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.

Bookshelves!

IMG_2052 I have a lot of books in my house. That's sort of the side effect of being a science fiction fan and working for several years as a reviewer: you end up picking up a ton of books that catch your eyes. Since college, my library has grown, considerably. My two bookshelves expanded to 13, with stacks sprouting up everywhere I ran out of room.

For the last couple of years, we've been slowly moving one of our rooms towards a quasi-library space. It's a weird sort of room: one half is our living room, with the couch and TV. This section was shunted off as storage / overflow for that room. It's kind of dark, and while we had a couch there, it wasn't really a useful space. We ditched the couch, tore down the wallpaper, and painted the room in a bright red. I've always loved the idea of having a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, and this seemed like an ideal place to do it.

When a local builder posted up in Front Porch Forum that he was looking for work, I reached out to him, seeing if he had experience in building these. He ended up coming over, sketched out the wall, came back with some measurements and some ideas, and got to work. A couple of days later, we've got a spiffy set of bookshelves.

I'm pretty thrilled with how these look: he screwed the shelves directly into the wall studs, with the vertical supports nailed in. They're set in a bit, so they give the walls a little more of a floating effect with a narrower profile. Once it's warm enough to open the windows, I'll stain them a slightly darker color.

In all, there's about 50 feet of bookshelf space, and it filled up immediately. I underestimated how many books were stacked up. I left a bit of space in each section to allow for the collection to grow, but it'll eventually fill up, I'm sure.

Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Conflict

This is a thing that I'm a part of: Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict. The book is edited by my War Stories editing partner Jaym Gates, as well as Max Brooks (yes, that Max Brooks), ML Cavanaugh, and John Amble. It also has a foreword by Gen (RET) Stanley McChrystal (yes, that Stanley McChrystal). The book s hitting stores in May, and you can pre-order it from the University of Nebraska Press or Amazon.

The book came about out of a funny way. While I was freelancing, I pitched a series of articles to StarWars.com, a series of military history-style reports about the various notable battles in the Star Wars films, cartoons, and books. The original essay went through a couple of editing rounds, but it ultimately wasn't a good fit, and I intended to post it here. But I ended up sending it over to August Cole, of the Atlantic Institute and co-author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, with the idea that it might be a good fit with his own site. Somewhere along the line, the idea turned into a book, and it became Strategy Strikes Back.

Along the way, it picked up some interesting authors and essays, including my essay about the Battle of Hoth and the tactical reasons for why the Empire not only lost the battle, but missed a critical point to eliminate the Rebellion because of its mistakes. There's also essays about Clones and Stormtroopers being too distant from the societies that they serve, the destruction of Alderaan, the Jedi and professional militaries, and more. There's also another Norwich MMH alum, BJ Armstrong, in the mix.

I've just finished looking over page proofs of the book, and now, it's just going to be a little bit of time before it hits stores.

The Last Jedi

I liked it. But unlike The Force Awakens or Rogue One, where I had this visceral love for each, this one left me sitting going "huh."

That's not a bad thing. I've maintained that Star Wars fans hate changes, and in both instances, Lucasfilm made a couple of really good strategic decisions when they relaunched the franchise: give people what they want, before doing anything too radical with the story. J.J. Abrams was great as a get-the-films-out-of-the-gate sort of guy, because he's so steeped in nostalgia, but Rian Johnson is a much better visual storyteller, and what we got was a film that really pushed the limits of what we expected a Star Wars film to be. People were understandably nervous about new Star Wars movies after The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

I wrote a bit for The Verge about why it was good that we didn't get answers we wanted about Snoke or Rey's parents, which essentially boils down to 'Johnson was permitted to create a story unencumbered by the questions Abrams lined up,' and I really appreciate that he was able to take and mold Star Wars the way he wanted to, which surprised me: LFL has, after all, fired three of its directors, and extensively reshot two of its films. We've seen this with Marvel and other franchises: series that get bogged down with a lot of baggage, which puts the storyteller into a corner.

The more I think about the film, the more I like it: there's a lot to dig into in the script, visually it's stunning, and there's a lot of pushback against the tropes that define the franchise. There are, of course, things that I'll nitpick at, like the notion that the First Order will waste 16 hours chasing a Resistance fleet. Finn and Rose never quite mesh, and their storyline is a bit of a waste. Phasma was wasted again. But there's brilliant parts too: the stunning lightsaber fight in Snoke's throne room, Yoda's lesson that failure is the greatest teacher (which is on par with his other musings), and other bits, like the Porgs.

It's a smart film, and if this is the direction that the franchise is going in, I'm really excited to see what's in store next.

Building Link's Hylian outfit from Breath of the Wild

DNf8rYqWkAAQeC- One of the unexpected joys that I've experienced this year is Breath of the Wild, an immersive entry in the Legend of Zelda series. I started playing the game back in August, when I lucked out and snagged a Nintendo Switch at the local used game store here. Breath of the Wild was the reason I was motivated to pick it up. I've been a fan of the Zelda games from since I was a kid, and this seemed like a good opportunity to get back into them.

What I didn't expect was that it turned into a wonderful bonding moment with Bram. I started playing the game on my own, but slowly, Bram started creeping up beside me to watch me play. I went from playing the Switch as a tablet to playing it on the television, and together, we explored Hyrule together, figuring out shrines, riding over the plains on horses we captures, or slaying Moblins that we encountered. I felt guilty whenever I played it without him, and essentially played during my lunch breaks to scout out for the night's adventure.

When it came time to start thinking about a Halloween costume for Bram, it quickly became a no brainer: the Hylian outfit that we were playing as. Link is a fairly popular character for Halloween costumes, and I saw a ton of kids sporting the Champion outfit at New York Comic Con earlier this year. But this one was a bit more interesting looking: there were belts, pads, and a cape. It looks interesting and the type of thing that an adventurer would wear in the game.

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The first component of the costume that I made is arguably the most important: Link's Sheikah Slate, the tablet that he carries through the game, using it to access information or transport. I went to my local library, which recently added a 3D printer to their lineup. It took a day or two to get it printed, and once I had it, I ended up leaving the print lines in, to give it a bit of texture. I then gave it a paint job with brown, copper, orange, yellow, and blue. A bit of ribbon superglued onto the handle gave it a bit of extra detail. It came out really well, and it makes a neat prop, even if it weren't next to a costume.

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After that, I came across designs for one of the game's Guardian swords that you can pick up in the game. It's a lightsaber-like sword that has a really cool design to it: it's bright blue with a jagged edge. I sent the designs to a friend of mine, who 3D printed it (he has a bigger printer than the library) at 2/3rds scale. The handle is solid plastic, while the blade is hollow. I glued those together and gave it a similar paint job to that of the Sheikah Slate, as they're nominally from the same people. I ended up using spraypaint for the blade, to give it a consistent color, and hand-painted the handle.

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It's not perfect, but it came out nicely.

After those parts were done, I turned to the cloth parts. Some were easy to source: I picked up a set of tan pants from the store, and a light, solid-colored shirt that I then dyed the right color green, the two base garments for the outfit. My mother sewed together the tunic that Link wears over that green shirt, as well as the blue cape and hood, and the green cloth belt. Once those were on and trimmed a bit, I wanted to add some more detail to the shirt and cape. I bought some fabric paint, and hand-painted the details directly onto the garments. It wasn't exact, but they came out decently enough.

 

Along the way, I was putting together the other details. I found a roll of brown marine vinyl on sale, and used that for the leather elements: a chest harness and trio of belts. I had Bram lie down on the vinyl, and roughly sketched out the chest harness, and trimmed it to fit. I hammered a couple of snaps onto it to hold it in place, and added some velcro for extra security. The belts were easy: we just measured and trimmed them out. I used some extra snaps to fashion a loop for the Sheikah Slate, and some snaps on the cross-chest belt to hold the plastic bow that I picked up at Walmart.

Next up was the forearm bracers. Bram ended up ditching these a couple of times on Halloween, but they're useful pieces. I bought some craft foam, which I fitted to Bram and cut out some rough details to glue on. I used Velcro to secure them, although they can easily slide on and off as needed.

 

 

The other big foam project was the quiver for the arrows. This is a pretty detailed piece, and I originally thought about painting up a mailing tube or something. I ended up finding a pack of craft foam with adhesive backing: that made it super easy, because I could just cut out the right details, and apply them directly to the foam tube I made. A bit of vinyl wrapped around the middle and attached directly to the belt. I should have done two straps, because it swung around a lot, but it worked okay.

Lastly, we took a pair of mud boots that Bram recently wore out. I took some vinyl and glued it around the top, and folded it over around the edges. I spray-painted primer onto the boots and then covered that with a brown acrylic paint. That ended up flaking off after he wore them a couple of times, but for the most part, they looked okay.

The last thing I put together was the weird shoulder pad. I measured out a circle in my remaining piece of craft foam, and cut it in half, gluing the two edges together so that they were a weird dome. I did the same thing with a piece of vinyl, and glued that onto the foam. I then sketched out a ring of craft foam that I then glued onto the dome. I then secured it to Bram's shoulder with some velcro.

 

After that, it was done, and when it all came together, it looked pretty good! We ended up taking the costume out to a couple of places: Trick-or-treating at Norwich University the week before Halloween, a Halloween train in Burlington, to daycare and trick-or-treating on Halloween itself. We got a lot of compliments on it — some people recognized it, but others thought he was an archer or Robin Hood. But the best compliment came from Bram, who declared that it was his most favorite costume, and that he wanted to wear it for "a thousand years."

I took him up into the woods near our house for a couple of Hyrule-style pictures:

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All in all, it was an extremely rewarding costume to put together. It was a complicated costume with a lot of different parts, most of which I usually don't work with. But more than that, it was a costume with a bit of emotion sunk into it: we both love playing this game, and it's been something we've bonded over. Seeing Bram go into the woods and pretend to be Link is a moment that I won't forget. I'm sad that he'll eventually grow out of it, but I'm sure that we'll figure out some sort of costume for next year that will be just as much fun to assemble. I can't wait to see what it is.

Annalee Newitz's Autonomous is a razor-sharp look at the future

In 2009, I got a phone call for what turned out to be an internship at a new website about science fiction and science fact called io9. At the other end of the line was Annalee Newitz, the site's editor, and we chatted about academics, science fiction, and what I wanted to write about. That was the start to a really wild ride, and ultimately has brought me to the place where I am today: writing about science fiction and science fact.

So, I'll get it out of the way that I owe Annalee big time, but as with any book I crack open, I attempted to get into it objectively. Either way, I really adored Autonomous, her debut novel. It's a book that crackles with a really intriguing, nuanced vision the future of work, drugs, technology, and ownership that's both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. If you want a review that's not mine, I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague Adi Robertson's take over on The Verge. (I did get to take the picture for the review!)

Set about a century in the future, Autonomous follows a pharma pirate named Jack who reverse-engineers drugs to give out to those in need. This future is ruled over by powerful governmental organizations that rigorously enforce property rights and ownership laws, where people and robots can be legally contracted out for work (really, a form of slavery), if they don't purchase an enfranchisement (citizenship) in any given territory.

When Jack reverse-engineers a drug called Zacuity, a work enhancement drug that gives its user a high while they go about their jobs. It turns out that it's highly addictive and leads to some bad outcomes: addicts become so addicted to their work that they don't do anything else, and they end up crashing trains or flooding cities, or just die from forgetting to take a break to drink water. Jack unleashes this drug on the open market, and has to turn around and figure out how to reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, this outbreak of addicts attracts the attention of the International Property Coalition, an organization that enforces intellectual property rights — with armed androids and soldiers. It sends a duo, Eliaz and Paladin, to track her down and take care of the problem.

Annalee plays with a lot of things in this book, and if you read io9 under her tenure, some of this will be familiar. The book plays out a sympathetic argument about intellectual property rights — how things like copyright and patents hamper innovation and contribute to the feedback loop that is capitalism. Jack and her academic compatriots are revolutionaries who work to try and break that system, opening free labs and pirating drugs.

On the other side of things, she explores some interesting thoughts on what the nature of work might be, for robots and humans. With the rise of intelligent robots, a system of contracts comes about: robots can offset the cost of their creation by going into a contract with their 'employers,' and people are brought in under the same system. It's essentially dressed-up slavery, and Annalee plays out these arguments between the Eliaz and Paladin's relationship.

The two dynamics tie into one another, but they are a bit uneven: this feels almost like two books smashed together, but they complement one another decently enough, essentially coming down to citizenship acting as another form of property.

As someone who wrote for io9, I really appreciate the sheer vibrancy of this book. It's packed with ideas and visuals and weird technologies. It's like walking through a crowded bazaar somewhere: there's too much to look and take in, and the book is a sensory overload in paper form. It's buzzing with huge ideas that warrant their own stories, but Annalee buzzes past them as the main narrative thunders along.

Ultimately, it's a fantastic, brilliant debut novel. I can't wait for her next one.

Defining Genre Literature: The Career of Brian Aldiss

If you've been following along with my column for Kirkus Reviews (and these blog posts), you might have seen me reference one book a lot: Brian Aldiss's Billion Year Spree (or its updated version, Trillion Year Spree.) These two histories are incredibly important in the world of genre history, and I've paged through my copies many, many times. Thus, it was really unfortunate to see Aldiss pass away last month. He's a huge figure within the community, not only as a commentator, but as an author.

He's largely unknown to mainstream audiences, save for the fact that his short story 'Supertoys Last All Summer Long' was adapted into a Steven Spielberg film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence - in my mind, an underrated film about a robotic boy yearning for the love of his mother.

I actually met Aldiss over a decade ago while I studied abroad in England — I attended a literary festival in Oxford, where he and fellow local author Philip Pullman discussed science fiction and fantasy. It was an interesting discussion, and I'm glad that I had the chance to meet him, if briefly.

Go read Defining Genre Literature: The Career of Brian Aldiss over on Kirkus Reviews.

Isaac Asimov's Nightfall

It's been a while. I've sadly neglected my Kirkus column: work has been busy, which means that on my off-days, I'm trying to stay away from the computer and focus on other writing / reading. I'm trying to get back into it, though, and to celebrate yesterday's eclipse, I put together a story about Isaac Asimov's famous story, Nightfall.

This is probably the first story that I read of Asimov's, or at least, it was an early one. It's one of my favorites, and going back to revisit it after years and years was something. It holds up nicely, I think. I also got a chance to interview the director behind one of the adaptations, which was a delight.

Go read History in a nutshell: Isaac Asimov's Nightfall over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov. Asimov devotes a couple of chapters to this story, from the conception of it to the later novelization by Robert Silverberg.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Second Edition, Adam Roberts. Roberts' book is a fantastic resource, and when I learned that there was a new edition to it, I rushed out to buy it. This one is significantly longer, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he has to say about other parts of SF history. This one has some good analysis of Asimov's story.

I also interviewed Gwenyth Gibby, who directed the 2000 adaptation of the film. She noted that the film doesn't hold up all that well, but she was happy with the work that she did on it. She's no longer directing movies: She's working on a PhD, and works at a small press, and was a delight to speak with, with some really interesting insights into not only the film, but the story.

Iron Fist... Meh

I finally finished slogging through Netflix's Iron Fist. I really enjoyed watching Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, and I was interested to see how this one would turn out. It's... definitely at the bottom of the  list when it comes to MCU entries.

The show gained a considerable amount of controversy for its approach to race, which I'm not really going to get into, other than to say that it felt kind of oblivious when it came to that particular topic. My colleague, Kwame Opam, wrote about it better than I could over on The Verge, and I generally agree with his review.  As I noted in my thoughts on Ghost in the Shell, it'll be interesting to see how this plays out a bit more broadly.

One thing that stuck out for me with Iron Fist was just how boring it is. Daredevil did some really spectacular fight scenes, but this should have put that to shame: it's a show about martial arts! The action was just... lackluster. A good example is this scene, where there's 56 cuts in 35 seconds, which made the whole thing jittery.

Above all, however, the story was a bit of a mess. It meanders, characters do a ton of really dumb and contradictory things, and Danny Rand's whole character journey just... doesn't seem to exist.

It feels as though Marvel didn't really think the story through, and really break the season into a coherent arc. What would have felt better to me is if Rand was still in training to become the Iron Fist, rather than coming back and seemingly went back to square one, which seems to negate everything he had been before. It feels as though it's an origin story set after the origin story, if that makes sense.

Hopefully, Defenders will be better when it hits later this summer.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures

This is a cool book I picked up recently: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures, written by the Library of Congress. It's a cool blend of history and visuals, and if you're nostalgic at all for the days of the card catalog or even libraries, it's well worth picking up.

The book alternates between two sections: images of the Library of Congress's collection, showing off books and their card counterpart, and history.

The history is the most appealing thing for me. It takes the reader through the history of the card catalog, with a broad view of how the library system itself came into being. From the very first Library of Congress to the present, it talks about something that people don't think about much when it comes to libraries: how an organization ... organizes itself, and how that helps steer the mission and purpose of the institution from thereon out. The actual cards are interesting, but it's the way in which they're used that's most fascinating. Now that computers have largely taken over the task of locating books in a library's collection, understanding that organizational mindset is pretty important. What I found most interesting is that the LoC actually still has their catalog in place, and the cards are still incredibly useful for researchers and librarians.

The Art of Empire: WWII influences in Star Wars - Thursday!

17554384_683251351877142_378272398252026063_n If you're in central Vermont this Thursday, stop by the Sullivan Museum & History Center at Norwich University. I'll be giving a talk called The Art of Empire: WWII influences in Star Wars. I'll be talking a bit about some of the images and iconography of Nazi Germany, particularly with how it is used for the Empire.

The talk will take place in the museum's conference room at noon on May 4th, and lunch will be provided! If you can't make it, there'll be a livestream set up by the museum. Details can be found here.

Reading vacation

DSC_5471 A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine talked about how she had gotten away for a 'Reading Vacation'. The idea sounded glorious, and between February and March, I realized that I was in a bit of a rut, and needed to take some time to step away from the computer and everything for a while. I'm not good at taking time off; it's not how my brain works.

When I'm at home, I tend to drift towards the computer and check in on things — news, Facebook, Twitter, rather than doing what I'd rather be doing: reading, writing, walking the dog, and so forth. Fortunately, I've got an option: my parents own a house way up in upstate New York. Not the NYC version of Upstate (between Albany and NYC), but the actual upstate. Miles from the Canadian Border. The nearest store is half an hour's drive, and it takes at least two hours to get up there, driving through fairly rural territory. Best of all, there's no internet, or even cell service.

So, I packed up the car: a trip to the grocery store to get food for a couple of days. Clothes. Salt, in case the driveway was iced over (I'm in dire need of new snow tires). A bucket of dog food. The dog. My laptop. A small pile of books. A couple of audiobooks for the drive. We set off.

I've written about the books that I get here in the house, and I always feel as though I have an insurmountable reading list. Case in point, I had a couple of books that I'd had for ages that I just didn't get around to reading to hit the on-sale date for review. I polished off Meg Howrey's The Wanderers on the drive up, as well as the podcast S-Town.

I packed along Kim Stanley Robinson's amazing novel New York 2140as well as its audiobook. When Tiki and I went out for a walk, I listened to a chapter in each direction, and picked up the book later. I also brought along Timothy Zahn's Thrawn, and was sucked right back into the Star Wars universe in a way that I haven't been in over a decade. Brian Staveley's Skullsworn, John Kessel's The Moon and the Other, and Ruthanna Emrys' Winter Tide. Between them all, I think I read nearly 900 pages.

The area the house sits in is pretty desolate, all summer cottages and lake homes that are occupied a couple of months out of the year. Cars zipped by the highway, but I only saw a couple of neighbors down the road in quick glimpses, like the deer that forged paths in the deep snow in the woods around the place. Most of all, it was quiet. No distractions. I lounged on the couch, reading chapters at a time, or worked on a long-simmering writing project, finally making some headway. I cleaned the floors, organized the books and cooked when I needed a break from words. Tiki and I went on long walks up and down the back roads, looking for deer.

I think what I needed was the solitude. Just some time to get away from everyone and everything. It was refreshing to sit by myself, or to walk alone, knowing that there's nobody around for miles. I'm already trying to figure out when I can go back.

 

Ghost in the Shell ... meh.

I finally caught Ghost in the Shell at our local theater. It's *shrug*. It's got an amazingly pretty design and visuals — the props and world is stunning, which pleased me, because I was pretty much prepared to enjoy this film as eye candy. The story was run of the mill action / betrayal thriller. Scarlett Johansson was fine.
I've never seen the original anime, so I don't have a baseline to compare the story against. It's basic. Heroine is enhanced to carry out mission, discovers that she's been snatched away due to nefarious super-corporation, turns on them and gets revenge. No surprises there. It's an accessible film that I enjoyed for the most part.
The two things that bothered me about this, though. The film felt like it should have been so much more interesting, visually. Not the design, but the actual camera work. Anime has had a really neat influence on film: just look at what The Matrix did. Animation can do so much more than live action because of its medium, and extensive CGI now frees up live action film to do so much more.  I was hoping that the film would do more than just dramatic slow motions, and that the action scenes would be a bit more dramatic or interesting to watch. That it was sort of dull to watch is a crime in and of itself. I guess that's what you get when you put the guy who directed Snow White and the Huntsman behind the camera.
Secondly, the whitewashing thing? I think that if they hadn't explicitly made it a plot point, it probably would have been okay. It would still be a problem — hiring a caucasian actress for the role should have been thought out a bit more. That it was a point integrated into the story itself made it feel as though they realized it would be a problem, and didn't actually do the one thing they could have done to fix it. Given how the movie has been bombing, it's pretty clear they overestimated Johansson's star power and underestimated the negative press they got. At least they have an easy out if this ever gets a sequel: just recast Johansson by saying that she gets a new body.
It's interesting to see just how this has been playing out, especially so soon after Marvel's Netflix show Iron Fist rightly earned wide-spread criticism for exactly the same reasons. They underestimated the flurry of negativity that the show earned, but also put together an incredibly dull show. For a story about martial arts, it should have outdone Daredevil by a country mile.
Hopefully, studios will actually pay a bit more attention to this sort of thing moving forward. At least they're owning up to the problems this time.