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.

Q&A with John Scalzi

I have a new long read up on The Verge. Back in February, I flew down to New York City, where I got to check out our new offices, get some face time with some of my co-workers, and got to sit down with science fiction author John Scalzi.

I've met him a couple of times over the years, and interviewed him one other time for The Verge. This was a formalish interview that lasted for quite a while, and ended up with a nice, in-depth profile of him. It was a fun chat, one that hangs on the fact that his new novel, The Collapsing Empire, just hit bookstores. It's a fun read (the interview and the book), and I recommend checking it out.

The Little Worlds of H. Beam Piper

I've got a new column up on Kirkus Reviews this morning. This week, I'm looking at the career of H. Beam Piper, a science fiction writer who was active between the 1940s and 1960s, famously known for a book called Little Fuzzy.

I first came across Little Fuzzy because of John Scalzi's reboot, Fuzzy Nation. (My review is here  — given that I wrote it six years ago, I'm a little afraid of how terrible my writing was) Before Scalzi's novel came out, I picked up Piper's, (it's in the public domain, so it's a free ebook) and found it to be an interesting read. Scalzi takes the story in a different direction, but both are well worth picking up and reading.

Go read The Little Worlds of H. Beam Piper over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Mike Ashley. Gateways to Forever: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 - 1980. Ashley's book, as always, is an exhaustive, interesting read into the history of the genre, and provides some good background on the time that Piper was writing.
  • John Carr. H. Beam Piper: A Biography. This is an exhaustive resource on Piper and his work. Carr goes in detail, often day by day, talks to friends and family, examines letters, and so forth.
  • Paul Carter. The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. Carter's book provides some good background and a couple of interesting points on Piper's career.
  • Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Roberts provides some good background on where Piper fit into the larger history of SF.

Don't ignore the flyover Hugo categories

It's that time of the year: fans from around science fiction fandom are submitting their nominations (deadline is the 17th of March, I think) for this year's Hugo Awards. While I'm filling mine out, I'm reminded of a critical thing: don't ignore the 'flyover' categories.

The Hugos, if  you're not aware, are one of the genre's biggest awards: the Academy Awards of science fiction / fantasy fandom, except that regular readers who attend (or pay for a supporting membership), can vote in them. The biggest share of the votes goes to the best novel and shorter fiction categories, but there's sections for film, television, fan writers and related works.

The past couple of years have seen some controversy over who's being nominated: a handful of factions of conservative to very conservative readers (read: Alt-Right) successfully gamed the system by bloc voting their own nominees and managed to cause an uproar from shocked liberalish fans who were asleep at the wheel. They were really only able to do this for the same reason that the US political primaries attract terrible candidates: nobody cares about the nominations process, and don't show up. When they do, they tend to ignore a whole swath of categories, like Fan Writer, Fanzine, Best Related Work, and so forth. These are pretty specific categories: your typical, casual bookstore patron won't know, if they know about the Hugos in the first place.

It's a shame, because these are areas where there's a lot of interesting things going on: internal genre commentary, fan work, or looks at genre history and production.

Best Related Work is one area that I particularly watch, because I tend to produce it. I write a column on genre history for Kirkus Reviews, write reviews and general commentary for places like Lightspeed Magazine and The Verge. There's a lot of good work out there. Last year alone, there were fantastic biographies for George Lucas, Bram Stoker, Octavia Butler, and Shirley Jackson, really intriguing histories on the book and the word processor's impact on writing, paper, and commentaries on women in the genre. That's all just by looking at my bookshelf next to my desk. There's numerous other works on blogs and fanzines as well. "Safe Space as Rape Room", SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police, and Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth are just a couple of examples: Alt-Right authors with an ax to grind about the world who think that getting an award will validate their shitty view of the world.

It's frustrating, because there's plenty of solid books and works out there that *almost* made the ballot (and not necessarily liberal works, either). I'm thinking of books like Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century by William Patterson Jr., Masters of Modern Science Fiction: Greg Egan, by Karen Burnham (or any of the other books in that series!), or the numerous articles or essays that critically dissect the genre.

The real problem here is that not a lot of people tend to read the things in these categories. Who goes out of their way to read a novella? I think the fiction categories are beginning to change a bit with what places like Tor.com and others are publishing, which is a positive step. It's also an easy thing to fix: look around at the various categories that are out there and see what you're missing. There's a lot of good stuff out there that's well worth the time and energy to pick up.

As you're taking the time to fill out a ballot, don't skip those categories. Look around at what people have been producing, and take the time to read that novella that someone recommended, or that biography of that author.

Wayne Barlowe’s Illustrated Aliens

When I was a kid, I remember a classmate bringing this book into class one day: it was a fascinating book to page through. It's also a strange one: illustrations of aliens from books and movies. It's the sort of thing that only the science fiction community could support and produce.

I recently picked up a new copy after all these years, and spent some time paging through it again - it brings back a flood of memories, but it's also really intriguing to read now understanding what stories he drew from.

Go read Wayne Barlowe’s Illustrated Aliens over on Kirkus Reviews.

The source this time? Wayne Barlowe himself - he kindly answered a bunch of my questions for this piece.

Art is Action: Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest

One of the books that I picked up over the holidays as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest, which I've been reading in drips and drabs this month. It's a really stunning work of fiction, and it's a book that feels all the more relevant with what the Trump administration is shaping up for when it comes to policy, particularly around environmental areas.

Go read Art is Action: Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources cited:

  • Harlan Ellison, Again, Dangerous Visions. I have all three of these anthologies, and Le Guin has a short afterword to the story in my edition.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night. This is a collection of essays from Le Guin, and it includes her forward to the novella.
  • Larry McCaffrey, Across the Wounded Galaxies. Collection of interviews with authors, including Le Guin.
  • Frank Magill, Survey of Science Fiction vol 5. This collection of critical essays is pretty essential. There's a review of this story in it by Gary K. Wolfe.

I've been lax about posting up updates for this column. Here's a couple I missed:

RIP Fionna

4493342448_118b742e78_o The last of my childhood dogs passed away last night. Fionna had been sick for a while, but she's lasted far longer than I think anyone had expected. Even as she grew thinner, she never seemed to lose her upbeat and perky nature.

Fionna was always my sister Keelia's dog. She was a gift of sorts: we had one dog, but she had been asking for one. My mother put down a stipulation: any new dog that we get can't be a long-haired, loud black dog. (Fionna's predecessor Tilly was all of these things, and mom didn't like the shedding). What we ended up with was ... all of those things.

She was an anxious, shepherd-type dog, and gave our other dog, Buck (who died back in 2008) a bit of a new lease on life. She was energetic, clingy, and exceedingly attached to Keelia. She was playful, often tangling and chasing other dogs who came to visit - one memorable moment was when she snuck up behind Buck, grabbed a back leg and ran. We always imagined her with a high-pitched, somewhat squeaky voice.

She slowed down and greyed significantly in the last couple of years, and there was a health scare over a year ago with some sort of ear infection that left her with a tilted head (and the new nickname Lopsided Dog). But, each time we've gone to visit my parents, she's been an ever-present shadow wagging her tail in greeting.

We didn't have to put her down, although Mom and Dad were getting to that point. Up until a couple of days ago, she followed him down the driveway and back, even running a bit. We buried her in the front field of my parents' house, next to where we buried Buck and Tilly all those years ago.

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She was a good dog, and I'm going to miss her terribly.

Sing, or a good example of studio interference

So, I go to more kids movies than I used to: my son is three and a half, and we've taken him to see a bunch of films in the movie theater. He sits (for the most part), and looks utterly adorable crunching a small bag of popcorn. There's been some solid kids movies that we've gone to  - Moana and Zootopia, which are a good reminder of how kids movies can be smart and entertaining. We just went to see Sing, and while it was fun, it's a good example of what not to do.

The premise of the film from the trailers: a koala named Buster Moon owns a theater that's struggling, and to try and get things back on track, he decides to hold a singing competition. A typo on the flier shows off a $100,000 prize, and a ton of animals from around the city go out to audition and take part in the competition.

This is sort of where the film goes off the rails. For a film called Sing, there's remarkably little of that. What's there is good, and funny, but the film is loaded down with a whole bunch of side plots:

  • Buster is trying to get money to finance his prize, and to save his theater.
  • Johnny (a Gorilla) likes to sing, but his criminal father thinks its a waste of time.
  • Rosita (A pig housewife) enters because she feels unsatisfied being a housewife, and ignored by her husband.
  • Meena is a shy elephant who's prodded into competing by her friends and family.
  • Ash, a porcupine, is the lesser half of a singing relationship.
  • Mike, a mouse, is arrogant and believes the prize is his, and gets into trouble with some Russian bears.
  • There's a whole bunch of time spent on characters that don't actually do anything: one is beaned on the head and leaves early in the film, while a couple of others leave.
  • Meanwhile, there's some random hijinks as Buster is trying to get the competition on its way.

There's a lot there, and it feels like a whole bunch of parts, such as Johnny's father and Mike's troubles, were stuck in there to put in some action and stakes. What it really does though, is take the stakes away from the focus of the film: saving the theater.

Spoilers: the theater isn't saved about halfway through the film: it's destroyed due to Mike's greed, and repossessed by the bank. This happens about halfway to two thirds of the way through the film. It completely takes away any dramatic tension that the film was building to: the characters were working to win a competition that was essentially a sham. The end basically turns into a singing show for the joy of singing. That's a fine goal, but not something that you should pivot to halfway through the film.

What this film lacks, and what a lot of stories don't do, is focus on the end point. There's plenty of material here for this film to work well on its own: a group of singing animals save their theater. Beginning to end, this would have been a great, heartwarming film to watch. Sing just has a ton of extra junk material injected into it. There's good parts here: Meena's story has a great ark, as dose Ash and Rosita. Johnny's story could have been accomplished with a father who was essentially a blue collar worker. Mike could have been eliminated completely.

This is frustrating to see, because it feels like the solid story was there to begin with, but was chipped away by studio notes. We didn't need a rooftop prison break chase scene here. We didn't need a subplot with Russian mafia. It feels like these parts were added late in the game, with the assumption that it wouldn't matter; it's a kid's movie. Kids like zany antics, so who cares?

Thinking about the stories that are important to me, many were ones that I consumed as a child or young adult. Many of these stories didn't talk down to me as a child: they knew what a good story was and went with it. They weren't necessarily chipped down to introduce characters for toys, or were designed essentially for marketing.

Compare this film to Moana, which came out earlier this winter. It's an excellent story that really doesn't pull punches. Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace recently wrote a good book called Creativity Inc, about Pixar's approach to storytelling (and is a great look at how Disney has taken over Pixar's ability to tell great stories - to the detriment of Pixar). What he writes boils down to: set up a solid story to start and make sure that it's the best you can make it. The visuals, characters, and acting will all follow. It's an approach that clearly works well for Moana, but it's a lesson that Sing really missed.

It's a shame, because the movie is cute and fun. It's a 'rent the movie from Redbox' rather than 'go out and experience it in a theater'.

Vick's Vultures, by Scott Warren

I'm a sucker for durable space opera novels. I like crews on space ships flying around doing things in the vastness of space, and one of the books that I came across earlier this fall was Scott Warren's new novel Vick's Vultures.

The premise of the novel is pretty straightforward: humanity has entered a larger diaspora of galactic civilizations, and has been keeping its head down, for the most part. We realize we're outgunned, and have been salvaging tech from other aliens to catch up. Vick's crew on board the U.E. Condor have been doing just that, and rescue First Prince Tavram, heir to a massive empire. Another empire is after him, and they flee through space to get him home.

It's a straightforward tale, and a nice diversion from some of the headier genre books out there. (The audio edition is also quite good). It's fast and engaging, and it's the type of book that falls neatly in line with the likes of John Scalzi or Marko Kloos. It's not straight-up military science fiction, but there's plenty of action and combat to keep you entertained.

 

Talk: J.R.R. Tolkien and World War I on October 31th!

I'll be talking at Norwich University on Monday, October 31st at noon, about J.R.R. Tolkien's experiences during World War I and how it impacted his works. I'll be there along with Professor Gina Logan.

Here's the description:

Please join us October 31st at noon at the Sullivan Museum and History Center for a presentation by adjunct English faculty Gina Logan and Andrew Liptak, (M'09) as they discuss the influence of Tolkien's service in World War I on his life and writings including the portrayal of the conflict in the Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien's description of Frodo and Sam's journey through Mordor as a reflection of his memories of combat. Light Lunch served, free and open to the public.
 Should be a fun time!

Jerry Pournelle and the Personal Computer

There was a really cool article that came out in The Atlantic a while back about a book called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum that raised an interesting question: who was the first author to write their novel on a personal computer?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a science fiction author: Jerry Pournelle, who's known for some of his military SF books and his fairly right-wing politics. Science Fiction authors were early adopters, which makes sense, given the field's origins in tech reporting and promotion.

Kirschenbaum's book is a really fascinating one: a crunchy, niche-y history of this weird, obscure topic that touches everyone. It's one of those things that I'd never thought about, but it's an interesting history.

Go read Jerry Pournelle and the Personal Computer over on Kirkus Reviews.

Nightshades, by Melissa F. Olson

Nightshades was a book that I had placed on Gizmodo's 'Must Read' list this summer, and it's been one that I've had lingering on my to-read list since it's come out. I picked it up between books, and it's a fun vampire story that's a solid, quick read.

This is a YAVN: Yet Another Vampire Novel, although it's a short one. Vampires are out and about in Chicago, killing a whole bunch of people, which gets the FBI involved. One of the new agents is Alex McKenna, and he is placed in charge of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations in the city after several fellow agents are killed.

This is the type of book that is quite a bit of fun, even as just about every element is made of recycled materials. It's like a fun cross of Underworld, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, and maybe a bit of True Blood. That's okay: it's a book that's a perfect sort of beach read, or a quick book to pick up if you're traveling or reading on the go.

This is one of Tor.com's latest offerings, and the short size is a neat feature for most of the books that they're putting out. There's some bugs along with this feature, though: the short stories sort of rely on the idea that the author has a much bigger world going on behind the scenes, and that these stories are discrete episodes that pop up. (Fran Wilde's Jewel and her Lapidary has the same issue). Nightshades moves at a fast pace, and as a result, there's a whole bunch of character things that happen far too quickly: one character locates a shade (Vampire) rather quickly, and convinces her to help out just as fast. There's some other things like this that happen, and the ending of the book definitely makes this feel as though it's designed around a pilot episode of a television show, with no word on whether or not it'll be picked up.

That's okay by me. It'll be interesting to see just how Tor.com works with these authors and shorter works: I'm guessing that we'll see hugely successful ones get picked up for new installments, which could make the publisher a fairly unique offering when it comes to storytelling: longer-form stories, but not quite serials.

Even if it's not the most original novel out there, Nightshades is entertaining. Olson sinks nicely into her world with a fun story. Hopefully, there'll be more to come before too much longer.

Vermont's Green Mountain Squad

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Let me tell you about one person: Scott Allen.

When I was in High School, I was obsessed with Star Wars. I'd read the books, watched the movies, and chatted about everything on internet forums such as the TheForce.net's Jedi Council Forums. It wasn't long before that interaction wasn't enough: I needed more.

Throughout my time at Harwood Union High School, I'd pestered our band director to play the music from Star Wars. Poor Mr. Rivers put up with six years of me constantly asking, and eventually caved: the last concert that I played in, we played a selection of the music. That should of been enough, but we needed to do more: I invited the 501st Legion to come play.

This was 2003, and the group was much smaller then. I had found out about this amazing organization through pictures in Star Wars Insider, and figured that they might send someone up. To my surprise, one of them did: Scott. He drove up from Rhode Island, suited up and took part in the concert, marching down one of the central aisles. The crowd went nuts. I also knew what I wanted to do next: get one of my own.

Scott ended up selling me a suit of armor: a pre-trimmed FX kit that came with everything. I wasn't really aware of any presence in Vermont, although there were a couple of members. I trooped in public a couple of times, at Halloween. At college, I was the guy with the storm trooper suit. I attended Celebration 3, meeting other members of the group for the first time.

When I left college, the 501st turned out to be the perfect hobby for someone with a bit of disposable income and plenty of time on the weekends. I began making the long drive down every couple of weekends to anything I could get time to do: conventions, bookstore events, even escorted Snoop Dogg once in Times Square. I bought a Clone Trooper, and assembled it in my apartment.

There weren't many of my friends who were interested in the group, however. My friend Mike joined up, and we trooped together before he moved away. Then I found my friend Lara, and eventually convinced her to join. We got Dave to come out of retirement and join us. Another trooper joined us, then another, over the years. We trooped a bunch of things in Vermont, anything to establish a basic presence in the state. We dreamed of putting together a proper squad, so that we'd have a good, permanent presence in the state. I tracked recruits and followed up with people: more often than not, they didn't come through.

Then last year, we had a flood. We set up a booth at Vermont Comic Con, and got a long list of names: people who were genuinely interested. We did a group build; six boxes of Stormtrooper armor arrived at my house one day. I set up a Facebook group, e-mailed everyone on my list. By December, we had 10 people, and appeared at the first screening of The Force Awakens and blew everyone away.

And now, we just got word that our unit is now approved: the Green Mountain Squad is now, after so many miles, e-mails, chats and armor building sessions. It's more than just a unit: it's a community of like-minded people who share an interest in Star Wars, for sure, but who have bought in to the ideals of the 501st Legion: giving back to the community. I'm proud of the group that's come together: it's like finding friends who you knew were out there, but hadn't come across yet.

All of that comes down to Scott, who made that massive drive from Rhode Island, just to make a high school band concert the best that it could be.

I can't wait to see what we do next: I think that the best is yet to come.

To Boldly Imagine: Star Trek’s Half Century

Star Trek is one of those franchises that I've only dipped into occasionally: I never watched much of the shows, and I was more of a Babylon 5Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica fan in college.

That said, Star Trek was a huge, enormous influence on every aspect of science fiction, introducing millions of non-readers to what had largely been a closed community of readers. Part of its success here was that it pulled in some of the best writers of the time to help create the show, such as Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. Without those influences, Star Trek might not have been the influence that it was.

Go read To Boldly Imagine: Star Trek’s Half Century over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years, edited by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman. This is the first of two volumes, an oral history of the entire Star Trek franchise. It's a pretty amazing couple of volumes. The editors let every party speak for themselves, and it's like a fantastic documentary for the history of Star Trek.
  • Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, David Hartwell. Hartwell has some good points about how Star Trek fit in with 'traditional' fandom.
  • The Cambridge Companion to American Science, edited by Eric Carl Link and Gerry Canavan. I recently picked this book up, and it has some great insights into the relationship between Trek and Fandom.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts makes a couple of excellent points here: namely that Star Trek was responsible for bringing more women into genre fandom.

 

Proxima Centauri b reality check

Artist's_impression_of_the_planet_orbiting_Proxima_Centauri

Proxima Centauri b: Very, very cool news, but not because it's a planet the size of Earth that's not too far away. What's really neat about this is that it's a planet that's orbiting a Red Dwarf. Red dwarfs are small and cooler than our sun, but they're the most common stars in the universe.

We now know that planets appear to be a pretty common feature around the universe, and this indicates that there could be unimaginable numbers of similar planets in existence. That's pretty exciting stuff right there: out of those numbers, there's going to be other Earth-sized planets right smack in the sweet spot where water can exist.

That's a pretty good starting point for assuming that there's life out there in the universe. Anyone who reads science fiction has probably assumed that we're not alone in the universe. When you consider the sheer number of stars out there, even a small fraction containing water-bearing planets would be an unimaginably high number. A small fraction of that containing life would be the same.

It's exciting news, but there's something interesting with how it's portrayed.

Here's a collection of headlines that have popped up throughout the day this week:

This Planet Just Outside Our Solar System Is 'Potentially Habitable' (NPR)

Discovery of potentially Earth-like planet Proxima b raises hopes for life (Guardian)

Possibly habitable planet found orbiting nearest star (CBS)

A planet orbits around the closest star to our Solar System — and it may be habitable (The Verge)

New neighbor: Scientists discover closest habitable exoplanet (Fox News)

You can see the common point in all of these: Proxima Centauri b does appear to be in the habitable zone of its host star, but that's not to say that Proxima Centauri b is Earth-like, habitable and ready for us to move in.What scientists discovered was a planet that appears to be about the size of Earth, in the habitable zone. But, there's a lot that actually makes a planet habitable. Venus is a planet that's almost exactly the same size as Earth. It's a bit too close to our sun, but it's the atmosphere that really makes it a nasty place to live. It's thick, has lots of pressure and acid. Every spacecraft we've dropped to the surface have melted in a matter of minutes. (We could live in the atmosphere, if we wanted to try some floating cities).

My friend Andria Schwortz pointed out that even if it's Earth-sized, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's a rocky planet like Earth: we literally only know the planet's mass and orbit. It could be a gas planet. It could be a rocky planet without an atmosphere. It could also be an Earth-like planet with an atmosphere and liquid water.

Atmospheres are important, because they help regulate temperatures on the surface, whether or not there's liquid water, and so forth. Earth-sized doesn't necessarily equal habitable for humans. There's a long distance from the right size all the way up to habitable. The atmosphere needs to be right (which means nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc), the right pressure, the right temperatures, and so forth.

Our environment is the product of billions of years of life and some external factors. There's also Earth's plate tectonics and its moon, which could have aided life. There's also Earth's magnetic field, which helps protect the surface from radiation from our Sun. Life is complicated. Our Moon and some of the outer planets are responsible from shielding Earth from devastating asteroid impacts. There were lots of points along the way that made our existence pretty spectacular. The sheer number of planets make the difficulty of life coming through certainly possible.

Also, we're probably not going to set people down here. It's four light years away, which means it would take just under two hundred thousand years to reach this system with our conventional technology, or about the same length of time humanity has existed. These are unimaginably large distances. If we can boost our way up to a sizable fraction of lightspeed, we're still talking about hundreds of years in transit.