This is a really outstanding short story about open-sourced rockets, racial justice, and revolution. Give it a read (and watch the fantastic short film that accompanies it!” Then go and read the Q&A with Ireland.
Back in December, i mentioned that The Verge was launching a science fiction anthology, Better Worlds, which is chock-full of optimistic science fiction stories. The first stories are launching next week! The first drops on Monday and is “A Theory of Flight” by Justina Ireland, which will come with a really amazing animated video. The second is “Online Reunion” by Leigh Alexander, which comes out on Wednesday. This one will come with an audio adaptation. Both will come with accompanying Q&As.
You can find more details here.
In December, I put out a call for recommendations for standalone science fiction novels — in part to assemble a list for The Verge — but also because I was looking for something along those lines. I got a bunch of recommendations, but one that stood out was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s 2015 book, Children of Time. A friend of mine had already highly recommended the book, so I picked it up, and when we did a bit of traveling over the holidays, we listened to the audiobook. It’s a magnificent, epic story, and it’s well worth reading if you’re in the mood for book that deals with big ideas.
The story begins in the distant future. Humanity has begun to spread to the stars, and has enacted a variety of terraforming projects on several planets. Dr. Avrana Kern is the researcher overseeing the final efforts on a planet that she’s called “Kern’s World,” which has been made habitable for human life. She’s also about to kick off an experiment — two cargo capsules are to be dropped to the planet’s surface: one carrying a monkeys, the other a nanovirus that’s designed to uplift said monkeys in a handful of generations. It’s a grand experiment on evolution, and it goes drastically wrong when a crew member sabotages the mission, sending the monkeys to their doom. At the same time, a war breaks out on Earth, destroying space habitats and wrecking the planet’s surface. Kerns barely escapes, driven by the desire to oversee any hope that her experiment might work out.
That’s just the prologue. The story then jumps ahead. Remember those monkeys that were supposed to get uplifted? They burned up in the atmosphere, and the nanovirus jumped to another creature: a jumping spider. Tchaikovsky introduces a spider named Portia who has an uncanny realization while she’s hunting a larger spider — she can get help from others like her, and by working together, they’re able to get a tiny evolutionary foothold.
Tchaikovsky then jumps to another perspective: the crew of a human starship called the Gilgamesh, and a “classicalist” named Holsten Mason. Humanity, as it turns out, wasn’t wiped out completely in that war, but it was set back, with a new civilization blossoming on Earth during an ice age, only to realize that when the ice recedes, they’re going to be left with an uninhabitable rock. The survivors cobble together a generation ship, and set out into the depths of space, trying to find a new home. Mason is awoken a thousand years into the voyage, when they come across a beacon — Kern’s signal over her planet.
The novel alternates perspectives, first with a new generation of spiders, and then the crew of the Gilgamesh as they try and find a suitable place to set down. By shifting perspectives, Tchaikovsky shows off two things: the rise of the spiders, who are quickly evolving a sophisticated society as they overcome their neighbors, and figure out how to survive and thrive by coopting the skills and directing the evolution of other creatures, like ants and beetles. On the other hand, we see the downfall of the humans, who quickly devolve to an almost feudal society aboard the ship. They’re turned away by Kerns when they reach her world, and are directed to another, only to find that it’s unsuitable, and are forced to turn back in order to safe civilization.
Gerry Canavan (the scholar who spoke highly of the book) mentioned somewhere that he was reminded of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem, and there are a lot of parallels between the two works. They’re both huge, epic stories of evolution and the rise and fall of civilizations, much in the mold of authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, or Frederik Pohl. Tchaikovsky builds on this trope by exploring a wide range of topics that complicate any civilization — gender roles (the spiders form a matriarchal society), and he flips arguments about sexism and culture nicely.
The juxtaposition between humans and spiders also plays out a larger story about how a culture is composed. Over the centuries, Kerns is deeply concerned with what she sees as failures of humanity: that they’re prone to warfare and balkanization, arguably poor footing and habits to extend out into space. We see that play out on the Gilgamesh as well — the ship’s captain becomes obsessed with his assigned task to shepherd humanity to safety, which causes its own problems as he works to keep the ship going, and as new generations of people appear over the millennia. By the end, the two cultures will have a pretty epic clash, and those differences force a resolution between the two. The book has shot to the top of my hypothetical “favorites” list.
Canavan compared the books to Three-Body Problem, and i’ll toss in another comparison: The Expanse. One of the things that’s attracted me to James S.A. Corey’s series is its focus on humanity’s tribalism and how we’ll likely bring some of our inherent issues with us if and when we begin to establish a foothold in space. Tchaikovsky doesn’t specifically look at racism in the same way that Corey does, but there’s a number of parallels that ultimately stack up to “humanity has the capability to improve itself, and it should.” Children of Time really makes a good argument that propagating out into space means that there are major issues that need to be addressed if humanity wants to survive long into the future — not necessarily in the depths of space, but here at home, too.
Issue #6 of Wordplay is now up online! It’s the first issue of the year, so I’m using the opportunity to talk a little about what my reading plans are for the year, and what I’m excited to get to in the coming months. I also look at a trope that I’ve noticed in a couple of books lately: the use of suspension pods to allow characters to cover large swaths of time, notably in Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time.
This year, I decided to stop complaining that I didn’t pick up enough short fiction and ended up … actually carving out time to read stories over the course of the year. I kept track via an ongoing Twitter thread, as well as on my Facebook page, which I think was a good way to keep myself on track, for the most part.
I kept track of what I read on a Twitter thread and on Facebook, but not everything survived my purge of Twitter earlier this fall (I’m missing a couple, sadly). Here’s the mostly full list:
Artisanal Trucking, LLC, by Mary Robinette Kowal, Asimov’s Science Fiction, March / April 2018
Mother Tongues by S. Qiouyi Lu, Asimov's Science Fiction, January / February 2018.
Barren Isle, by Allen M. Steele, Asimov's Science Fiction, January / February 2018.
Birth of the Ants Rights Movement, by Annalee Newitz, Spectacle Magazine, Issue 1.
Emojis, by Rudy Rucker, Asimov's Science Fiction, March / April.
Carouseling, by Rich Larson, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139.
Without Exile by Eleanna Castroianni, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139.
Don’t Press Charges and I won’t Sue, by Charlie Jane Anders, Boston Review’s Global Dystopias.
The Martian Obelisk, by Linda Nagata, Tor.com.
Ingredients, by Craig DeLancey, Spectacle Magazine #1.
Cosmic Spring, by Ken Liu, Lightspeed Magazine, March 2018.
Sanctuary by Allen M. Steele, Tor.com
50 Ways to Leave Your Fairy Lover, by Aimee Picchi, Fireside Fiction, April 2018.
Automated Valor, by August Cole, US Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine.
Logistics, by AJ Fitzwater, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139.
Photojournalist, by Mack Reynolds, Analog Science Fact and Fiction, February 1965.
Sunset, by Tobias Buckell, Lightspeed Magazine, May 2018.
Blessings, by Naomi Novik, Uncanny Magazine, May / June 2018.
The Baboon War, by Nnedi Okorafor, Levar Burton Reads.
Not Now, by Chelsea Muzar, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.
The Vastness, by Bo Balder, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.
Life from the Sky, by Sue Burke, Asimov’s Science Fiction, May / June 2018.
Mortui Vivos Docent, by Hanting Liang in Spectacle Magazine #1.
Fleeing Oslyge, by Sally Gwylan, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.
Cold Comfort, by Pat Murphy / Paul Doherty, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.
What Gentle Women Dare, by Kelly Robsen in Uncanny Magazine, May / June 2018.
Rejuve, by Tina Connolly in Daily Science Fiction, June 12th.
Wings of Earth, by Jiang Bo (Andy Dudak, Translator), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.
Farewell, Doraemon, by A Que (Translated by Ken Liu / Emily Jin), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.
Meridian, by Karin Lowachee, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141.
When the Rains Come Back, by Cadwell Turnbull, Asimovs Science Fiction, May / June 2018.
Okay, Glory, by Elizabeth Bear, MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows.
The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal, Tor.com.
A Space of One’s Own, by Steve Rasnic Tem, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141.
Ephemera by Ian R. McLeod, Asimov’s Science Fiction, July / August 2018.
Gubbinal, by Lavie Tidhar, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.
Attachment Unavailable by Leah Cypess, Asimov’s Science Fiction, July / August 2018.
Every Hour of Light and Dark by Nancy Kress, Omni Magazine, Winter 2017.
Your Multicolored Life, by Xing He (translated by Andy Dudak), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.
The Cosmonaut’s Caretaker, by Dora Klindžić, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.
Starship Mountain by Allen M. Steele, Asimov’s Science Fiction, July / August 2018.
Demons in the Tall Grass, by Mike Matson, Small Wars Journal.
Loss of Signal, by S.B. Divya, Tor.com.
Heron of Earth, by Vajra Chandraseker, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.
Vault, by D.A. Xiaolin Spires, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.
The Tale of Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat, by Brooke Bolander, Uncanny Magazine, Issue 23.
The James Machine, by Kate Osias, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 143.
The Phobos Experience by Mary Robinette Kowal, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July / August 2018.
The Queen and the Peri Takes Her Time by Corey Flintoff, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July / August 2018.
To Fly Like A Fallen Angel, by Qi Yue (translated by Liz Hanlon), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.
Red Lizard Brigade, by Sam Miller, Uncanny Magazine, Issue 23.
Water Birds, by G. V. Anderson, Lightspeed Magazine, July 2018.
The Dinosaur Graveyard by Aidan Moher, Robot Dinosaur Fiction.
The Minnesota Diet, by Charlie Jane Anders, Slate.
The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu, The Wandering Earth.
The Grays of Cestus IV, by Erin Roberts, Asimov’s Science Fiction, September / October 2018.
Octo Heist, by Rich Larson, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 146.
The Veilonaut’s Dream by Henry Szabranski, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 143.
Nightflyers, George R.R. Martin, Analog Science Fact and Fiction, April 1980.
The Ones Who Stay and Fight by N.K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?
The City Born Great, N.K. Jemisin, Tor.com.
The Foodie Federation’s Dinosaur Farm, by Luo Longxiang (Translated by Andy Dudak), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 144.
Sparrow, by Yilin Wang, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 145.
The Falls: A Luna Story, by Ian McDonald, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 145.
Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby, Slate.
Across the Border by Sahil Lavingia, Vice’s Motherboard.
An Interview with Santa’s Lawyer, by John Scalzi, Whatever.
Real Girls by Laurie Penny, Wired Magazine, January 2019.
The Trustless by Ken Liu, Wired Magazine, January 2019.
Placebo by Charles Yu, Wired Magazine, January 2019.
The Farm by Charlie Jane Anders, Wired Magazine, January 2019.
When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis by Annalee Newitz, Slate.
Compulsory by Martha Wells, Wired Magazine, January 2019.
The Reunion by Stanley Chen Quifan (translated by Ken Liu and Emily Jin, MIT Technology Review.
Out of all those, there are some favorites that stand out: Without Exile by Eleanna Castroianni, Don’t Press Charges and I won’t Sue, by Charlie Jane Anders, The Martian Obelisk, by Linda Nagata, Wings of Earth, by Jiang Bo, Farewell, Doraemon, by A Que, The James Machine, by Kate Osias, The Minnesota Diet, by Charlie Jane Anders, The City Born Great, N.K. Jemisin, Sparrow, by Yilin Wang and When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis by Annalee Newitz. In a lot of ways, those stories really relate to the world around us, tackling issues of racism and economic inequality, examining the state of the world today. Something that stands out to me is the idea of collectivism: people banding together in the face of not only governmental oppression, but technological and corporate strands. That’s something I’ll probably write about later for Wordplay.
A lot of these are Clarkesworld Magazine stories. Part of that is due to their impressive audio initiative, but also because they’re working on really expanding the diversity of the field, bringing in translations from China, and just… really good stories. But there’s other good efforts out there as well — ASU and Slate’s story partnership is pretty fantastic, as is the work from places like Tor and Lightspeed, even though I didn’t pick up as much from them. My goal in 2019 is to read a bit more widely as well — not only picking up more of those stories, but from places like FIYAH, which I just subscribed to.
2018 was a year of … a lot of reading. If you follow me on Twitter / Facebook / The Verge / Wordplay, this likely isn’t news. I write a lot about the genre, and I like the community. But in the last couple of years, I’ve found that I’ve been reading less and less — put off by things like work or Twitter or television, and it’s been frustrating, because there’s been a ton of things that I’ve wanted to get to, but haven’t been able to.
2018 was the year that I made the effort to carve out a lot more reading time, and … I read a lot. 74 books in all — plus a bunch that I started and tossed aside. I don’t know that I have any particular lessons that I’ve drawn out of this year’s crop of books, other than that a) there’s a shitload of good stuff out there right now, b) making it a point to read more diversely gives you a lot of really good stuff that I might not have otherwise picked up, and c) I still have stacks of things that I just didn’t get to this year. I’ve got piles kicking around that I really would like to get to, and hopefully, I’ll knock some of that down in the coming year.
Here’s the complete list of books that I read this year (reviews linked where I wrote them):
The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang
Dark Deeds, by Mike Brooks
The Forever War (Graphic Novel), by Joe Haldeman
Black Star Renegades by Michael Moreci
Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate by Zoe Quinn
Buffalo Solider by Maurice Broaddus
Fields of Fire by Marko Kloos
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
Points of Impact by Marko Kloos
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
Semiosis by Sue Burke
The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch
Gunpowder Moon by David Pedreira
Breach of Containment by Elizabeth Bonesteel
The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud
Head On by John Scalzi
Time Was by Ian McDonald
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
The Barrow Will Send What it May by Margaret Killjoy
Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente
Star Wars: Last Shot by Daniel José Older
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine
Crooked by Austin Grossman
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt
Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte (Author Q&A)
The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History by Josh Dean
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
The Book of Extraordinary Deaths: True Accounts of Ill-Fated Lives by Cecilia Ruiz
Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation by Terri Favro
The Old Iron Dream by David Forbes
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel by Jeffrey Lewis (Author Q&A)
The Future of War: A History by Lawrence Freedman
Side Life by Steve Toutonghi
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
War Cry by Brian McClellan
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells
Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn
The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
Solo: A Star Wars Story by Mur Lafferty
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant
Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)
The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)
The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole
Exit Strategy by Martha Wells
Death’s End by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)
Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller
LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by Tristan Donovan
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Jack London's To Build a Fire by Christophe Chabouté
Firefly: Big Damn Hero by Nancy Holder / James Lovegrove
Mutiny at Vesta by R.E. Stearns
How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe
Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
What’s to come in 2019? Well, there’s a ton of really excellent-looking books hitting shelves next year that I can’t wait to dig into. I’m hoping to read a bit more widely than just SF/F though — there are some histories that I want to get to (this year marks a bunch of Apollo histories hitting bookshelves), as well as some other things, but at the very least, I want to try and hit a comparable number. My minimum is 52, so anything over that is just a bonus.
One of the absolute best books that I read this year was Becky Chambers’ latest novel, Record of a Spaceborn Few, the final installment of her Wayfarers “trilogy".” It’s preceded by her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and A Closed and Common Orbit. I’ve loved each of the books in turn, and the world that Chambers has set up to host all three stories — each of which stand on their own, rather than flow into one another as in a conventional trilogy.
On the face of it, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is pretty standard space opera. It’s set in the distant future, Earth is no longer inhabited, and humanity has joined a larger diaspora of galactic life. But what really sets the stories apart from the space opera stories around her is that they’re intensely focused on the plights of her characters, and most importantly, the bonds that they form with their companions. These books have a bright, intensely optimistic view of the world and universe: people (of all species) can get along and live in relative harmony, despite their differences.
I had a bit of trouble getting into a Record of a Spaceborn Few the first time I picked it up, but it wasn’t until I listened to an episode of Eric Molinsky’s Imaginary Worlds about the use of faith in SF. (If you like SF commentary, you should listen to the show, it’s pretty great). One of the guests spoke about looking at the book through the lens of her Jewish heritage, and everything clicked into place for me — it’s a story about preserving one’s way of life, even as change is inevitable.
At its core, this is what Record of a Spaceborn Few really excels at — it’s about a society that lives aboard the ships that left Earth, eons ago. As is to be expected, ships that have been operating for generations will fall apart eventually, and its inhabitants are struggling to keep their civilization together. They’re reluctant to let some of their traditions fade into the past, even as people are leaving for opportunities elsewhere. There’s a lot to read into this — I’m reminded of some of the utopian societies of the 1800s that existed in Pennsylvania that had trouble competing with the lifestyles of their neighbors. The inhabitants of the fleet also have trouble dealing with newcomers and the changes that they bring with them.
What the book ultimately comes down to is that change is inevitable, and it’s how people balance the preservation of their traditions with altering them that matters. This is not an entirely novel realization — just look at how any religion or civilization has slowly altered itself over time.
But it’s a nice slice-of-life look at a society continually coming to terms with this as Chambers follows a slew of characters, young adults, visitors, researchers, etc., as they move about their lives. In a lot of ways, it’s a good book to sink into and relate to, given the toxic environment that surrounds us now, and how much of that is driven by generational differences and prejudices.
Wordplay #5 is out to subscribers! And unlike the first four, this one is only available to people who subscribe, because it was a little different: a short story. If people are interested and sign up this week, I do have the option to send it out again to newcomers.
An idea that I’ve been turning around in my head recently is things in our real world that are like magic, and I decided to play that out — an idea coalesced on a recent trip, and it seemed like a good way to talk about this, rather than just doing a straight-up think piece. Plus, I haven’t actually written — let alone finished — a short story in a long time. I don’t know if / when that’ll appear anywhere else, but I had fun writing it.
I might do that again at some point down the road. You can sign up and read past public issues here.
One of my favorite authors right now is Myke Cole — he wrote books like Control Point and The Armored Saint / The Queen of Crows — who I highly recommend, if you haven’t read anything by him. Every now and again, he plugs the work of his brother, Peter Cole, one half of a band called Lost Leaders.
I was doing a bit of traveling earlier this week, and needed a new band to listen to, and picked up the group’s 2017 EP Heavy Lifting. It’s a really great little album, with six excellent tracks that I ended up listening to over and over again over the course of this week.
The EP kicks off with the radio-friendly ‘Volunteer’, heads into a more lyrical (and vaguely-José González sounding?) ‘Gienevieve’, and a relaxed ‘A Million Little People’ that has a great chorus. ‘I Feel It Coming On’, ‘April Snow’, and ‘The Righteous Path’ round out the record, and what strikes me is that the duo doesn’t really settle into one sound — they go from indie/alt-rock sound to relaxing ballad, and does it really well. I really like harmonies, and these guys hit a really good balance with that and their guitar work.
The group just wrapped up a crowdfunding project on PledgeMusic called Promises, Promises, which is over its goal and should come out sometime in February 2019. It sounds like it’ll hav a similar vibe and sound as Heavy Lifting, and I’ve already backed it. If the music on the video is any indication, it’s going to be a good one. Next up on my list is to check out their self-titled debut, which came out in 2014.
Issue #4 of Wordplay is now out to subscribers! I’m using the launch of Better Worlds as an excuse to talk a bit about the role of optimism in science fiction, along with some links to some longer features / articles that I came across.
I can finally talk about this. The Verge is launching a fiction package that we’re calling Better Worlds. It’s something that we’ve been working on most of the fall, so it’s nice to see it out in the world… soon.
Then I jumped over from io9 to The Verge, I mentioned early on that fiction was something that I wanted to tackle. It was a back-burner priority until our new Culture editor, Laura Hudson came onboard, and was immediately interested in tackling. We settled on the idea that we really wanted to see stories that weren’t dark and dystopian, but which were a bit more inspirational and optimistic. The project also grew (you can see the entire team who worked on it over on the announcement page): there’ll be ten stories in all, five with animated adaptations, and five with audio adaptations. The stories will begin to spool out in January and will run through February.
I’m also particularly excited of the roster that we have lined up:
A Theory of Flight by Justina Ireland
Move the World by Carla Speed McNeil
A Model Dog by John Scalzi
Online Reunion by Leigh Alexander
St. Juju by Rivers solomon
Monsters in Their Season by Cadwell Turnbull
Overlay by Elizabeth Bonesteel
Skin City by Kelly Robson
A Sun will Alway Sing by Karin Lowachee
The Burn by Peter Tieryas
These are all some fantastic authors, and the stories that they’ve submitted are amazing, not to mention the art and animation that accompanies them.
You can read Laura’s introductory letter here, which outlines the project as a whole, and when each of the stories will drop.
Also, here’s a trailer.
Newsletter issue #3 is now out! For this letter, I decided to focus on one thing that I’ve been thinking about lately: how Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics helped add to the conversation about robots and AI, why we need more fiction that is aimed at solving technological problems, and why more leaders really should read stories that are about that.
Late last month, an indie science fiction film hit a small number of theaters — Prospect, based off of a short film released back in 2014. It’s a really neat little film — my colleague Bryan Bishop enjoyed it, and I concur with his review — about a father/daughter prospecting team that lands on a mysterious and deadly alien world, hoping to strike it rich. They come up against a bunch of disreputable characters, and are forced to make some hard choices, etc etc. One of the things that I came away from was that it has a fantastic soundtrack.
The score is by composer Daniel L.K. Caldwell, who also did the music for the original short film. It’s a beautiful score, one that complements the film nicely, but it also hits a nice balance between driving the action, and enhancing the film’s surroundings.
An inescapable point in this film is the surrounding planet. There’s a tendency in science fiction to surround one’s cast and characters with sharp, inorganic lines — think the interiors of spaceships in the black of space. Prospect is set on the ground, its characters surrounded by lush, bright forests and vegetation, its characters closed off from the atmosphere and toxins in the air (alien pollen, maybe?) in space suits, or huddling down in makeshift shelters. Caldwell’s score drones — it reminds me almost of insects buzzing in the trees at points, while there’s other, ethereal sounds that feel like they play off of the beauty surrounding the characters. That’s not to say that there aren’t points where he drives the action home with pounding drums, but those points are spare, and their rarity really makes those moments all the more effective.
I’ve got a running playlist on my computer of music to listen to while I’m writing, but I’ve been listening to it quite a bit while driving — it makes for a great background to just about anything I’m doing, whether that’s walking, driving on the highway, or writing.
A couple of years ago, I discovered Aoife O’Donovan, a bluegrass/folk singer by way of her performance of “Morning Bugle” on A Prairie Home Companion. I was smitten, because her sound lined up nicely with the likes of the singers that I’d grown up listening to, like Nanci Griffith, Gordon Lightfoot, and Alison Krauss and Union Station. I’ve since picked up and devoured her albums, 2013’s Fossils and 2016’s In the Magic Hour, both of which are fantastic.
Recently, I happened to find that she’s been performing in a sort of folk supergroup — I’m With Her, alongside Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek fame) and Sarah Jarosz. While doing a bit of reading on the group, it turns out that they ended up writing most of the album here in Vermont — not far from where I grew up. One of the songs, I-89, is named for the highway that runs West-to-East across the state. It’s a beautiful song, and the entire album is well worth picking up.
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.