Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich University

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In my final years at Norwich University, I took a course about the school’s history, one of the high-level seminars that you take in the field. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect (other than that it might be kind of boring), but I liked the instructor, and it turned out to be a really fascinating field of study. It also proved to be one of those courses that charts the direction of your interests and career. My final project was a study of the Norwich students who fought at Normandy during World War II, and it came with a neat opportunity: a trip to the battlefield along with some high-level alumni and donors. I was the youngest by decades, but got to talk extensively about the students whose footsteps we were literally following, both at school and on the battlefield.

Over the years since, I’ve done quite a bit of study in the topic: I researched Norwich students who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and during World War I, as well as a smattering of articles. The latest is now available in a new book, Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich. The school is coming up on its bicentennial next year, and to commemorate it, the school commissioned bestselling author Alex Kershaw (you know, the guy who wrote The Bedford Boys, The Few, The Longest Winter, The Liberator, and others) to write it. He’s on the level of Stephen Ambrose when it comes to WWII histories.

The book is a narrative and independent overview of Norwich’s history, and to flesh it out in places, the school brought in some freelancers to contribute some pieces. I got to write about the 2nd Armored Division, which I’d covered in some of my work.

The book isn’t widely for sale just yet: if you’re in Vermont, you can stop by the school to pick up a copy (either a $1000 Commemorative Edition, or an $85 edition), but it’ll apparently hit their online store at some point in the near future, and they spoke a bit about plans for an eBook or paperback edition for students at some point in the future.

I haven’t read this yet — it’s a big book — but I’ve spoke with Alex about his work on it, and heard him speak about it: an epic story of a school that had a real footprint in the history of our nation, and even if you’re not an alum, it should make for a really interesting read. I’m happy to have a small part in it.

Engaging the Future: The Art of Future Warfare

Earlier this week, I attended a conference put on by the Army's Training and Doctrine Command's Mad Scientist Initiative, a program designed to explore "the future through collaborative partnerships and continuous dialogue with academia, industry and government." The conference was titled "Learning in 2050," and was designed to examine how the Army would train soldiers in the deep future (which they define as the future where you can't realistically predict politics / technology) I was invited in the capacity of a science fiction writer, to give my thoughts on how science fiction might fit into the equation. That's a difficult question, because science fiction really isn't good at answering that question, but it does allow people to think about the future. Here's the talk that I gave: 

When I graduated from Norwich University with my Masters’ in Military History a couple of years ago, I began thinking a bit more deeply about how the real-world military intersected with another passion of mine, science fiction. The genre has a grand tradition of depicting the armed forces over the course of its history, something I’ve contributed to with stories of my own, as well as an anthology that I edited.

Stories about future wars are well-suited for science fiction: the confluence of major technological advancement and investment in the years that followed World War II brought about stories of atomic weapons, spaceborne warships, and soldiers kitted out in advanced suits of armor, predictions of what we might go to war with in future conflicts.

But science fiction isn’t about predicting the future in a meaningful way. It’s true: authors like Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others have anticipated or even inspired technological advances: we certainly have submarines, satellites and the internet, but the future is more than just the technology that we deploy into the real world. Rather, science fiction is a framework and mindset with which we engage the future, thinking about the present moment and how our actions today will play out tomorrow.

Science fiction is a framework and mindset with which we engage the future

Science fiction’s efforts to try and imagine and interpret the military world stretch to the earlier days of the genre. In 1871, a novella called The Battle of Dorking appeared in Blackwoods Magazine, set fifty years from its publication — 1921 — of a soldier recounting a battle to his grandchildren. England is invaded by a technologically superior enemy, and falls. It was a warning written by British Army general George Chesney, who had fought in India and was sent home due to injuries, and worried deficiencies he saw in the country’s armed forces at the time. While it wasn’t the first such “future war” story published, it was enormously popular, and would help to prefigure other stories of warfare that would come.

One such follow up story is far more recognizable: H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a dazzling story of invasion as aliens from Mars land on Earth with the intent of occupation, only to fall prey to microbes that they don’t have immunity to. Note: when you decide invade a planet, make sure you invest in biological containment protocols.

War of the Worlds and The Battle of Dorking gave rise to numerous successors: Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Ender’s Game, Red Storm Rising, Ghost Fleet, and many others. But if there’s anything that links these stories together, it’s that they haven’t realistically predicted the types of wars that we’ll actually face on the battlefield. We haven’t established bases on the moon or Mars. While there are early efforts at creating them, soldiers don’t go into the field clad in powered armor, and predictions of imminent hot wars between major world powers haven’t come to pass, although some stories could come close. But as no plan survives first contact with the enemy, no science fiction story survives first contact with the future.

But as no plan survives first contact with the enemy, no science fiction story survives first contact with the future.

Military science fiction is frequently set in the future, and it’s exciting! You get laser guns, giant robots, epic space battles, power armor, and more when you visit your bookstore or movie theater. But it’s a poor predictive tool. Science fiction promised us flying cars and bases on the moon, but we got Facebook and Twitter instead. Given the behavior of people on Facebook and Twitter, I think it’s probably a good thing that we haven’t been handed the keys to those jetpacks and flying cars.

So, if science fiction isn’t a good or accurate predictor of the future, what good is it, and how can it be harnessed as a tool in the arsenal of teaching soldiers how to anticipate the future?

This is something that I think about quite a bit. I’ve written stories of my own, and I’ve read and edited military sf stories, with the aim of using the genre to explore the world around us. Science fiction, in many ways, is an exercise in examination of the present world around us and how we got here. I might write about armored mechs and power armor-clad soldiers, but these stories simply wouldn’t make sense if they aren’t firmly rooted in the concerns of today. A couple of years ago, I published a short story called Fragmented. Its origins stem from an NPR article that I heard on the radio about how the army decontaminated tanks coming back from Iraq. It was an involved process, and it got me thinking: what would happen to a soldier who lived in their armor on a battlefield? It stood to reason that it would be an integral part of their survival, and that having that armor stripped away when they were done with their tour could be a traumatic experience, or might force them to face existence without it, the one constant thing that kept them alive through their trials.

When it came to editing War Stories, my co-editor and I wanted to get away from what we saw as jingoistic stories of heroic soldiers killing bug-eyed aliens. Instead, we put out a call for stories where the impact of warfare was central to the characters, whether they were soldiers or civilians. These stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and I hope that they’ve helped people understand that as obsessed with technology as military science fiction is, it isn’t the most important part of the story: it’s the characters and how they cope with the changes around them.

This is where I feel science fiction can be an important resource for any effort that looks at what we face in the years ahead. We don’t know what the future will hold — after all, science fiction has a terrible track record when it comes to predicting the future. But what it does do is allow people to make a critical first step towards defining the question: “what’s next?” It allows us to interrogate the present and think and grapple with the world that we’ll soon find ourselves living in. At its worst, it can be escapist fantasy of the thrill of action that has no lasting impact aside from a nice mental detour. At its most durable, it’s a close examination of where we are today, how today will morph into tomorrow, and influences the works that come after it.  

Science Fiction enables people to make a critical first step towards defining the question: “what’s next?”

How do we use the genre to prepare soldiers for the conflicts of that they’ll face in the decades ahead? If we think about the world that we’ll inhabit by 2050, think about the gulf in time between 2018 and 1986: 32 years ago. Cell phones were in their infancy. With those primitive phones in mind, think about how much more computing power we now carry with us, and the types of things that we can do. Just in the last couple of days, I navigated over 500 miles, using real-time directions and incident reports, I hailed a stranger in a car, caught some creatures with a geolocation-based game, and looked up a restaurant on a map all from my phone. The best science fiction stories don’t just imagine how technology functions, but how it’s used. Look at how people have abused app-based technologies or platforms like YouTube, Twitter or Facebook, either through routine mass-harassment from afar to soliciting like-minded friends for terrorist activities. Look at how the proliferation of cameras on these devices and how that correlates with the rise in coverage of police brutality, how these networks can bring marginalized communities together, or how the crowd can amass incredible amounts of data — all from their phones. This was the stuff of science fiction just decades ago.

We are living in a science fictional age. Think about some piece of technology that you might use in the field, and try to imagine how that technology might change in the same amount of time. When the cell phone was invented in 1973, I don’t think its inventors could have fathomed the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which were coordinated through the use of mobile phones, VOIP calling, and Google Earth. I recently wrote about a fitness app’s heat map that accidentally revealed the locations of military bases in the Middle East, data that foreign intelligence agents would have died to get their hands on. I think we’re all in agreement that technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace, and that it will continue to evolve, and will be used in any number of incredible ways. The future will be weirder than we can imagine.

Think about the technologies that are coming down the pipeline: autonomous vehicles, exoskeletons, new types of information at our fingertips. Science fiction has put these types of technology to use already, and it’s useful to play with the possibilities. In Linda Nagata’s The Red, soldiers use exoskeletons and brain interfaces to enhance their abilities on the battlefield. In Adam Robert’s New Model Army, he imagines crowdsourced warfare, where armies spring up instantly. We can write about these coming changes in clear, analytical reports or white papers. But as Peter Singer told me these are like paper Ambien. It’s stories about characters that excite us, and pull us into the world to imagine how we’ll react and what happens next. Stories are good at figuring out where technology breaks down because of how it’s used by people. I can easily imagine a story in which the first casualty of a future war isn’t from enemy combatants, but a bored soldier goofing off with a set of powered armor. I can imagine an enemy combatant stymying a new weapons system with a can of spray paint. There will be battlefields in new environments: dense urban combat in super cities, in regions wrecked by climate change, or in low earth orbit. Science fiction can allow us to understand problems — big and small —in ways we can easily grasp and comprehend, how to overcome them and fully understand the ramifications of introducing a new piece of expensive tech into the field.

But these stories are only as good as the problems and worlds that authors can imagine, and it’s important to remember not only that the futures imagined by science fiction authors aren’t always great predictors of the future, but that they can carry our own biases and weak points. When developing a body of work, it’s important to bring in a wide spectrum of viewpoints, to seek out and invite authors and thinkers who look and think differently from yourself. The best stories draw on all of the real world’s complexities and nuances to present a story and world that draws out those complex and nuanced problems and solutions.

We learn from these challenges, and with each new story, we practice how to approach those roadblocks and how to get comfortable with a rapidly changing environment.

Changes in technology, climate, and politics are the building blocks, but it’s how people and future soldiers inhabit those worlds that makes for good stories. How will soldiers of the future deal with the presence of robots on the battlefield? What decisions will they make to survive? What motivates them — and their adversaries to act? This is where science fiction storytelling has an added advantage: the emphasis on realism begets a fictional construct much like our own, where its characters are constrained by their surroundings. By framing these imaginary futures in a realistic framework for which we can create moral dilemma that force characters to act, we can use fiction to put ourselves in the place of the characters, ask how we would make the decisions that they need to make, and learn from their mistakes. Stories aren’t about an advanced piece of technology; they’re about how the characters exist in whatever futures we’ve imagined for them.

This is where storytelling can be a powerful tool. Storytelling sparks curiosity, and gets us interested defining an unknown future. I’m very fond of a quote from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, that he’s “never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before,” because of the books and stories he’s read. When done right, fiction goes beyond mere entertainment: it’s a way to generate discussion about those conflicts that drive good stories. Ideally, your future soldiers won’t be involved in something that makes for a good science fiction story (just remember, biological containment protocols in first contact scenarios).

Ultimately, the future is uncertain, and uncertainty is scary. Engaging with the future through fiction, where the stakes are low, allows us to learn and practice those first steps that we take into tomorrow and prepare us for the world that we’ll soon inhabit.

Alongside any plans for the future, there should be a strong body of artistic work to complement it, to educate and inspire the people who will fight for us. We’ve discussed many plans and theories for what to do next at this conference, and I’d like to challenge you to help take this first step: pick up a new book and carve out time to read it. Do it over and over. Pick up a pen or open a word document, and imagine a future you want to see. Then do it again. And again.

Presentation: Army TRADOC's Mad Scientist conference: Learning in 2050

Next week, I'll be in Washington D.C. to present at the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Mad Scientist Initiative Conference, Learning in 2050. TRADOC is the command that oversees the training of the entire army, operating a dozens of schools and facilities. One of their initiatives is Mad Scientist, which looks to explore the future through "collaborative partnerships and continuous dialogue with academia, industry and government." One of those partnerships is with some science fiction writers: they've solicited soldiers to write fiction, and basically use that project to get people to think about what's to come in the decades ahead. The people who are just joining the military now will eventually inherit command of the branch. Science fiction isn't a great way to predict the future, but it's a good way to get into the right mindset, so they've asked me to come talk about military science fiction. 

The event is taking place at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. I don't believe that it'll be open to the general public, but it will be livestreamed, according to the project's Twitter feed

I've been interested in military SF for a while now — I grew up on Star Wars, Starship Troopers, and Ender's Game, and it's something that I've increasingly been working in and thinking about. It's a durable genre, but it's also one that I've been seeing as being incredibly useful, for all of the reasons that TRADOC set up the Mad Scientist Initiative: it's a way to get people to think about what's coming up, whether that's fantastical technologies or wartime scenarios. Defense Secretary James Mattis has spoken often about the importance of reading, with one notable e-mail going viral every now and again in which he outlines its importance: "

"Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn't give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead."

Military SF is the same way, I think, and there's a body of work that's being developed in the field that explores the battlegrounds of the near future, aimed at getting people to think about the bigger picture. One notable book is Ghost Fleet, authored by P.W. Singer and August Cole, which they wrote by incorporating all of the technology and geopolitics that experts are developing or watching. They noted that the book could have been written up as a future war white paper, something they described as "printed Ambien." By dumping all that information into a novel, with characters and plot, they found people better related to the information the might have just skimmed. 

The conference will take place on the 8th and 9th. I'll likely be jotting down notes on Twitter, and I'll try and find the livestream link when that's live. 

San Diego Comic-Con 2018

San Diego Comic-Con 2018 has come and gone. This year was my second year covering / attending the show for The Verge, and it was a good time all around. I wrote about a bunch of things: DC's new streaming service, new Star Wars novels, the return of The Clone Wars, interviewed Timothy Zahn, reported a UFO sighting, and rode a couple of scooters. A couple of things fell through, which was unfortunate, but it was a good time all around. 

Along the way, I got to catch up with a bunch of friends and colleagues from around the science fiction community, which was fun. The trip back had a bunch of delays, but it was bearable because of fellow Vermont fantasy author Katherine Arden, whom was on the same flight.

There's a lot of people who complain about the convention: it's too big, too crowded, too commercial, not enough comics, and so forth — I've complained as well, in that it's 5-6 days of flat-out running from place to place to cover things — but I've enjoyed myself the last two years. The main crux of it is that it's a gathering point of like-minded people. I saw people dressed in costumes from just about everything — it was especially cool to see people dressed up as characters from The Expanse — and I ran into a bunch of fellow 501st members from California, Texas, and elsewhere. 

There's been a lot of talk about how fans have been incredibly shitty in recent years (mind, it's not a new occurrence) and Timothy Zahn had a good observation that while a lot of these attitudes have been around for a while, they're amplified by social media. We've seen actors and directors become the focus of intense scrutiny by "fans" with an ax to grind because they're upset about women being in Star Wars or something. 

But I didn't see any of that while I was there. I don't doubt that it existed, but what I saw was people reveling in what they really love. When a room full of Clone Wars fans learned that the show was coming back, there were actual tears. I saw costumers who'd (presumably) never met one another strike up conversations, and people posing for countless pictures. It was a good reminder that fandom isn't always this awful thing. The internet has a habit of equalizing various groups, which isn't the case. 

 

Ian McDonald's Time Was is a haunting time travel romance

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Ian McDonald has become one of my favorite science fiction authors in recent years: his novel Luna: New Moon kicked off a fantastic trilogy (the third installment has sadly been delayed until next year), while River of Gods and The Dervish House used the intersection between cheap technology, poverty, and politics to present a really intriguing set of futures for Earth. McDonald's latest, Time Was, is a change from that model, but it's no less a gripping read. 

Set during the Second World War, it follows two men, Tom and Ben. Ben is a scientist working on a secret project, and as he and Tom fall in love, the project goes wrong, sending both men to wander throughout time, trying to find one another through messages left in books. The story ping-pongs between the story of a man named Emmett Leigh in the present, who discovers letters from the two men and embarks on a mission to try and find out who they were as they intersect throughout time, and the story of the two men leading up to their accident.

McDonald does something impressive over the course of its short length, blending hard physics with a really tragic romance that comes full circle in a sort of reciprocating way — a form that I really love reading, as in Lev Grossman's The Magician King and Joe Hill's Horns. But McDonald also treats his characters well, showcasing a gay couple that feels natural, and not playing to tired tropes. It's incredibly well written, and is well worth picking up. 

Carbon Leaf: Gathering

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I've long been a fan of Virginia-based band Carbon Leaf, and they recently released a new, short album called Gathering — the first of a projected quartet. With it, they've returned to form, harkening back to some of their best albums. 

Those albums were published in the early 2000s: Echo Echo (an indie record), Indian Summer, Love Loss Hope Repeat, and Nothing Rhymes with Woman. What really set them apart was their songwriting: full of vivid imagery and emotion that evoked nostalgia, and a longing for a sort of rural America. Their sound is hard to pin down: Their songs range from indie-folk-country-rock to pop-traditional Irish. They split from their record label after Nothing Rhymes with Woman and did a big campaign to re-record all of their work under their own indie label, which slightly improved the songs and brought them back to their own sound. 

Since that split, they've meandered a bit. 2010's How the West Was One was supposed to be the start of a short album series, which captured a lot of that feel that made them so great, but while 2013's Constellation Prize and Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle have their notable tracks, they're pretty forgettable records. 

Gathering feels more like a return to form for them. It's a short album — only five songs, that come in at 20 minutes — but each one feels like it packs an outsized punch, bringing that great sense of nostalgia, folksy feel, and loneliness through their songs. I've always sort of thought of them as bringing the feeling you get while returning to a home you haven't been to in a while. Songs like "Gathering," Bow & Arrow (Shore Up Love," and "Gifts from the Crows" feel as though they'll be future classics. 

The only bummer is that this is a short album: it's easy to cycle through it, and hopefully, the short length will mean that the band will churn these out at a bit of a quicker pace than the typical one-album-every-couple-of-years-rate. 

War Stories: On Sale!

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I don't know how long it'll be on sale, but Amazon has marked down War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, edited by myself and Jaym Gates to $3.82 for the Kindle edition! That's a bit off the regular listed price of $5, and quite a bit cheaper than the print edition. 

If you haven't read it yet, it's a good time to pick it up, and read stories from Linda Nagata, Karin Lowachee, Ken Liu, Yoon Ha Lee, James Sutter, Maurice Broadus, Jake Kerr, Janine Spendlove, TC McCarthy, and a bunch of others. 

I'm very proud of this little book, and of all the stories in it. Jaym and I wanted to push against the typical tropes of Military SF, and I think we succeeded. There's things like power armor, AI, and space battles, but all with the backdrop of how warfare affects people. 

So if you're looking for a good book, it's a good opportunity to check it out! 

Gardner Dozois got me into science fiction

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Word broke the other day that science fiction editor Gardner Dozois died suddenly. There's been a number of tributes to him from around the science fiction community, and for good reason: for decades, he's been one of the foremost forces in curating the cream of the crop that is the SF short fiction world, via his The Year's Best Science Fiction anthology series. 

I wrote about the series a while ago for my Kirkus Reviews column, where I looked at his work as a writer and later anthologist, but since his passing, I've been thinking about how his work impacted me: he is really one of the ones that got me interested in modern science fiction in a very big way. 

The re-release of Star Wars and Legends of Zelda: Link's Awakening were two big influences when it came to discovering science fiction and fantasy — later followed by Brian Jacques Redwall series — which in turn steered me towards some of the classics: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and others. But it was an anthology by Dozois that made me realize that science fiction wasn't a genre that rested entirely on the classics: there were plenty of new and brilliant stories being published every year. During a family trip to New York in 2000 — I think it was a wedding or funeral — we stopped at a Barnes and Noble. I vividly remember the bookstore, and coming across The Year's Best Science Fiction: Eighteenth Annual Edition, and thought back to the classic anthologies that I'd been reading. This seemed like a good way for my teenage brain to read up on a whole bunch of adventures, so that was my purchase for the day. 

To this day, I haven't read all of it: (I read anthologies sporadically), but stories like Stephen Baxter's "On the Orion Line," and John Kessel's "The Juniper Tree" still stand out to me. I've picked up a handful of other Year's Best Anthologies over the years. Dozois always had an impeccable eye for curation, and beyond just the fiction that he included, there was a great survey of the output of the science fiction community: collecting the entire series and reading that alone would give you a great chunk of the genre's recent history. 

I went back to the anthology time and again, and a couple of years later, I first subscribed to Asimov's Science Fiction, which Dozois edited. Again, I found his curation to be fantastic, introducing me to authors such as Allen M. Steele, Walter Jon Williams, Robert Reed, Charles Stross, John Varley, Karen Traviss, Tanith Lee, Charles Sheffield, Nancy Kress, Bruce Sterling, and so many others. I never really read through each issue cover to cover, but Dozois's short introductions to each story served as a good guidepost for what appealed to me the most: adventures in space, biotechnology run amok, robots, and the like. 

Dozois's showed me that science fiction was alive and that it was not only something that was continually changing, but it was something that I could contribute to: I remember stuffing envelopes with terrible stories and mailing them off to Asimovs' and Dozois, only to get the standard form letter back. They were always polite messages that encouraged me to continue to try. 

For a long time, I stopped reading Asimov's and short fiction in general, but it's something that I've returned to in recent months, but when I was at a bookstore, I'd often flip through his latest Years' Best Anthology to see who made the cut for the year, even sitting down and reading through a story or two if I was killing time. 

There's a number of Year's Best Anthologies crowding the market now: Neil Clarke's Best Science Fiction of the Year series and John Joseph Adams' The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series are just two examples (and there's a ton of other, subgenre-specific ones that have popped up as well), but Dozois's loss leaves a Chicxulub-sized crater in the field. The genre and fandom community will move on, but that hole will never completely be filled, and he's a figure that will leave long-lasting changes on the genre for years to come.

 

Tell Me, Xenia Dunford

I haven't written a whole lot about music in recent years. For a while after college, I was obsessed with trying to discover new artists and music, and in another world, I might have become a music journalist. I don't come across nearly as much new and cool artists these days, but I did stumble upon Xenia Dunford the other day, and I'm really digging her work. 

Xenia is a local artist out of Burlington, Vermont, and a bar I follow on Facebook advertised that she was going to play playing this weekend, so I gave her a listen. Her style is folksy —a bit like Marian Call, Marketa Irglova, or Dawn Landes. 

She's recently released a pair of EPs: Flesh and Bone (& Everything Within) A and B, (You can listen to A here, and listen to B here), and they're quite good! I'll be watching for more from her. 

FOTK: Approved!

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This is pretty exciting: my First Order Stormtrooper (known in the 501st as an FOTK), has been approved for use!

This has been a really long, and at times, frustrating build, more so than some of the other costumes I've built over the years. I picked up this kit second-hand, after a prior owner had begun work on it, then abandoned it. This meant that there were some things that had to be undone: bits of glue and other things like that that were left over, while some other things that needed to be done, like sanding and trimming, were complete. 

Getting the suit to fit took some time: I had to make some adjustments, such as with the thighs and calves, as the base kit was a bit too small for me. That necessitated cutting the thighs and expanding them (then filling the new hole with Bondo automotive filler), then lots of sanding. 

Then the painting. With most kits made out of ABS, you don't usually have to paint up a stormtrooper. I've had to paint other kits before: my AOTC Clone and Shoretrooper both got robust paint jobs, but this took a considerable amount of work: first with base layers of primer, then five or six layers of gloss white. I'm sort of satisfied with the end result, but unless you're looking for flaws, you aren't going to find them if you're a couple of feet away. My original goal had been to cover some of the flaws up by weathering the entire kit, but that's not approved for the 501st. Maybe some future film will see them dirtied up a bit. 

This kit is also much heavier than my other kits: at least 50lbs, which makes it uncomfortable to wear; much of that weight sits on my shoulders. There's also the added gasket details on my elbows, knees, and shoulders, which are done with what's essentially an extra set of sleeves over an already not-really-breathable body suit. Even in pretty reasonable temperatures, I get warm fast. It's also difficult to put on: I require help from a wrangler to get the shoes, detonator, shins, spats, ammo vest, and shoulders on. This isn't going to be something I'm going to truck out during the summer months. 

But, the end result is probably one of my favorite kits altogether: it's a badass looking trooper, and the weight of the kit changes my stance to something that's a little more crouched and imposing. 

It's not 100% done just yet. I need to get the two guns that he carries — a longer rifle and a pistol for the thigh holster — and I've got a backpack that I need to figure out how to mount to the backplate. I've got some ideas for how that can be done, but I just haven't gotten around to doing it just yet. 

Strategy Strikes Back: now in stores!

Hey you! Yeah, you. Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict is now in stores! You can get a copy of your very own. I particularly recommend it if you a) like Star Wars and b) like astute commentary on modern military conflict. This book has both!

You can buy it directly from the University of Nebraska Press, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or from your independent bookstore

Reading

I read a lot. I post up pictures of the books I get, and everyone from the UPS guy to random Twitter people ask how I have the time to read so much. I feel like I don't read all that much, especially compared to the piles of books that I have in my office. 

Last year, I fell far short of my 52 book reading goal. I keep track via GoodReads, and came in just short. I realized that I'd been falling behind simply because I was fitting in reading only occasionally throughout the days and weeks and months. I'd been hoping to hit that goal simply because it was there, and wasn't making the time to make it happen.

This year is different: I'm specifically setting aside time to read, usually the 8-9AM block, before I turn on any of my Twitter / Facebook / work feeds. Once those start up, it's hard to reclaim the time. And it's worked! I've made it through 25 books already this year, as well as a couple of abortive attempts that I later put aside. There's been days when I've blown through an entire short book in a sitting, which is a nice feeling, and I feel like I get more of the story processed. 

This past weekend, I realized that while I've been paying a lot of attention to novel/novella-length fiction, I haven't really been doing the same with short fiction. I grew up reading Asimov's Science Fiction, and we're in the midst of a golden age of SF short fiction. There's so many choices: Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Uncanny, Asimov's, Fireside, and others. I realized that like I wasn't making the time to read books, I haven't been making the time to read short fiction, and so I've started doing that. I'm not setting aside time for this like I do with books, but in between articles, over lunch breaks, while walking the dog, in random pieces of time throughout my day, there's time to consume a short story. It's been so easy to pick up, too. 

I've started documenting what stories I've been reading on Twitter: here's the thread for short fiction, and another for the books I've been reading. I figure it's a good way to keep me going, and something besides links to the articles I've been writing. 

Elizabeth Bonesteel’s Central Corps trilogy is a refreshing space opera

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The last couple of years, I've really fallen in love with Elizabeth Bonesteel's Central Corps trilogy: The Cold Between, Remnants of Trust, and Breach of Containment. The trilogy as a whole have become some of my favorite reads in recent years, full of well-drawn characters and a world that works in complicated and plausible ways. 

Spoilers for the Central Corps trilogy follow.

Bonesteel sets up an intriguing world: humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, governed by Central Gov and an interstellar navy, the Central Corps. They act as general peacekeepers across the cosmos, and keep a wary eye on the PSI, a rival, space-faring society that split away eons ago.

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The series kicks off with The Cold Between as a Corps ship called the Phoenix blows up over a colonial world named Volhynia. A quarter of a century later, another Corps ship, the Galileo, is stationed at Volhynia. Danny Lancaster, one of its crew members, is found murdered, and suspicion immediately falls on a former PSI captain named Treiko Zajec. There’s one problem, however: he was in bed with the Galileo’s chief engineer, Elana Shaw, who realizes that someone is desperately trying to deflect attention from the real culprits by pinning the blame on Lancaster. As Shaw works to help clear Zajec’s name, she discovers that her crewmate’s death is linked to the unsolved destruction of the Phoenix 25 years ago, which claimed the live of the mother of the Galileo’s captain, Greg Foster.

In Remnants of Trust, Shaw and the Galileo is back, and now reassigned to the Third Sector, where they're punished for what happened in the prior book. They receive a distress call from their sister ship, the Exeter, which has been sabotaged, along with a nearby PSI ship. The events link back to the book's prologue, where the team visits a devastated colony, and there seems to be some sort of coverup going on.

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Finally, in Breach of Containment, Shaw has abruptly left the Central Corps, leaving Greg Foster bewildered. This book feels as though it's the strongest of of the trilogy, following Shaw and Foster as they're drawn into yet another conspiracy: this time on a distant colonial moon, where some scavengers have discovered a strange piece of technology, and as a major corporation, Ellis Systems, begins making moves to take over large swaths of space. 

While reading the series, I couldn’t help but think of the Central Corps as an organization that essentially fills the same role as the Federation in Star Trek: a quasi-military organization that essentially fills a logistical gap in Bonesteel’s world. They help with humanitarian or security missions, and generally seem to be there to aid colonies as needed.

But where the Federation existed in a idealistic, utopian world, Bonesteel fits the same sort of group into a world that feels a bit more plausible. Humanity hasn’t moved past most of its core issues around racism and tribalism, and many view the Central Corps as a body that’s untrustworthy and rife with corruption.

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But while a plausible and interesting world makes for good setting, it’s useless without interesting characters to play out the story. Fortunately, Bonesteel has this covered: Shaw, Foster, and the handful of ancillary background characters that pop up book to book. Bonesteel's main focus is on Shaw and Foster's relationship: they're friends, but over the course of the series, it's clear that there's more of a relationship growing between them. It's not straight forward or clean: the two have their issues and it takes them a while to find common ground, but it's the foundation of the entire series, and Bonesteel handles it expertly. 

These books aren't simple affairs: they're dense, complicated novels that took me a while to get through — this is why I'm reviewing it now, rather than last fall, when the last book came out. While they're packed reads, they're richly layered with characters, subplots and internal politics, mirroring our own, complicated world. They make for a nice counterpoint to some of the other classic space opera classics, which always feel like they're just barely scratching the surface on how the worlds actually operate.

 

Strategy Strikes Back: A real book!

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So this is a thing that I got in the mail: my contributor copy for Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Conflict. It's a book of critical essays from a bunch of people from around the pop culture / military sphere that uses Star Wars to talk about warfare. Jaym Gates, my co-editor from War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, worked on it, and it includes essays from people like Max Brooks (of World War Z fame), Fran Wilde (Updraft), BJ Armstrong (who also attended Norwich University's Masters in Military History program), August Cole (Ghost Fleet), and a ton of others. We talk about clone armies, military strategy, and quite a bit more. 

My essay is called "The Battle of Hoth: A Critical Analysis", and looks at the command decisions that led to the Rebel's escape, which is something I spent way too much time thinking about. But I'm happy with how it came out. 

And it's a book that you can soon buy! The book hits stores on May 1st, and you can preorder it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, and Nebraska University Press. If you like Star Wars and warfare, this should make for an interesting, thought-provoking read. 

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Now spreading the good word of the 501st New England Garrison

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It's March, which means that the entire 501st Legion has gone through an election, including the New England Garrison and the Green Mountain Squad. My friend Brian Anderson won the election to head up the garrison this year, and I volunteered to act as the Garrison's Public Relations Officer (PRO) under his administration. I'm looking forward to it. I haven't been on the Garrison staff for a while, and this will be a slightly different thing than I've done for the group before. It's not a job change for me — I'm still at The Verge, and while I cover cosplay, I don't really cover the 501st, to avoid any conflict of interest.

I'm well qualified for it: working for a major news site sort of helps, and I had jumped on social media for both the NEG and the 501st Legion (I started the Facebook pages for both way back when). I've got a bunch of ideas for what we'll be doing for the group in the coming months, such as more media outreach and growth of our social media channels. 

What struck me the other day as I was working on getting some of these plans jotted down, was how much the environment has changed since I became an active member in 2007. Facebook was around, but it was only for college students. The iPhone was hardly the ubiquitous gadget that everyone carried around with them: people who wanted pictures taken had their own digital or disposable cameras, or used a flip phone. They'd get someone to hold their camera and take a picture. Now, we pose for selfies, and any time we march out in public, the phones are out and our pictures go up all over the place. It's a hugely different environment. 

The 501st has grown considerably as well: it's no longer a small club where folks just hang out and dress up. The core of that is still there, of course, but it feels like there's more of a need for a professional administration to handle the growth and logistics to keep our mission going. That's good and bad — you get people complaining about the good old days of just having fun and not dealing with the serious, organizational stuff, but on the plus side, the group is stronger than it's ever been. Hopefully, this year will be a good one for getting the word out for what we do.  

My favorite pictures from 2017

It's a little past the beginning of the year, but I was thinking about how I spent a lot of time in 2017 not just writing, but taking pictures. The Verge has an incredible creative director, James Bareham, and he's been an enormous source of inspiration and guidance in the last year. 

One of the things that we've worked on doing at the site is a lot of our own photography of events or products. As a result, I've taken pictures at conventions, of books, events, and other random things over the last year, and I think as I've grown as a writer, I've gotten better as a photographer as well. Here's some of my favorite images from the last year. 

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I took this picture of Adam Savage at San Diego Comic-Con back in July. He used to host Mythbusters, but since that show has ended, he's one of the people behind Tested, and does a lot of geeking out about costumes and cosplaying. This year, he did a trip out to the con floor in something he calls "Adam Incognito," wearing one of the screen-used costumes from Alien: Covenant

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I didn't write an article about these guys, but I couldn't resist snapping a picture of a trio of members from the 501st Legion's Imperial Sands Garrison at San Diego Comic-Con in July. I built one of these costumes, and it's one of my favorites. These guys looked awesome. 

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On the last day of San Diego Comic-Con, I started looking for Wonder Woman costumers, to chat with them about the popularity and appeal of the costumes. I photographed a couple, but Vanessa Perez of Florida stood out. She absolutely looked the part, and did a fantastic job assembling her costume. 

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One of the big things that I ended up doing this year was photography for my book reviews. I spoke with James about what the look should be, and we came up with a pretty standard formula for reviews: the book, surrounded by a notebook, pen, tea, and other small items that were thematically congruent to the story. This review for The Fortress at the End of Time was the first of these photographs. 

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While we had a standard formula for book covers, I started to play around with it. The late Michael Crichton came out with a book this year, Dragon Teeth, about paleontologists in the wild west. It felt appropriate to make it look as though the book was buried. My colleagues thought at first that it was a stock image provided by the publisher. It's a pity the book wasn't all that great. 

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NK Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy came to an end this year with The Stone Sky, and it is absolutely one of my favorite fantasy trilogies of all time. Jemisin invests a lot of time with rock and geology in this one (which I appreciated, having studied geology in college), and for the review, I wanted to do something a little different. Fortunately, I live in a town that's known for its granite production, and finding a suitable rock to photograph these against wasn't hard. I love how the lighting, colors, and positioning of these came out for this shot of all three covers of the trilogy. 

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I didn't write the review for Annalee Newitz's debut novel Autonomous for The Verge (my review is here) but I did shoot the cover image. The book is all about pharmaceuticals in the future, so it seemed appropriate to scatter some random pills around in addition to the teacup and notebook.  

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I've come to really love The Folio Society's special editions of science fiction books. They released a pair of Philip K. Dick novels tête-bêche style: A Scanner Darkly, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's a really beautiful edition, and I love how the colors look here. 

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The Women's March took place in January, and there was one in Montpelier, Vermont. I took my camera out and got some images of the crowds, including this fantastic trio of puppets from the Bread and Puppet theater. 

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With the Nintendo Switch hitting stores in March, I was inspired to go back to the first game system I ever owned: the Nintendo Gameboy. I still have my original one, but the screen isn't working properly. I ended up picking up a new (to me) one that worked perfectly, and went through The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, and how it was important to me as a kid. It helped spark my love of fantasy, and I really like how this picture came out. 

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I attended New York Comic Con in October last year, and one of the neat exhibitions was Audible's promotion for Andy Weir's latest book, Artemis. The museum parts were okay, but the real showstopper was a replica Moon, at 1:500,000 scale. It's really impressive, because it's the closest that I'll likely get to the Moon, and seeing it up close (even a replica) like this was breathtaking. I ended up taking this shot with my phone, and it came out really nicely. 

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This picture never made it onto The Verge, but I felt like it captured the chaotic nature of New York Comic Con. 


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Not everything I took went to The Verge. I snapped this picture in December of the marquee of Montpelier's Capitol Theater when we went to go see The Last Jedi. It's got a filter on it, Silvertone, and the balance between light and shadows came out really, really well.  

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My brother Dan called me out last fall to help him split some wood at his house with a mechanical splitter. I wasn't doing anything that day, and it made for a good afternoon. I snagged this picture (thank you, portrait mode) while he was cutting up a log. 

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I have a ton of pictures of Bram, but we don't, for some reason, take a lot of family pictures. This was taken when we took a couple of days to drive down to Pennsylvania this summer. We stopped at Fort Ticonderoga, and paused for a family selfie. 

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Another rare family self-portrait. This was taken in Maine, when we got away for a couple of days to visit the beach. This was on our last day before we headed out, walking along the waves. 

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The shed behind my house, with some minor color filtering. I have hopes that I'll winterize it this year and turn it into an office. 

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It's always a rare moment when you get your child to sit still for just long enough to get a good picture of him. 

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The majestic Tiki, in the yard. 

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This was one of my joys this year: I constructed a costume of Link from Breath of the Wild for Bram last Halloween, and we ended up going up into the woods behind the house to take some pictures of him, as though he was in Hyrule. 

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Arthur, hanging out in the sun. 

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A goofy one of Bram, while we were camping with my brother and sister. I can't remember what I said to him, but he made a funny face. 

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A good picture of Tiki, just before we went out for a walk. This one graced my phone's lock screen for a good while. 

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Merlin, at his derpiness. He's a wonderful, affectionate cat, and this picture sums him up nicely. 


There's probably other pictures that I've taken that I'm forgetting or overlooking, but these are what popped out at me from 2017. For the most part, I took the ones for The Verge (the watermarked ones are property of the site), with my Nikon D40, my entry-level DSLR. The others I took with my iPhone 8 Plus, which I bought expressly for the portrait mode. 

New Site

I've once again migrated my blog to a new site. If you've visited before, you'll notice the difference. I've moved from Wordpress to Squarespace, after a couple of years of generally being frustrated with WP's UI and just how outdated everything was looking. Plus, the site wasn't really equipped for what it needs to do, which is to serve as a sort of landing page for my work. 

I like how this site looks and feels, and it's pretty easy to just update things. Hopefully, I'll be able to stick with getting this updated more often moving forward. 

Boskone 2018

 

My wife and I attended Boskone this past weekend: it's one of the long-running, traditional SF/F cons in New England. It's been a couple of years since I've been to one of these: I went to ReaderCon regularly for a bunch of years, but after I took over io9's and later The Verge's weekend duties, I wasn't really able to break away for the weekend, or was focused on attending some of the bigger, multimedia cons like New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con.

I've missed these sorts of conventions: they're heavily focused on the content of science fiction, and they're places where a lot of my friends in the community go. Many of these folks I haven't seen in a couple of years, so attending this year was a nice opportunity to catch up and chat with folks.

It was also nice to get away with Megan for a weekend, without the child: I feel like we don't get around to doing a lot on our own, so it was a good time to just hang out and talk about things like science fiction and books.

I hit up a bunch of cool panels: one on audio fiction and podcasting, as well as editing online magazines, commercial spaceflight and colonization, the Wizard of Earthsea, and another one or two that I'm forgetting. Hopefully, I'll be able to make it out to ReaderCon this summer.

Myke Cole's The Armored Saint is an intense, timely dark fantasy about standing up against fascism

IMG_2226.jpg Myke Cole's new fantasy novella The Armored Saint hits bookstores today, and it's a really fantastic read. I brought an advance copy with me when I went to New York Comic Con in October. I figured it would be a good backup read while I went through a couple of other books I was covering. I ended up reading the first couple of pages while I had a spare moment, and ended up devouring the entire book in a sitting on the train ride home. It's a grim fantasy novel with a hell of a punch.

As a bit of a disclaimer, Myke and I are friends: take my review with whatever grain of salt you want, but I think this is a book that I'd recommend regardless of that.

The Armored Saint is set in a pretty grim fantasy world, ruled by the brutal Order, a fascist, militaristic body that seeks to stamp out wizards and magic users, as their powers open a portal to another, terrifying world. The Order arrives at Heloise's village, and we see their brutality firsthand: dragging a dead villager behind their horses, and later, they attack and destroy a village.

Behind all of this is some exquisite worldbuilding: this is a short book, Cole packs quite a bit in. Where some fantasy novelists will pad out their work with every little facet of the characters, their surroundings, and history, Cole lets this book breathe a bit: the details come out little by little, painting a larger portrait through dialogue and actions.

Fantasy traditionally follows heroic lines of good verses evil, but Cole injects this story with a bit more grey: when Heloise eventually encounters the magic that the Order is brutally trying to suppress, it's clear that their fanaticism has legitimate roots, and that what they are fighting against is something to fear.

But what sets The Armored Saint apart here is that Cole sets up a story that looks to critique those in power, and it's a relevant, timely story about a single girl (along with a nice set of armor) standing up against a fanatical regime. The Order might be a useful group to ward off destruction, but it leaves in its wake broken people and villages: it's clear that their presence can be just as harmful. In Cole's world, power corrupts absolutely, whether it's a magical power or one given for the protection of all.

This is a theme that I think is extremely relevant in 2018, not just in the United States, but wherever authoritarian attitudes have been strengthened in recent years.

But while fantasy and science fiction literature are ideal genres for political messaging, I think The Armored Saint succeeds beyond that. Again, it's a short book, but it's one loaded with excellent and well-sketched characters. There's a world with fascinating history and backstory that I want to see much more of (the next installment is due out later this year, fortunately), and it's all conveyed by Cole's excellent writing. Simply put, it's a novel that clicks, and once I started reading it, I couldn't stop until the last page.