My best work in 2021

Thank you for reading what I wrote this year

My best work in 2021
Graphic: Andrew Liptak

Another year has come to a close. It's hard to believe that a year can go by so quickly, and yet... so slowly. 2021 was certainly an experience, but for me, I think it was one of my better years for writing, especially long-form work on this newsletter.

Transfer Orbit has become more than just the occasional newsletter that I began sending out a couple of years in 2018, and the online world of the last couple of years has convinced me more than ever that there's more value in long-form writing than there is in other online spaces. It's also reinforced that there's a need to cover the worlds of science fiction and fantasy from all angles, from being a fan to to how it's produced, labor conditions, politics, and everything in between. My goal in the coming year is to continue to dig into these types of stories in order to best understand how our stories, entertainment, and content helps inform the real world.

I'd like to take a moment to say thank you, and to especially thank those subscribers who support the newsletter. Your support is absolutely what makes this type of reporting possible, and it's kept me going through what's become a difficult year. I look forward to getting your emails, to chatting with you in the Slack channel, and even the occasional times when I meet you in person. Y'all are one of the things that's gotten me through 2021.

2022 should be an interesting one. I have a book coming out! I'll likely be hitting up a whole bunch of conventions and events throughout the summer, COVID-19 pandemic willing. I'll likely be talking a bit more about the book in the coming months, and about cosplay at large. There are a bunch of exciting books and movies coming up (stay tuned for my 2022 anticipated book list in the next week), and quite a bit more. I'm excited about the possibilities and the new things that I'll learn.

I've spent the last couple of days thinking about the last year, and going through what I've written. Here are the stories that I'm most happy with that I wrote in 2021. They're a mix of commentaries about how genre entertainment is used, deep-dive interviews that gleaned out some interesting insights into the writing process, and some really weird stories about things like audiobooks, fiction platforms, cosplay companies, and more. They appeared in places like Clarkesworld Magazine, Polygon, Seven Days Slate, and Uncanny Magazine, in addition to other pieces that I placed in Cosplay Central, Lifehacker, and I'm grateful for those outlets for giving me a place to put this work.  

Here's my favorite stories from the last year:

Orwell Would Be Horrified by the Right Wing’s Use of Orwellian
When Josh Hawley and Donald Trump Jr. invoke 1984, it’s clear they don’t know what they’re talking about.

This was a bit of a reactionary piece after the January 6th attack, when every right-wing politician was trotting out the road "Orwellian" as they tried to backpedal. I released it to subscribers, and Slate ended up picking it up to syndicate it.

When dystopian fiction comes to life
What science fiction tells us about our current moment in 2021

Following the January 6th attack, I realized that there was an opportunity to look at how fiction had examined such a moment, incorporating everything from populism to how it was tackling and envisioning the end result of the rise of right-wing extremism.

Fan fiction is the lifeblood of fandom
Fan fiction’s strength isn’t based on its literary merits, but on the fans that it brings together

This piece was spurred on by a tweet that went viral in January complaining about fan fiction and how many authors seemed to get their start writing it. This is something that I'm trying to avoid writing about — quick reactions to a dumb thing that someone said on Twitter, but it got me thinking about looking into why so many authors got their start with fan fiction, and what the deeper history of the form is within sci-fi and fantasy fandom.

Adapting the department
Law & Order: SVU, The Rookie, and others in the post-George Floyd era Last year, I decided to binge watch my favorite fantasy TV series: Law & Order: SVU. All 21 seasons of it. I started with Season 13, right when the series experienced a bit of a reset when

This was something that had been on my mind all fall 2020 after George Floyd's murder: how would cop shows approach it? That particular genre is pretty firmly rooted in the moment, and I think they serve as a good barometer for how we're processing big events in the country.

Clarkesworld Magazine - Science Fiction & Fantasy
Wagon Train to the Arctic by Andrew Liptak

This is a topic that I've written quite a bit over the years, and I sort of saw this piece as a bit of a companion to a piece that I published in Pando Daily in 2020: Tech CEOs should stop using sci-fi as a blueprint for humanity's future in space. Space travel is an important way forward, and it's interesting how we've wrapped up our efforts there in a sort of mythology, and as we continue to launch ourselves into space, it's something to examine and think about.

The hateful sci-fi novel that brought white supremacists together
The Turner Diaries inspired generations of white supremacists, and its narrative filled with racist tropes continues to have an impact.

I wrote earlier in the year about the role that sci-fi played in the movements that brought about the January 6th riots / insurrection, and I had a third piece in a sort of spiritual trilogy, something I'd wanted to write about for a while. A book called The Turner Diaries has long been a part of that white supremacist movement, and I decided to flip through it and examine how it as a science fictional narrative helped bring a hateful movement together.

Martha Wells Interview: Writing Murderbot
Martha Wells on her blockbuster series Murderbot: finding common ground with anxiety-driven killer robots, television, and second chances.

A big thing that I finally got to do more of this year was in-depth interviews with authors whose books I really admired. One of those was with Martha Wells, who had just published a new installment in her ongoing (and Hugo-winning!) Murderbot series, and she provided some good insights into the creation of the series.

Babylon 5 and Antifascism - Uncanny Magazine
In the annals of science fiction television, plenty of shows stand out as classics. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek and its spinoffs presented an optimistic vision for the future in the 1960s, Ronald D. Moore’s revival of Battlestar Galactica was a gritty, realistic take on the stresses of genocide and…

Babylon 5 has long been one of my favorite shows, and I got sucked into rewatching the entire thing when it ended up on HBO Max with a bit of a facelift. That's been great for fans, but while watching it, I was struck at how principled J. Michael Straczynski's story is and how he's particularly focused on telling a story that opposes fascism. I had a bit of additional insight here in the form of his excellent autobiography, Becoming Superman. I was thrilled that Uncanny agreed to pick up the piece.

Returning to a lost galaxy
How Kenneth C. Flint’s long-lost and unpublished Star Wars novel was unearthed and lit up the fan community

This was the first of a handful of wild stories that I got to write about this year: someone decided to print up copies of a never-published Star Wars novel, and while Amazon pulled the listing pretty quickly, copies of this "rare" novel are now selling on eBay (still!) for hundreds of dollars. It's an interesting example of how the early Star Wars book franchise came together, and how some fans are still clamoring for those stories.

I also ended up reprinting a series of posts that I wrote for Barnes & Noble about the creation of the original Expanded Universe: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. I also published a 30-year retrospective of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire.

The rekindling of Fireside Magazine
After publishing a racist audio version of one of its essays in November 2020, Fireside Magazine is working to regain its status as one of science fiction’s leading anti-racist voices

This was an interesting scoop for Transfer Orbit: Fireside became embroiled in a racism scandal last year when it released an audio recording that featured a white narrator reading a Black author's essay. It caused a bit of a firestorm, and I spoke with founder Brian White about the steps that he was taking as the magazine's owner to try and turn the ship around and bring Fireside to its former glory.

Interview: Carrie Vaughn on tactile escapism and her new book Questland
An interview with Carrie Vaughn about her latest novel Questland, immersive entertainment and cosplay

One of the books that I absolutely blew through this year was Carrie Vaughn's Questland, a sort of Westworld-meets-Dungeons & Dragons adventure in which an English professor is asked by the US government to accompany a team of soldiers into an advanced, fantasy-themed theme park that's gone rogue.

I ended up speaking with Vaughn about the story, about immersion in entertainment, cosplay, and fantasy.  

Will Members of the Military Ever Be Willing to Fight Alongside Autonomous Robots?
A writer and military historian responds to Justina Ireland’s “Collateral Damage.”

The folks at Slate asked me to provide a companion essay for Justina Ireland's fantastic short story "Collateral Damage", about some soldiers who are tasked with working alongside a robotic companion. It doesn't go well, and I ended up writing about the necessity for trust between human soldiers and the AI systems that they'll eventually be relying on.

The case of the disappearing Dune
An audiobook narrator spent two months creating a new audio edition of Dune, only to discover that the entire project was a scam

This was one of those weird — what the hell happened sort of stories that I stumbled upon earlier this year. An audiobook narrator was commissioned to re-record the audiobook for Frank Herbert's Dune. He did, but quickly learned it was all a scam when Audible pulled the project from its storefront. He's now out of all the work he put into it, and the entire episode proved to be an interesting window in how Audible's ACX platform works and how it can be manipulated.

The rise and fall of Curious Fictions
Storytelling platform Curious Fictions is shutting down. It filled a unique need for writers: hosting their short fiction backlist.

For the last couple of years, I've been storing my short fiction on a web platform called Curious Fictions, a neat site that allows authors to post up their short stories and make their back-list available to anyone who wants to purchase their stories. It was a very cool idea ... that never quite took off. The site closed down this year, and I spoke with the founder about what happened, and what the site could have been.

Squandered legacy
The rise and fall of ANOVOS

In Star Wars cosplay circles, the name ANOVOS has become something that'll elicit a lot of angry muttering from fans. The company landed with a splash years ago when it brought out the first commercially-available Star Wars costumes, only to get bogged down in a mess of late or never-delivered orders, missed promises, and lots of bad feelings on both sides. The company appears to have gone away, but it's been replaced by a new one, with the same products.

A decade of The Expanse: an interview with James S.A. Corey
Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck look back on their epic space opera series, writing for television, and what they hope its impact will be a decade from now

This year was a big one for The Expanse. Not only is the TV series in its final season right now and the final book, Leviathan Falls, in the series now out, it's the 10th anniversary of Leviathan Wakes' release. I spoke with Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck about the anniversary, building out their world, and generally looking back at what they've built.

Apple TV’s Foundation is also a stealthy adaptation of Asimov’s Robot books
Crossover, baby!

Apple's Foundation was one of the shows that I was looking forward to the most, and while it was a bit uneven in its first season, I was generally pleased with it. As the first season landed, I wrote about one of the more interesting points about the world: the show's creators brought in a robot. It's a neat nod to the deeper history of Isaac Asimov's novels, and it was a good opportunity to write a bit about how Asimov expanded the series and connected his two most famous storylines together.

P. Djèlí Clark on history, fantasy, and how racism creates monsters
P. Djèlí Clark on history, fantasy, and how racism creates monsters

One of the authors that I fell for the most was P. Djèlí Clark and his fantastical Cairo stories. I started with The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and quickly moved on to A Master of Djinn, sucked in by the worldbuilding and vivid characters.

I interviewed Clark about that world, his novella Ring Shout, and his approach to writing, and came away with a really insightful interview about how he's approached depicting power and anti-colonial sentiments in his world.

The art of future war
The evolution of military science fiction

Halo experienced its 20th anniversary this year, and I decided to take a moment to look back on the history of the franchise and how it fits into the larger world of military science fiction, something I've been wanting to do for a while.

The subtle ways the War on Terror has crept into Halo
Look closely, and you’ll find plenty of real-world influence in the sci-fi series

If there was any one piece that I'd point to as my best of the year, it would likely be this one. I remember the germ of the idea way back in 2016 or 2017 while I was at The Verge: how Halo seemed to be reflecting the changes that the real-world military was going through, in real-time.

With Halo's 20th anniversary this year, it seemed like a good time to return to the idea, refine it a bit, and chat with a whole bunch of people, from some of the original designers, to Halo: Infinite's director, to a former Marine about how the look and feel of Halo has evolved.

I think this is an important story, because it looks at how militarism seeps into popular culture in some unexpected ways, and how the visual design is so important to a story. And now that I've played Halo Infinite quite a bit, I'm pleased to see that a lot of those visual cues are still there and advancing forward in the world.

Destroying Empires
Brian Staveley on his latest epic fantasy, The Empire’s Ruin, taking risks, and throwing away an entire book to write a better one

I've long been a fan of Brian Staveley's books — not just because he's a fellow Vermonter, but because he's sketched out an intriguing world. Over the last couple of years, I've chatted with him about his new book, and followed some of its ups and downs as he wrote one version, scrapped it completely, then started over.

After I finished his latest book, The Empire's Ruin, I took the train down to Brattleboro and spent a couple of hours chatting with him about his process, and how he really seemed to level up in this installment.

Introducing Fran Wilde’s new SF/F publication: Sunday Morning Transport
Introducing Julian Yap and Fran Wilde’s new weekly speculative fiction magazine, Sunday Morning Transport

Another scoop for Transfer Orbit: Fran Wilde approached me asking about how to get the word out about her new project with Julian Yap, and I realized it would make for a good feature. This sounds like a really exciting project, and I'm looking forward to seeing new issues in my inbox in the coming year.

Vermont Sci-Fi Author Craig Alanson Finds Self-Publishing Success
Most every writer who’s ever put pen to paper has had the same dream at some point: walking into work and giving notice. They’re going...

A couple of years ago, a relative of mine came up from Florida to visit family, and my uncle mentioned something interesting: he was friends with an author who lived here in Vermont, a guy named Craig Alanson, who'd become well-known for his self-published books. We ended up chatting a bit online, and I'd filed him away as a potential story when the time was right.

As it turned out, the right time was this year, as I've been interested in the nature of the world of self-publishing and audio fiction, and it turned out that Craig is a good window into that world. I ended up driving up to his house in South Hero to spend a couple of hours chatting with him about his work and what his process is. I was very happy to see the piece in print in the local alt-weekly, Seven Days.

‘I love making shit up’: Hellboy’s Mike Mignola on his new comic series, Radio Spaceman
Mignola breaks down his pandemic sketch serendipity

Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics have long been favorites of mine, and when the opportunity came up to talk about his new comic Radio Spaceman, I jumped at the chance. What I didn't expect was to get into some interesting aspects of his creative process, and how he's consciously not trying to build out a big, overarching world that'll be a successor to Hellboy.

Those stories are just a handful of the ones that I published in the last year — Transfer Orbit saw a total of 159 (including this one) posts in 2021. I'm happy with how the site has come along, and I'm looking forward to the challenges that the coming year brings.

What will 2022 bring? I've got a handful of longer stories that I'm starting to write (two I'm ready to, and expect to see those in the coming weeks), as well as a handful of other things that I've had on my radar, interviews that I'd like to transcribe, and more. (Here's where I slip in the obligatory reminder to sign up as a paid subscriber to help make this happen.)

For those paid subscribers, I'll likely continue to do the news posts, although I'll likely pull back on emailing those: they might just go live on the site, with a link rounding them all up once a week or so. I'll be working to find the right balance for how that might look.

And of course, there's the stuff that you can't predict, the weird stories about Dune narrators or second chances or that cool story that just resonates. I'm looking forward to writing all of them.

Those of you who've followed Transfer Orbit since the beginning or those who've discovered it this year (And everyone in between), thank you for coming along on the ride in 2021. It means a lot knowing that I'm not sending words out into a vacuum, that what I've been doing has resonated or meant something to you, or helped you stay up to date. I'm looking forward to the next 12 months with you.

Here's to a hopefully good new year,