SFF Adventures: July 2020

by Cam N. Coulter


Posted on July 21, 2020 SFF


Stars shining in outer space

Welcome to SFF Adventures! This is a new column that I’m trying out. This is where I will round up everything that I am reading, listening to, and watching in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and I’ll also talk about anything I’ve been creating or doing in these realms. I’ll shout out awesome things, give my thoughts on other things, and occasionally write short reviews.

Podcasts

My friend Emily Win recently interviewed me on her podcast Our Daily Beard and let me squee and geek out about trans SFF and my nonbinary identity! It was tons of fun, and I’m quite happy with how it turned out. (It was my first podcast, so I was a little nervous about it!) Please give it a listen, and also check out the show notes on Emily’s website for a long list my reading recommendations. Here’s the link: “Season 2 Episode 9: What are Spivak Pronouns? And More on the Queer Sci-fi World with Cam Coulter”.

Imaginary Worlds recently released two terrific episodes about COVID-19. “Episode 145: Larping in Place” investigates how the LARPing world is handling shelter-in-place and social distancing. “Episode 147: Once and Future Comic Con” looks at the history of San Diego Comic Con and other genre conventions as well as how they have been impacted by the pandemic and how they might fare in the future.

I liked the podcast episode “Speculative Dispatch #9 - A World Without Police” from Skiffy and Fanty. You’ll need to support Skiffy and Fanty on Patreon to listen to this one, but if you’re an SFF fan, you definitely should if you can! Skiffy and Fanty is fun shining force for inclusion and social justice in SFF fandom. This podcast episode is a great discussion about how police function as an arm of capitalism as well as about SFF stories that attempt to envision a world without police.

Blog Posts

I liked and recommend “Searching for Body Positivity in Fantasy” by Rosamund Lannin, published on Tor.com. It’s an important essay about feminism, fantasy, and how important it is that we do better with representation.

I liked and recommend “Toss a Coin to Your Bitcher” by Suzanne Walker in Uncanny Magazine Issue 33. It’s a really good essay that talks about disability representation in the context of The Witcher. (This essay read accessibly to me even though I haven’t seen or read The Witcher.)

I liked “Hopepunk and the New Science of Stress” by Rebecca Diem, published on Tor.com. Diem writes:

In The Upside of Stress, Professor Kelly McGonigal highlights two lesser-known models of how we respond to stress: a “challenge” response, characteristic of artists, athletes, or surgeons (also known as a flow state); and a “tend-and-befriend” response, exemplified by nurturing behaviours and desire for connection after traumatic events.

The “tend-and-befriend” response to stress made me think of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell. I love Walkaway and other stories like it, stories that pay attention to how people reach out, connect, and care for each other after shit happens. This is why this pandemic is so damn hard to live through: fear of getting infected myself or of infecting others generates a flinch response when I see others rather than an outreaching. Obviously, we can and are reaching out to each other from a distance, but mediating relationships through technology is hard and stressful in its own ways.

I liked and recommend “The Power of Queer Play in Dungeons & Dragons” by Linda H. Codega, published on Tor.com. It’s a fun essay that examines Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition as a space for queer exploration and play. Codega writes:

In D&D there is absolutely no rules-as-written, mechanical difference between any gender, sexuality, or ability. It’s all treated the same.

Including “ability” caught me off guard there! I hadn’t thought to try playing D&D as a character with a disability or impairment. It’s true: as far as I’m aware, there are no written rules for dis/ability in D&D. To me, that felt more like erasure and oversight than inclusion, but D&D is a unique game. The published game rules provide some scaffolding, but your game is really created with the people playing alongside you. If our D&D campaign doesn’t include characters with disabilities, that’s the fault of my fellow players and me, not necessarily the fault of Wizards of the Coast. Moral of the story: my D&D games need more characters who are queer/trans and more characters with impairments/disabilities. (Side thought: I can easily imagine various radical science fictional futures, but apparently I need to work on queering and decolonizing the fantasy side of my imagination.)

I liked reading “The Legacies and Dark Elves of R. A. Salvatore” by Jeff LaSala, published on Tor.com. This year, I have been playing my second-ever Dungeons & Dragons campaign, so I’ve been slowly falling into that wonderful rabbit-hole. My friends like listening to D&D podcasts like Critical Role and Dungeons & Daddies, but I personally can’t get into those. I’ve been thinking a D&D novel might be a better way for me to immerse myself in the world of D&D. I’ve heard good things about R.A. Salvatore and Drizzt, so that seems like a good place to start. I’m thinking I’ll start with The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore, but what do you think? Any better suggestions for a D&D novel?

I liked Nerds of a Feather’s recent interview with Uncanny Magazine’s managing editors Chimedum Ohaegbu and Michi Trota. Uncanny is one of my favorite magazines, so I enjoyed getting to learn more about the team behind it. I was also wowed by how much work they put into the magazine. I know it takes tons of work to make a magazine, but seeing Ohaegbu and Trota spell out their workload helped me better understand exactly how much work they put in each month, and it gave me even more respect for their work. It really underscores how important it is that we actually financially support short fiction magazines.

While we’re talking about genre magazines, J. Scott Coatsworth recently published two blog posts on the SFWA blog examining how SFF magazines are faring during the pandemic and concomitant economic crisis: “Part 1: Submissions & Supplies” and “Part 2: Short- and Long-Term Prospects & the Post-COVID Landscape”. If you’re at all curious about how things have been going for SFF magazines, I recommend you read Coatsworth’s posts.

I enjoyed “The Striking Style of SFF Artist Galen Dara” by Aidan Moher, published on Tor.com. Galen Dara is my favorite artist, so of course I loved getting to learn more about her and her craft. My partner actually gave me a print of Dara’s cover for Uncanny Magazine Issue 23 as a gift. I love that print because (1) it’s gorgeous SFF artwork (featuring a dinosaur!), and (2) that issue of Uncanny features “You Can Make a Dinosaur, but You Can’t Help Me” by K.M. Szpara, which is one of my all-time favorite short stories.

Short Stories

“We’re Here, We’re Here” by K.M. Szpara

Speaking of K.M. Szpara, I loved his new short story “We’re Here, We’re Here”, published on Tor.com. I haven’t got around to reading his debut novel Docile yet, but reading this short story makes me realize that Docile really needs to be the next novel I read.

“We’re Here, We’re Here” is about Tyler, a trans man who is one of four members of Back 2 Back, a popular boy band. Tyler is expected to be the wholesome good guy in the group, the one who is supposed to follow rules and be emotionally available (AKA single) so that the band’s fans can pine after him. Tyler knows this because the label’s expectations are subtly reinforced everywhere around him, and just in case that isn’t clear enough, Tyler’s manager Jeff is explicit about these expectations anytime Tyler is seen to step out of these narrow lines. The conflict: conforming to these expectations becomes especially difficult when Tyler starts falling in love with one of his bandmates. The science fictional element to the story: Tyler has a vocal implant so that he can sing perfectly. And Jeff can fine-tune and control Tyler’s implant — and even use it to silence him.

There are a number of reasons this story is awesome:

  1. Szpara writes great prose that’s simple and readable but also filled with emotion.
  2. Somewhat to my surprise, I actually really enjoyed watching the boy band members interact with and support each other. They have a great camaraderie, and they’re incredibly supporting and accepting of each other. Moreover, they also have a fairly healthy (non-toxic!) masculinity.
  3. The story centers trans and queer characters — in a popular boy band! (To me, this feels more science fictional than the vocal implant!)

However, the themes that Szpara grapples with are the main reason that I love this story. I love seeing Tyler, a trans man, as a pop icon, as a boy band hottie. As a whole, trans representation in society is still pretty terrible. Most of the time, you just don’t see trans people or characters. And when you do, it’s often not good representation. I love this story because it centers a trans character and it’s good representation that portrays Tyler in a positive light. I love this story because Tyler is a hyper-visible out trans man, and he is admired and desired by a legion of fans. It brings me so much joy to see that.

But then of course there’s the flip-side, the real conflict and drama of the story: Tyler is still repeatedly forced into narrow boxes. Tyler is expected to be rigidly binary and to be a “good and respectable” celebrity. Tyler is trans and society accepts that, but only in a certain way. Tyler is queer and society accepts that, but only in a certain way. Which aggravates me to no end because the way I see it, a good chuck of what it means to be trans and queer is to push back on society’s expectations, to create and live out new visions of sexuality, gender, identity, and community.

This story is many things, and all of them I loved. It’s a scathing critique of society’s over-narrow acceptance of queer and trans people. It’s a story about a boy band’s healthy platonic masculine love. It’s a story about a gay trans man falling in love with a bisexual man. It’s a story about a boy band sticking together and resisting their controlling manager. If any of those stories sound interesting to you, go read this already!

“Getaway” by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I really liked “Getaway” by Nicole Kornher-Stace in Uncanny Magazine Issue 33. It’s a time loop story, told from the perspective of a getaway driver. Heads-up: it’s dark, bloody, and generally depressing. However, I loved this story because:

  1. Time loop stories are fun.
  2. The loop is only 15 minutes or so and it’s told from the perspective of the getaway driver, which was a unique take on the trope.
  3. It’s well written. The prose is saturated with emotion. It hooked me in and didn’t let go.
  4. It’s written in the second-person. I quite enjoy short stories written in the second-person. (I know second-person is more uncommon and weird for novel readers, but in short stories second-person isn’t that rare, and I’ve grown to enjoy it.)

“If You Want to Erase Us, You Must Be Thorough” by L. Tu

I also really liked “If You Want to Erase Us, You Must Be Thorough” by L. Tu in Uncanny Magazine Issue 33. It’s a gripping and powerful story about genocide, imperialism, indoctrinating children, and resistance. Sadly, it’s a story with themes that can relate to any number of real world matters. It made me think of the slow-motion genocide happening to Uighurs in China and the recent reports of forced birth control.

Comics

Pepper & Carrot by David Revoy

The two most recent episodes of Pepper & Carrot are about Pepper and Carrot accompanying an army into war. “Episode 32: The Battlefield” is a fun comic about dress, representation, and prejudices; it’s fun like always. But “Episode 33: Spell of War” was really something special — you must go read it now! I’d say more, but I really don’t want to spoil it for you.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson

If you haven’t heard of Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and Her Unicorn yet, it’s time.

As a kid, I bought a copy of The Peanuts Treasury, a huge paperback tome that collected a ton of Peanuts comic strips. It was a cozy favorite of mine to read and reread. Or perhaps Calvin and Hobbes was more your thing. I’ve enjoyed my fair share of that comic strip as well; Calvin is a bit too much of a boy for my liking, but I do love how Bill Watterson continually plays and experiments with perspective and form in that strip.

Perhaps you sometimes look fondly back on Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes and sigh and think, whatever happened to the high art of the childen’s comic strip? Where is the Peanuts of today? (Now I recognize, of course, that this is a golden age for comics and webcomics and the like, but I’m talking here specifically about children’s comic strips.) The answer is Phoebe and Her Unicorn. This is what you need in your life.

I recently finished reading all of the published Phoebe and Her Unicorn books, and I can attest to the fact that Phoebe and Her Unicorn is adorable, delightful, and magical. It’s light and childish yet meaningful for us adults as well. It’s really pretty to look at. Also, two books in the series are actually graphic novels rather than collections of individual strips, which is an extra special treat. If you like children’s comic strips like The Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes, it’s high time you treat yourself to Phoebe and Her Unicorn. I honestly like it the best.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash


Share on Twitter

short fiction K.M. Szpara comics Dana Simpson Phoebe and Her Unicorn