Fostering curiosity

Flipping over stones to see what I find

Fostering curiosity
Image: Teresa Greene/Vermont Historical Society 

Today is "Tolkien Reading Day", a day designated by fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's books that coincides with the day in The Lord of the Rings that Frodo/Sam/Gollum destroyed The One Ring. It's a fun thing, and I used the opportunity in my role as social media person for the Vermont Historical Society to showcase a golden ring that we have in our collection. My initial thought was: let's use the day as an excuse to show off a neat picture of a neat item.

What I didn't expect was to end up going down the rabbit hole of history around Vermont's gold rushes. In our catalog records system, we have space for context around any of the 30,000 or so items that the society holds, which includes who donated it, when, and any additional information that we might have about it. When I pulled up this particular item, 1963.62.4 (1963 is the year it was donated), I discovered that not only was it a neat gold ring, but that it had been made from gold panned out of a stream near Tyson, Vermont, not far from an abandoned gold mine.

That is the story. Not the object itself, but the fact that someone had fished the flecks of gold from a stream, fashioned it into a ring, proposed, and wore it until it made its way to us.

A year ago was my first day on the job at the historical society. It came at a good time: Cosplay: A History wasn't quite out yet, but freelancing wasn't cutting it: I'd fled from writing news on one site and other opportunities just weren't there. I'd applied to write for a handful of other entertainment sites, but I just couldn't stomach the idea of churning out mindless takes on every hint of casting news or rumor that hit the internet. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was badly burned out. VHS offered up a different opportunity, a stable workplace, but also a way to find work that offered up some sort of depth and reward: connecting back to the community.

That was something I'd been looking for for years. I'd pushed and looked for locally-minded pieces throughout my career as a journalist (my piece about Front Porch Forum is a good example of what I was really eager to write more about), and while I'd run a site called Geek Mountain State (about Vermont's nerdier side), I never really had the time to devote to that to make it do what I wanted. Plus, I missed writing about history. When a friend gave me a heads up that they'd have an opening for a position that would handle the museum's PR and bookstore, it felt like a natural fit. I applied, was hired, and 12 months ago, started.

I'm glad that I resolved to stick it out, because it's taught me a couple of interesting things, chief amongst which is the value of curiosity and of heading down rabbit holes. I've gone down a bunch of those: not only gold mining in Vermont, but the story behind the 556th Strategic Air Squadron, which maintained a pair of  ICBM silos here in the state at the height of the Cold War; the story behind the M. & F.C. Dorn Company of Burlington, which made a line of home-grown sodas before becoming the dominant bottler and supplier of Coca-Cola here; how Montpelier became the home of clothespin manufacturing in the U.S. for a time; and the story of Harold Howes, a Barre man who went off to World War I as a mechanic. Each of these stories have been reinvigorating in ways that journalism (and the culture around journalism) hadn't provided me in any meaningful sense.

The humble Vermont clothespin
The unexpected origin of a household staple

What I've come to realize in the last year is that all of these smaller stories are connected by the shared idea that is Vermont, and that collectively, they make up a bigger story in and of itself. It's an idea that I've been gradually bringing to my own writing: how do you connect the actions and decisions of one person and imagine them in the context of a much larger space? I wrote a story last year that has this embedded in its structure – a person taking on a mission that's closely connected to the actions of their forbearers, and it's not a story that I could have written without some of that floating around in my brain.  (I don't know when it'll be published, but sometime this spring? I'll tell you when it is.)

I've long kept a running journal of story ideas, somewhere to capture the random fragments of a story or character or world that come to me, and I've begun to understand that there's a sort of critical mass of curiosity that I need for any of them before they turn from distinct ideas or fixtures of a world into a story, and it's the process of interrogating that element and following the path for where it goes, flipping over rocks and seeing what's under them. I have trouble writing without a path, but this seems to suit me okay: I'm enjoying the process, and I'm curious to see where it takes me.

Image: Andrew Liptak 

Currently reading

I'm still in a reading slump, but I'm starting to pull myself out from it. I recently finished Chelsea Manning's memoir README.txt, which is a fascinating read from someone who played a pretty big role in shaping the state of the world. Memoirs are always interesting to approach: they tend to be in a bit of a self-congratulatory bubble, and Manning's story has some of that, but it's also indisputable that she's been through hell and back. There were some things that I wished she spent a little more time on, but her exploration of her gender identity, the poverty that ultimately led her to join the military, and the events that led up to her leaking thousands of documents to Wikileaks provided some additional context that I didn't have. It's worth reading.

I'm still reading Annalee Newitz's The Terraformers, which is excellent, and I picked up Anya Ow's Ion Curtain, which is turning out to be a fun space opera that I missed last year. For work, I've been looking over A New Force At Sea: George Dewey and the Rise of the American Navy by David A. Smith and Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen, both of which are fascinating.

Further reading

For supporting members, I've been trying to keep up with SF/F news that's been happening. Here's a short list of recent pieces:

The goal behind these sorter pieces is to curate the firehose of SF/F-related news in a quick, bite-sized piece. Supporting subscribers also get some slightly longer pieces when I get to them (like Powers and Language). If you'd like to support the newsletter (it really does help – Ghost isn't cheap), sign up here:

Another perk is the Slack Channel, which has been vibrant lately: we've had some good discussions around Star Trek Picard and The Mandalorian, and I've added channels related to AI and music. If you are a subscriber and haven't stopped by lately, come say hi!

20 new SF/F books for March

In case you missed it, here's the second book list for March, with a ton of good books on there.

20 new sci-fi & fantasy books to check out in March 2023
Even more books to cram onto your bookshelves this month

An otherworldly invasion

I took a look at a new edition of Roadside Picnic from The Folio Society, and look back on the novel and how it helped shape how I see science fiction and think about alien intelligence.

An otherworldly invasion
The Folio Society has released a beautiful new edition of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic novel Roadside Picnic

Crediting influences

Here's an unhappy discovery: game developer Brenda Romero pointed out on Twitter that while Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow author Gabrielle Zevin drew some inspiration from her game Train, Zevin didn't credit her in any meaningful way in the book. There's not much in the way of explaination from Zevin or her publisher, which is unfortunate, but it's something that I can kind of understand? Acknowledgement pages aren't easy to put together, and tracing a line of inspiration for every element of a book can be difficult, so I can see chalking this up as an oversight. Maybe (hopefully) the next edition will include something.

Internet Archive vs. Publishers

The Internet Archive has been embroiled in a legal battle against four publishers: John Wiley & Sons, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House over the site's online library, which they opened up to everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic. IA regularly scanned books that it acquired and stuck them up online, including ones that weren't in the public domain. The site lost its case (it sounds like it'll appeal though), but I have to say I'm skeptical here: if you buy a book, you're free to lend or give it to anyone, but making a scan of a book makes a copy, which does infringe on an author's rights. I don't think it was a good move then, and I don't think it will now: this doesn't strike me as a complicated thing, even if they're trying to argue differently with their arguments.

That said, I hope that this doesn't put the site under: it's an incredibly important resource.

Kelly Link has a new collection out, White Cat, Black Dog, and Vulture has taken the opportunity to profile her and her career, and how she's defied genre conventions in that time. It's a good read.

New Tolkien letters

The UK's National Archives discovered a new pair of letters written by J.R.R. Tolkien, which adds a little more of the pile of correspondence that we have from him, and gives a little more of a window into his work.

RIP Eric Brown

SF author and critic Eric Brown passed away. The Guardian has a good obituary for him here.

That Sanderson article

If you've been online this week, you might have caught folks subtweeting or talking about a recent profile in Wired about fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, by Jason Kehe. It's ... a pretty terrible piece: it's pretty insulting to Sanderson and his fandom, and it feels like it was written by someone who came to the piece with firm ideas of what he was writing about, but failed to really understand his subject.

There's been a bunch of chatter about how that doesn't matter because Sanderson's a Mormon and how he's inherently supporting a corrupt and toxic organization, which sure (but you certainly have that with just about any religious organization– I don't see people talking about Gene Wolfe and his Catholic faith this way, for example). I there is a better story about Sanderson and his faith and beliefs and how that figures into his writing, and this piece just didn't realize it. (Sanderson had a pretty good, "bless your heart" response.)

The Sideshow Magician Who Inspired Ray Bradbury—Then Vanished

Smithsonian Magazine has a neat story about one of Ray Bradbury's supposed influences: a sideshow magician who went by the name Mr. Electro, who researchers have had a hard time finding any further details on.

(And a weird, unhappy discovery: Sam Weller, one of Bradbury's biographers – and someone who I chatted with in my early research for Cosplay – was fired from Columbia College for sexual harassment in 2022.)