Weird year. On the one hand, 2020 has been the high point of my career—Thanks, HBO! Thanks, New York Times bestseller list!—but on the other hand, yeah, it was still 2020.
Despite social media’s constant attempts to convince me otherwise, not everything was terrible. Here are some of the things that gave me joy over the past twelve months:
* Star Trek: Discovery — Other than Lovecraft Country, my favorite binge-watch of 2020 was this recent entry in the Star Trek franchise, currently wrapping up its third season. My wife, who loves Discovery as much as I do, initially wondered why we hadn’t heard more online buzz about the show. No doubt part of the explanation is that you need to sign up for CBS All Access to stream the series, but it probably also has something to do with the fact that Discovery presents a darker and more violent future than is typical for Star Trek. Mike Stoklasa and Rich Evans, reviewing the series over at Red Letter Media, suggested that Discovery‘s tone is more akin to Battlestar Galactica than the fun, wish-I-could-go-live-there pajama-clad future of traditional Trek, which I think is a fair point. But Lisa and I loved Battlestar Galactica, too, and we’re fine with grafting that sensibility onto the Trek universe, especially when it’s so well written and acted. Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh are particularly good in this, and Anson Mount made a great Christopher Pike.
* Island of the Sequined Love Nun, plus cookbooks — Despite the lockdown, I was too distracted to do much long-form reading this year. I started a lot of novels, but one of the few I managed to finish was this delightful comic adventure by my friend Christopher Moore. Set in Micronesia, it’s a Cargo Cult story that weaves in other plot elements most authors would never think to combine (sound familiar?). To say more would be spoiling it, but it’s definitely worth checking out.
Though I didn’t read as much as I’d hoped, my book lust certainly hasn’t gone away. In particular, I spent a lot of money on cookbooks. My prize acquisition of 2020 is Peter P. Greweling’s Chocolates & Confections: Formula, Theory, and Technique for the Artisan Confectioner. Published by the Culinary Institute of America, this is a book for professionals that includes not only recipes and techniques, but tips on setting up a production line (with different equipment and space requirements depending on how many artisan truffles you want to make in a given day). I doubt I’ll ever use it, but it’s fun to leaf through it and salivate at the photographs.
Other new cookbooks (some of which I have actually cooked from) include Pieometry, The Tahini Table, The Complete One Pot, and Dumplings and Noodles: Bao, Gyoza, Biang Biang, Ramen—and Everything in Between. And next time I find myself up the hill at the Book Larder, I’ve got my eye on Pushpesh Pant’s India Cookbook.
* Messing about in virtual reality — Unless your name is Barack Obama, this was not a good year to try to publicize a new book. One advantage I had with 88 Names is that the novel’s virtual reality theme readily lent itself to online promotion. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of my book tour, I already had a number of online events lined up (most notably the 88 Names podcast, for which I am indebted to Blake Collier, Darryl Armstrong, the Threaded Zebra Agency, and Rise Up Daily). Not only did this give me something to fall back on immediately, it meant I had all the hardware and software I needed to do additional remote interviews and appearances.
I ended up trying a lot of different online platforms. Zoom is ubiquitous for a reason, but the one that left the biggest impression on me was Sansar, the VR version of Second Life. The technology still has some issues, but my appearance on the Drax Files Radio Hour, and subsequent visits to the Second Life Book Club, gave me a real sense of what future publicity tours might look like. While I did miss meeting fans and booksellers in person, I was happy to skip the long plane flights.
Of course, I also used my Oculus headset to play games. My standout favorite was In Death, a first-person roguelike that casts you as an archer fighting your way across Purgatory. Other games and experiences I enjoyed include Beat Saber, Superhot VR, Space Engine, The Under Presents, and Manifest 99. And in the non-VR realm, the games I had the most fun with this year are Hearthstone, Marvel Puzzle Quest, Oxygen Not Included, and Titanfall 2.
* Feminine Chaos podcast — Smart contrarian culture commentary by Phoebe Maltz Bovy and Kat Rosenfield, aka “Phoebe and Kat discuss that thing people have been ranting about online.” A nice antidote to the Twitter doomscrolling I did way too much of this year. In addition to their Patreon-supported main feed, they have a back catalog of episodes on Bloggingheads.TV, featuring occasional cameos by Rasputin the cat.
* Hacksmith Industries’ plasma lightsaber — Last, but definitely not least, the YouTube algorithm recently decided that I needed to see this video from Hacksmith Industries, a makers’ group who build real-life versions of sci-fi and fantasy tech:
There’s also a test video where they use the saber to cut through all kinds of stuff. A festively destructive note to end the year on.