I hope that you had a good week. Before I jump into this week's musings, I've got a an event announcement!
Becky Chambers @ Mysterious Galaxy
Before we get onto this week's stuff, I've got a cool announcement: I'll be appearing (virtually) at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore of San Diego in conversation with Wayfarers author Becky Chambers! The event will take place on Monday, May 17th at 7PM local time. You can find details about how to attend here. I hope that you'll sign up and join us.
This is really exciting: I'm a big fan of Chambers' work, and I'll be speaking with her about her final book, The Galaxy and the Ground Within. Anyone who purchases a book (and if you attend, please consider purchasing and supporting the store — it's had a rough go with the pandemic and with the loss of events like San Diego Comic-Con — and your purchase will certainly help them make it through these last couple of years) will get a signed bookplate.
While you're at it, check out the bookstore's event calendar: they're packed with some pretty cool-looking talks and interviews.
I'm also going to be chatting with Becky for this newsletter: stay tuned for that.
The week in SF/F
All Star Wars, all the time
You know what I'm going to be chatting about this week, right?
On any given day, it's sometimes hard to escape George Lucas's Star Wars, especially if you're a fan of science fiction. During the first week of May, it's utterly impossible if you aren't: May the Fourth has become something of a bonafide corporate / franchise holiday, a model that's inspired other corporate franchise owners to imitate, like Harry Potter Day on May 2nd or July 31st (commemorating the Battle of Hogwarts, as seen in the book series' final installment or Harry Potter's birthday), or Batman Day on September 19th (marking the first appearance of Batman in comics).
Cynically, it's any marketing department's dream. Everyone, even non-Star Wars fans know the phrase "may the force be with you", and on the 4th, the franchise becomes the focus of news broadcasts, new product announcements, and the latest entry in the growing franchise. On the corporate side, Star Wars has always, always, always been about the ancillary products, and as much as we might complain or roll our eyes at the sheer number of things you can slap the logo onto, it's part of the franchise that'll always be with us.
But uncynically, that day's something that brings a lot of people together. The Star Wars community is a vast, multifaceted beast, with lots of arms and limbs and squabbley bits. It's been a rough couple of years being a Star Wars fan (ahem) between the arguments over women and people of color, the direction of the franchise, or just bad-faith YouTubers wanting to spike their subscriber numbers. In 2019, I attended Star Wars Celebration and came away refreshed by the positivity and enthusiasm for the franchise, and while it's not quite the same, May the 4th always gives me a little bit of a happy buzz just seeing the other people out there who share the same appreciation for the stories that have been so central to my life.
On the fourth, an acquaintance in the 501st , Mike Forester, used the day to launch a new podcast that he'd been putting together: Armor Party. In that debut episode, he spoke with John Rodriguez, who goes by the name Alpha Ignition online. I like podcasts, but I'm not really one for talk shows, but this one caught my interest for obvious reasons, and over the course of that first episode, they talk quite a bit about the value that Star Wars has brought to their lives: a community of fellow fans.
The festivities of May the 4th usually extend before and after the day. May 1st is 501st Day (5-01, get it?), which prompts plenty of members to change their profile pictures or post up new pictures of them in costume (then there's Revenge of the 5th/6th, etc.).
I went trooping for the first time in over a year in an event that picked up on the momentum of the occasion, an outdoor event piloted by Come Alive Outside that involved a bunch of hidden Grogru figures along outdoor paths. We were on hand to draw attention to the event and pose for pictures. I forgot how much I missed it.
Trooping — for those of you who aren't familiar with the 501st Legion — is what we call our appearances. For obvious reasons, we didn't do anything last year as a legion. My last troop was a Make-A-Wish event in Burlington in February 2020. Since then, my armor has been languished in my basement.
With numbers finally improving around the US (and particularly here in Vermont), we finally got an all-clear to start doing events again. It was great to get out, especially for a low-key, outdoors event. We posed for some pictures, attracted some strange looks from the bros in pickup trucks.
I suited up as a Clone Trooper from Attack of the Clones — something I last put on in December 2019 for the Rise of Skywalker premiere in LA. It was... painful. I've gained a little weight since then, so not everything fit quite right, but it was a good reminder that I don't have the body that I did when I first constructed it when I was in my early 20s. (I've got the origin story for that particular costume here).
The forearms and thighs are difficult to put on, the abs/butt is pretty cracked and really needs to be replaced. This is a costume that I suspect will be a bit like a Ship of Theseus — something that'll get replaced piece by piece over time. I've got a shiny new belt for it, and I think I'll start sourcing some replacement parts. I did get to try out a new accessory for it — a backpack — which was fantastic; I barely noticed it while walking around.
My drive for costuming took a bit of a plunge in the last year: I picked up two costumes from other members selling them in fire sales: a Din Djarin and a new First Order stormtrooper, and proceeded to not touch them for months. I don't know if it's depression, freelance hustling, or the lack of troops, but I just didn't feel the urge to work on them.
But while it was fun to endure the pinches of armor that didn't really fit comfortably and an hour and a half drive each way was the chance to see some of my friends in armor. We've gotten together sporadically over the last couple of months — a quick meeting to hand off some merch or say hi from a distance. This was the first real opportunity for us to hang out in armor, doing something we all enjoyed together. We've been able to meet online for zoom sessions or see pictures on social media, but there really wasn't any good replacement for seeing one another at a troop, getting to catch up, posing for pictures, and generally reveling in our collective hobby.
For all the collective trauma that we've endured, for all the nastiness online from bad faith groups like the Fandom Menace, racist trolls, or anyone else harshing the buzz, I've long found the Star Wars community to be a source of comfort. My earliest moments in fandom came by way of online message forums like TheForce.net's Jedi Council Forums, and while those have largely fallen by the wayside to online gathering points like Facebook groups or Twitter conversations, it's something that I can reliably turn to talk with friends and strangers about this shared collective interest.
I was exchanging emails with a subscriber earlier this week, and they noted that they wanted to read some sort of bigger picture thing about why I like science fiction or something along those lines.
That prompt's been stuck in my head: why do I like Star Wars? Certainly for the aesthetic, design, and some of the stories. But the answer that I kept coming back to is the friends that I've made because of that shared interest. My membership in the 501st has led to many healthy relationships (and to be fair, some unhealthy ones) and friendships with others, opportunities and musings with those people I've encountered over the decades. My best friends and I bonded over the movies and books.
So is May the 4th a cynical marketing day or an earnest celebration of all things Star Wars? Why not both?
I finished Abraham Reisman's excellent biography of Stan Lee, True Believer over the weekend. I'll likely have some longer thoughts on it in the next week or so, but it's a book that actively and aggressively works to puncture the public image of the man. You know what it is: Lee smiling, yelling "Excelsior!", and greeting fans. His actual life was quite a bit more complicated and problematic, from his tendency to erase his collaborators, his troubled home life, and financial problems. I'd recommend it if you're a Marvel (comics or films) fan, and if you don't mind getting that image of Lee changed a bit.
Other books on the list: Additionally, I'm reading Jeff VanderMeer's Hummingbird Salamander, Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis' 2034, C.L. Clark's The Unbroken and Becky Chambers' The Galaxy and the Ground Within. I also finally made some headway in Charles Soule's Light of the Jedi.
I've been doing some work on an upcoming list of summer SF/F books, and I've got a nice stack of things that I'm looking forward to in the coming months. P. Djèlí Clark's A Master of Djinn, Carrie Vaughn's Questland, Becky Chambers' A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and Shelley Parker-Chan's She Who Became the Sun are all on my shortlist.
- 30 years of Thrawn. 30 years ago last weekend, Timothy Zahn brought back the Star Wars franchise with Heir to the Empire. For subscribers, I wrote about why the book has endured, and what lessons folks should take from it as we look at the next 30 years of the franchise.
- Babylon 5's antifascist lessons. Earlier this year, I ended up getting sucked into a Babylon 5 rewatch after writing about how the series got a facelift for HBO Max, and marveled at how well the series held up, even nearly 30 years later. That turned into an essay for Uncanny Magazine about how the series serves as a powerful tale about the creeping nature of fascism and how it takes people to have a strong moral character and the willingness to stand up for what's right — something the character's lead cast often does.
- Building the Bad Batch. Over on Cosplay Central, I interviewed four cosplayers who are working on various costumes from The Bad Batch.
- Card crisis. Pokémon has been experiencing something of an explosion in the collector's market over the course of the pandemic: I've seen this firsthand, trying to get cards for my son. They've hard to get — apparently Target is telling its employees to call the cops in instances where it becomes a problem in stores, and Walmart has had problems with adults opening up cereal boxes to steal cards.
In related writing, Jason Koebler writes over on Vice about how that growing popularity had caused something of a crisis in the collecting community: not just because of the scarcity in cards in stores, but with the companies that are responsible for grading the cards for that market.
- Expanding Universes. Because it was Star Wars Day earlier this week, I opted to reprint a series that I'd written for the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog back in 2015: Building a Galaxy, which was an in-depth look at how the Star Wars Expanded Universe came about. It's a six-part series that I've gone through an edited and updated a bit: Origin Stories, Heir to the Trilogy, Expanding the Universe, New Publisher, New Directions, Unexplored Territory, and Endings and Beginnings. I didn't email these (I didn't want to overload your inbox on the 4th), but I hope that you'll check them out. This series really changed how I looked at the SWEU.
- Humanizing the Clones. Given the release of The Bad Batch this week, I figure it's worth pointing back to a piece I published last year on Polygon about clone troopers, and how The Clone Wars helped put a human face on war.
- Turning the show back on. I came across this story about how a bunch of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark fans are working to catalog all of the show's performances through bootlegs. TOTD, if you don't remember, is the maligned Spider-man broadway musical that spectacularly crashed and burned. Watching a couple of the videos, I'm confused about what was actually happening, but the idea of an online community springing around these bootlegs is just fascinating.
That's all for this week. As always, this newsletter is supported by a small contingent of supporting members, who get additional in-depth commentary, features, and reports. You can sign up here, and it really does help make a difference in continuing the work I do. If supporting isn't in the cards, that's fine too — please consider sharing this newsletter and issue on Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, etc.
Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend,