Appearance: Tolkien in Vermont Conference

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I got word last week: UVM’s Tolkien in Vermont conference has accepted my proposal for a presentation for its upcoming, 16th annual conference, Tolkien and Horror. The conference is a neat, two-day event that the university’s English department hosts. In line with this year’s topic, I’ll be talking about the impact of Tolkien’s experiences during the First World war had on him, and his fiction.

Tolkien, of course, participated in the conflict, and it left him profoundly shaken. I’ve presented at this a couple of times already — in 2014 and 2015, mainly about Tolkien’s impact on fantasy. I also spoke at Norwich University’s Sullivan Library back in 2016 on a related topic, although this year’s paper will delve a bit more into wartime imagery worked its way into Tolkien’s Middle-earth — think Frodo, Sam, and Gollum’s trek over the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers, where they encounter the dead from an ancient battle.

This year’s conference will take place on April 5th and 6th (my talk will be on the 6th, although I’m not sure what time, exactly) at UVM in Burlington. It’s open to the public — tickets are $25 ($15 if you’re from Vermont, and free for UVM students), and the last couple of times that I’ve gone, it’s been a delightful, enlightening afternoon. If you can’t make it, i’ll probably include my presentation in my newsletter.

New Project: TST ChemRail Rifle from Elysium

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I’ve got a new prop-building project that I’m embarking on: a TST-ChemRail rifle from Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium.

I’m a big fan of the film — it’s one of my favorites out there, with a solid story, fantastic worldbuilding, and messaging. Not everyone agrees, but it’s one that I’ll stand by. One of the things that have always impressed me with Blomkamp’s films is the design of the world, and Elysium’s far-flung future is loaded with military gear and tech. In particular, I’ve always really liked the ChemRail gun that’s used at a pivotal point in the film — Max grabs it when he’s onboard the station, and uses it as he works his way to the control center. It’s a futuristic weapon, but one that’s functional and realistic-looking device that isn’t cartoon-y, like so many science fiction weapons can be.

Last fall, the Replica Props Forum posted up a couple of pictures on Twitter from one of their member-builders: a ChemRail gun that they had designed based on reference images and sold as a 3D-printed kit.

I ended up splurging on it at the end of the year, figuring it would make for a good build project. It just arrived earlier today, and I’m really impressed with the quality and detail. The print is extremely clean (ANY seller who cleans up their 3D prints before shipping is appreciated) and finer details like logos and functional pieces are printed right into the design. It isn’t an exact match — I spotted some tiny things that differ, but they’re unnoticeable if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

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The printed blocks are also finely-printed, which means that they won’t need a whole lot of cleanup anyway — a bit of sanding, then glue, a couple of coats of primer, paint, and then weathering. It’s kind of goofy-looking now, because the printer just threw whatever filament they had on hand to get it finished.

So, step one will be to sand down the entire thing. I did a little with a piece of fine sandpaper to start over lunch, and it works nicely. Fortunately, the original prop models were also 3D printed, and they have some of the print lines remaining, so I don’t actually have to make this super-smooth. The only thing I really need to get for this is a thin dowel to go through the middle, which will provide it with a bit of a spine when everything is glued together.

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Once it’s done, it’ll go… somewhere. I’ll probably find a way to mount it on the wall in my office. I’m not a huge fan of real guns, but I’ve always thought it would be cool to have an armory of weapons from science fiction and fantasy films at some point.

Interviewed by File 770 about Better Worlds

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Mike Glyer at File 770 recently interviewed me about the online anthology that I’ve been working on, Better Worlds. Mike asked some good questions about the balance between science and technology, the larger impact of the project, and some advice for aspiring writers.

MG: What’s your advice for aspiring science fiction authors?

ANDREW LIPTAK: There’s a lot of advice out there that’s good — read a lot, write a lot, and read what you’ve written out loud, and so forth.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how incredibly valuable it is to break out of your shell / community / circle of writers / group to discover new ideas and viewpoints. I recently moderated a panel on the implications of artificial intelligence at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and I came out of that three-day experience with a notepad full of ideas for potential stories, based on what I’d seen and heard.

In other, related Better Worlds news, we’ve released a couple of other stories since I first updated about the project back in January. We’ve got ‘Online Reunion’ by Leigh Alexander, ‘A Model Dog’ by John Scalzi, ‘Monsters Come Howling in Their Season’ by Cadwell Turnbull, ‘St. Juju‘ by Rivers Solomon, ‘The Burn’ by Peter Tieryas, ‘A Sun Will Always Sing’ by Karin Lowachee, and ‘Skin City’ by Kelly Robson. We’ve got three more stories coming up — ‘Move The World’ by Carla Speed McNeil (coming Friday), ‘Overlay’ by Elizabeth Bonesteel (coming Monday), and ‘Machine of Loving Grace’ by Katherine Cross (coming Wednesday).

The project has been a bear, and it’s great to finally see the stories up online. Of the entire group, I think my favorite stories are the ones by ‘Monsters Come Howling in Their Season’, ‘A Sun Will Always Sing’, and ‘A Theory of Flight’, but that’s not to say that I don’t really like everything else on this table of contents. The art is superb — all credit there goes to William Joel, our Art Director for the project, and I’ve really enjoyed the videos — especially ‘A Theory of Flight’ and ‘A Sun Will Always Sing.’ The video for ‘Overlay’ is also quite good — you’ll see that next week.

I’m also a big fan of the audio adaptations, which feature full casts and sound effects, which really puts them a leg up and above other fiction podcasts that I’ve heard. I’m biased, of course, but the general feedback that I’ve seen in online comments on the videos and on Twitter / Facebook have been almost uniformly positive.

Three cool songs I've been listening to

I’m constantly on the hunt for new music to listen to, and in the past week, I’ve added a couple of new songs to what I call my “.Best New” playlist. It’s a playlist (the . at the beginning ensures that it’s at the top of my playlist column in iTunes) that I basically dump any new song I come across that I’ve been enjoying, and keep it around until I’ve heard it enough.

First up is a new song from Josh Ritter, “Old Black Magic”. He just announced a new album called Fever Breaks, which is due out in April of this year. Ritter is one of those artists that will pretty much get me to drop anything and preorder. I’ve been a fan of his for over a decade now, and I’ve seen him a bunch of times in concert — he always puts on a great show.

This song is a good one of his, and it really highlights some of the progression I’ve seen him go through as an artist — he has a great Americana sound, going from melodic to folksy, to rock. This one’s definitely more on the rock end of the spectrum, and I really love the beat and drive that this one has. It really has me eagerly anticipating Fever Breaks.

The Mountain Goats are another band that I’ve been a fan of over the years, although I haven’t listened to them as closely as I have with Josh Ritter. I’ve always appreciated the nerdiness of The Mountain Goats, who have released songs about H.P. Lovecraft (“Lovecraft in Brooklyn”), vampires (“Damn these Vampires”) and some others. I interviewed their lead singer, John Darnielle, and we had a good conversation about American gothic literature. Sadly, the audio didn’t work out, and I’ve never published it.

Their next album looks like it’s going to be their nerdiest one yet: it’s a collaboration with Dungeons & Dragons called In League with Dragons. Darnielle described the album as “Dragon noir,” which sounds utterly perfect. Also instantly preordered.

The final song is one from an album I’ve already preordered: Extra-Ordinary by Lost Leaders, who I discovered last fall while traveling to Toronto. This is the song that they teased on their campaign video for their upcoming album, Promises Promises, which is due out next month. I really love their sound, and this one really popped for me — the chorus is really great, and I’ve been listening to it non-stop for a week or so now.

Front Porch Forum feature

I just published a big feature on The Verge: “How a Vermont became a model for online communities.” It’s a piece that’s been in the works for more than a year now, about a social network here in Vermont called Front Porch Forum.

The piece started back in the fall of 2017 — I made an offhand comment about it during a story meeting, which peaked our Editor in Chief, Nilay Patel’s interest. FPF is a network of forums that exists here in Vermont — each town gets a forum (for the most part), where they can post messages to. Most people use it for things like asking for recommendations (I’ve gotten reliable names for plumbers and carpenters through it), for highlighting lost pets, or in more extreme instances, helping with disaster recovery, as what happened in 2011 when Irene devastated the state. It was particularly helpful in my hometown of Moretown.

I began work on the article, and our staff photographer, Amelia Krales came by to take pictures of various locations in Vermont — Moretown, Westford, and Burlington. Her pictures are fantastic, and worth clicking on the story in and of themselves.

Between my other responsibilities at work, this was a slow-burning piece. That worked a bit in our favor, because last year was when social media had a pretty bad year — Facebook was engulfed in a bunch of scandals, while Twitter had its own issues. What makes FPF stand out, I think, is that it’s pushing social connections down to a local level, rather than a global one — and, they police their content, and are pretty proactive about booting people who are being abusive.

It’s a complete coincidence that it came out today, just after Cadwell Turnbull’s short story, Monsters Come Howling in Their Season, went up on the site, which deals very much with some similar (fictional) issues.

A lot of people helped with this: Josh Dzierza and Casey Newton edited, our features editor Kevin Nguyen took a pass. Adia Watts copyedited all 4000+ words, and Amelia took the fantastic pictures. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I think it’s one of the better things I’ve written for the site.

Wordplay #7: Tolkien, Tolkien, Tolkien

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This latest Wordplay letter was late: I had to contend with a busy work schedule last week (I write these in bits and pieces of the week, then send it once it’s all compiled), as well as a snowstorm in which my snowblower conked out.

No huge overarching theme this week, but I’ve been in a bit of a Tolkien mode the last couple of weeks, so I’m talking about that.

Give the issue a read here, and sign up here.

Better Worlds: A Theory of Flight: Now Live!

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Our science fiction anthology Better Worlds is now live, starting with the first story, Justina Ireland’s “A Theory of Flight”!

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.

Better Worlds: Coming next week!

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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.

Spiders! In! Space! Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time

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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.

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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.

Wordplay #6: History, generation ships, and suspension pods

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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.

Give it a read or subscribe here.

What I read in 2018: Short Fiction

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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:

  1. Artisanal Trucking, LLC, by Mary Robinette Kowal, Asimov’s Science Fiction, March / April 2018

  2. Mother Tongues by S. Qiouyi Lu, Asimov's Science Fiction, January / February 2018.

  3. Barren Isle, by Allen M. Steele, Asimov's Science Fiction, January / February 2018.

  4. Birth of the Ants Rights Movement, by Annalee Newitz, Spectacle Magazine, Issue 1.

  5. Emojis, by Rudy Rucker, Asimov's Science Fiction, March / April.

  6. Carouseling, by Rich Larson, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139.

  7. Without Exile by Eleanna Castroianni, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139.

  8. Don’t Press Charges and I won’t Sue, by Charlie Jane Anders, Boston Review’s Global Dystopias.

  9. The Martian Obelisk, by Linda Nagata, Tor.com.

  10. Ingredients, by Craig DeLancey, Spectacle Magazine #1.

  11. Cosmic Spring, by Ken Liu, Lightspeed Magazine, March 2018.

  12. Sanctuary by Allen M. Steele, Tor.com

  13. 50 Ways to Leave Your Fairy Lover, by Aimee Picchi, Fireside Fiction, April 2018.

  14. Automated Valor, by August Cole, US Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine.

  15. Logistics, by AJ Fitzwater, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 139.

  16. Photojournalist, by Mack Reynolds, Analog Science Fact and Fiction, February 1965.

  17. Sunset, by Tobias Buckell, Lightspeed Magazine, May 2018.

  18. Blessings, by Naomi Novik, Uncanny Magazine, May / June 2018.

  19. The Baboon War, by Nnedi Okorafor, Levar Burton Reads.

  20. Not Now, by Chelsea Muzar, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.

  21. The Vastness, by Bo Balder, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.

  22. Life from the Sky, by Sue Burke, Asimov’s Science Fiction, May / June 2018.

  23. Mortui Vivos Docent, by Hanting Liang in Spectacle Magazine #1.

  24. Fleeing Oslyge, by Sally Gwylan, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.

  25. Cold Comfort, by Pat Murphy / Paul Doherty, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.

  26. What Gentle Women Dare, by Kelly Robsen in Uncanny Magazine, May / June 2018.

  27. Rejuve, by Tina Connolly in Daily Science Fiction, June 12th.

  28. Wings of Earth, by Jiang Bo (Andy Dudak, Translator), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.

  29. Farewell, Doraemon, by A Que (Translated by Ken Liu / Emily Jin), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 140.

  30. Meridian, by Karin Lowachee, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141.

  31. When the Rains Come Back, by Cadwell Turnbull, Asimovs Science Fiction, May / June 2018.

  32. Okay, Glory, by Elizabeth Bear, MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows.

  33. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal, Tor.com.

  34. A Space of One’s Own, by Steve Rasnic Tem, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 141.

  35. Ephemera by Ian R. McLeod, Asimov’s Science Fiction, July / August 2018.

  36. Gubbinal, by Lavie Tidhar, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.

  37. Attachment Unavailable by Leah Cypess, Asimov’s Science Fiction, July / August 2018.

  38. Every Hour of Light and Dark by Nancy Kress, Omni Magazine, Winter 2017.

  39. Your Multicolored Life, by Xing He (translated by Andy Dudak), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.

  40. The Cosmonaut’s Caretaker, by Dora Klindžić, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.

  41. Starship Mountain by Allen M. Steele, Asimov’s Science Fiction, July / August 2018.

  42. Demons in the Tall Grass, by Mike Matson, Small Wars Journal.

  43. Loss of Signal, by S.B. Divya, Tor.com.

  44. Heron of Earth, by Vajra Chandraseker, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.

  45. Vault, by D.A. Xiaolin Spires, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.

  46. The Tale of Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat, by Brooke Bolander, Uncanny Magazine, Issue 23.

  47. The James Machine, by Kate Osias, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 143.

  48. The Phobos Experience by Mary Robinette Kowal, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July / August 2018.

  49. The Queen and the Peri Takes Her Time by Corey Flintoff, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July / August 2018.

  50. To Fly Like A Fallen Angel, by Qi Yue (translated by Liz Hanlon), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 142.

  51. Red Lizard Brigade, by Sam Miller, Uncanny Magazine, Issue 23.

  52. Water Birds, by G. V. Anderson, Lightspeed Magazine, July 2018.

  53. The Dinosaur Graveyard by Aidan Moher, Robot Dinosaur Fiction.

  54. The Minnesota Diet, by Charlie Jane Anders, Slate.

  55. The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu, The Wandering Earth.

  56. The Grays of Cestus IV, by Erin Roberts, Asimov’s Science Fiction, September / October 2018.

  57. Octo Heist, by Rich Larson, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 146.

  58. The Veilonaut’s Dream by Henry Szabranski, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 143.

  59. Nightflyers, George R.R. Martin, Analog Science Fact and Fiction, April 1980.

  60. The Ones Who Stay and Fight by N.K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

  61. The City Born Great, N.K. Jemisin, Tor.com.

  62. The Foodie Federation’s Dinosaur Farm, by Luo Longxiang (Translated by Andy Dudak), Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 144.

  63. Sparrow, by Yilin Wang, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 145.

  64. The Falls: A Luna Story, by Ian McDonald, Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 145.

  65. Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby, Slate.

  66. Across the Border by Sahil Lavingia, Vice’s Motherboard.

  67. An Interview with Santa’s Lawyer, by John Scalzi, Whatever.

  68. Real Girls by Laurie Penny, Wired Magazine, January 2019.

  69. The Trustless by Ken Liu, Wired Magazine, January 2019.

  70. Placebo by Charles Yu, Wired Magazine, January 2019.

  71. The Farm by Charlie Jane Anders, Wired Magazine, January 2019.

  72. When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis by Annalee Newitz, Slate.

  73. Compulsory by Martha Wells, Wired Magazine, January 2019.

  74. 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.

What I read in 2018: Books

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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):

  1. The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

  2. Dark Deeds, by Mike Brooks

  3. The Forever War (Graphic Novel), by Joe Haldeman

  4. Black Star Renegades by Michael Moreci

  5. Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate by Zoe Quinn

  6. Buffalo Solider by Maurice Broaddus

  7. Fields of Fire by Marko Kloos

  8. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

  9. Points of Impact by Marko Kloos

  10. River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

  11. Semiosis by Sue Burke

  12. The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

  13. The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch

  14. Gunpowder Moon by David Pedreira

  15. Breach of Containment by Elizabeth Bonesteel

  16. The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz

  17. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

  18. The Visible Filth by Nathan Ballingrud 

  19. Head On by John Scalzi

  20. Time Was by Ian McDonald

  21. The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

  22. The Barrow Will Send What it May by Margaret Killjoy

  23. Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

  24. Star Wars: Last Shot by Daniel José Older

  25. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

  26. The Power by Naomi Alderman

  27. Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

  28. Crooked by Austin Grossman

  29. Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

  30. The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt

  31. Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War by Paul Scharre

  32. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte (Author Q&A)

  33. 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

  34. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

  35. The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

  36. The Book of Extraordinary Deaths: True Accounts of Ill-Fated Lives by Cecilia Ruiz

  37. Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation by Terri Favro 

  38. The Old Iron Dream by David Forbes

  39. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

  40. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang 

  41. The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel by Jeffrey Lewis (Author Q&A)

  42. The Future of War: A History by Lawrence Freedman

  43. Side Life by Steve Toutonghi

  44. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

  45. The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal

  46. The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

  47. War Cry by Brian McClellan 

  48. Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

  49. Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

  50. The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

  51. Solo: A Star Wars Story by Mur Lafferty

  52. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

  53. The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

  54. Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)

  55. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)

  56. The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin (translated by Joel Martinsen)

  57. The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole

  58. Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

  59. Death’s End by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)

  60. Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller

  61. LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P.W. Singer and Emerson Brooking

  62. On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

  63. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

  64. Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson

  65. It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by Tristan Donovan 

  66. Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

  67. Jack London's To Build a Fire by Christophe Chabouté

  68. Firefly: Big Damn Hero by Nancy Holder / James Lovegrove

  69. Mutiny at Vesta by R.E. Stearns

  70. How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

  71. Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar

  72. Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

  73. The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai

  74. 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.

Becky Chambers' Record of a Spaceborn Few is a delightful space opera about preservation vs. change

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: A short story about magic in the real(ish) world

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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.

Lost Leaders: Volunteer

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.

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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.

Wordplay #4: What is the role of optimism in science fiction?

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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.

You can read the issue here. If you like it, please consider subscribing.

Better Worlds @ The Verge

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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.

Wordplay #3: Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and using science fiction to frame the future

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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.

You can read the issue here, and if you like what you read, subscribe!

Listen to Daniel L.K. Caldwell's fantastic soundtrack for Prospect

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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.

I'm With Her — I-89

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.