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I'm a writer, among other things.

I review short genre fiction for Skiffy and Fanty, and I contribute to The Ruined Report, a blog about social justice, simple living, community, and spirituality. I also blog here, usually to share my thoughts on what I've been reading.

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SFF Adventures: October 2020

October 24, 2020 SFF

a green forest visible behind a stone archway

Here’s what I’ve been reading and listening to lately in the realm of SFF. This month’s SFF adventures include portal fantasies, Robin Hood, Dungeons & Dragons, and more.

Podcasts

Flash Forward

Flash Forward, hosted by Rose Eveleth, is one of the best podcasts I know. Every episode begins with fiction: we jump ahead to a possible (or sometimes not-so-possible) future and get a taste for how it might work, and then we return to the present where Eveleth interviews scientists, activists, and SFF authors about it. If you’re in to SFF or science journalism, I highly recommend you give Flash Forward a try. In particular, I really enjoyed the recent episode “Dollars for Data,” which is all about selling our personal data.

Portal Fantasies

I enjoyed “Episode 66: Portal Fantasies Are So Gay” from Our Opinions Are Correct. It’s a fun and smart discussion about portal fantasies that touches on border crossing and policing, compares queer and normative portal fantasies, and explores how genre-savvy protagonists can mix up the standard storylines. However, one thing that they didn’t touch on was Seanan McGuire’s axes of nonsense/logic and virtue/wickedness from her Wayway Children novellas. Those novellas gave me mental schema for better understanding and categorizing fantasy universes. For a deeper dive into those axes, check out “Mapping Fantasies Into a Single Multiverse Through Seanan McGuire’s ‘Wayward Children’ Series” on Tor.com.

Blog Posts & Essays

Dis/ability

One of the themes I love exploring through SFF is dis/ability. One of my favorite stories that does this is “The House on the Moon” by William Alexander, which was published by Uncanny Magazine in their Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction special issue. Check out my review of the story on Skiffy and Fanty for more of my thoughts on why that does such a great job of exploring dis/ability through a science fictional lens. Because of my interest in this sort of SFF, I was excited to read “Five SFF Novels Featuring Disabled Characters Who Know Their Own Worth” by Allison Alexander on Tor.com. Check it out! If you have other favorite SFF stories that center characters with disabilities, please let me know!

Birdverse

I haven’t read any of R. B. Lemberg’s Birdverse works, but their new book The Four Profound Weaves looks really wonderful. I mean, a fantasy story about a transgender grandparent? Yes, please! In particular, I enjoyed reading R. B. Lemberg’s post about their new book over on John Scalzi’s blog.

Linguistics

I enjoyed “Linguistics, Sexuality, and Gender: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany” by Bogi Takács on Tor.com. Even if you’re not at all interested in Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany, this review is a striking and insightful essay about how language relates to (and to some degree affects) sexual orientation and gender identity. As Takács writes, “I feel very strongly that the linguistics aspects of the story relate in a crucial way to the gender and sexuality aspects, even if this is not apparent at first.” If you’re at all interested in linguistics or QUILTBAG+ feminism, read this essay.

Policing

Another Tor.com essay that I enjoyed recently was “Entering the Police State: Toph Beifong, Power, and Authority in Republic City” Linda H. Codega. The essay title pretty much sums this one up: if you’re an Avatar fan or want to think more deeply about policing, this one’s for you! On that note, in my August SFF Adventures blog post, I shouted out a short story by Annalee Newitz which envisions a world where we defund the police and instead invest in transportation and social services. And back in my July SFF Adventures post, I shouted out a Skiffy and Fanty podcast discussion about SFF worlds without police.

Dungeons & Dragons

In August’s SFF Adventures, I looked at how Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is changing to address racism and how a fan publication — Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e by Eugene Marshall — has already offered up a critical reworking of race in D&D. At that point, D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast had announced that it would implement changes to D&D’s race system in a then yet-to-be-announced product. Now, it’s been announced: Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything! As a D&D player, this book looks awesome. I recommend “With D&D’s Next Rulebook, Character Creation Will Never Be the Same” by James Whitbrook on io9 for a deep-dive into the upcoming D&D sourcebook. Similar to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, it will feature new classes, new spells, new monsters, and more. It will also feature an official way to rework D&D’s problematic race system. However, from what I can tell so far, the “official” way seems very open-ended and significantly less critical/interesting than the alternative presented in Ancestry & Culture (which I confess I still haven’t read! I really want to read that!). Tasha’s Cauldron won’t be published until mid-November, so we’ll have to wait until then to see exactly how the new system will work (and to see all the other cool stuff that made it into the book!).

Censorship

I also really enjoyed Ada Palmer’s essay “Censorship and Genre Fiction—Let’s Broaden our Broader Reality” in Uncanny Magazine Issue 34. If you want an A+ discussion on censorship and genre fiction, this is it.

Voice

Carrie Vaughn is one of my favorite writers, so it’s unsurprising that I enjoyed her guest post on Cat Rambo’s blog about “That Ineffable Quality of Voice.”

Comics

I recently read Virtual Unicorn Experience by Dana Simpson, the latest installment in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn series, which continues to be amazing. For more of my thoughts on the series, check out my July SFF Adventures post.

I also recently read Teen Titans: Beast Boy, a graphic novel by Kami Garcia and illustrated by Gabriel Picolo. It’s the sequel to Teen Titans: Raven, which came first in the series. They’re both superhero origin stories imagining the teen titans as modern-day teens discovering their powers. Fun reads!

Short Stories

I’m a big fan of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas. In July, McGuire published a short story set in the universe on Tor.com: “Juice Like Wounds.” It’s a good series, and this is a good story that I quite enjoyed. “Juice Like Wounds” is tied in particular to McGuire’s recent novella In an Absent Dream. If you read In an Absent Dream and liked it, check this story out too!

Novellas

This summer, Tor.com published two Robin Hood novellas from Carrie Vaughn that are actually concerned more with Robin Hood’s children than Robin Hood himself: The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley. I greatly enjoyed these, highly recommend them (especially if you like Robin Hood or medieval stories), and hope Carrie Vaughn writes more stories in this universe. I particularly appreciated how skillfully Carrie Vaughn represented diverse characters in these books. These are medieval stories: it would be easy to feature all or mostly straight, abled men. These novellas definitely include their fair share of such people, but they also portray women, a character with a disability, and queer and trans characters! Thank you so much, Carrie Vaughn. As I wrote about in August’s SFF Adventures, I recently read The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore, which was a fun and well-written novel that I struggled to enjoy because women and QUILTBAG+ characters were side-lined, invisible, and/or absent.

I also recently listened to To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. I read this after I listened to Becky Chamber’s Wayfarers series and loved it loved it loved it. (I rave more about those novels in August’s SFF Adventures.) To Be Taught, If Fortunate is different but just as good: it’s a novella rather than a novel, and it takes place in a different universe, one that feels much closer to our own. It’s a beautiful, serious work of science fiction. It’s a profound, living meditation on humanity and the purpose of science. Similar to when I read Chamber’s novel Record of a Spaceborn Few, there was a certain point near the end of the book when the beauty and meaning of the book suddenly struck me and made me break down and cry good tears. I highly recommend this novella to everyone.

Novels

I recently read and loved The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. What a great book! In addition to beautifully engaging with themes of family, love, and loss, The Ten Thousand Doors of January uses Doors and alternate worlds to explore our own world and to explore how the powerful exploit their power in order to maintain it.

I’ve traditionally been more of a science fiction fan than a fantasy fan. In particular, I really love space operas — they are tons of fun and often super smart. I think part of why I haven’t gravitated to fantasy as much is that I haven’t found a sub-genre that really calls to me. But that is true no longer! I have found my favorite fantasy sub-genre, and it is making me a deeper fan of fantasy: I love portal fantasies.

My love for portal fantasies was awakened by Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children novellas, and The Ten Thousand Doors of January has further blossomed my love for this sub-genre. I enjoy classical portal fantasies like The Wizard of Oz, but in particular I love more modern portal fantasies which explore the connections between multiple universes, tell stories about characters torn between different worlds, and compare and contrast different places and cultures. These stories are fun, exciting, and interesting in ways that even the most fascinating space operas aren’t. When worlds with different natural laws or brimming with magic connect to our own, there are so many wonderful possibilities for where you can take a story.

If you have a favorite portal fantasy story, or if you know of any stories similar to Every Heart a Doorway or The Ten Thousand Doors of January, please share those reads with me!


Holy Shit! Representation Matters! Or, How SFF Helped Me Realize I’m Nonbinary

October 4, 2020 SFF

Screenshot of the Skiffy and Fanty website. Header text reads: Holy Shit! Representation Matters! Or, How SFF Helped Me Realize I’m Nonbinary

Earlier this year, I had a fun chat with Emily Win on her podcast Our Daily Beard: “What are Spivak Pronouns? And More on the Queer Sci-fi World with Cam Coulter .”

On the podcast, I got to shout out a bunch of awesome queer and trans science fiction and fantasy (SFF) stories. I also got to talk about how reading trans SFF helped me realize that, yes, I could be trans/nonbinary, and, yes, in fact I am.

That chat inspired me to write a personal essay sharing more about how centrally important SFF is to my gender identity and genderqueerness and about how gosh darn important representation actually is. That essay is now published on Skiffy and Fanty for your reading pleasure: “Holy Shit! Representation Matters! Or, How SFF Helped Me Realize I’m Nonbinary.”

Go check it out and share it, please! I’m really proud of this essay, and I think queer/trans SFF and representation are super important topics for us all to read and talk about.


Accessibility Adventures: October 2020

October 3, 2020 accessibility

Screenshot of Github.com. There are nine open issues on a project titled Graph Paper.

In August, I posted about how I’ve recently discovered and have been falling in love with the world of digital accessibility: “Accessibility Adventures: August 2020.” Here’s what I’ve been up to since then.

Contents

  1. Science Fiction & Accessibility
  2. Accessibility Audits
  3. Accessible Certification
  4. Assistive Technology Videos
  5. Accessible & Inclusive Gaming
  6. Books
  7. Compliant or Conformant?
  8. FreeCodeCamp.org
  9. Classless CSS Stylesheets
  10. Website Updates

Science Fiction & Accessibility

I enjoyed this short post on science fiction and accessibility from Sheri Byrne-Haber. As someone who is into both of those, the title caught my eye, and apparently I’m not the only one. Sheri Byrne-Haber anecdotally notes that there seem to be many people who love both science fiction and accessibility, and she suggests that’s probably because of a common denominator: both science fiction and accessibility are “about building a future that does not yet exist.” This resonated with me. I do have other reasons I care about both of them, but this is definitely a shared theme that I return to quite often.

Accessibility Audits

I enjoyed reading “What to look for in an accessibility audit” by Glenda Sims on the Deque blog. It’s a highly detailed post about different types of accessibility audits and how they are conducted. I hadn’t come across someone talking about accessibility audits in this level of detail before, so I found it really interesting.

Accessible Certification

I enjoyed reading “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Including Disabled People in Digital Certification, Credentialing and Licensure” by Samantha Evans in Credentialing Insights. The post examines how disability justice and accessibility relate to the world of credentialing, certification, and licensure. At the end of the post, Samantha writes:

International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP) is creating a coalition of credentialing organizations, certification groups, higher education, advocacy groups, psychometric exam/test delivery industry partners and accessibility professionals this fall. The hope in bringing these audiences together is to establish agreed upon terms, standards, best practices and resources that can advance accessibility and inclusion in these shared professions and industry.

That was exciting news to me! Accessibility and inclusion in the credentialing/certification/licensure space is important, and I’m glad to see that IAAP is working with the Institute for Credentialing Excellence and other groups to make this space more inclusive.

Assistive Technology Videos

I really enjoyed this post from Axess Lab: “Videos of people with disabilities using tech.” The post collects videos of people with disabilities using eye trackers, Xbox adaptive controllers, screen readers, and switch controls to play games, shop, edit videos, and write code. It’s a wonderful collection of videos, and watching them made me think about not only how cool assistive technology is, but also how important accessibility is. Assistive technology can be a great help, but if the underlying software isn’t accessibility written — for example, can you only use the software if you have a mouse, good vision, and fine motor control? — people using assistive technologies still won’t be able to access or use it.

Accessible & Inclusive Gaming

I enjoyed this Bloomberg article by Renata Geraldo about the growing market for accessibility in the gaming industry. Video games are a huge industry, one that often has not been (and isn’t) accessible to gamers with disabilities. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s cool to read about the progress that’s happening.

I also recently came across Accessible Gaming Quarterly, a zine dedicated to accessibility and disability within the tabletop RPG space. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but it looks awesome. As an accessibility nerd who is also a D&D player, this looks right up my alley.

On the topic of tabletop games and inclusive gaming, here’s an excerpt from my last SFF Adventures blog post:

I have another D&D essay I recommend: “D&D will change to address racism, but someone has already done the work” by Charlie Hall on Polygon. This essay examines how race in D&D is problematic and bigoted and looks at alternatives to the current system. In particular, this essay looks at Ancestry & Culture: An Alternative to Race in 5e by Eugene Marshall, which offers a critical and progressive way to rework race in D&D. In short, it looks like Marshall splits the problematic concept of race into biological ancestry and cultural heritage. Ancestry & Culture seems like (1) a cool, non-problematic way to rework race in D&D, and (2) a work of critical race theory disguised an an RPG game. I want to read Ancestry & Culture, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. In the meantime, I recommend any D&D fan or anyone striving to be anti-racist to check out the essay on Polygon.

Screenshot of a blog post: SFF Adventures August 2020 by Cam N. Coulter
Screenshot of a blog post: SFF Adventures: August 2020 by Cam N. Coulter.

Books

I recently listened to Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century, a new nonfiction anthology edited by Alice Wong. It’s very good! It’s a bunch of great essays on disability from a bunch of different perspectives. I loved how intersectional most of these essays were. I definitely recommend.

I also just read two books from A Book Apart: HTML5 For Web Designers Jeremy Keith and Rachel Andrew and CSS3 for Web Designers by Dan Cederholm. In “web time,” these are old books. They were originally published in 2010 and had updated second editions released in 2016 and 2015, respectively. The age showed. For example, CSS3 for Web Designers focused mostly on using CSS3 modules for minor progressive enhancements and basically didn’t even touch on Grid layout, which is currently supported for over 95% of users. Despite the age, however, I actually did find these books quite useful. They were short, well-written, and easily digestible. They taught me about history and context that I previously didn’t know much about, such as introducing me to the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG). And they also introduced me to techniques that I didn’t really understand before, such as vendor prefixing. While I have had formal schooling that introduced me to computer programming and networking, my web design knowledge is all mostly self-taught, and these books did a good job of filling in some of my knowledge gaps.

Compliant or Conformant?

In my short time that I’ve been in the world of accessibility, I’ve already come across two words quite often: compliance and conformance. These words are used when referring to laws (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 508 or the Rehabilitation Act) as well as standards (such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). I began to wonder if the two words can be used interchangably, or if there are any significant differences between the two, so naturally I did a web search.

I came across this post from Section508.gov about compliance/conformance that clearly differentiates between the two, and according to that post, in short, you must comply with the law, and technologies should conform to standards. I also looked up the definitions of these two words, which — while somewhat overlapping — also support that distinction. So it’s just that easy, right?

Not really. In practice, it seems the two words are often used interchangably. While the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) themselves do follow this distinction and refer only to conformance with the standard (not compliance), the A11y Project instead refers to WCAG in terms of compliance, and they’re not the only ones.

This is partially confusing because the two words sound similar and have largely similar meanings, but it’s also confusing because in order to comply with accessibility laws, you should conform to WCAG. Although WCAG isn’t a law, WCAG effectively has the power of law behind it (at least in the United States), so in some ways it does make sense to talk about WCAG compliance, rather than WCAG conformance.

I will do my best to use those words precisely (compliant to the law, conformant to standards), but I also want to recognize that it seems in practice these two words are often used interchangably.

FreeCodeCamp.org

I’ve been working to upgrade my tech skills with FreeCodeCamp.org. I completed their Responsive Web Design certification, and I’m currently working on JavaScript with them. Thus far, I’ve been really satisfied with their program. The interface works well for me, the content is nicely chunkable, and the curriculum exposes you to a sizable breadth of info with a gentle on-ramp. The Responsive Web Design certification also includes a set of challenges on applied accessibility, which I was glad to see. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that FreeCodeCamp is a nonprofit with tons of free content. I’m trying to stay focused on JavaScript right now, but their courses on front-end libraries and Python keep grabbing my attention.

Classless CSS Stylesheets

Recently, I was exporting a bunch of markdown notes to HTML pages, and I wanted them to look prettier than the default styling that Firefox applies. Hence, I discovered the world of classless CSS stylesheets. It’s pretty much what it sounds like: CSS stylesheets that don’t use any (or use very few) classes, relying instead upon styling semantic HTML elements. Obviously, these will not be a good fit for a great many projects. However, for converting markdown documents to simple HTML pages, it’s a perfect fit. Assuming that you’re not doing weird things to your markdown, when you export markdown to HTML, you get plain old semantic HTML, complete with zero classes, which makes it trivial to add a classless stylesheet and see your document redesigned cohesively in under a minute. There are plenty of classless CSS stylesheets out there that you can use. Some of my favorites are new, water-dark, and sakura-earthly. I downloaded a host of stylesheets, tried them all out, and had quite a bit of fun looking at all the different ways my document could be styled.

Screenshot of the webpage for new.css, a classless CSS framework. The header text reads: write modern websites using only HTML
Screenshot of the homepage for new.css

What’s the connection to accessibility? Writing in semantic HTML (assuming you’re actually using the elements correctly) is great for accessibility. Semantic HTML is relatively straightforward for assistive technologies like screen readers to access, and it renders easily and quickly for everyone else as well. Classless stylesheets encourage you (force you?) to write in semantic HTML — that’s the whole point of them. I also think that classless stylesheets can be beneficial to folks learning HTML and CSS. Applying classless stylesheets to your HTML illustrates how semantics and styling are distinct, and hopefully that can encourage more folks to seek out the most appropriate elements, rather than rely on divs and spans.

However, classless stylesheets aren’t necessarily accessible. As I wrote earlier, writing in semantic HTML is great for accessibility — assuming that you’re actually using the elements correctly. If you use a certain HTML element to achieve a certain styling, but if your content doesn’t align with that element’s semantic purpose, that’s … not great. Assistive technologies, for example, might misinterpret your content and thereby misrepresent it to users. One classless stylesheet that I fear might enable folks to do this is MVP. For example, with MVP, if you nest an aside element within a section element, it’s formatted as a centered content card. Designers might be thereby be tempted to use an aside element for a page’s main content, rather than content that’s “only indirectly related to the document’s main content,” as the Mozilla Developer Network defines the aside element. To be clear, I like MVP’s design, and its website clearly states that the stylesheet is intended only for temporary, ad-hoc purposes. However, I did want to note this potential way for classless stylesheets to be misused and lead to less accessible designs.

Website Updates

I recently did my first website remediation! At work, my team has put up an ad-hoc website this year as we’ve responded to the pandemic, pivoted to online staff trainings, and put together an online distance learning program for our clients. I identified that the color contrast between some commonly-used text and the background was not WCAG level AA conformant. With my manager’s approval, I selected a darker shade that was conformant, and I updated the text color. Hurrah for my first accessibility website fix!

On that topic, I’ve learned a lot about website accessibility over the past few months, and I’ve realized that I need to make some accessibility updates to my personal website as well as Graph Paper. I haven’t had the time to make those fixes yet, but I did conduct an accessibility audit on Graph Paper and log nine issues on GitHub. That was fun! Fixing those issues will be my next accessibility project after I publish this post.