Our first Posse Interview is with ANDREW LIPTAK. He is a self-proclaimed "geek" (more on that in the interview), military historian, Stormtrooper and many other things. His blog covers his "thoughts on Science Fiction, History, and the world around [him]," often in a fascinating way. He is also a regular contributor to SFSignal. You can follow him on Twitter as well. This interview was conducted over emails. Read on!
1 - You're an essayist, writer, blogger, reviewer, military historian, fan, self-described geek. What are your origins of these various interests? Were these specific individual moments that led you to these pursuits?
A lot of my interests have their roots from when I was in High School. There were earlier things that set the foundation. Two of my great uncles were in World War II, which left me with a bit of a fascination for 'The War', while I had been read the stories of Merlin and Arthur as a child, while reading some of the condensed versions of the classics: War of the Worlds and Edgar Allen Poe held a certain fascination for me.
What tipped me over the edge for Science Fiction was seeing Star Wars for the first time in theaters when the Special Editions were released to theaters, when my dad took me. I was glued to the screen, and we went back to see The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi over the next couple of weeks. Over the next couple of years, I watched the films countless times and read every book I could get my hands on. As I finished out those books, I turned to other science fiction stories: Dune, Foundation, numerous others that I borrowed from my high school library. One of my high school English teachers encouraged the habit, and we read books like Fahrenheit 451.
Military history came from a similar vein. I had watched the film Pearl Harbor, and wanted to learn more about the actual history behind it, so I read 'At Dawn We Slept', by Gordon Praunge, before moving onto a number of the narrative friendly stories, such as Stephen Ambrose's 'Band of Brothers' and Hampton Side's 'Ghost Soldiers'. Another high school teacher encouraged this, but it wasn't until my final year of my undergraduate studies that I worked extensively with the subject. My senior thesis detailed the experiences of Norwich University students and alumni at Operation Overlord (better known as D-Day) in 1944. This landed me a trip to Normandy with the school's board of directors, where I essentially acted as a consultant and explained the Norwich involvement on the battlefield. It was a fascinating trip, and when I went to work at Norwich University, I took my Master's in Military History from them, where I learned much more about the subject. It's a bit ironic, considering that I'd sought to avoid military history while an undergrad, because the influence was everywhere: I wanted to study social history more than military history, but as I earned my Master's, I learned that there's no clear divisions.
a) Which stories of Merlin and Arthur -- Malory, Chrétien de Troyes, or...?
Actually, the earliest one was 'Merlin and the Dragons' by Jane Yolan, or rather, an audiobook of the story - My mother drove me and my brother to school, and inevitably, we'd listen to it, hundreds of times. I actually just found the story on the tape in our attic. It's a fun story about Merlin as a kid, and it ties into the mythology somewhat.
b) How do you feel about all of George Lucas' reiterations of Star Wars?
I honestly don't care one way or the other, and I don't understand all of the fuss surrounding it. Star Wars was something that launched me into science fiction, but it's also a highly profitable franchise, and that seems to dictate things now. I don't have any particular issue with that, because it's a franchise that I enjoy, and the continued attention keeps it coming.
It's a crowd pleaser, and I wish that the crowd wanted something a bit better. There's a lot of people who would argue that, but when you look at how profitable the franchise continues to be despite those complaints, it says something. But then again, Star Wars has never really been brain candy on the level of films like Alien, Moon and Inception, and that's okay.
c) You mentioned reading the classics in the genre by Asimov, Herbert, etc ... do you prefer the "Golden Age" SF to the modern?
I prefer whatever's a good story. I still really love the 'Golden Age' stories, but there's an incredible wealth of stories out there that are coming out now, with an understanding and relevency for the modern day. Something that I've come to understand is that art of any type is formed within a modern context - your audience has to relate to, understand and draw meaning from it. So, a book that came out at the height of the cold war dealing with an oppresive regime might carry with it a reduced or different meaning after the fall of the Soviet Union, whereas a book that comes out today that's dealing with something like global warming might not have worked for an audience in the 1950s. At the same time, there's some authors who have been rediscovered lately who's stories were really far reaching.
This isn't to say that someone reading a book from the 1950s won't get anything from it - far from it, the 1950s wasn't all that long ago - but audiences might relate to it differently. I know some authors such as Asimov are looked at through different filters.
d) The veterans of WWII are becoming few and far between, sadly. Do you feel that there's a risk of the upcoming generations growing farther away from the history of their grandfathers? And what would be the fallout of that?
World War II is a strange war because of the sheer amount of attention given to it. It's a simple war to understand, but it's extrordinarily complicated in how things happened. Hitler was bad, killed a bunch of people and the good guys came in and flattened him. Japan was bad and we went and kicked them off their islands and bombed the hell out of them. However, you then look at the scale of the war: there was fighting on four continents (if you can consider the pacific region a continent) massive implications for everything from industry to government, not to mention in the ways that people learned to kill one another.
Are we at risk of upcoming generation smoving farther away from history? Sure. As we move further away from the event, it'll recede further into the history books until the 1st and 2nd World Wars are lumped together, along with the Spanish Civil War and maybe a couple of others.
Part of this fear, I think, comes from the type of culture that we live in: information dense. We want as many stories as possible about everything, and for the second world war, we've got them. That is part of a larger problem, I think, because it's so hard to sift through everything to figure out what's relevant.
The important lessons of the 2nd World War aren't really from combat, in my opinion, it's the steps that led up to the war, how the war was conducted, and the aftermath. I'm not sure that's what we're clamoring for.
2 - What makes a "Geek" to you? What's the difference, between a "Geek" and a "Nerd" (If there's one)
I tend to base a lot of what I think of this on the book 'American Nerd' by Ben Nugent, published a couple of years ago. I see someone who is very passionate about a subject - any subject - as being a geek. There's the social connotations about this, where the more derogatory elements come from, which I tend to ignore. Nugent described nerd-like tendencies to also include trouble in social situations, which I can somewhat agree with.
3 - How would you describe the 501st Legion (and your involvement in it) to someone who has no frame of reference for a hobby like that?
It depends on the frame of reference. Star Wars is so ingrained in our popular culture, it's hard to find someone who doesn't know about the films. To describe it? I usually tell people that it's an international group that dresses up as the bad guys, and we do charity work at the same time. My involvement is Storm Troopers and Clone Troopers, I have one of each, and I'm building a second Clone, from the TV series, Waxer, for my girlfriend.
a) So you craft your own costumes? What sort of charity work do you do through the Legion?
Yep. I put together my own Stormtrooper and Attack of the Clones Clone Trooper. (The movie sucked, until the clones showed up) I bought kits from people. In the case of the storm trooper, it was pre-cut, and all I had to do was glue it together. The Clone was a whole lot more in terms of time and hours put into it. I had to take the rough cuts, trim them, glue, sand and bondo them (to make the limbs seamless), then paint it (8-10 coats, from black to gray to white), and then rig all the internal stuff, further trim and fit it, and then absolutely ruin the white paint job by kicking pieces up and down the drive way and attacking it with sandpaper. The result is something I'm quite happy with, and a lot of people seem to like it. Everyone looks at me and comments that I've been through a battle or something. The suit's been through a lot - tons of troops (including parades), it's been run over by a car and fixed a number of times. It's due for an overhaul at some point.
I'm currently building another clone, despite telling myself that I'd never do it again, for my girlfriend, a clone that's toon-accurate. That's almost done, save for a couple of touches. I've also been ordering parts for a couple of Stargate SG-1 outfits for the two of us, Daniel Jackson and Vala Mal Doran, respectively.