Talk: J.R.R. Tolkien and World War I on October 31th!

I’ll be talking at Norwich University on Monday, October 31st at noon, about J.R.R. Tolkien’s experiences during World War I and how it impacted his works. I’ll be there along with Professor Gina Logan.

Here’s the description:

Please join us October 31st at noon at the Sullivan Museum and History Center for a presentation by adjunct English faculty Gina Logan and Andrew Liptak, (M’09) as they discuss the influence of Tolkien’s service in World War I on his life and writings including the portrayal of the conflict in the Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien’s description of Frodo and Sam’s journey through Mordor as a reflection of his memories of combat. Light Lunch served, free and open to the public.
 Should be a fun time!

Jerry Pournelle and the Personal Computer

There was a really cool article that came out in The Atlantic a while back about a book called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum that raised an interesting question: who was the first author to write their novel on a personal computer?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a science fiction author: Jerry Pournelle, who’s known for some of his military SF books and his fairly right-wing politics. Science Fiction authors were early adopters, which makes sense, given the field’s origins in tech reporting and promotion.

Kirschenbaum’s book is a really fascinating one: a crunchy, niche-y history of this weird, obscure topic that touches everyone. It’s one of those things that I’d never thought about, but it’s an interesting history.

Go read Jerry Pournelle and the Personal Computer over on Kirkus Reviews.

Gold, Kiiara

This is a song that’s been on rotation on my phone the last couple of weeks. It’s a cool song: I like the intro, and the overall groove to it. The entire EP, low kii savage, is also worth picking up.

Nightshades, by Melissa F. Olson

Nightshades was a book that I had placed on Gizmodo’s ‘Must Read’ list this summer, and it’s been one that I’ve had lingering on my to-read list since it’s come out. I picked it up between books, and it’s a fun vampire story that’s a solid, quick read.

This is a YAVN: Yet Another Vampire Novel, although it’s a short one. Vampires are out and about in Chicago, killing a whole bunch of people, which gets the FBI involved. One of the new agents is Alex McKenna, and he is placed in charge of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations in the city after several fellow agents are killed.

This is the type of book that is quite a bit of fun, even as just about every element is made of recycled materials. It’s like a fun cross of Underworld, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and maybe a bit of True Blood. That’s okay: it’s a book that’s a perfect sort of beach read, or a quick book to pick up if you’re traveling or reading on the go.

This is one of’s latest offerings, and the short size is a neat feature for most of the books that they’re putting out. There’s some bugs along with this feature, though: the short stories sort of rely on the idea that the author has a much bigger world going on behind the scenes, and that these stories are discrete episodes that pop up. (Fran Wilde’s Jewel and her Lapidary has the same issue). Nightshades moves at a fast pace, and as a result, there’s a whole bunch of character things that happen far too quickly: one character locates a shade (Vampire) rather quickly, and convinces her to help out just as fast. There’s some other things like this that happen, and the ending of the book definitely makes this feel as though it’s designed around a pilot episode of a television show, with no word on whether or not it’ll be picked up.

That’s okay by me. It’ll be interesting to see just how works with these authors and shorter works: I’m guessing that we’ll see hugely successful ones get picked up for new installments, which could make the publisher a fairly unique offering when it comes to storytelling: longer-form stories, but not quite serials.

Even if it’s not the most original novel out there, Nightshades is entertaining. Olson sinks nicely into her world with a fun story. Hopefully, there’ll be more to come before too much longer.

Vermont’s Green Mountain Squad



Let me tell you about one person: Scott Allen.

When I was in High School, I was obsessed with Star Wars. I’d read the books, watched the movies, and chatted about everything on internet forums such as the’s Jedi Council Forums. It wasn’t long before that interaction wasn’t enough: I needed more.

Throughout my time at Harwood Union High School, I’d pestered our band director to play the music from Star Wars. Poor Mr. Rivers put up with six years of me constantly asking, and eventually caved: the last concert that I played in, we played a selection of the music. That should of been enough, but we needed to do more: I invited the 501st Legion to come play.

This was 2003, and the group was much smaller then. I had found out about this amazing organization through pictures in Star Wars Insider, and figured that they might send someone up. To my surprise, one of them did: Scott. He drove up from Rhode Island, suited up and took part in the concert, marching down one of the central aisles. The crowd went nuts. I also knew what I wanted to do next: get one of my own.

Scott ended up selling me a suit of armor: a pre-trimmed FX kit that came with everything. I wasn’t really aware of any presence in Vermont, although there were a couple of members. I trooped in public a couple of times, at Halloween. At college, I was the guy with the storm trooper suit. I attended Celebration 3, meeting other members of the group for the first time.

When I left college, the 501st turned out to be the perfect hobby for someone with a bit of disposable income and plenty of time on the weekends. I began making the long drive down every couple of weekends to anything I could get time to do: conventions, bookstore events, even escorted Snoop Dogg once in Times Square. I bought a Clone Trooper, and assembled it in my apartment.

There weren’t many of my friends who were interested in the group, however. My friend Mike joined up, and we trooped together before he moved away. Then I found my friend Lara, and eventually convinced her to join. We got Dave to come out of retirement and join us. Another trooper joined us, then another, over the years. We trooped a bunch of things in Vermont, anything to establish a basic presence in the state. We dreamed of putting together a proper squad, so that we’d have a good, permanent presence in the state. I tracked recruits and followed up with people: more often than not, they didn’t come through.

Then last year, we had a flood. We set up a booth at Vermont Comic Con, and got a long list of names: people who were genuinely interested. We did a group build; six boxes of Stormtrooper armor arrived at my house one day. I set up a Facebook group, e-mailed everyone on my list. By December, we had 10 people, and appeared at the first screening of The Force Awakens and blew everyone away.

And now, we just got word that our unit is now approved: the Green Mountain Squad is now, after so many miles, e-mails, chats and armor building sessions. It’s more than just a unit: it’s a community of like-minded people who share an interest in Star Wars, for sure, but who have bought in to the ideals of the 501st Legion: giving back to the community. I’m proud of the group that’s come together: it’s like finding friends who you knew were out there, but hadn’t come across yet.

All of that comes down to Scott, who made that massive drive from Rhode Island, just to make a high school band concert the best that it could be.

I can’t wait to see what we do next: I think that the best is yet to come.

To Boldly Imagine: Star Trek’s Half Century

Star Trek is one of those franchises that I’ve only dipped into occasionally: I never watched much of the shows, and I was more of a Babylon 5Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica fan in college.

That said, Star Trek was a huge, enormous influence on every aspect of science fiction, introducing millions of non-readers to what had largely been a closed community of readers. Part of its success here was that it pulled in some of the best writers of the time to help create the show, such as Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. Without those influences, Star Trek might not have been the influence that it was.

Go read To Boldly Imagine: Star Trek’s Half Century over on Kirkus Reviews.


  • The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years, edited by Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman. This is the first of two volumes, an oral history of the entire Star Trek franchise. It’s a pretty amazing couple of volumes. The editors let every party speak for themselves, and it’s like a fantastic documentary for the history of Star Trek.
  • Age of Wonders: Exploring the World of Science Fiction, David Hartwell. Hartwell has some good points about how Star Trek fit in with ‘traditional’ fandom.
  • The Cambridge Companion to American Science, edited by Eric Carl Link and Gerry Canavan. I recently picked this book up, and it has some great insights into the relationship between Trek and Fandom.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts makes a couple of excellent points here: namely that Star Trek was responsible for bringing more women into genre fandom.


Proxima Centauri b reality check


Proxima Centauri b: Very, very cool news, but not because it’s a planet the size of Earth that’s not too far away. What’s really neat about this is that it’s a planet that’s orbiting a Red Dwarf. Red dwarfs are small and cooler than our sun, but they’re the most common stars in the universe.

We now know that planets appear to be a pretty common feature around the universe, and this indicates that there could be unimaginable numbers of similar planets in existence. That’s pretty exciting stuff right there: out of those numbers, there’s going to be other Earth-sized planets right smack in the sweet spot where water can exist.

That’s a pretty good starting point for assuming that there’s life out there in the universe. Anyone who reads science fiction has probably assumed that we’re not alone in the universe. When you consider the sheer number of stars out there, even a small fraction containing water-bearing planets would be an unimaginably high number. A small fraction of that containing life would be the same.

It’s exciting news, but there’s something interesting with how it’s portrayed.

Here’s a collection of headlines that have popped up throughout the day this week:

This Planet Just Outside Our Solar System Is ‘Potentially Habitable’ (NPR)

Discovery of potentially Earth-like planet Proxima b raises hopes for life (Guardian)

Possibly habitable planet found orbiting nearest star (CBS)

A planet orbits around the closest star to our Solar System — and it may be habitable (The Verge)

New neighbor: Scientists discover closest habitable exoplanet (Fox News)

You can see the common point in all of these: Proxima Centauri b does appear to be in the habitable zone of its host star, but that’s not to say that Proxima Centauri b is Earth-like, habitable and ready for us to move in.What scientists discovered was a planet that appears to be about the size of Earth, in the habitable zone. But, there’s a lot that actually makes a planet habitable. Venus is a planet that’s almost exactly the same size as Earth. It’s a bit too close to our sun, but it’s the atmosphere that really makes it a nasty place to live. It’s thick, has lots of pressure and acid. Every spacecraft we’ve dropped to the surface have melted in a matter of minutes. (We could live in the atmosphere, if we wanted to try some floating cities).

My friend Andria Schwortz pointed out that even if it’s Earth-sized, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a rocky planet like Earth: we literally only know the planet’s mass and orbit. It could be a gas planet. It could be a rocky planet without an atmosphere. It could also be an Earth-like planet with an atmosphere and liquid water.

Atmospheres are important, because they help regulate temperatures on the surface, whether or not there’s liquid water, and so forth. Earth-sized doesn’t necessarily equal habitable for humans. There’s a long distance from the right size all the way up to habitable. The atmosphere needs to be right (which means nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc), the right pressure, the right temperatures, and so forth.

Our environment is the product of billions of years of life and some external factors. There’s also Earth’s plate tectonics and its moon, which could have aided life. There’s also Earth’s magnetic field, which helps protect the surface from radiation from our Sun. Life is complicated. Our Moon and some of the outer planets are responsible from shielding Earth from devastating asteroid impacts. There were lots of points along the way that made our existence pretty spectacular. The sheer number of planets make the difficulty of life coming through certainly possible.

Also, we’re probably not going to set people down here. It’s four light years away, which means it would take just under two hundred thousand years to reach this system with our conventional technology, or about the same length of time humanity has existed. These are unimaginably large distances. If we can boost our way up to a sizable fraction of lightspeed, we’re still talking about hundreds of years in transit.