Moved

So, WordPress has a feature that lets you subscribe to this blog: a bunch of you have subscribed over the recent years; I get the notifications every now and again.

You’ll probably notice that you won’t get notifications any longer: I’ve moved my site over to SquareSpace and away from WordPress. There’s a variety of reasons for that, chief amongst which, I liked SquareSpace’s styles better, and I have a bit more control over the site. So, if you want to follow along with what I’ve been up to, you can find that at www.andrewliptak.com. You can also follow me at @andrewliptak on Twitter, and on my Facebook Page.

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Boskone 2018

My wife and I attended Boskone this past weekend: it’s one of the long-running, traditional SF/F cons in New England. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been to one of these: I went to ReaderCon regularly for a bunch of years, but after I took over io9′s and later The Verge‘s weekend duties, I wasn’t really able to break away for the weekend, or was focused on attending some of the bigger, multimedia cons like New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic-Con.

I’ve missed these sorts of conventions: they’re heavily focused on the content of science fiction, and they’re places where a lot of my friends in the community go. Many of these folks I haven’t seen in a couple of years, so attending this year was a nice opportunity to catch up and chat with folks.

It was also nice to get away with Megan for a weekend, without the child: I feel like we don’t get around to doing a lot on our own, so it was a good time to just hang out and talk about things like science fiction and books.

I hit up a bunch of cool panels: one on audio fiction and podcasting, as well as editing online magazines, commercial spaceflight and colonization, the Wizard of Earthsea, and another one or two that I’m forgetting. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make it out to ReaderCon this summer.

 

Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint is an intense, timely dark fantasy about standing up against fascism

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Myke Cole’s new fantasy novella The Armored Saint hits bookstores today, and it’s a really fantastic read. I brought an advance copy with me when I went to New York Comic Con in October. I figured it would be a good backup read while I went through a couple of other books I was covering. I ended up reading the first couple of pages while I had a spare moment, and ended up devouring the entire book in a sitting on the train ride home. It’s a grim fantasy novel with a hell of a punch.

As a bit of a disclaimer, Myke and I are friends: take my review with whatever grain of salt you want, but I think this is a book that I’d recommend regardless of that.

The Armored Saint is set in a pretty grim fantasy world, ruled by the brutal Order, a fascist, militaristic body that seeks to stamp out wizards and magic users, as their powers open a portal to another, terrifying world. The Order arrives at Heloise’s village, and we see their brutality firsthand: dragging a dead villager behind their horses, and later, they attack and destroy a village.

Behind all of this is some exquisite worldbuilding: this is a short book, Cole packs quite a bit in. Where some fantasy novelists will pad out their work with every little facet of the characters, their surroundings, and history, Cole lets this book breathe a bit: the details come out little by little, painting a larger portrait through dialogue and actions.

Fantasy traditionally follows heroic lines of good verses evil, but Cole injects this story with a bit more grey: when Heloise eventually encounters the magic that the Order is brutally trying to suppress, it’s clear that their fanaticism has legitimate roots, and that what they are fighting against is something to fear.

But what sets The Armored Saint apart here is that Cole sets up a story that looks to critique those in power, and it’s a relevant, timely story about a single girl (along with a nice set of armor) standing up against a fanatical regime. The Order might be a useful group to ward off destruction, but it leaves in its wake broken people and villages: it’s clear that their presence can be just as harmful. In Cole’s world, power corrupts absolutely, whether it’s a magical power or one given for the protection of all.

This is a theme that I think is extremely relevant in 2018, not just in the United States, but wherever authoritarian attitudes have been strengthened in recent years.

But while fantasy and science fiction literature are ideal genres for political messaging, I think The Armored Saint succeeds beyond that. Again, it’s a short book, but it’s one loaded with excellent and well-sketched characters. There’s a world with fascinating history and backstory that I want to see much more of (the next installment is due out later this year, fortunately), and it’s all conveyed by Cole’s excellent writing. Simply put, it’s a novel that clicks, and once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop until the last page.

Bookshelves!

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I have a lot of books in my house. That’s sort of the side effect of being a science fiction fan and working for several years as a reviewer: you end up picking up a ton of books that catch your eyes. Since college, my library has grown, considerably. My two bookshelves expanded to 13, with stacks sprouting up everywhere I ran out of room.

For the last couple of years, we’ve been slowly moving one of our rooms towards a quasi-library space. It’s a weird sort of room: one half is our living room, with the couch and TV. This section was shunted off as storage / overflow for that room. It’s kind of dark, and while we had a couch there, it wasn’t really a useful space. We ditched the couch, tore down the wallpaper, and painted the room in a bright red. I’ve always loved the idea of having a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, and this seemed like an ideal place to do it.

When a local builder posted up in Front Porch Forum that he was looking for work, I reached out to him, seeing if he had experience in building these. He ended up coming over, sketched out the wall, came back with some measurements and some ideas, and got to work. A couple of days later, we’ve got a spiffy set of bookshelves.

I’m pretty thrilled with how these look: he screwed the shelves directly into the wall studs, with the vertical supports nailed in. They’re set in a bit, so they give the walls a little more of a floating effect with a narrower profile. Once it’s warm enough to open the windows, I’ll stain them a slightly darker color.

In all, there’s about 50 feet of bookshelf space, and it filled up immediately. I underestimated how many books were stacked up. I left a bit of space in each section to allow for the collection to grow, but it’ll eventually fill up, I’m sure.

Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Conflict

This is a thing that I’m a part of: Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict. The book is edited by my War Stories editing partner Jaym Gates, as well as Max Brooks (yes, that Max Brooks), ML Cavanaugh, and John Amble. It also has a foreword by Gen (RET) Stanley McChrystal (yes, that Stanley McChrystal). The book s hitting stores in May, and you can pre-order it from the University of Nebraska Press or Amazon.

The book came about out of a funny way. While I was freelancing, I pitched a series of articles to StarWars.com, a series of military history-style reports about the various notable battles in the Star Wars films, cartoons, and books. The original essay went through a couple of editing rounds, but it ultimately wasn’t a good fit, and I intended to post it here. But I ended up sending it over to August Cole, of the Atlantic Institute and co-author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, with the idea that it might be a good fit with his own site. Somewhere along the line, the idea turned into a book, and it became Strategy Strikes Back.

Along the way, it picked up some interesting authors and essays, including my essay about the Battle of Hoth and the tactical reasons for why the Empire not only lost the battle, but missed a critical point to eliminate the Rebellion because of its mistakes. There’s also essays about Clones and Stormtroopers being too distant from the societies that they serve, the destruction of Alderaan, the Jedi and professional militaries, and more. There’s also another Norwich MMH alum, BJ Armstrong, in the mix.

I’ve just finished looking over page proofs of the book, and now, it’s just going to be a little bit of time before it hits stores.

The Last Jedi

I liked it. But unlike The Force Awakens or Rogue One, where I had this visceral love for each, this one left me sitting going “huh.”

That’s not a bad thing. I’ve maintained that Star Wars fans hate changes, and in both instances, Lucasfilm made a couple of really good strategic decisions when they relaunched the franchise: give people what they want, before doing anything too radical with the story. J.J. Abrams was great as a get-the-films-out-of-the-gate sort of guy, because he’s so steeped in nostalgia, but Rian Johnson is a much better visual storyteller, and what we got was a film that really pushed the limits of what we expected a Star Wars film to be. People were understandably nervous about new Star Wars movies after The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

I wrote a bit for The Verge about why it was good that we didn’t get answers we wanted about Snoke or Rey’s parents, which essentially boils down to ‘Johnson was permitted to create a story unencumbered by the questions Abrams lined up,’ and I really appreciate that he was able to take and mold Star Wars the way he wanted to, which surprised me: LFL has, after all, fired three of its directors, and extensively reshot two of its films. We’ve seen this with Marvel and other franchises: series that get bogged down with a lot of baggage, which puts the storyteller into a corner.

The more I think about the film, the more I like it: there’s a lot to dig into in the script, visually it’s stunning, and there’s a lot of pushback against the tropes that define the franchise. There are, of course, things that I’ll nitpick at, like the notion that the First Order will waste 16 hours chasing a Resistance fleet. Finn and Rose never quite mesh, and their storyline is a bit of a waste. Phasma was wasted again. But there’s brilliant parts too: the stunning lightsaber fight in Snoke’s throne room, Yoda’s lesson that failure is the greatest teacher (which is on par with his other musings), and other bits, like the Porgs.

It’s a smart film, and if this is the direction that the franchise is going in, I’m really excited to see what’s in store next.

Building Link’s Hylian outfit from Breath of the Wild

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One of the unexpected joys that I’ve experienced this year is Breath of the Wild, an immersive entry in the Legend of Zelda series. I started playing the game back in August, when I lucked out and snagged a Nintendo Switch at the local used game store here. Breath of the Wild was the reason I was motivated to pick it up. I’ve been a fan of the Zelda games from since I was a kid, and this seemed like a good opportunity to get back into them.

What I didn’t expect was that it turned into a wonderful bonding moment with Bram. I started playing the game on my own, but slowly, Bram started creeping up beside me to watch me play. I went from playing the Switch as a tablet to playing it on the television, and together, we explored Hyrule together, figuring out shrines, riding over the plains on horses we captures, or slaying Moblins that we encountered. I felt guilty whenever I played it without him, and essentially played during my lunch breaks to scout out for the night’s adventure.

When it came time to start thinking about a Halloween costume for Bram, it quickly became a no brainer: the Hylian outfit that we were playing as. Link is a fairly popular character for Halloween costumes, and I saw a ton of kids sporting the Champion outfit at New York Comic Con earlier this year. But this one was a bit more interesting looking: there were belts, pads, and a cape. It looks interesting and the type of thing that an adventurer would wear in the game.

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The first component of the costume that I made is arguably the most important: Link’s Sheikah Slate, the tablet that he carries through the game, using it to access information or transport. I went to my local library, which recently added a 3D printer to their lineup. It took a day or two to get it printed, and once I had it, I ended up leaving the print lines in, to give it a bit of texture. I then gave it a paint job with brown, copper, orange, yellow, and blue. A bit of ribbon superglued onto the handle gave it a bit of extra detail. It came out really well, and it makes a neat prop, even if it weren’t next to a costume.

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After that, I came across designs for one of the game’s Guardian swords that you can pick up in the game. It’s a lightsaber-like sword that has a really cool design to it: it’s bright blue with a jagged edge. I sent the designs to a friend of mine, who 3D printed it (he has a bigger printer than the library) at 2/3rds scale. The handle is solid plastic, while the blade is hollow. I glued those together and gave it a similar paint job to that of the Sheikah Slate, as they’re nominally from the same people. I ended up using spraypaint for the blade, to give it a consistent color, and hand-painted the handle.

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It’s not perfect, but it came out nicely.

After those parts were done, I turned to the cloth parts. Some were easy to source: I picked up a set of tan pants from the store, and a light, solid-colored shirt that I then dyed the right color green, the two base garments for the outfit. My mother sewed together the tunic that Link wears over that green shirt, as well as the blue cape and hood, and the green cloth belt. Once those were on and trimmed a bit, I wanted to add some more detail to the shirt and cape. I bought some fabric paint, and hand-painted the details directly onto the garments. It wasn’t exact, but they came out decently enough.

 

Along the way, I was putting together the other details. I found a roll of brown marine vinyl on sale, and used that for the leather elements: a chest harness and trio of belts. I had Bram lie down on the vinyl, and roughly sketched out the chest harness, and trimmed it to fit. I hammered a couple of snaps onto it to hold it in place, and added some velcro for extra security. The belts were easy: we just measured and trimmed them out. I used some extra snaps to fashion a loop for the Sheikah Slate, and some snaps on the cross-chest belt to hold the plastic bow that I picked up at Walmart.

Next up was the forearm bracers. Bram ended up ditching these a couple of times on Halloween, but they’re useful pieces. I bought some craft foam, which I fitted to Bram and cut out some rough details to glue on. I used Velcro to secure them, although they can easily slide on and off as needed.

 

 

The other big foam project was the quiver for the arrows. This is a pretty detailed piece, and I originally thought about painting up a mailing tube or something. I ended up finding a pack of craft foam with adhesive backing: that made it super easy, because I could just cut out the right details, and apply them directly to the foam tube I made. A bit of vinyl wrapped around the middle and attached directly to the belt. I should have done two straps, because it swung around a lot, but it worked okay.

Lastly, we took a pair of mud boots that Bram recently wore out. I took some vinyl and glued it around the top, and folded it over around the edges. I spray-painted primer onto the boots and then covered that with a brown acrylic paint. That ended up flaking off after he wore them a couple of times, but for the most part, they looked okay.

The last thing I put together was the weird shoulder pad. I measured out a circle in my remaining piece of craft foam, and cut it in half, gluing the two edges together so that they were a weird dome. I did the same thing with a piece of vinyl, and glued that onto the foam. I then sketched out a ring of craft foam that I then glued onto the dome. I then secured it to Bram’s shoulder with some velcro.

 

After that, it was done, and when it all came together, it looked pretty good! We ended up taking the costume out to a couple of places: Trick-or-treating at Norwich University the week before Halloween, a Halloween train in Burlington, to daycare and trick-or-treating on Halloween itself. We got a lot of compliments on it — some people recognized it, but others thought he was an archer or Robin Hood. But the best compliment came from Bram, who declared that it was his most favorite costume, and that he wanted to wear it for “a thousand years.”

I took him up into the woods near our house for a couple of Hyrule-style pictures:

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All in all, it was an extremely rewarding costume to put together. It was a complicated costume with a lot of different parts, most of which I usually don’t work with. But more than that, it was a costume with a bit of emotion sunk into it: we both love playing this game, and it’s been something we’ve bonded over. Seeing Bram go into the woods and pretend to be Link is a moment that I won’t forget. I’m sad that he’ll eventually grow out of it, but I’m sure that we’ll figure out some sort of costume for next year that will be just as much fun to assemble. I can’t wait to see what it is.

Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is a razor-sharp look at the future

In 2009, I got a phone call for what turned out to be an internship at a new website about science fiction and science fact called io9. At the other end of the line was Annalee Newitz, the site’s editor, and we chatted about academics, science fiction, and what I wanted to write about. That was the start to a really wild ride, and ultimately has brought me to the place where I am today: writing about science fiction and science fact.

So, I’ll get it out of the way that I owe Annalee big time, but as with any book I crack open, I attempted to get into it objectively. Either way, I really adored Autonomous, her debut novel. It’s a book that crackles with a really intriguing, nuanced vision the future of work, drugs, technology, and ownership that’s both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. If you want a review that’s not mine, I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague Adi Robertson’s take over on The Verge. (I did get to take the picture for the review!)

Set about a century in the future, Autonomous follows a pharma pirate named Jack who reverse-engineers drugs to give out to those in need. This future is ruled over by powerful governmental organizations that rigorously enforce property rights and ownership laws, where people and robots can be legally contracted out for work (really, a form of slavery), if they don’t purchase an enfranchisement (citizenship) in any given territory.

When Jack reverse-engineers a drug called Zacuity, a work enhancement drug that gives its user a high while they go about their jobs. It turns out that it’s highly addictive and leads to some bad outcomes: addicts become so addicted to their work that they don’t do anything else, and they end up crashing trains or flooding cities, or just die from forgetting to take a break to drink water. Jack unleashes this drug on the open market, and has to turn around and figure out how to reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, this outbreak of addicts attracts the attention of the International Property Coalition, an organization that enforces intellectual property rights — with armed androids and soldiers. It sends a duo, Eliaz and Paladin, to track her down and take care of the problem.

Annalee plays with a lot of things in this book, and if you read io9 under her tenure, some of this will be familiar. The book plays out a sympathetic argument about intellectual property rights — how things like copyright and patents hamper innovation and contribute to the feedback loop that is capitalism. Jack and her academic compatriots are revolutionaries who work to try and break that system, opening free labs and pirating drugs.

On the other side of things, she explores some interesting thoughts on what the nature of work might be, for robots and humans. With the rise of intelligent robots, a system of contracts comes about: robots can offset the cost of their creation by going into a contract with their ’employers,’ and people are brought in under the same system. It’s essentially dressed-up slavery, and Annalee plays out these arguments between the Eliaz and Paladin’s relationship.

The two dynamics tie into one another, but they are a bit uneven: this feels almost like two books smashed together, but they complement one another decently enough, essentially coming down to citizenship acting as another form of property.

As someone who wrote for io9, I really appreciate the sheer vibrancy of this book. It’s packed with ideas and visuals and weird technologies. It’s like walking through a crowded bazaar somewhere: there’s too much to look and take in, and the book is a sensory overload in paper form. It’s buzzing with huge ideas that warrant their own stories, but Annalee buzzes past them as the main narrative thunders along.

Ultimately, it’s a fantastic, brilliant debut novel. I can’t wait for her next one.

Defining Genre Literature: The Career of Brian Aldiss

If you’ve been following along with my column for Kirkus Reviews (and these blog posts), you might have seen me reference one book a lot: Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (or its updated version, Trillion Year Spree.) These two histories are incredibly important in the world of genre history, and I’ve paged through my copies many, many times. Thus, it was really unfortunate to see Aldiss pass away last month. He’s a huge figure within the community, not only as a commentator, but as an author.

He’s largely unknown to mainstream audiences, save for the fact that his short story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ was adapted into a Steven Spielberg film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence – in my mind, an underrated film about a robotic boy yearning for the love of his mother.

I actually met Aldiss over a decade ago while I studied abroad in England — I attended a literary festival in Oxford, where he and fellow local author Philip Pullman discussed science fiction and fantasy. It was an interesting discussion, and I’m glad that I had the chance to meet him, if briefly.

Go read Defining Genre Literature: The Career of Brian Aldiss over on Kirkus Reviews.

Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall

It’s been a while. I’ve sadly neglected my Kirkus column: work has been busy, which means that on my off-days, I’m trying to stay away from the computer and focus on other writing / reading. I’m trying to get back into it, though, and to celebrate yesterday’s eclipse, I put together a story about Isaac Asimov’s famous story, Nightfall.

This is probably the first story that I read of Asimov’s, or at least, it was an early one. It’s one of my favorites, and going back to revisit it after years and years was something. It holds up nicely, I think. I also got a chance to interview the director behind one of the adaptations, which was a delight.

Go read History in a nutshell: Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov. Asimov devotes a couple of chapters to this story, from the conception of it to the later novelization by Robert Silverberg.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Second Edition, Adam Roberts. Roberts’ book is a fantastic resource, and when I learned that there was a new edition to it, I rushed out to buy it. This one is significantly longer, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say about other parts of SF history. This one has some good analysis of Asimov’s story.

I also interviewed Gwenyth Gibby, who directed the 2000 adaptation of the film. She noted that the film doesn’t hold up all that well, but she was happy with the work that she did on it. She’s no longer directing movies: She’s working on a PhD, and works at a small press, and was a delight to speak with, with some really interesting insights into not only the film, but the story.