SFF Adventures: October 2020
by Cam N. Coulter
Posted on October 24, 2020 SFF
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.”
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!
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!
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.
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!