I’ve sent out the second issue of my newsletter. Huge thanks to everyone who read and wrote in about the first one. I think the number of subscribers just about doubled between then and now, which is gratifying.
As promised, I’ve started up a newsletter — my attempt to pull away a bit from social media. I’m calling it Wordplay, and the focus will be a smattering of my interests, loosely around the topic of storytelling, science fiction, and writing.
I talk about lunar novels, Star Wars, science fiction history, and what I’m currently reading, and you can read the first installment here. If you like what you read, you can sign up here. I’m thinking that the next one will go out in about two weeks.
This is cool: Zero 7 has released a new single, Mono, featuring Hidden. It’s a very cool track, and I hope that it means that they’ve got a new album coming at some point. On their Facebook page, they indicated that “the hiatus is back off, again.”
This is good to hear: the duo’s last album was Yeah Ghost back in 2009, although they’ve done a little work here and there in the years since. I’ve been a fan of these guys for… years — I think I first came across them through the Garden State soundtrack in 2004 with “In the Waiting Line,” a hypnotic and really beautiful piece featuring Sia. But it was their first album, Simple Things where I really sunk into their work. Their song “Destiny” is something that I listen to often, but the entire album is just sublime. They’re also one of those rare bands where their followup work is uniformly excellent. 2004’s When It Falls, 2006’s The Garden, and Yeah Ghost were all great albums, each with their own really great set of collaborations with artists like José González, Sia, and Tina Dico, artists that I’ve discovered through Zero 7 and continued to listen to on their own.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve corresponded with two authors, Eliot Peper and Peter Tieryas, and at this year’s New York Comic Con, we ended up meeting up for dinner. It was great to see both of them in person for the first time, and we spoke about a wide range of things, from science fiction to the internet, to online communities.
One of the things that came up was a mailing list that Eliot maintains. You should subscribe to it: each month, he sends out a bunch of book recommendations “that explore the intersection of technology and culture.” We got to talking about some of the problems with social media, and how online newsletters seemed to be making a comeback in recent years.
There’s been a bunch of newsletters that I’ve started following. I’ve been reading Hot Pod by Nick Quah, a podcast industry newsletter. My colleague Casey Newton runs a daily column called The Interface over on The Verge, which is all about social media and democracy, which is pretty interesting, and Liz Lopatto runs a weekly one called This Week in Elon, all about Elon Musk, which is entertaining. Eliot touted the newsletter format as something a bit more personal for readers: not quite as sporadic as a Twitter feed, but not as open as a blog post.
Given my quibbles with social media, it feels like a good place to jot down ideas. My rough plan is to write about a couple of my general beats — science fiction, storytelling, and the future of reading in general, probably along the lines of yesterday’s post about Frank Herbert’s longevity, along with some random links to other stories / posts / articles that I’ve liked. I haven’t hammered out details just yet, but I figure it’ll be roughly monthly, with the occasional extra, or maybe a short story if I get my act together and actually stick to writing fiction on a regular basis. My goal is that it’ll be thoughtful, and a step back from the overt self-promotion that my Facebook and Twitter pages feel like sometimes.
Anyway, it’ll be an experiment. If you’re willing to play along, sign up here.
I got an interesting e-mail last night, which summed up to ‘Could Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein’s focus on computers and technology explain why Herbert's creations have fared better over time?’
It’s an interesting question, one that’s worth picking apart a bit. Certainly, Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein are still pretty popular. If you go to a bookstore, you’ll likely see their works on the shelves, alongside the newer bestsellers. But I kind of agree: while they’re popular, they’re static, and I don’t think that they’re entirely as relevant as they were when they were first published.
Certainly, the technology that they envisioned and championed in their works is a far cry from what’s available today. Asimov famously didn’t use a computer until the 1980s, but he also put together his “Three Laws of Robotics” that still gets airplay whenever we talk about AI and robotics today. Clarke and Heinlein also had their own impacts on how we conceptualize space travel and life elsewhere.
But my guess is that their (relative) decline from their heydays has less to do with the technology getting dated, and more about what those stories were actually about. The formative years of the modern genre are deeply rooted in conceptual electronics and technologies: Hugo Gernsback's earlier magazine efforts were electronics magazines, with science fiction coming in as a happy side effect that later came out in Amazing Stories. Later, John W. Campbell Jr. also started out by writing stories that focused heavily on technology, and brought that sensibility over to Astounding Science Fiction when he began editing it. Reading those stories today, and one thing is really glaring: they really didn’t put a lot of thought into how society and culture worked, and that extends into their characters.
That’s something that’s really changed for the genre as a whole. There were certainly authors who focused more heavily on characters and society and culture, but that just doesn’t seem like it was part of the marketplace, and I think that’s sort of why Dune has endured. Herbert’s book really isn't a technological science fiction novel; t's far more interested in court intrigue, dynastic politics, and society at large — all things that are still deeply interesting today. I can’t really speak to Herbert’s other works, but Dune always felt different in ways that the works of Clarke and Heinlein did. Dune concerns the rise and fall of dynasties across vast parts of space.
I’m making some very broad generalizations, and I’ll throw Asimov a bone: Foundation covers some of the same ground, and that book is still pretty popular. But compared to Dune, it never really felt as interesting. Larry Niven’s Ringworld saga also covers the vast rise and fall of civilizations, although he doesn’t exactly handle some of the cultural stuff all that well, particularly with the character Teela Brown.
But I think that there’s a bigger reason for why Dune feels like it’s sticking around: Frank Herbert might be dead, but his son Brian has been actively actively championing his works, and keeping the franchise around. I spoke with him and Kevin Anderson back in 2016, who have added books to the franchise over the years, and are now actively working to put together a new film adaptation, to be helmed by Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve. Their efforts are huge when it comes to Herbert’s work, because for better or for worse, they’re keeping the Dune franchise in the limelight. Dune is a good foundation for a bigger shared universe to begin with, but while Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke are still popular with readers, they really don't have a single person championing their respective visions, either an obsessed offspring, or devoted fan-author. Their estates are really just making sure that their works remain in print, and haven’t been adding to their respective bodies. You see the same thing with the world of J.R.R. Tolkien: his son Christopher has devoted his life to expanding his father's legacy, and has brought out a number of new books in the last couple of decades, and as recently as this year.
The publishing and entertainment industry as a whole is extremely focused not just on individual works, but on the intellectual property that an author generates. This isn’t anything new: Asimov, Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Niven, and others all wrote in massive “future histories” in which they wrote stories that shared a common story. While they were writing stories that earned them money per word, having a common universe to return to made generating new stories far easier than generating something from scratch each and every time. Authors are doing it today as well: Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence comes to mind, as does James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Martha Wells’ Murderbot novellas, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut stories, or Carrie Vaughn’s Harry and Marlowe stories. They’re telling a larger story spread out across varying mediums.
A good example of this is also the much larger franchise, like Star Trek or Star Wars. Back in 2015, I took a deep dive into the history of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and came away with an interesting revelation: the books were a key reason for why George Lucas rebooted Star Wars with the prequels: the continual release of new content from the series kept fans engaged. Otherwise, the Star Wars trilogy would likely have remained back in the 1970s and 1980s: favored classics that wouldn’t have as rich a world as it now has. It’s also why the franchise caught Disney’s attention, and why it’s arguably one of the biggest entertainment franchises in the world: it’s something fans can continually engage with, and it’s something that’s continually updated not only with new content, but with content that’s relevant to a far more diverse and global audience.
Dune, I think is in a similar boat, and has a leg up on Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein: the fans have remained engaged with the huge number of new books that have come out over the years, keeping interest alive in the franchise as whole. The same could likely be done with the works of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, provided the right person was at the helm, with the willingness to not merely re-release their books, but reinterpret and build on their worlds and IP for new audiences. Given the keen amount of attention that major studies and streaming platforms have placed on original content and new IP to develop, I’m a little surprised that the names of the “Big Three” don’t come up more often. But, there’s plenty of authors and properties that will take their place.
I’ve been a fan of Myke Cole’s books for a couple of years ago now, ever since I picked up his debut novel, Control Point in 2012. Myke’s really grown as a writer in the years since that first book, and I was particularly fond of the first installment of his Sacred Throne trilogy, The Armored Saint. The sequel, The Queen of Crows, is a superb followup, expanding the world a bit more, and echoing some real world concerns about the rise of totalitarian-minded individuals.
In that first book, we’re introduced to a young villager named Heloise, in a world where the brutal Order maintains control through force, working to stamp out wizardry — which can open portals to other worlds, with devastating consequences. Heloise sees this first-hand, as a wizard accidentally opens such a portal, and as members of the Order come down on her town, hard. At the end of the book, she kills a demon, and wards off the Order with a suit of power armor that was being constructed by a tinker in her town.
Now, she and her fellow villagers are on the run: the Order is regrouping and after them for their resistance, and they fall into the company of a roving band that helps protect them. Heloise and her allies realize that they can’t run forever: they won’t find shelter, and they’ll be picked off one by one. They decide to take a nearby fortified town, to either start up a sort of resistance movement against the Order — not necessarily the Emperor himself — or die trying.
What struck me the most about this book is that where Myke set up a fascist order in The Armored Saint, he’s portraying a world where the bad guys control the world in The Queen of Crows. This is the world of the Empire, the Trump administration, or any other evil organization that you can think of. It’s here where hope seems to be lost, but the heroes begin to get a bit of a toehold against them, and from there, they’ll go on to carry on the fight. Where Armored Saint was pretty bleak, Queen of Crows is, well, still pretty grim, but there’s tiny rays of hope. There’s allies out there, people willing to stand up when they realize that they have companions. Like I noted earlier this year, it’s extremely relevant in 2018. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment, The Killing Light, whenever that ends up hitting bookstores next year.
I dipped my toe into the world of Chinese science fiction over the course of this summer, as i did a bit work on my home. To keep myself on track and entertained, I began listening to a string of Clarkesworld Magazine’s podcasts — their fantastic translations from China. (In particular, “The Wings of Earth” by Jiang Bo, “Farewell Doraemon” by A Que , “Your Multicolored Life” by Xing He, and “To Fly like a Fallen Angel,” by Qi Yue) I’ve read stories from the China before: I wrote a post for Barnes and Noble about the history of Chinese science fiction, and through Ken Liu’s anthology, Invisible Planets, and of course, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (which I reviewed for Lightspeed Magazine a couple of years ago.)
I’ve begun work on a new project for The Verge, and along with the stories that I had been listening to, I decided to go back to The Three-Body Problem and its sequels, which had been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years, books that kept telling myself that I’d pick up eventually. So, after I reviewed Liu’s novel Ball Lightning for The Verge, they were books that I picked up right away, to revisit that world. I blew through each of the three books in the trilogy, and I’m kicking myself for not reading them earlier.
The most impressive thing that I found with the trilogy as a whole was the scale that Liu was writing at. Reviews and blurbs for the series teased that it spanned the entire future: from the 1970s all the way to the heat death of the universe, and he manages to do that, in a really interesting way. Spoilers ahead.
The Three-Body Problem begins in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution: a woman named Ye Wenjie watches as her father is killed during a riot. She’s sent first to a labor camp and then to an isolated scientific facility, where she’s able to put some of her astrophysics training to work. While there, she conducts some research, and ends up testing a way to amplify a radio signal to beam into the cosmos. She’s surprised, eight years later, when a representative of an alien civilization, the Trisolarans, contacts her, warning her not to respond to any further messages. Fed up with the human race, and with the treatment that she’s endured, she responds, allowing the Trisolarans to locate Earth.
Trisolaris, it turns out, is a harsh world: it orbits three stars in an unpredictable pattern, destroying civilizations over and over again. Now, the system knows where a stable, habitable planet is, and they’re bent on traveling to it. It’ll take them 450 years to reach Earth, however, and to prepare, they form a fifth column of like-minded Humans to prepare for their arrival. The Three-Body Problem jumps back and forth between various time periods, and in the present day, the Trisolarans send along a device called a sophon — a multidimensional supercomputer that interferes with advanced physics research, effectively stalling scientific progress to counter the Trisolarans.
In the first novel, humans uncover the Trisolaran plot, but are left with a conundrum: anything they do to prepare will be seen instantly by the Trisolarans. The next installment, The Dark Forest, we follow Earth’s various efforts as they work to counter the alien invaders, electing four individuals with immense resources to act as “Wallfacers,” who are tasked with formulating plans that only they know, in order to prevent the plans from falling into enemy hands. The book largely follows Luo Ji, a scientist who initially refuses, and after taking advantage of the resources, formulates a plan to “cast a spell” on a star — testing to see whether or not there are other observers in the galaxy. It turns out that there are, and it forms the basis for a sort of mutual self-destruction pact between Earth and the Trisolarans.
In the final book, Death’s End, the Trisolarans and Earth reach an uneasy balance during what comes to be known as the Deterrence era. This book largely follows a woman named Cheng Xin, who finds herself in the role of Swordholder — someone who maintains the deterrence that keeps Earth safe. When that fails, we follow as humanity prepares to take whatever means it can to ensure its survival.
That summary is just a tiny, thumbnail sketch of the entire series: Cixin covers an incredible amount of territory over the course of the trilogy. The Three-Body Problem is the most straight-forward of the trilogy. The Dark Forest and Death’s End each deal with incredible jumps in time as characters enter hibernation, and as society makes its own leaps and bounds technologically. Earth’s society swings between incredible austerity and poverty to utopian-like periods of high technology, and beyond. There’s really everything in this book, from massive space battles, political intrigue, and social commentary embedded in here. The books as a whole are a bit uneven: Cixin likes to devote a lot of time to exploring futuristic technologies and infodumps (which I don’t mind, but some people complain about), and there’s a lot of tangents that give me the impression that the entire trilogy could be tightened up quite a bit. But the adventure is in the ride, and that awesome scale really plays well here.
One of the biggest points that Cixin makes in this series is a grim answer to the nature of life in the universe: in all probability, there’s life beyond Earth — there’s just too many planets out there for us to be alone. Cixin’s world is teeming with life, and everyone is quiet. He likens the galaxy to a Dark Forest, in which there are many people, hidden from one another. The rise of one planetary civilization means a potential, existential threat others, and the moment that one becomes visible, they’re immediately in danger. The Trisolarans are certainly one threat, but Luo Ji realizes that there’s likely others, and that lighting up one’s location for the rest of the cosmos to see would mean a quick response from another, more powerful neighbor.
This actually happens — Death’s End has an gripping, and utterly horrifying example of what that looks like. It’s a brilliant scene, and it’s part of a larger culmination of the trilogy as a whole.
But what Cixin is doing is playing against the larger body of science fiction. There’s plenty of stories throughout the genre’s canon that imagines peaceful (and sometimes not so peaceful) coexistence with other aliens out there — the world of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War come to mind, but those don’t come close to the grim world that Cixin portrays. With a veneer of hard physics limiting the characters, everyone in the galaxy is essentially moving around this dark forest, trying to avoid being spotted, for fear of being wiped out. In many ways, I think this series helps set a tone for science fiction that will follow: a new way to look at and conceptualize the universe around us.
This, to me, is big. There’s always been a sort of argument between the hard-SF crowd and the softer space opera circles between how to realistically portray the harsh nature of space, and Cixin’s trilogy essentially finds a newish way to look at the cosmos, somewhere between awe and wonder, while also recognizing that we’re an incredibly small part of the universe.
Last Thanksgiving, I was about to go up our staircase, and realized just how ugly the carpeting on it was. It was bad, and moreover, worn, and something that Megan and I spoke about from time to time as a project to replace. So, that night, I decided it was time to tear it up, once and for all.
The carpeting turned out to be the first of a series of long-running projects. The treads were in dire need of replacement: one was cracked in half, and a couple of others split when I took them up a month later. The bannister and handrail came down, covered in paint stripper (pro tip: if you have to use paint stripper inside, do so when it’s not -20 out) and after a couple of days of work, the treads were replaced. Initially, I thought that it would be a straight-forward job to buy replacements, but it turned out that the local lumber supplier didn’t sell a bannister in the right size. The bannister and handrail ended up in the lumber scrap pile behind my shed, and I figured I’d pick up a new set down the road. The bannister, I reasoned, could be stripped down when the summer came.
So, I started work on it, layering on stripper in my garage, and began chipping it off. It turns out that there were 4-5 layers of paint on this, which made it a far more lengthly process than I first imagined. When it came time to figure out a handrail and supports, I realized that I already had all the right components, cut to the right size. Pulling them out, it turned out that they were in decent shape, and save for some damage to the handrail that I caused taking it off, they could easily be reused.
Kate Baker, of Clarksworld Magazine kept me company with her podcasts, and I’ll forever look at the entire setup and think of some of those stories that she red me. The project took all summer, usually a couple of days at a time, where I’d don a face mask, gloves, work pants, and spend hours chipping off layers of brown, gold, yellow, and red.
I finally hit a point where I knew I was pretty much done. My scraper gave way to a sander and a Dremel, and I spent another couple of days with a fine point, carving away the layers of paint embedded in the cracks and detailing. I used a can of compressed air to blow off the dust, and used rubbing alcohol to clean the surface.
I spent today putting it all back together: the bannister went in first, with heavy-duty screws in the base. The handrail went up next, then the supports. It’s a shame that I can’t simply stain it: it’s beautiful without it, and I can’t imagine why it was pained in the first place, but while everything is roughly in good order, there’s still decades worth of nicks and dings, not to mention my own hammer blows visible on the surface. A gallon of new paint will cover it all up, and it’ll finally be done.
It’s weird to spend so much time on a project like this. I could have hired someone to do the work, but there’s something soothing about taking the time to sit and do the work with your own hands. But now, it’s out of my garage, and back where it’s supposed to be, and it’s time to move onto the next project.
I recently purged nearly a decade's worth of tweets on my Twitter account last month, going from over 51,000 posts to around 1,500. There's been a lot of talk about this sort of thing around the internet, in the wake of alt-right trolls tanking the careers of movie directors or attempting to do so to former colleagues. I'm certain that in the ten or so years I've been on Twitter, I've never really tweeted anything controversial, but if there's any one lesson out of some of these instances, it's that there's a lot that can be taken out of context and warped in ways that are unpleasant.
This comes at a time when I've been really thinking about the uses of social media and been thinking about how I approach talking on the internet. Last year, I interviewed horror author Joe Hill, and the topic of Twitter and social media came up, which provided some real revelations for me, particularly in how he notes that sites like Twitter and Facebook can really isolate people and bring out their worst behaviors. As social creatures, we're really not well suited to working in really large communities. In smaller structures, we can easily self-regulate our behavior: someone who steps out of line will get attached with a considerable social stigma, whereas when they're able to network and pool their personalities together, that job gets harder — a job that companies like Twitter, Facebook, and others have completely ignored. Angry people is good business: it helps with engagement when you can rile yourself up in your own little echo chamber.
The actions of various companies over the last year have really only reinforced this perception for me. Bad behavior that is really, truly detrimental just doesn't have consequences attached to it. It's weird, because when I was a teenager exploring the internet, the forums I belonged to were typically moderated. Bad behavior would earn you a time-out or a ban. The new wave of companies that followed prized growth over healthy communities, and now we're in today.
Facebook reminds me that I've been on the platform since 2006: I remember the hype around it when I first joined: an exclusive, college-only social network that wasn't as ugly as MySpace. Looking back on those early days, I cringe as the types of things that I was posting. There are conversations, complaints, and memories that would have otherwise faded with time, preserved in silicone and electrons. As a historian, that long tail of thoughts is really cool, because I can go back and mine that past for contemporary thoughts on ... whatever it was I was vaguebooking about. But it's not healthy to dwell over, or to have hanging over one's head, especially when there's the threat that it can be weaponized against you.
This never really seemed to be a problem with blogs: Facebook and Twitter are great for dashing off thoughts that might have otherwise been deleted in a longer blog post, and the various services out there have tools to reward such impulsive thoughts, with Like buttons, favestars, and commenting sections. It's hard to ignore the rush that a bunch of notifications brings!
But chasing the endorphin high that those reactions bring just isn't healthy in the long run, and they should be treated like the short-term missives that they are: available for a short while, then thrust out of mind. I've found myself being more thoughtful about what I post to Facebook and Twitter. I've gotten tired of the inane and continual outraged grind when it comes to politics and culture, the people shouting into the voice because it feels like it's better than doing nothing. I've muted vast chunks of my friends list on Facebook, and consider who I follow on Twitter. Social Media is a firehoses of information, and we provide a conduit straight into our brains. Cutting out the aggressive connections with no interest in anything other than mindless anger is a huge relief — not because it provides me with a nice, safe echo-chamber, but because pulling out the loudest voices gives more space to those who are measured and thoughtful. In theory. I'm still muting and hiding people, but it's at least manageable.
I've often said that if I didn't need Facebook or Twitter for work, I probably wouldn't have them. I don't know how true that actually is, because I like what these services provide: connections to people I know (even if I don't necessarily want to see what they have to say all the time). It removes some of the cost of staying in touch, which is a valuable thing. But I'd like to keep drawing back on my reliance of them, going instead to longer-form blogging and online journals that I came of age with.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!