one list to another, and the whole thing should be pretty seamless. You can now read it here.

The latest issue is now out, which includes reviews of Annalee Newitz and Alix E. Harrow’s latest novels, as well as a Q&A with the artist behind The Folio Society’s beautiful edition of A Game of Thrones. You can find that issue here.


The Cosplayers of DragonCon

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There are signs of Dragon Con before I even leave Vermont. It’s 4:30 on Friday morning, and as I sit to wait for my flight to Atlanta, Georgia, I count a handful of other early-risers clad in shirts emblazoned with comic book or franchise logos. The closer we get to the city, those signs grow in number. Shirts give way to casual costumes, worn by commuters from the surrounding neighborhoods, which then give way to a parade of elaborate costumes by the time I step off the train at Peachtree Station. The convention has been underway for a day, and while it isn’t yet 10am, the celebration of all things popular culture is well under way. 

Dragon Con has become a bastion of cosplay creativity since its inception in 1987. Every year on Labor Day weekend, the downtown turns into a cacophony of visitors from the pages of comic books, film reels, novel covers, and video game levels. It’s a sprawling affair, spread out between five major hotels in the downtown core — The Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Sheraton, and the Westin. Their hallways are given over to long lines of guests snake through their hallways as they move from conference room to lobby to street to hotel rooms. 

For someone familiar with the world of cosplayers and conventions, it’s an overwhelming affair. For those unfamiliar, it’s an alien world; a new, bizarre mashup of everything pop culture. It’s not quite as big — around 85,000 people attended this year — half that of what the San Diego con typically draws. And while its bigger cousins attract plenty of cosplayers, Dragon Con is a mecca for them. Everywhere you turn, you see your typical superheroes: Spider-man is big this year, as are variations of Marvel’s Tony Stark, depressed Thor from Avengers: Endgame, Valkyrie, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Deadpool, Superman and Superwoman, and of course Batman.

There are plenty of other properties represented in the crowds. Zelda and Link from various Legends of Zelda mingle with Master Chief and his fellow Spartans from the Halo games. Humanized versions of Pokémon march behind characters from Witcher. There are characters from webcomics, Aziraphale and Crowley from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, members of Star Trek’s Starfleet Command, of the Night Watch from Game of Thrones, a long column of Spartans from Frank Miller’s 300, spaceship crew members and soldiers from The Expanse, and members of the 501st and Rebel Legions — often not dressed as characters from the Star Wars franchise, but in the fan-produced apparel that is an industry in its own right. There are characters from ancient television shows like F Troop and Monty Python, alongside those from new streaming shows like Stranger Things and science fiction favorites like Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, and Battlestar Galactica. Guests — in costume and out — stop to take pictures with BB-8 from The Force Awakens, as well as Wall-E, various Transformers, and Farscape’s DRDs. 

There are even more subtle jokes and references to those in the know. Look closely, and you’ll see guests with stylized, colorful lanyards. Others wear clothing and even costumes emblazoned with the same patterning — an in-joke recalling a particularly awful carpeting used for years by one of the hotels, resurrected as a meme for longtime members. 

Look in every direction, and there are costumes as far as you can see, from what seems like every property imaginable. I’ve come with a complement of my own, stored safely in my wheeled plastic tote: a generic Belter crew member from The Expanse, Sam Bell from Duncan Jones’ 2009 science fiction film Moon, and General Antoc Merrick, the ill-fated leader of Blue Squadron from Rogue One, A Star Wars Story. Each of these costumes are relatively simple: jumpsuits and flight suits that were relatively easy to put together, which are comfortable to wear for extended periods of time, and which aren’t terribly difficult to don or shuck. For my first time visiting, I figured it would be better to find something that didn’t require a lot of effort. 

For years, friends of mine from the 501st Legion made the pilgrimage to Atlanta. They crashed in rooms, taking over beds and floors, debuting the costumes they spent months creating for just the occasion. Some plan out elaborate schedules for when they’ll be wearing certain garments, or for massive group pictures of costumes from the same story. They reenacted scenes from their favorite films, got drunk at the numerous hotel bars, and shouted over the background noise as they elbowed their way through crowds. 

At the heart of all of the noise, the endless parade (and actual parade) of costumes, parties that last well into the night, is a common sense of belonging. Dressed as a Belter, I easily fall into a group of fellow Expanse devotees, joined together by our common love of the TV series and novels. I greet fellow 501st members with an introduction and explanation that I’m from the New England Garrison; hands are shaken, costumes and stories compared. I drink at the bar surrounded by armored Witcher characters: we talk about our mutual love of history and theories about the next Star Wars film. Instant friendships are forged, contact information shared between texts and messages and group chats. For a weekend, the downtown core is a single community of shared passion for all things popular culture.

For those isolated or bored with their regular lives, it’s an escape into a world where there’s something for everyone, whether it’s a glimpse of a favored character from a treasured TV series, or a sense of kinship with fellow friends that you might only know about in an abstract sense.

It is chaos, and it is wonderful. 


The Bayern Agenda: an entertaining space opera spy thriller

One of the books I’ve been picking away at lately is Dan Moren’s The Bayern Agenda, a quasi-sequel to his debut, The Caledonian Gambit, which I haven’t read. Moren jumped publishers, so the marketing here downplays their connection a bit, and you can read this one without reading the other. 

In it, we’re introduced to a global cold war: the Illyrican Empire and Commonweath of Independent Systems are fighting with one another, and when the Illyrican Empire sends emissaries to the Bayern Corporation, a planet-sized bank, the Commonwealth sends its own agents to check it out. Agent Simon Kovalic is forced to hand over his intelligence team to his ex-wife, Lt. Commander Natalie Taylor when he’s injured, who brings in former Illyrican pilot Elijah Brody. When things go sideways, Kovalic is brought in to try and get them out. 

The book is a solid military science fiction thriller, and it trades off power armor for spycraft. I’d describe it as John le Carré meets Battlestar Galactica or The Expanse. The book is a measured one: it’s a gripping read, but Moren takes his time getting to some of the action, jumping from character to character, until events really heat up in the last third or so of the read. The book is clearly set in a large world, and I felt like I didn’t absorb much of it, unfortunately, but it feels like it’s a durable enough place that more of that will come out in upcoming installments. (A sequel, The Aleph Extractionis coming out next March.)

Overall, I enjoyed it. The book reminded me a bit of books like Chris Bunch’s Star Risk Ltd., a fun action space opera series that I picked up in high school, and as I noted on The Verge, it’s the best sort of summer science fiction read: something that isn’t exactly mind-blowing science fiction that will tilt the future of the genre in any particular direction, but which is a perfectly fine adventure. That’s something I’ve always thought was important: sometimes, you just need a fun read. 


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Finder: what not to do in a novel

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One of the books that I recently read was Suzanne Palmer’s Finder, which… left a lot to be desired. 

I had high hopes for the book. Palmer earned a Hugo award last year, and the description for this book was particularly intriguing: it’s about a man named Fergus Ferguson whose specialty is recovering things like spaceships. When a Cernee crime boss named Arum Gilger steals a ship called the Venetia's Sword, Fergus is sent off to recover it, and ends up in the midst of a civil war. 

The first half or so of the book is quite a bit of fun: Palmer sets up an intriguing world, and sends Fergus and a bunch of newly-acquired companions after their target. Capers are always fun, and I dig the idea of someone trying to pull off a heist in the middle of an orbital civil war. 

But by the end of that first section, Fergus recovers the ship something that should be the finale of the entire story. He’s then captured and brought onboard an alien ship, given some fantastical powers (he can generate electricity and zap people), ends up back in our solar system, then heads back to Cernee to finish out the rest of the conflict. In short, it’s a mess, because it becomes so unfocused. Ultimately, the book is a good demonstration for what not to do with a story. 

While the plot turns into a bit of a mess (it honestly feels a bit like it started out as a shorter work, and was expanded), but it’s the character of Fergus that ultimately bothered me the most and undermined the entire narrative. 

He gets a pretty comprehensive backstory: he ran away from home at an early age from his home in Scotland, ended up on Mars, and bounced around the galaxy, getting into trouble. But while he’s established as a roguish figure, I never really get the sense that his backstory really influences his decisions for this new adventure. He’s just … sort of along for the ride, and he’s a character that really should have more agency here. He talks a lot about his past, but it never connects in a meaningful way, and it feels as though Palmer is just juggling too much. I’ve been noticing this a lot in stories: authors have a lot of interesting ideas, but they end up undermining the story by throwing too many in, where they might be better served by slimming the story down a but to give it focus. I think this is a habit from my work at The Verge leaking into my story preferences, that it’s a good preference to have.

What’s annoying here is that this is a story where the character should be right in the center, driving the action forward beat by beat. That was fine for the part where he’s recovering the ship, but he’s soon pulled off in various directions, none of which really circle back to the ship. He’s given fantastical powers by a mysterious alien species, but that feels like part of the plot that’s bolted on as a bit of an afterthought. Furthermore, I just... really didn’t care about the characters by the end of the book.

Ultimately, it’s a story that reads as though it needed a good, critical scrub of an edit to work out some of the kinks. All of the right parts are there, but they just don’t line up in a satisfactory way, and it didn’t work for me.

Meet Iris

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The Liptak household has grown. Meet Iris Gloria Liptak, born on September 27th at 5:03AM. Like her brother, she’s 100% cute. I’ve been catching myself getting overwhelmed and teary the last week, just by looking at her and marveling at the future that she has ahead of her.

When Bram came in 2013, I wrote about how it was such a weird conceptual thing until he was born. The same thing happened here: all of a sudden, we have this new little person in our lives. Six years of raising another child has given me a good perspective on what’s happening, and what happens next. But there’s a lot of catch-up and remembering to do. Like, how do you change a diaper? I remember we were pretty good at it, but I’ve been having to re-learn it over again. Fortunately, she’s been pretty easygoing so far. There’s the usual crying when hungry or wet, but there’s other times when she just looks around at her surroundings.

The next couple of weeks will be a blur, I know. I’ve been taking pictures as time passes, and I’m thankful that I get to work from home this time around, especially while Megan is on maternity leave for the next couple of weeks. I can’t wait to see what she does as she grows up.

Review: Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars

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I’m a big fan of the magical school trope. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was one of those life-defining books from high school through the end of college, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians books came right in after as I was starting my career as a college administrator and writer. Sarah Gailey’s debut novel Magic for Liars is like a third part of that transition, and I blew through the book in just about a day. 

The story introduces us to Ivy Gamble, a woman who works as a private investigator, and who has a bit of a secret: her estranged twin sister is a brilliant magician. She’s hired by the headmaster of the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages in California, where her sister works. The two haven’t spoken in years, and when a teacher at the school is found dead in the library, they’re unexpectedly reunited. 

Gailey is the author of the American Hippo novellas, and while I loved the concept, I felt that they were a bit weak, character-wise (one of the downsides to Tor.com’s novella line: sometimes, a story is too slimmed down, and could have been a bit longer.) That isn’t a problem here. Gailey brilliantly sets up these two sisters, and Ivy is a phenomenal, bitter character who is pretty much burned out on everything, stemming back to some deep-seated family history that drove her and her sister apart. 

This book succeeds in two ways. First, it’s a fantastic mystery, and Gamble, an outsider to this magical community, is the perfect person to solve it, because she can approach it from that unknowledgeable angle, but who knows how perfectly messed up people are, and what sorts of bad decisions they can make. Secondly, it’s a great magical school entry. Hogwarts is delightfully twee, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is realistically cynical, and the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages is… a typical high school. There’s plenty of details that show off that kids — even magical kids, will be immature, do stupid things, are egotistical, and crave attention. 

What really makes this book stand out is that it revolves around a couple of things that fantasy (and science fiction, for that matter), typically ignores: wOmEnS IsSuEs. I won’t spoil how this plays out, but it’s a mystery that comes down to teenage and family drama in ways that feels utterly realistic, and I’m guessing entirely relevant and relatable to any woman who picks up this book. Gailey also keeps the mystery entirely fresh throughout the entire read, throwing me off in a couple of places, and nailing the book with a fantastic (and frustratingly ambiguous) ending. She tells me that she’s not planning on a followup, which is also refreshing? There needs to be more standalone novels, although I would dearly love to see more of this particular world.  


Review: Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night

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I finally finished Elizabeth Bear’s book Ancestral Night a while back, and it’s a really superb work of space opera, one that did a lot of interesting things. It’s set in a distant future where humanity is part of a larger, galactic civilization, and where everyone pretty much gets along. There’s no real big war that’s driving humanity against a plethora of alien civilizations: they’re coexisting as best they can. The novel follows a team of space salvage operators, Halmey Dz, her partner Connla Kurucz, and their AI, Singer. They’ve had a rough go of it in recent years, and they search space for lost wreckage, hoping to score it big. They end up finding a massive alien ship, and a terrible secret onboard, which puts them into the path of a band of space pirates, and galactic authorities. 

There’s a real retro feel to this book, but one with a nicely modernized set of sensibilities. Bear includes everything from commentary about the value of communities, includes plenty of LGBTQ characters, and muses on the nature of intelligence and nature vs. nurture, especially when it comes to augmentation and free will. Halmey comes from a particular cult that focuses on consensus decision-making, and was involved in a terrorist plot earlier in her life, and has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since. She’s constantly trying to find her place in the universe, and a good part of the book is how she’s re-learning who she is after a pretty traumatic past. She’s an excellent character, as are her two companions — especially Singer. 

While I loved all of the component parts of the book, there was one big flaw: there’s a lot going on and it feels really unfocused at points. Bear throws a lot of good stuff in there, and I’m not sure it always meshed. At one point, Hamley gets stuck on an alien ship with a pirate, and they spend a lot of time talking and going over her past. It’s interesting stuff, but it slowed the book down, and felt a little out of place — almost like it could have been the focus of another novel set in the same world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it isn’t poorly executed; it just feels as though the book could have been slimmed down just a tad. It took me a little longer than I would have expected, given the subject matter and story. Folks who liked Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series or James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series will love this one. 


Two events with Cadwell Turnbull

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At the end of June and the beginning of July, I’ll be appearing with Cadwell Turnbull at a pair of bookstore events! Cadwell is releasing his debut novel, The Lesson, and he’s asked me to be the Q part of the Q&A for each event.

I recruited Cadwell for The Verge’s Better Worlds anthology, and his story, “Monsters Come Howling in Their Season” is a really fantastic read and listen, about a community-focused AI, and how people are working to cope with the upcoming hurricane season.

The Lesson is also set in the Caribbean, and is about what happens after an alien ship parks itself over the US Virgin Islands, and their violent responses when they’re personally messed with. I’m reading it now, and it’s a really interesting read. And I do have questions!

So, I’ll be asking him questions at the following events:

If you’re in the area, please come and say hello!

Also, for Vermonters: he’ll be appearing at Phoenix Books in Burlington on September 12th.

Costumes in progress

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While I’m writing a book about cosplay, I figured it was a good time to take a look at my own list of costume projects that have been in the works for a while. I’ve got a bunch of things that are in the works, above and beyond the costumes I already regularly use (Stormtrooper, First Order Stormtrooper, AOTC Clonetrooper, Shoretrooper). I’ve been meaning to take stock, to figure out what I need to do to clear off the to-do list.

Here’s what I’ve got, ranked in order of most complete to just shy of pipe dream.

First Order heavy trooper, The Force Awakens

This costume is actually done, wearable, and 501st approved, but there’s some additional things that I’m working on to flesh it out. I’m getting a friend to print me up an F-11D blaster for my First Order trooper, and I need to get a pistol for the thigh as well. I’ve got a couple of parts for a set of quadnocs that they carry around to use for troops where I can’t carry a blaster, and need to get the rest printed up. I also need to get the backpack painted — there’s some small details that I need to finish up on it, before I figure out how to get it attached to the costume itself. I saw someone at Celebration who had attached it to their equipment vest, and I might try and do something similar, rather than bolt it to the back of the suit, something I’ve been wanting to avoid.

212th Airborne Clone Trooper, Revenge of the Sith

I love this set of armor. It looks fantastic, and I really dig the orange-and-white color scheme, as well as all the gear that’s on it. I do like the 501st Legion clones from The Clone Wars, but the 212th Attack Battalion is by far my favorite.

A couple of years ago, I picked up the armor for this trooper, in trade for another clone that I’d made for Megan that she wasn’t wearing. This is the costume that I’ve got that’s closest to being completed: it really only needs some minor adjustments to get it to sit right. I tried it on recently, and really just need a spare set of hands to help me figure a couple of things out.

Some of the minor things: I need to put some screw on micro-grenades on the left shoulder bell (they’re held on with glue, and have a tendency to pop off. The shoulder strap needs some Velcro, I need to trim out a bit of the knee pads so that the foam isn’t visible, and I need to do something with the Kama.

The biggest issue so far has been the shins, which I haven’t been able to wear at all until now, because of how the 501st Legion handles approvals. I’ve made a small fix to allow me to get them on, and I think that that’ll work eventually with some fiddling. It’s definitely a costume that’s going to require a dedicated wrangler to get dressed.

Shoretrooper Grunt or Captain, Rogue One

So, I liked the Shoretrooper well enough that I went out and bought another one when it was on sale, with the intention of building it for my wife. This one’s fully trimmed out, but it’s sort of been languishing for months, because she’s pregnant and won’t fit into it for at least this year. So, maybe I finish it? Maybe I sell it? Who knows?

Sam Bell, Moon

This was a fun costume to throw together, and it’s another comfortable, casual con one. This one has all the patches on it — I just need a bigger logo decal for the back of the jumpsuit (I think that’s an iron-on thing), and it’ll be 100% finished. I’ve ordered one of the yellow shirts (Wake Me Up When It’s Quitting Time!) to wear under it. I’ve been searching for the red had that he wears, but it’s not required. I should find a pair of cheap aviators to hold in a pocket or something. Maybe I can find a coffee mug with the logo on it as well.

Jack Cooper, Titanfall 2

This is sort of a casual thing that I haven’t gotten around to doing yet, but I have the main component already: Cooper’s helmet. I loved Titanfall 2, and particularly the look and feel of the pilots who drive the giant mechs around.

Helmets are usually the most distinctive part of a costume, and this one is one of those rare pieces of merch that’s out there. I picked it up on sale a couple of years ago, and it’s a really nice piece. I’ve also ordered a pair of gloves that should work for this.

After that, I need the rest, and need to do a lot of research. At the very least, I need a red jumpsuit, and a bunch of accessories. I think I can get away with regular combat boots, but I need a pad for the shoulder (which I can get printed), knee pads (which I can probably modify from existing ones), body armor (not sure how to make that yet), knee coverings (probably something to sew together and strap on), combat knife, ammo magazines, the jetpack (not sure how to do that just yet), and a gun or two (which can be printed up). So, a lot to do, but a lot of the parts are out there, provided I get some time with a 3D printer.

ODST, Halo ODST

I have a random ODST helmet that a friend made years ago, with the idea of putting together an ODST costume at some point. I honestly thought I’d gotten rid of it, but I’m starting to think that I might just go and do it. There are a ton of printing or foam options when it comes to armor, and it could be a fun one to do. First step will be to finish up the helmet and get that cleaned up — it has some soft details in place, but i think that’ll be okay once it gets painted up. Not a huge priority, but it might look cool on a mannequin.

Belter, The Expanse

I don’t have anything for this one yet, but it’s a pretty easy thing to put together: blue jumpsuit, a bunch of patches, boots, fake tattoos. Should be pretty easy to put together, and like the Sam Bell costume, it would make for a good one for walking around a convention. There’s a growing group of people doing these costumes as well, which is cool. I’ve also got a helmet that was the base for a belter spacesuit helmet, and I need to do a bit of printing to get all the parts for that together.

Update: ordered coveralls and patches. Should be easy to throw together once they arrive.

Martian Marine Armor, The Expanse

Okay, this is the most ambitious project I have on my plate, and it’s a particularly fun challenge, because i haven’t worked a whole lot with foam yet. I’ve really wanted to put together Bobbie’s armor from The Expanse, because it looks awesome, and because Bobbie is one of my favorite characters from the series.

I have a bunch of foam mats that can be used for it, and looking at the armor itself, the shapes aren’t all that complicated. I need to do up a body drawing to get the basic shapes of each piece of armor sketched out, then do some trial-and-error. There’s a lot there — shoulders, upper arms, forearms, chest, abs, back, thighs, knees, shins. It’s on par with a stormtrooper with piece count, and it’s a bit more complicated, although some bits look like they should be pretty easy, like the thighs, shoulders, upper arms, and knees.

Someone in one of the Expanse costuming groups has been modeling the helmet, which would make things a whole lot easier. People have already begun sourcing the undersuit, which is cool, and another big component to check off the list.

Other Stuff

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I have a handful of other things that I’ve been working on. I’m working on a ChemRail rifle from the movie Elysium, which just got its first coat of black paint. That’ll need another coat, some detail work, like coloring in the lettering, and painting the magazine, and a couple of other things here and there. This one doesn’t go with a costume, but it’ll make a nice display piece when it’s finished. I’ve also got some pieces of a Han Solo blaster that I’ve started printing out, but my printed is out of commission right now, and also a little too small for what I need. Might need to outsource that, but it’s not exactly a huge priority.

I’ve also got a couple of round satellite dishes that I acquired years ago from a friend, with the thought of turning one into a Captain America shield. After watching Avengers: Endgame, I’m thinking that I might start that project up again (if I still have them), with the intention of putting together something to mount on a wall.

Somewhere in there, I need to make a costume for my son for Halloween. Spider-man is a favorite right now, but that could obviously change at some point.

Finally, after Celebration, I ran into a couple of people who were suited up as Blue Squadron pilots from Rogue One. Imperial Boots sells the entire ensemble (minus the helmet), and while it’s a bit pricey, it looks fantastic. I’m very tempted. Maybe I’ll sell off the unfinished Shoretrooper to fund this.

I'm writing a book about the history of cosplay!

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Some personal news that I can now announce: I’m writing a book about the history of cosplay!

I’ve been calling the project Cosplay: A History, (something that might change), and it should be out by Summer 2021. Syfy has the details here.

But as fascinating as the current state of cosplay is, Liptak is also interested in exploring where it came from by researching the history of halloween costumes, Hollywood designers, and old costume masquerades from the earliest conventions. Cosplay: A History is a deep-dive examination into the dynamic story of cosplay and how it has grown to become a world-wide phenomenon.

Seth Fishman sold the book to Joe Monti at Saga Press, which I’m extremely excited about. Saga has published some really great books in the last couple of years (Seriously, I’m sharing the same space with people like Kameron Hurley, Rebecca Roanhorse, Ken Liu, Elizabeth Bear, Theodora Goss, and more — to say that I’m feeling imposter syndrome is an understatement.)

I’ve spoken with Joe a bunch of times over the years, and the topic of cosplay came up more than once. Those conversations dovetailed with a growing interest in Cosplay. I’ve dressed up in armor with the 501st Legion for more than a decade now, but I’ve begun thinking and writing about how people come together in larger communities over a shared interest in suiting up as their favorite heroes. I’ve written about costuming for outlets like io9 and The Verge, spoken about it on Vermont Public Radio and at Norwich University. In particular, I’ve gotten really interested in how the movement formed, and how it’s changed over time as new franchises pop up and as makers have begun to use new techniques to make costumes.

This book will be an attempt to expand on some of the writing that i’ve done over the years, looking the roots of cosplay and how costuming became this big, global phenomenon, how internet culture has helped shape it, and what it means for the future of entertainment. It’ll include interviews with folks about their involvement in the space, along with photographs of people I chat with along the way.

Obviously, there’ll be some nerding out about the 501st Legion, but also things like 3D printing, the rise of Comic-Con, and historical reenacting. I’m also hoping to talk about the wide range of costumes that are out there, from the marquee superheroes to the obscure characters that show up in the background of the Mos Eisley Cantina.

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What I’m hoping to ultimately cover in this project is the relationship that people have with stories, and how costuming brings them closer to the characters and worlds they love, and how it allows them to interact with the text in unique ways.

I’ll be working on the book this summer and fall, and I’ll likely have a bunch of updates and anecdotes as I do so. The best way to stay up to date will be to sign up for my newsletter, but I’ll probably be posting up pictures to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter while I’m at conventions or generally researching it. I’d also like to hear from cosplayers from all eras — I’ll be setting up a way to get in touch about that.

My shop

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When we bought our house back in 2012, one of the biggest selling points was a basement workshop that the previous owners had installed. The husband/father was a tinkerer, according to his daughter, and there’s evidence of that scattered throughout the house in little ways: different types of screws holding on light fixtures, innovative shortcuts when it comes to things that were repaired, duct tape holding together random pipes. I’ll alternatively curse and marvel at this now that I’m the one doing my own work to fix or upgrade things.

I’ve put this workshop to use in the time that we’ve owned the house. I’ve built several costumes here, and worked on a bunch of other projects for the house. It’s got a fantastic work surface, plenty of outlets, and a lot of storage space that I’ve squirreled away parts and tools into. It’s become a bit of an organic mess, and one of my projects this year (along with the rest of the basement) is to give the walls a coat of paint to make it not quite so dark and cave-like.

I’ve been spring cleaning, and finally gone through and done a periodic cleanup down there. Basic stuff: putting the tools back into place, cleaning up a random pile of cat barf, swept up plastic and ceramic bits off the floor, restacked armor bins, and so forth. I’m in project mode right now, so I’m also taking stock of what projects I’ve got in the works.

I also need to set up some sort of shelving system for the various suits of armor that I’ve accumulated. It’s not entirely practical to mount them on mannequins when they’re not in use — it takes a long time to get them on and off. I also need to figure out some sort of gun rack for the various prop guns that I’ve accumulated over the years (E-11, E-22, DC-15, 2 DC-15Ss., and the ongoing ChemRail project), as well as helmets (X-Wing pilot, 3 Stormtroopers, Shoretrooper, First Order Stormtrooper, 212th and regular Clone, and a random Halo ODST bucket I forgot about.)

Another project(s) to add to the list of things to do this year.

A Roci of my own

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I’ve long been a fan of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, and I’ve really enjoyed how the Syfy Channel (And now Amazon) have adapted the books for television. The show has largely nailed how I imagined the look and feel of the world presented in the books, and I was particularly happy with how the Rocinante turned out. It looks pretty much how I’d imagine a small Martian Corvette-class gunship might look like.

I recently reviewed the latest book in the series, Tiamat’s Wrath, and as with the rest of my book reviews, I’ve taken a picture of the physical book. I typically will throw in some sort of little knickknack that relates to the theme or subject of the book (like with my reviews for Big Damn Hero, Red Moon, or Solo). I actually used my 3D-printed model of the Rocinante for my review of Persepolis Rising back in 2017, but the angle didn’t really come out as well as I’d liked.

I got the model a couple of years ago when the Syfy Channel released a series of models from the series on Thingiverse, and someone went and posted some files for the guns. For that original review, I planned on painting it up to look like the MCRN Tachi, painting it up in black and then bright orange. That didn’t come out nearly as well as I’d liked — the orange paint I used wasn’t model paint, and it didn’t go on evenly.

For the new review, I wanted to reuse the model, and figured it was time to redo the paint job. I opted to turn it into the Roci, and painted over the entire thing with a couple of coats of gray automotive primer, which was about the right color. The paint cracked a little (too impatient), but between that, the extra sanding, and some of the scratches, it gave the surface a bit more of a worn, damaged/patched look.

I then went to the local model store and picked up some dark orange paint and a couple of fine brushes. Once the primer had completely dried, I hand-sketched on the bigger details with a pencil, and then applied the orange paint, then white. After that, I mixed up some black acrylic and watered it down, and then painted and wiped it off to give it a weathered look — kind of what I did with my Shoretrooper a couple of years ago.

This was the first time I’d ever actually painted a model, so the details are… rough, and a more experienced painter would do a much better job, I’m certain. I’m not actually sure it’s a hobby for me (although damned if I’m not getting Fantasy Flight’s Shoretrooper expansion when it’s out later this year), but it was fun to try out. I’m particularly happy with the pinup on the side, which I roughly painted on. It’s good from a distance, and it’ll hang out on the shelves in my office for now.

Wordplay: Star Wars Celebration, Rogue One, and Literary SF

I sent out the latest issue of Wordplay to subscribers yesterday, in which I recounted Star Wars Celebration and hanging out with other Shoretroopers, a bit about Rogue One, and some rants/thoughts about how the literary genre is simultaneously using / ignoring science fiction as a genre, even as more literary-styled novels are telling what are pretty much science fiction stories.

I’ve also recounted some of what I’ve been read and have been reading. You can read the latest issue here, or read past issues and subscribe here.

Star Wars Celebration 2019!

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I’m back in Vermont after a couple of days of travel to and from Chicago for Star Wars Celebration. I haven’t been since 2005’s Celebration III in Indianapolis, and it was an outstanding time.

Since i joined The Verge in 2016, I’ve gone to a bunch of big conventions — San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic-Con, both of which were a lot of fun, but extremely busy. We didn’t send anyone this year, but I’ve been wanting to go, so I took time off to attend on my own to work on a project that I’ve been working on, and I’ve just been wanting to go, you know, as a fan. The last couple of Celebrations have found me sulking at home, watching pictures of the fun on Facebook.

Because I wasn’t working for this con, I was able to bring along my Shoretrooper. I ended up buying a new case for it (one of these — I’m kicking myself for not buying one earlier) to transport my armor, and got on the train in Albany, and got in Friday morning. There were a bunch of panels that I thought about getting in line for, but ended up skipping everything in favor of just floating around taking pictures of cosplayers and conducting a bunch of interviews.


That ended up being a huge highlight. Big conventions like this bring out a ton of costumers and cosplayers, and just about everyone I asked was eager to pose for a quick portrait. I took a bunch on my regular camera, but I ended up taking most with my iPhone’s portrait mode, which worked out nicely. You can see the images I took in an album here. I’ve got some more that I need to process and upload.

Of course, I saw the trailer, standing in the middle of the exhibition hall with a ton of people. It looks fantastic. Palpatine’s laugh at the end had everyone screaming in the room, but what was really something was seeing Ian McDiarmid coming out on stage: “Roll it again.” My friend Bryan Bishop made a good observation on Twitter: that Palpatine has been the antagonist from the beginning of the franchise, and it seems appropriate that he’ll be there at the end, in one form or another. Plus, Lando back on the Falcon! Leia and Rey! Remnants of the Death Star! I’m excited for it.

The only other thing I was able to really check out was the Vader Immortal VR game coming out for Oculus Rift. That was something — I haven’t really used a VR headset before, and playing with a lightsaber was quite a bit of fun in that format. I don’t know that it’s something that I’d buy, but it was quite a bit of fun to experience.

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The most fun that I had was hanging out with other Shoretroopers. I spent Friday looking for them, but only caught glimpses of one or two, but on Saturday, I came across a group, took a couple of pictures, then ran up to my room to suit up. It took me 20-30 minutes to find the group. We then wandered around for a while, posting for pictures. I found myself in another group on Sunday after the big 501st Legion picture. We ended up at a big prop — a TX-225 tank — and posed for pictures with people there. I didn’t have my gun with me, and ended up on top, where I directed people to imagine that they were firing down range at rebels. The tiny bit of immersion was fun to play with. I de-suited for lunch, then returned a couple of hours later to take part in a larger Rogue One picture, which had a bunch of characters from that film, which was a lot of fun. (Still haven’t seen pictures of that floating around, weirdly).

And then, it was over. I got back on the train to Albany, rewatched Rogue One on the ride back, met up with Megan and Bram at a resort for the next day, then returned to Albany to pick up a couple of friends who had their flight canceled from under them. This was a lot of fun, and I’m kind of meh today — post-con blues are a thing, y’all.

What I loved about this show was just how positive things were. Everyone was thrilled to be there. Celebration is a good name for it — people are sharing in this collective obsession, and it was fun to be part of all of that. I’m already thinking about going to Celebration 2020 in Anaheim, California.

Wordplay: Tolkien and the horrors of World War I

This past weekend was the 16th annual Tolkien in Vermont conference, and I had a presentation this year, one that looked at Tolkien’s experiences during World War I. I’ve sent the entire presentation out in my latest newsletter, which you can read here. As always, you can sign up and read past issues here.

I included a couple of other things: I’ve opened up an account with Curious Fiction, a short story platform which looks really neat. You can find my profile here, and I’ve added up a couple of short stories. I’ve also restarted my Instagram account, because it turns out that it’s going to be kinda required for a new project I’m working on. You can follow along here. Expect… lots of costuming and book pictures.

Wordplay: streaming TV, science fiction & advertising, and fan fiction

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The latest issue of Wordplay is now live and out to subscribers!

This issue covers a couple of topics: the proliferation of streaming services, and the opportunities that that leads to for creators, some thoughts on science fiction’s relationship with advertising, and some complaints about some recent fan fiction coverage online.

You can read the latest issue here (and past issues here), and subscribe to the letter here.

My Top 10 Games

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There’s a tweet going around about the games that are your personal top 10 video games of all time. It’s been fun to think about, especially as I’ve never really been a huge gamer. But looking back, there have been a bunch of games that have been a huge influence on how I’ve thought about stories and speculative fiction over the years. Here’s my personal top-10 list.

10. Titanfall 2

I really wanted to like the original Titanfall, but I really don’t like online games. It’s just not an experience I enjoy. But Titanfall 2 was fantastic. I love the story, love the gameplay mechanics, and I REALLY love the fantastic mechs. I’m bummed that there doesn’t appear to be a third game on the horizon. This feels like a world that could really challenge Halo, and I’d love to see more of this world.

9. Mario Kart / Super Mario Odyssey

When I bought my Nintendo Switch, I quickly bought Mario Kart on Megan’s advice. It quickly became a good game that we could all play as a family, and something that we could cart along on family trips for when we had downtime or something. I also picked up Super Mario Odyssey, which we’ve also played quite a bit. I haven’t beaten this game, but I’ve had a lot of fun watching Megan and Bram play it.

8. Diablo 2

When I worked at Camp Abnaki, there was one year where we had a shared computer in the equipment room. It was an easy assignment that left a lot of time for playing, (or playing after hours), and I spent a lot of hours at Camp, and later, when I got my own computer, playing through this. I’m not sure that I ever actually beat the game, but I did have a lot of fun leveling up my character.

7. Sim City 2000

Who doesn’t love Sim City? I love building epic cities in this, and all the fiddly bits that it requires, from raising / lowering taxes to playing with crime rates, roads, and zoning. I’ve played a bunch of mobile apps, but none of them really compare to this one.

6. Age of Empires

When I got my first computer, one of the games I got hooked on in high school / college was Age of Empires. That shouldn’t be a surprise — I studied history, and loved this take on it, building up civilizations and destroying my neighbors. I haven’t been able to play it for years, but I’ve been thinking of taking out my old computer to give it a spin.

5. King’s Quest VI

My friend Laura Hudson’s game list reminded me of this one, and it brought back a flood of memories. I’m pretty sure that this game came with our first Compaq computer in the mid-1990s, and I spent hours and hours exploring the Green Isles and reveling in its mashup of mythologies and fairy tales. I recently went and watched a play-through on YouTube, and was struck at how funny and clever it is. This was a hard one — it took me forever to finish it.

4. Pokémon Go

I missed the boat on Pokémon when I was a youth. Kids at summer camp played it, but I thought it was kind of dumb — I only played serious games like Dungeons & Dragons (where we accidentally exploded a moose). But when Bram got into the franchise via friends at daycare and school, I started playing the game with him, and it’s been a good motivation to get out and walk around quite a bit more.

3. Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

This was probably the first video game that I ever really played, aside from the occasional visit to friends’ houses. My parents bought me a Game Boy, and it came with Zelda. It took me an embarrassingly long time to beat it, but I loved the game, and cried when I finally finished it. I went and replayed it just before Breath of the Wild came out, and it holds up nicely. I’d wanted to see a BOTW-style remake, but I’ll certainly be playing the 3D remake that’s coming later this year.

2. Halo / Halo: Reach / Halo: ODST

Halo was the first time I really got into gaming. It came out when I was a summer camp counselor at Camp Abnaki, and every summer for years, I played with my friends while we had downtime. I love military science fiction, so the power armor and FPS thing works for me, but the controls and gameplay were intuitive, the design was great, and it’s a neat story in a much larger narrative. I’ve since really gone on to love Halo: ODST for its story, as well as Halo: Reach for enriching the backstory. I’m a bit more lukewarm on Halo 3, but I do really enjoy Halo 4, especially its guns. Halo 2 and 5 are a hot mess, though.

1. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I can’t begin to imagine just how many hours I’ve spent playing this game. Not just in beating the main story, but just wandering around and exploring. This is a game that rewards curiosity, and walking, running, and riding across this fantastic version of Hyrule never feels like wasted time. I played this a lot with Bram, who watched and helped me with the puzzles and shrines, an experience that I’ll treasure forever. On top of that, the design and artwork is stunning, the gameplay is incredibly good, and the shrines and quests are wonderful.

Meet Robbie

Rosie (closest) and Robbie (furthest). I hope they’ll be friends.

Rosie (closest) and Robbie (furthest). I hope they’ll be friends.

When Megan and I got married, I put a Roomba on our wedding registry on a whim — I didn’t actually think anyone would get one for us. But someone did, and it was a delight to have a robot servant in the house. I named it Rosie, and for the last seven years, it’s been dutifully cleaning the floors.

Seven years is a long time for a robot, as it turns out. Things break, and I’ve replaced its brush motor, brushes, and other random pieces over the years. I’ve even printed parts for it on occasion, and dismantled it completely for a couple of cleaning sessions. Robots that crawl around on the floor picking up dirt get dirty — go figure. It’s still chugging away, but it’s a bit louder, and doesn’t always work as well on the carpets.

I’ve been thinking of replacing it for a while now, and when another one popped up for sale, I splurged and bought one. This new one is a slightly upgraded model — a Roomba 640, which I’m calling Robbie. It’s a bit of a step up and a step down from Rosie, which is a Roomba 500 model. This new one is quieter, it seems like it’s a bit smarter, and it works exceptionally well. But while I can schedule Rosie to begin work at 9AM, this new one doesn’t have a scheduling feature, and it’s a little hard to tell when it’s charging. But, after running it in our bedroom, Megan came home and asked if I’d vacuumed it. High praise.

I’d originally thought that I’d hand off Rosie to a friend, but after putting the two of them together, I realized just how attached I’d become to it. That’s not uncommon, apparently. In Wired for War, P.W. Singer wrote about how soldiers became incredibly attached to their packbots (also made by iRobot). Rosie’s been a constant presence in the house, even though it can be loud and exasperating at times, it’s almost like a pet. So, Rosie will stick with what it’s good at — handling the harder floods downstairs, while Robbie will handle everything else — bedrooms and basement

Wordplay: Netflix's Anthology and the Apollo program

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Wordplay is back on schedule, with a new post this last weekend. I spoke about a couple of things: Netflix’s new science fiction anthology, Love, Death + Robots, which is quite a bit of fun to watch, and adapts stories from people like John Scalzi, Ken Liu, and Marko Kloos.

I also write about the recent documentary Apollo 11, which is fantastic.

You can read this latest issue here, and if you like it, sign up and read past issues here.

Wordplay: Awards scuffle and influence

This latest installment of Wordplay has been… delayed. I’ve been sick, and only just now gotten around to typing it up and sending it out. You can read the latest installment here. In it, I’m talking about Betty Ballantine, my probable nominations for the Hugo Awards (due Saturday), and some thoughts on the latest awards scuffle. Plus, what I’ve been reading and what’s coming up.

If you like it, subscribe here.