Review: Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars

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I’m a big fan of the magical school trope. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was one of those life-defining books from high school through the end of college, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians books came right in after as I was starting my career as a college administrator and writer. Sarah Gailey’s debut novel Magic for Liars is like a third part of that transition, and I blew through the book in just about a day. 

The story introduces us to Ivy Gamble, a woman who works as a private investigator, and who has a bit of a secret: her estranged twin sister is a brilliant magician. She’s hired by the headmaster of the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages in California, where her sister works. The two haven’t spoken in years, and when a teacher at the school is found dead in the library, they’re unexpectedly reunited. 

Gailey is the author of the American Hippo novellas, and while I loved the concept, I felt that they were a bit weak, character-wise (one of the downsides to Tor.com’s novella line: sometimes, a story is too slimmed down, and could have been a bit longer.) That isn’t a problem here. Gailey brilliantly sets up these two sisters, and Ivy is a phenomenal, bitter character who is pretty much burned out on everything, stemming back to some deep-seated family history that drove her and her sister apart. 

This book succeeds in two ways. First, it’s a fantastic mystery, and Gamble, an outsider to this magical community, is the perfect person to solve it, because she can approach it from that unknowledgeable angle, but who knows how perfectly messed up people are, and what sorts of bad decisions they can make. Secondly, it’s a great magical school entry. Hogwarts is delightfully twee, Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy is realistically cynical, and the Osthorne Academy of Young Mages is… a typical high school. There’s plenty of details that show off that kids — even magical kids, will be immature, do stupid things, are egotistical, and crave attention. 

What really makes this book stand out is that it revolves around a couple of things that fantasy (and science fiction, for that matter), typically ignores: wOmEnS IsSuEs. I won’t spoil how this plays out, but it’s a mystery that comes down to teenage and family drama in ways that feels utterly realistic, and I’m guessing entirely relevant and relatable to any woman who picks up this book. Gailey also keeps the mystery entirely fresh throughout the entire read, throwing me off in a couple of places, and nailing the book with a fantastic (and frustratingly ambiguous) ending. She tells me that she’s not planning on a followup, which is also refreshing? There needs to be more standalone novels, although I would dearly love to see more of this particular world.  


Review: Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night

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I finally finished Elizabeth Bear’s book Ancestral Night a while back, and it’s a really superb work of space opera, one that did a lot of interesting things. It’s set in a distant future where humanity is part of a larger, galactic civilization, and where everyone pretty much gets along. There’s no real big war that’s driving humanity against a plethora of alien civilizations: they’re coexisting as best they can. The novel follows a team of space salvage operators, Halmey Dz, her partner Connla Kurucz, and their AI, Singer. They’ve had a rough go of it in recent years, and they search space for lost wreckage, hoping to score it big. They end up finding a massive alien ship, and a terrible secret onboard, which puts them into the path of a band of space pirates, and galactic authorities. 

There’s a real retro feel to this book, but one with a nicely modernized set of sensibilities. Bear includes everything from commentary about the value of communities, includes plenty of LGBTQ characters, and muses on the nature of intelligence and nature vs. nurture, especially when it comes to augmentation and free will. Halmey comes from a particular cult that focuses on consensus decision-making, and was involved in a terrorist plot earlier in her life, and has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since. She’s constantly trying to find her place in the universe, and a good part of the book is how she’s re-learning who she is after a pretty traumatic past. She’s an excellent character, as are her two companions — especially Singer. 

While I loved all of the component parts of the book, there was one big flaw: there’s a lot going on and it feels really unfocused at points. Bear throws a lot of good stuff in there, and I’m not sure it always meshed. At one point, Hamley gets stuck on an alien ship with a pirate, and they spend a lot of time talking and going over her past. It’s interesting stuff, but it slowed the book down, and felt a little out of place — almost like it could have been the focus of another novel set in the same world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it isn’t poorly executed; it just feels as though the book could have been slimmed down just a tad. It took me a little longer than I would have expected, given the subject matter and story. Folks who liked Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series or James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series will love this one. 


Two events with Cadwell Turnbull

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At the end of June and the beginning of July, I’ll be appearing with Cadwell Turnbull at a pair of bookstore events! Cadwell is releasing his debut novel, The Lesson, and he’s asked me to be the Q part of the Q&A for each event.

I recruited Cadwell for The Verge’s Better Worlds anthology, and his story, “Monsters Come Howling in Their Season” is a really fantastic read and listen, about a community-focused AI, and how people are working to cope with the upcoming hurricane season.

The Lesson is also set in the Caribbean, and is about what happens after an alien ship parks itself over the US Virgin Islands, and their violent responses when they’re personally messed with. I’m reading it now, and it’s a really interesting read. And I do have questions!

So, I’ll be asking him questions at the following events:

If you’re in the area, please come and say hello!

Also, for Vermonters: he’ll be appearing at Phoenix Books in Burlington on September 12th.

A Roci of my own

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I’ve long been a fan of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, and I’ve really enjoyed how the Syfy Channel (And now Amazon) have adapted the books for television. The show has largely nailed how I imagined the look and feel of the world presented in the books, and I was particularly happy with how the Rocinante turned out. It looks pretty much how I’d imagine a small Martian Corvette-class gunship might look like.

I recently reviewed the latest book in the series, Tiamat’s Wrath, and as with the rest of my book reviews, I’ve taken a picture of the physical book. I typically will throw in some sort of little knickknack that relates to the theme or subject of the book (like with my reviews for Big Damn Hero, Red Moon, or Solo). I actually used my 3D-printed model of the Rocinante for my review of Persepolis Rising back in 2017, but the angle didn’t really come out as well as I’d liked.

I got the model a couple of years ago when the Syfy Channel released a series of models from the series on Thingiverse, and someone went and posted some files for the guns. For that original review, I planned on painting it up to look like the MCRN Tachi, painting it up in black and then bright orange. That didn’t come out nearly as well as I’d liked — the orange paint I used wasn’t model paint, and it didn’t go on evenly.

For the new review, I wanted to reuse the model, and figured it was time to redo the paint job. I opted to turn it into the Roci, and painted over the entire thing with a couple of coats of gray automotive primer, which was about the right color. The paint cracked a little (too impatient), but between that, the extra sanding, and some of the scratches, it gave the surface a bit more of a worn, damaged/patched look.

I then went to the local model store and picked up some dark orange paint and a couple of fine brushes. Once the primer had completely dried, I hand-sketched on the bigger details with a pencil, and then applied the orange paint, then white. After that, I mixed up some black acrylic and watered it down, and then painted and wiped it off to give it a weathered look — kind of what I did with my Shoretrooper a couple of years ago.

This was the first time I’d ever actually painted a model, so the details are… rough, and a more experienced painter would do a much better job, I’m certain. I’m not actually sure it’s a hobby for me (although damned if I’m not getting Fantasy Flight’s Shoretrooper expansion when it’s out later this year), but it was fun to try out. I’m particularly happy with the pinup on the side, which I roughly painted on. It’s good from a distance, and it’ll hang out on the shelves in my office for now.

Star Wars Celebration 2019!

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I’m back in Vermont after a couple of days of travel to and from Chicago for Star Wars Celebration. I haven’t been since 2005’s Celebration III in Indianapolis, and it was an outstanding time.

Since i joined The Verge in 2016, I’ve gone to a bunch of big conventions — San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic-Con, both of which were a lot of fun, but extremely busy. We didn’t send anyone this year, but I’ve been wanting to go, so I took time off to attend on my own to work on a project that I’ve been working on, and I’ve just been wanting to go, you know, as a fan. The last couple of Celebrations have found me sulking at home, watching pictures of the fun on Facebook.

Because I wasn’t working for this con, I was able to bring along my Shoretrooper. I ended up buying a new case for it (one of these — I’m kicking myself for not buying one earlier) to transport my armor, and got on the train in Albany, and got in Friday morning. There were a bunch of panels that I thought about getting in line for, but ended up skipping everything in favor of just floating around taking pictures of cosplayers and conducting a bunch of interviews.


That ended up being a huge highlight. Big conventions like this bring out a ton of costumers and cosplayers, and just about everyone I asked was eager to pose for a quick portrait. I took a bunch on my regular camera, but I ended up taking most with my iPhone’s portrait mode, which worked out nicely. You can see the images I took in an album here. I’ve got some more that I need to process and upload.

Of course, I saw the trailer, standing in the middle of the exhibition hall with a ton of people. It looks fantastic. Palpatine’s laugh at the end had everyone screaming in the room, but what was really something was seeing Ian McDiarmid coming out on stage: “Roll it again.” My friend Bryan Bishop made a good observation on Twitter: that Palpatine has been the antagonist from the beginning of the franchise, and it seems appropriate that he’ll be there at the end, in one form or another. Plus, Lando back on the Falcon! Leia and Rey! Remnants of the Death Star! I’m excited for it.

The only other thing I was able to really check out was the Vader Immortal VR game coming out for Oculus Rift. That was something — I haven’t really used a VR headset before, and playing with a lightsaber was quite a bit of fun in that format. I don’t know that it’s something that I’d buy, but it was quite a bit of fun to experience.

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The most fun that I had was hanging out with other Shoretroopers. I spent Friday looking for them, but only caught glimpses of one or two, but on Saturday, I came across a group, took a couple of pictures, then ran up to my room to suit up. It took me 20-30 minutes to find the group. We then wandered around for a while, posting for pictures. I found myself in another group on Sunday after the big 501st Legion picture. We ended up at a big prop — a TX-225 tank — and posed for pictures with people there. I didn’t have my gun with me, and ended up on top, where I directed people to imagine that they were firing down range at rebels. The tiny bit of immersion was fun to play with. I de-suited for lunch, then returned a couple of hours later to take part in a larger Rogue One picture, which had a bunch of characters from that film, which was a lot of fun. (Still haven’t seen pictures of that floating around, weirdly).

And then, it was over. I got back on the train to Albany, rewatched Rogue One on the ride back, met up with Megan and Bram at a resort for the next day, then returned to Albany to pick up a couple of friends who had their flight canceled from under them. This was a lot of fun, and I’m kind of meh today — post-con blues are a thing, y’all.

What I loved about this show was just how positive things were. Everyone was thrilled to be there. Celebration is a good name for it — people are sharing in this collective obsession, and it was fun to be part of all of that. I’m already thinking about going to Celebration 2020 in Anaheim, California.

My Top 10 Games

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There’s a tweet going around about the games that are your personal top 10 video games of all time. It’s been fun to think about, especially as I’ve never really been a huge gamer. But looking back, there have been a bunch of games that have been a huge influence on how I’ve thought about stories and speculative fiction over the years. Here’s my personal top-10 list.

10. Titanfall 2

I really wanted to like the original Titanfall, but I really don’t like online games. It’s just not an experience I enjoy. But Titanfall 2 was fantastic. I love the story, love the gameplay mechanics, and I REALLY love the fantastic mechs. I’m bummed that there doesn’t appear to be a third game on the horizon. This feels like a world that could really challenge Halo, and I’d love to see more of this world.

9. Mario Kart / Super Mario Odyssey

When I bought my Nintendo Switch, I quickly bought Mario Kart on Megan’s advice. It quickly became a good game that we could all play as a family, and something that we could cart along on family trips for when we had downtime or something. I also picked up Super Mario Odyssey, which we’ve also played quite a bit. I haven’t beaten this game, but I’ve had a lot of fun watching Megan and Bram play it.

8. Diablo 2

When I worked at Camp Abnaki, there was one year where we had a shared computer in the equipment room. It was an easy assignment that left a lot of time for playing, (or playing after hours), and I spent a lot of hours at Camp, and later, when I got my own computer, playing through this. I’m not sure that I ever actually beat the game, but I did have a lot of fun leveling up my character.

7. Sim City 2000

Who doesn’t love Sim City? I love building epic cities in this, and all the fiddly bits that it requires, from raising / lowering taxes to playing with crime rates, roads, and zoning. I’ve played a bunch of mobile apps, but none of them really compare to this one.

6. Age of Empires

When I got my first computer, one of the games I got hooked on in high school / college was Age of Empires. That shouldn’t be a surprise — I studied history, and loved this take on it, building up civilizations and destroying my neighbors. I haven’t been able to play it for years, but I’ve been thinking of taking out my old computer to give it a spin.

5. King’s Quest VI

My friend Laura Hudson’s game list reminded me of this one, and it brought back a flood of memories. I’m pretty sure that this game came with our first Compaq computer in the mid-1990s, and I spent hours and hours exploring the Green Isles and reveling in its mashup of mythologies and fairy tales. I recently went and watched a play-through on YouTube, and was struck at how funny and clever it is. This was a hard one — it took me forever to finish it.

4. Pokémon Go

I missed the boat on Pokémon when I was a youth. Kids at summer camp played it, but I thought it was kind of dumb — I only played serious games like Dungeons & Dragons (where we accidentally exploded a moose). But when Bram got into the franchise via friends at daycare and school, I started playing the game with him, and it’s been a good motivation to get out and walk around quite a bit more.

3. Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening

This was probably the first video game that I ever really played, aside from the occasional visit to friends’ houses. My parents bought me a Game Boy, and it came with Zelda. It took me an embarrassingly long time to beat it, but I loved the game, and cried when I finally finished it. I went and replayed it just before Breath of the Wild came out, and it holds up nicely. I’d wanted to see a BOTW-style remake, but I’ll certainly be playing the 3D remake that’s coming later this year.

2. Halo / Halo: Reach / Halo: ODST

Halo was the first time I really got into gaming. It came out when I was a summer camp counselor at Camp Abnaki, and every summer for years, I played with my friends while we had downtime. I love military science fiction, so the power armor and FPS thing works for me, but the controls and gameplay were intuitive, the design was great, and it’s a neat story in a much larger narrative. I’ve since really gone on to love Halo: ODST for its story, as well as Halo: Reach for enriching the backstory. I’m a bit more lukewarm on Halo 3, but I do really enjoy Halo 4, especially its guns. Halo 2 and 5 are a hot mess, though.

1. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I can’t begin to imagine just how many hours I’ve spent playing this game. Not just in beating the main story, but just wandering around and exploring. This is a game that rewards curiosity, and walking, running, and riding across this fantastic version of Hyrule never feels like wasted time. I played this a lot with Bram, who watched and helped me with the puzzles and shrines, an experience that I’ll treasure forever. On top of that, the design and artwork is stunning, the gameplay is incredibly good, and the shrines and quests are wonderful.

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.

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.

First newsletter up

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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.

Why has Dune endured, while Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke have faded?

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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.

Myke Cole's The Queen of Crows is a timely story of fighting back

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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.

From the beginning to the end: Liu Cixin's Three-Body Trilogy

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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.

Engaging the Future: The Art of Future Warfare

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 is a framework and mindset with which we engage the future

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.

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.  

Science Fiction enables people to make a critical first step towards defining the question: “what’s next?”

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.

Presentation: Army TRADOC's Mad Scientist conference: Learning in 2050

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

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's Time Was is a haunting time travel romance

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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. 

Gardner Dozois got me into science fiction

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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.