Into the black

William Shatner's launch into space is fitting, and he brought along a message that we could all stand to listen to.

Into the black
Image: NASA

Happy Friday!

I hope that you've been doing well—Transfer Orbit has been a bit quiet the last couple of weeks while I've been finishing off the book, but I think it's pretty much done! Stay tuned for some further details in the nearish future about that.

This week, I wanted to shine a light on a bit of science fiction that became reality this week: Captain Kirk ended up in space.

It was only a matter of time before a science fiction icon ended up going into space. On Wednesday, Star Trek star William Shatner hit that milestone when he boarded Blue Origins' New Shepard rocket for its NS-18 launch, the second such launch that carried commercial passengers briefly into space.

Blue Origin and the larger private spaceflight industry has garnered more than a little criticism over the nature of the business (I've written my fair share about this) and I've seen more than a little eye-rolling over Shatner because of his general (sometimes terrible) behavior on Twitter. Regardless of what I think about the bezonauts, there's something great about seeing an actor who's done a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to inspiring space nerds to go into the sciences or space itself.

Shatner going into space was genuinely cool to see. Star Trek has long been involved in the promotion of space: for example, a letter campaign from fans prompted officials to change the name of the first vehicle in the space shuttle program to Enterprise (it was originally to be named Constitution), and various actors have helped with NASA's promotional efforts, while countless NASA employees have cited the series as an inspiration to go into space — even taking the iconic uniforms from the franchise into orbit.

I was a little surprised by Shatner's reaction—I expected him to be a bit more of teh showman, but while watching the video, it was clear that this was something he was pretty apprehensive and nervous about. Upon landing, the sheer dumbstruck awe of his experience left him in tears, and I think for all of the scripted and polished statements and pronouncements from people like Bezos, Shatner's thoughts felt genuinely honest and heartfelt.

In a couple of ways, I was reminded of a scene from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Haunter of the Dark." In the story, a writer named Robert Blake is researching a story, and comes across an ancient artifact called "The Shining Trapezohedron", and accidentally unleashes an alien creature that menaces the town, and eventually tracks him down. His body is later found, and before his death, he jotted down some frantic notes in his journal: "I see things I never knew before. Other worlds and other galaxies... Dark...The lightning seems dark and the darkness seems light..."

"I am Robert Blake, but I see the tower in the dark. There is a monstrous odour . . . senses transfigured . . . boarding at that tower window cracking and giving way. . . . Iä . . . ngai . . . ygg. . . . I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye. . . .”

Compare that to Shatner's reaction upon landing:

"I mean, the little things, the weightlessness, and see the blue color whip by and now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing. This covering of blue is this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue around that we have around us. We think ‘oh, that’s blue sky’ and suddenly you shoot through it all of a sudden, like you whip a sheet off you when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness – into black ugliness. And you look down, there’s the blue down there, and the black up there, and there is Mother Earth and comfort and – is there death? Is that the way death is?”

There's something interesting about the notion that we're a tiny speck in the cosmos. Carl Sagan pointed out that everything we know is contained in that pale blue dot that is Earth, and I think Lovecraft—for all of his enormous flaws and problems—too recognized that the cosmos isn't exactly a wonderful playground for humanity: it's a terrifying thing that's largely beyond our comprehension. Cixin Liu has his own spin on that cosmic horror in his fantastic novel The Dark Forest.

It's that context, and the moment that we look back to see that flash of blue and white that we recognize the beauty of the Earth for what it is: our home. Shatner's other reaction sums that up nicely: "everybody in the world needs to do this. Everybody in the world needs to see ... it was unbelievable.”

Going into space has always enjoyed something of an uneasy relationship with the wider public. The Apollo missions never garnered the support of a majority of US citizens throughout the space race (it peaked, if I remember correctly, prior to the Apollo 11 moon landing), and was dogged by criticism from throughout the country that it was a wasted expense and that the resources that went into it would be better off spent elsewhere.

I understand the reasoning behind those criticisms, but it's not something that I entirely agree with. The space program was also a massive jobs project that boosted the economy and which saw considerable resources dumped into scientific study, research and development, which not only brought us to the moon, but which brought with it considerable bonuses, like the MRI machine, computing technology, LED lights, and quite a bit more. The commercial space industry that's spooled up in the last couple of years has the potential to do quite a bit more, and I think on the whole, it'll be a good thing — even if there are complications along the way.

But most importantly, I think, it helped deliver us a better sense of where we sit in the cosmos, and that the planet that we're currently perched on is the one that we've got. The Earthrise photograph taken during the Apollo 8 mission galvanized the environmental movement, and the astronauts who returned to Earth were profoundly changed by the experience of seeing the entire planet from afar.

Yesterday, I wrote about Michelle Nijhuis's history of the conversation/environmental movement, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in the Age of Extinction, and that there was one thing in particular that grabbed me: our relationship with nature has changed over time, and as we gained more knowledge through scientific discoveries or new ways of approaching biology, so too did our motivations for protecting the environment. It essentially went from "oh, we won't have these bison to hunt if we hunt them all" to "if we kill off this entire species, that'll be bad for their ecosystem."

I think the same is true for space. If anything, additional context helps: zooming out to realize or recognize that hard vacuum makes for an unfriendly place, and that we should be doing more to protect the one place we know can support humans. For all the complaints that I've seen about rich people going to space, I'd honestly be just thrilled if some of them have that same sort of profound revelation that Shatner displayed: awe and wonder, and a recognition that they're in a unique position to do something with the resources at their disposal beyond a quick jaunt up past the edge of space.

"I hope I never recover from this," Shatner said. If private space gives more people that sort of profound epiphany, I think it'll be worth it.

Armor Party!

I was recently on a Star Wars / 501st-focused podcast that launched earlier this year: in each episode, Mike Forester chats with a different cosplayer in the Star Wars Cosplay scene, and in the episode released earlier this week, I went on to chat about Cosplay: A History, the deeper history of cosplay stuff, the origins of the 501st Legion, and quite a bit more. I was a fan of the podcast before I went on, and I was thrilled to be asked. Listen to us ramble! We talk about all sorts of random armor stuff. You should give it a listen, and if you like this sort of thing, subscribe to the channel.

‎Armor Party: Armor Party with Andrew Liptak on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Armor Party, Ep Armor Party with Andrew Liptak - Oct 12, 2021

Currently reading

It's been a while since I've done one of these, if anything because... I haven't really been reading all that much lately. With The Book now largely off my plate, I've gone back to my to-read list and I'm alternating chapters while I figure out what to focus on.

Here's what I've got:

  • Never Say You Can't Survive by Charlie Jane Anders. Nonfiction about writing in a troubled time. I've been looking forward to this one.
  • Hell of a Book by Jason Mott. This one's a literary novel about a Black author going out on a book tour. I don't really remember how this one ended up on my radar, but it sounds interesting.  
  • When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson. This one is about an AI in an isolated European country in the nearish future. Came highly recommended from a couple of people.
  • No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull. This one's the priority read for me at the moment. I've loved Turnbull's prior fiction, and this one is really excellent so far.  
  • The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw. Sci-fi, gritty heist in space. Excited to dig into this one further.
  • All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told by Douglas Wolk. Guy reads 27,000 Marvel comics and lives to tell the tale.
  • Low Town by Daniel Polansky. I've had this one on my to-read list forever. Finally time to get into it.
  • The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig. I like Chuck's books, and this one, despite its length, is nicely zippy and engrossing.

Further reading

Cooking and fandom

Over on The New York Times, Priya Krishna profiles an interesting trend: geek-focused cookbooks. In the piece, Krishna notes that this is a durable genre that's been around for decades, but explains that there's been an interesting evolution in recent years: it's a way to reinforce fandom by bringing a brand or franchise more fully into someone's life:

"Less prevalent are the ones that simply name recipes after characters. Today’s pop-culture cookbooks are heavily researched tomes about their fictional worlds. They consider climates and character motivations. They fill in gaps in the narrative. Authors pore over every element — down to the props in recipe photos — so fans can feel fully immersed."

Some of these are quite good: I got the Dungeons & Dragons one last year, and I've made a handful of recipes out of it. Interestingly, one of the cookbook authors she writes about is Chelsea Monroe-Cassel, who lives here in Vermont.

Critical Role's Media Empire

I've played Dungeons & Dragons over the years, but one of the things that I've been most fascinated about it is its recent surge in popularity, thanks in part to Critical Role. The webseries launched back in 2015, and it's run for hundreds of episodes. When its third campaign kicks off next week, it'll be broadcast in movie theaters. They've also got an animated webseries coming next year. This dinky little Youtube series has gone on to become a profitable business with dozens of employees and has expanded into merchandising.

That's absolutely nuts, and over on Variety, Todd Spangler has a good profile of the project's creators, and why it's become such a big hit, and how it's become such a huge force in the nerd world.

Expanse at the Smithsonian

Over on Tested, Adam Savage has a really cool encounter with one of the helmets from The Expanse — at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. It's a very cool honor for any artist, to have this sort of thing preserved, and it's neat that the museum recognizes the importance of the arts in relation to the sciences.

Marvel + ... Penguin Classics?

This is an odd collaboration (or maybe not so odd—The Folio Society did something similar recently): Penguin Classics, the durable series of classic literature will begin incorporating Marvel Comics into its lineup, starting with Black Panther, Captain America, and Spider-Man. The books will come in paperback (along with a special edition), and each with a foreword from a notable author and a scholarly introduction from an expert in the field.

Read ALL the comics

As noted, I've been reading Douglas Wolk's All of the Marvels, an exhaustive look into the history of the Marvel universe, which he read all of. It's a daunting task, and it's proving to be an interesting read.

My former editor Laura Hudson went over to The Comics Journal to chat with Wolk about the project and what he learned from it. It's a really interesting read.

Reading vs. listening.

Right way to fan

Fandom is something that I've written about extensively over the years, and it's one of the things that I explored over the course of Cosplay: A History. Thus, an excerpt from Alison Kinney's Avidly Reads Opera in Lithub caught my eye yesterday, in which she profiles a book by Dr. Anna Fishzon, Fandom, Authenticity, and Opera: Mad Acts and Letter Scenes in Fin-de-Siècle Russia. (Fishzon's book would be an instant-buy if it weren't $110, but it's going on the wishlist.)

The book looks like it's an interesting look into what we now call fandom, and it's shaped how people go about appreciating things that they consume, whether it's Star Wars, baseball, or opera.

That's all for this week. Thank you for reading. There's a new episode of Foundation out today, and my recap will go out to paid subscribers tomorrow — sign up if you want to get in on that. I might also have some additional, book-related news coming, so you might get an additional message from me shortly.

Have a good weekend,