This week has been a busy one — I came back from Pennsylvania and into a pile of larger projects, so this edition will be a little shorter on the commentary, but fits nicely with some things that I've been noticing with the world of cosplay while editing my book's manuscript.
As a reminder, I'm running a subscription drive this month (you can find more details about what goes into writing this newsletter and how subscribing really helps here.) Annual subscriptions are discounted to $45 (down from $50), and you get some additional in-depth posts as well as access to a growing and vibrant Slack channel.
Onto this week's roundup:
The line between entertainment and education
By the time that we made it from our parking space and through the front gates of the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum's annual World War II Weekend, it was already boiling hot. The event was now in its 30th year, and as my wife assured me, the extreme heat was part of the experience.
WWII Weekend was something that my wife had talked up for years, having grown up in the area, but for various work reasons, we've never been able to make the trip down to check it out until this year. With a chapter about the long history of military reenacting for the cosplay book, it seemed like an ideal event to attend, if anything, to take some pictures of the hundreds of people who'd shown up to the event decked out period military garb. As we walked around the event, we saw US Marines, members of the US 2nd Armored Division, 101st Airborne (made popular by HBO's excellent Band of Brothers miniseries), Seabees, officers, nurses, mechanics, while countries ranging from the USSR, Germany, Poland, England, and others were well-represented on the field.
When I started thinking about the long history of cosplay, I realized early on that the story was bigger than just the folks who dressed up as Spider-man or Iron Man or Darth Vader for their local conventions: it was an extension of how we exhibit our appreciation and fandom for a story, and in instances where those stories happened to be true, there's an invisible line between the types of people who dress up as superheroes and those who dress up in period uniforms to take a step into the past. That line exists for legitimate academic reasons, but while walking around the reenactors of Reading, PA, I realized that that particular Venn diagram features some considerable overlap.
The term "historian" might conjure up the image of a tweet-clad man with elbow patches pontificating before a classroom of bored students, but that's not what I saw before me when I visited Fort Ticonderoga in July 2019, where I met Stuart Lilie.
The fort played a pivotal role in the country's early wars, and has since been restored (mostly) to its former glory. Lilie is the museum's Vice President for Public History, and outlined their approach to bringing the past to life for visitors. Each year, under Lilie's direction, the museum replicated the uniforms from one particular year in the fort's past. This isn't strictly what I'd call cosplay: it's done for an academic and professional purpose, in that they're giving what visitors might otherwise see behind glass or written in a description a tactile look and feel, brought to life before them. You can watch as uniformed museum employees fire off cannons or demonstrate how they might have made shoes, or performed their daily tasks. It's a somewhat immersive experience, and that realism helps observers better understand the past.
The reenactors that I've spoken with over the past couple of months have echoed similar motives for their work. Daniel Celik, a Civil War reenactor who is part of the Champlain Rifles, noted that he and others see their role as a way to not only transport themselves into a piece of history that personally interests them, but also to bring the past to life by wearing the uniforms and going through the day-to-day actions that the real individuals went through on the battlefield. Others in Reading said something similar: they saw their role as not only a hobby and lifestyle, but a way to bring the past to life for spectators, providing a replicated sliver of the past in a way that goes far beyond the pages of books or television documentaries.
Cosplay — the activity of dressing up as a fictional character — doesn't quite have the same motivations. Most cosplayers relate to the character that they're dressing up as, or simply appreciate the costumes that they wear.To some, it's a frivolous, self-indulgent activity: dressing up as a cartoon or plastic spaceman. C'mon! At least the educational elements of reenacting or living history give those folks some legitimacy, right?
I don't think that's quite the right way to look at it, and while walking around the tarmac in Reading, I realized that groups like the 501st and those like the Champlain Rifles or any of the WWII groups are more alike than not. Sure, the uniforms are millennia apart, but those groups all coalesce around some basic principles: they're enthusiastic for their respective stories, whether that's the story of the Allies and Axis powers during WWII, or that of the Rebel Alliance vs. the Galactic Empire during the Galactic Civil War.
I spoke with a handful of guys representing the US 3rd Infantry Division — Chance Croft and Jason Miller — who outlined some of what they enjoyed about the hobby, and what went into it: learning about what their respective units accomplished during the war, understanding how the various weapons and uniforms worked, all to better convey the past to the present.
In talking with them, I recognized many of the elements that draw people to cosplay, or at least some select factions of the scene: a sense of wanting to create something that's accurate to what you might see on the screen, a way to convey one's love of a story or franchise to newcomers, and to generally bring what is intangible — an image on celluloid or the pages of a comic book — into the real world for people to see in person. You might watch Rebels blast Imperial stormtroopers in the hallways of the Tantive IV, but getting to see the troopers up close in a replica hallway at a convention is an altogether different experience.
The shared overlap of these groups isn't the underlying material that they're looking to replicate, but the enthusiasm that they have for that underlying story, real or imagined. They're moved to bring those stories to life, and regardless of the line that separates real from fiction and education from entertainment, that enthusiasm and joy is the catalyst for the communities that the reenactors and cosplayers alike enjoy and find themselves at home in.
Walking out of the event, I came away with the same buzz that I usually get at conventions: seeing the community and groups of people engaging in a shared interest — in this case WWII — was invigorating, despite the heat.
As it turns out, going on a long car trip helps to get through some books. For the ride up and down, we picked up a couple of audiobooks to check out while driving, including Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel, and Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein.
Banana was something I came across randomly, and it proved to be a fascinating listen, touching on not only the agricultural history of the fruit, but also the growth of global trade, colonization, and quite a bit more. I love these types of histories, which take a representative example of something like bananas, salt, roads, etc, and puts it in context. It's a short listen and worth a read.
Money was also interesting, but also a bit disappointing. I love NPR's Planet Money — it's one of the podcasts that I listen to the most, because I almost always learn something from it — and this feels like a supercharged episode, one that traces the development of money and currency over the course of its long history. The first two-thirds are pretty interesting, but then it fell off a bit for me: Goldstein skips over some big things, like credit cards and the modern history of debt, something that would have been interesting to see in this context, essentially jumping from the Great Depression to the Great Recession and cryptocurrencies.
Also recently completed: 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, which proved to be a pretty terrifying read, given the plausibility of how a third world war could emerge out of some pretty quick escalations between the US and China. This one reminded me quite a bit of Peter Singer and August Cole's Ghost Fleet (which has a similar premise), but it's an even darker read.
I also finished Get Together: How to Build a Community With Your People by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Sotto, which was an enlightening business/professional book about how to build communities, a topic that I've long been fascinated by.
AND FINALLY, I picked up a book that I'd had on my to-read list for ages: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. I really loved his book War and his collection of essays, Fire, and this is a curious little book that sort of of fits alongside them: it's an intriguing anthropological observation about how we fit together as people, and how the modern world really isn't built for how our brains are wired. It's a little deterministic at points, but he makes some interesting points that ties together everything from the prevalence of PTSD amongst American veterans to how societies thrive, wealth inequality, mass shootings, and quite a bit more. I'll be chewing over this one quite a bit in the months to come.
On the current to-read list: I'm going to try and whittle down the TBR pile and get some books that have been on there for a while off:
- Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders. Started this a while back, didn't get too far, but I've really enjoyed it (I read an early draft, so I sort of know what's going to happen).
- The Unbroken by C.L. Clarke. I started listening to this as an audiobook, and I've really been digging it.
- Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby. Started, haven't gotten too far into, but I'm enjoying what I've read.
- Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz. Started, enjoyed, but haven't picked it up in a while.
- Pantheon by K.R. Paul. Started this one, but haven't gotten too far.
- Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule. I've had this on my currently reading pile forever, and I'm finally making some progress with it. Hopefully, I'll make it through to the end before too much longer.
- Ancillary TV. It looks like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice is finally getting an adaptation: the series hasn't been announced, but word of it popped up in a profile of actress Keira Knightley in Harper's Bazaar: "Now, though, she is deep in research for a new project based on the bestselling sci-fi novel Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which is set to start shooting later in the year, pandemic permitting. "It’s about power. The questions within my character are, 'What is the purpose of conquest? What are the motivations to rule?' So I’m reading lots of books about dictators, and fantasizing about intergalactic domination while I’m doing the washing-up and changing the baby’s nappy..." There's no official word on where this'll pop up (hopefully we'll get some word soon!), but it's neat to see that it's in the pipeline.
- Avatar wasn't as bad as people made it out to be. I remember really enjoying James Cameron's Avatar, and I've always sort of rolled my eyes at the folks who seem to enjoy going out of their way to lambast it (and the upcoming sequels). Sure, it wasn't the most original of films, but it included a lot of the things I like about science fiction, and I'll likely see the sequels when they start to hit theaters in 2022. (and 2024, 2026, and 2028). Vox's Emily VanDerWerff has probably the best push against those complaints in her latest newsletter: "But I don't think that the vast majority of people who deride Avatar as being Dances With Wolves or Fern Gully or some other '90s movie "in space" are criticizing its incredibly colonialist efforts to be anti-colonialist. No, they're trying to prove they've outsmarted and defeated the movie. They've found the easiest, pithiest way to describe it and taken it down a peg. And that's what drives me up the wall."
I wholeheartedly agree with that, and that attitude - the pithy, easy, dismissive snark is so prevalent amidst newsrooms and Twitter users, and it's something that bothers me a great deal when it comes to either the coverage of genre stuff, or just when someone ventures out with the opinion that they enjoy something. (This is something that's frustrating me right now in various places). As VanDerWerff notes, it's also just laziness masked as critical thought.
- Becky Chambers interview. At long last, I've finished up transcribing my interview with Becky Chambers, and she has a lot to say about writing optimism, communities, and why she's ending her Wayfarers series. I had a lot of fun with this interview, and she provided a lot of great insights.
- Broken Earth Pictures. Word broke last week that Sony's TriStar Pictures has picked up N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth trilogy for an adaptation, with Jemisin tapped to write it. It's not clear if this is a TV series or a film — the series was previously picked up by TNT for a series. Adapting this as a film would be interesting — there's a lot in those books.
- King's routine. Stephen King gets a profile in the Wall Street Journal about his writing routine. However, what caught my eye was a neat observation about the advantages of streaming TV: "The streaming thing is so wonderful because there are no ads to break the mood, to break the dramatic build of the story with dancing toilet bowls or something like that. And you don’t have to cut the thing perfectly so that it fits in a little 42-minute box so the next show can come up."
- Opera in the quarries. This is a stunning video from our local big granite quarry. It's gorgeously shot, and makes for a sublime watch.
- Rowling rebrand. For years, the Harry Potter Alliance has been a social organization that brought together Harry Potter fans to help put attention on a variety of social issues. But when series author J.K. Rowling's outed herself with some horrible opinions about trans people, a lot of those fans began to rethink their connections to her works. Now, the non-profit has announced that it's rebranding itself to be called Fandom Forward, and notes that "the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already rising tide of disinformation campaigns and fear-based, ultra conservative leaders whose message is grounded in white supremacy and oppression of people of color, women, and LGBTQIA+ people."
- Social outrage. There's been a couple of incidents where authors have come under fire for lines that appear in their books in advance copies that folks on social media jump on and force some quick changes. Laura Miller has a quick overview for Slate, and it highlights something that I've been thinking about — how easy it is for people to conflate an authors' beliefs with those of their characters, to the point where the reaction seems almost like parody. We've all been there — jumping onto the latest controversy, and this just affirms my own practice of staying out of things unless I've a) actually read something and b) have something to contribute, rather than just yelling into the void. Ron Charles of the Washington Post's Book Club newsletter also discusses the issue, and makes a good observation that these sort of petty "literary sanitation" dilutes efforts against actual antisemitism. Lincoln Michel also has some thoughts over on his newsletter, Counter Craft.
- Substack Comics. Insider posted a report the other day that revealed that Substack is branching into another form of writing: comics. The company has hired Nick Spencer, who's worked on comics like Captain America and The Amazing Spider-man, as a sort of liaison to the rest of the comic creator community as they recruit folks into the Substack Pro network. Buried in the report is a mention by founder Hamish McKenzie that fiction is starting to show some promise, and it seems like it's part of a more aggressive effort to expand as more companies jump on the Newsletter bandwagon. Substack will apparently front creators money to assemble a team to produce the comics, and they'll get to own the underlying IP, while Substack takes a cut of subscriber revenue. I've seen some folks do cartoons via Substack, and it seems like it's a model that would work pretty well, if the right folks are producing some good stories there. (Kameron Hurley also nets a cameo here) Insider's post is subscriber-locked, but Bleeding Cool has a summary.
- Tears of the Anaren. I'm a big fan of Apple's series Mythic Quest, and last week's episode focused on the show's head writer character, C.W. Longbottom, a washed-up science fiction author who works for the studio. To tie in with the episode, Apple released the fake short story that was featured in the episode, and it's a goofy read / listen. This week's episode is also great.
- The Tolkienverse expands. New Line Cinemas and Warner Bros. announced that they're producing a Lord of the Rings film called The War of the Rohirrim, based on a story from LOTR's appendices. This one will be an anime (not live-action), and I wrote up some thoughts for paid subscribers.
Coming up, I've got a handful of posts: an exclusive bit of news that I've been working on all week, as well as a post about Hummingbird Salamander / Beloved Beasts. As always, let me know what you've been reading and what's on your TBR pile.
Have a good rest of the weekend,