SFF Adventures: December 2020

by Cam N. Coulter


Posted on December 30, 2020 SFF


Photo of Earth from space. Clouds over the ocean are visible as well as a satellite

Blog Posts & Essays

I liked “‘Oh, Frak’ — Avoiding the Censors the SFF Way” by CD Covington on Tor.com. If you like linguistics or cursing, check this out!

I also enjoyed “Hannibal and Steven Universe Are the Same Show” by Leah Schnelbach on Tor.com. I haven’t seen or paid any attention to Hannibal, but I loved reading Schnelbach’s thoughts on empathy and Steven Universe, and they did draw some surprising connections between the two shows.

I recently came across a number of great essays about diversity and inclusion in the SFF world:

Onyebuchi’s essay is about racism and policing and is a part of a larger conversation we’ve been having this year about these topics. For more on this topic, see July’s SFF Adventures, where I shared a Skiffy and Fanty podcast episode about futures without police, or August’s SFF Adventures, where I shared a short story by Annalee Newitz about defunding the police, or October’s SFF Adventures, where I shared a cool essay about policing in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.

I recently came across this essay from 2019: “Asexual Representation in Mainstream Speculative Fiction” by Lynn E. O’Connacht, published by The Book Smugglers. It’s a long essay that I haven’t read all of, but I’ve skimmed my way through it, and it is very cool. Check it out!

On the topic of good, non-recently-published essays, I recently read “Another Word: On Being a Late Bloomer” by Kelly Robson, published in Clarkesworld Magazine in September 2016. It’s a good read. I recommend this essay if you ever look at young artists doing awesome stuff and feel like you don’t measure up or if it’s too late for you. (I’m a relatively young one myself, and sometimes even I feel that way!)

Podcasts

Lately, Flash Forward has had a string of terrific episodes. My favorite recent episode was “Everybody Votes,” where we travel to a future in which voting rights in the United States are extended to non-citizens, 16-year-olds, and convicted felons. After listening to this episode, I am firmly in favor of all of those groups being extended voting rights. Wild fact: did you know that for a long time in the US, non-citizens were allowed to vote in many elections? I also greatly enjoyed “Give the Land Back?” (about the landback movement in the US and Canada) and “Home Sweet Home” (about a future where housing is guaranteed and provided to everybody).

Imaginary Worlds has also released some good episodes lately. I enjoyed “Fantasy in Translation,” “Fan Films Go Pro,” and “Monsters of 2020.” In particular, I liked “Monsters of 2020.” It is a fascinating discussion about how Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Tom Nook (from Animal Crossing) relate to the coronavirus pandemic.

Skiffy and Fanty recently released a couple fun episodes in which Shaun Duke and Mike Underwood talk about tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs): “TTRPGs in the Dark Times” and “Creating TTRPG Actual Plays!” These are “Speculative Dispatch” episodes that I believe are exclusive to patrons on Patreon. If you’re able to, I definitely would recommend supporting Skiffy and Fanty on Patreon! As a Skiffy and Fanty contributor, I am of course biased, but I do believe Skiffy and Fanty is a bastion of smart, fun, and justice-minded SFF fandom.

Relatedly, my head has been in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) realms again. I’ve been reading the Player’s Handbook and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and I’ve been listening to The Dungeoncast, a podcast where the co-hosts discuss D&D game mechanics and lore. The D&D sourcebooks are well-written and fun to read, but they are relatively dense. I like listening to The Dungeoncast along with reading those books to get at the information in another way, one that’s more informal and animated. If you are trying to wrap your head around D&D lore or mechanics, I would recommend The Dungeoncast as a helpful resource.

Another favorite podcast of mine is Queersplaining, which usually isn’t about SFF. However, Callie recently released a powerful and smart episode about Star Trek: Discovery and nonbinary representation: “non binary…..space?….worms?” Highly recommend! If I’m allowed a shameless plug here, I would say, check out my personal essay “Holy Shit! Representation Matters! Or, How SFF Helped Me Realize I’m Nonbinary,” which explores similar themes.

The Ezra Klein Show is another favorite podcast of mine that usually isn’t SFF-related. However, Klein recently interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson about Robinson’s new novel The Ministry for the Future. They had a great discussion about climate, art, humanity, and politics. Side-note: I’ve started listening to The Ministry for the Future, and so far it’s quite good!

Comics

I recently re-read Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings and read (for the first time) Kim Reaper: Vampire Island by Sarah Graley. As I wrote back in 2018 about Grim Beginnings, “This adorable and fun comic is adorable and fun. It features: a college student who’s a part time grim reaper + a lesbian romance + cats + ghosts + zombies + pretty artwork. I want more please.” All of that remains true, but now having read Vampire Island, I can say that this series also includes vampires, a nonbinary best friend, and a great overarching plot arc! If you are at all interested in queer or paranormal comics, I highly recommend Kim Reaper, and yes, I still want more please.

Pepper & Carrot is an A+ webcomic. It’s about a young witch (Pepper) and her cat (Carrot), and it’s cute, funny, and gorgeous. It’s also Free Culture: the webcomic itself and all the source materials that go into it are released under Free and open-source licenses. You should read Pepper & Carrot and consider supporting its creator David Revoy.

In October, Revoy released three beautiful Pepper & Carrot books, each which contains about ten episodes of the webcomic. He also released a fourth book, The Art of Pepper & Carrot, which compiles sketches, artwork, and worldbuilding info. Since I support the comic on Patreon, my name is printed in the back of the books! I bought the books, read through them all, and really enjoyed it. I’m happy and grateful that I have hard copies of these comics now. I have enjoyed following along online as new episodes are released, but I think it’s even better to have beautiful print copies that I can get lost inside of, especially considering how gorgeous and detailed Revoy’s art is.

TV

TV-wise, 2020 has been the year of cartoons for my partner and me. We’ve watched all of Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and Steven Universe.

Most recently, we finished watching all ten seasons of Adventure Time. Before this year, I had seen a good chunk of episodes from the early seasons, but I had never really intentionally sat down to watch the show. From what I had seen earlier, I didn’t dislike the show, but nor was I particularly attached to it. (I did dislike the Ice King!) But my partner insisted that the show was awesome and that we should watch it, so watch it we did. And while I still prefer Avatar or Steven Universe over Adventure Time, I have grown to appreciate and enjoy the show.

Adventure Time is quite a different show than Avatar or Steven Universe — it ran for way more seasons and it cares much less about longer, serialized plot arcs. I enjoyed Adventure Time most when it leaned into big plot arcs. My favorite episodes were the “Finn the Human/Jake the Dog” arc and the “Islands” miniseries. Those episodes broadened the universe and told big, interesting stories. In general, the latter seasons did more of this. But as a whole, Adventure Time cares less about plot and more about having fun with its huge cast of characters: watching them go on adventures, have a good time, make friends, make mistakes, grow, and mature. That’s really cool, and I’m glad Adventure Time is like that. A lot of old cartoons hit the reset button at the end of every episode, and many newer shows have plots that are heavily serialized. Adventure Time is neither of those, and that’s great. It’s a fun fantasy world populated with great characters. It’s a place where, on a crummy day, I can go hang out with my friends Finn, Jake, Marcy, and Bonnie and have a good time. I’ve even come around somewhat with the Ice King.

We’ve now started watching Gravity Falls. It’s a fun show with endearing characters that’s on the creepy/paranormal side of things. So far, I am enjoying it!

Novels

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I listened to the audiobook of Uprooted by Naomi Novik. My experience with this book was similar to my experience with N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy: marketing blurbs and descriptions of the book didn’t really captivate me, but I heard enough people squee loud enough about the book that I wanted to read it and see what all the fuss was about. And then I read it, and then I understood: it is just an exceptionally well-crafted story and an exceptionally well-written novel. Because of that, I loved it, even though there was nothing in particular about the premise that called out to me. Which is to say, I strongly recommend this book, and I’m not even going to bother telling you anything else about it. Go read Uprooted.

Relatedly, I haven’t read Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, but I think it might fall into the same sort of bucket. Sure, lesbian necromancers in space sounds cool, but for me that’s not enough on its own to make me want to read it immediately, but I do want to better understand what all the fuss is about…

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

I recently read The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, and I’ve been bugging my partner to read it so that I can discuss it with someone. It is a good book, and I recommend it. The story takes place on January, a tidally-locked planet far from Earth, which means half of the planet perpetually faces the sun and is deathly hot, and the other half of the planet perpetually faces into space and is deathly cold. Humans live in a couple cities in the narrow band between night and day.

That was one of the coolest things about reading the book: on January, night and day aren’t times — they are places. It was quite fun attempting to wrap my head around this concept all on its own, but it was even more enjoyable to see how Anders weaves this into the worldbuilding. The worldbuilding in this novel is A+.

This is a great novel, specifically along the axes of worldbuilding and ideas. Plot and characters, while not neglected, definitely felt like secondary focuses to me. If you want a fun, gripping read, honestly this probably isn’t it. But if you want a book that makes you think about civilization, politics, marginalization, privilege, and climate and leaves you with your head spinning, then you should absolutely read this book. Those themes are fundamental to where we are as a species right now, and this book is important.

Provenance by Ann Leckie

I re-read Provenance by Ann Leckie. (To be precise, this time I mostly listened to the audiobook version.) It remains a terrific book! Honestly, I finished re-reading this book, and I thought, I definitely want to read this book again in a year or two. I tend to only re-read one or maybe two novels a year, so that’s saying something!

I love this book because:

  • It takes place largely within a civilization where gender is trinary: there are men, women, and nemen, who use Spivak pronouns (e/em/eir/emself).
  • It takes place largely within a civilization where children are raised gender neutral and choose their name and gender/pronouns when they come of age.
  • It is a fun coming-of-age story about a young woman, her rivalry with her brother, and her political mother.
  • It’s got political intrigue, alien contact, and queer romance. (And no marginalization of queer folks!)
  • It depicts multiple civilizations, which are different in interesting and entertaining ways, coming into contact with and/or encountering each other.
  • In addition to the fun stuff listed above, it also deals with prison reform/abolition and features detailed non-Eurocentric worldbuilding that pays attention to varying levels of privilege and marginalization.

When I first read this book, it was unclear to me whether nemen were agender/gender-neutral or some sort of third gender. As I read the book this time, I was on the lookout for clues. Honestly, beyond pronouns, there weren’t many references to gender, so it’s hard to say. (The book doesn’t even use gendered honorifics. In Provenance, the most common honorific is “your excellency.” That’s wonderful. Can we please start making that commonplace?)

However, I do have one observation: I believe that children, who haven’t yet chosen their adult name and gender/pronouns, are referred to with they/them pronouns rather than Spivak pronouns. (Unfortunately, I didn’t flag this in the text, so I want to say that there’s a chance I’m mistaken here.) If children, who are treated as gender-neutral, aren’t referred to with Spivak pronouns, that implies that nemen (who use Spivak pronouns) are probably more of a third gender than they are gender-neutral. But again, I wasn’t able to pick up much from the text that described the gender of nemen, so it’s hard to be sure.

For clarity’s sake, I now need to state: this ambiguity is not a sin or error in the novel. I give this novel absolutely full marks for awesomeness, especially when it comes to gender. This novel does things with gender that, while groundbreaking, should be more common. The above two paragraphs are not a critique. Rather, they are a trans fan (me) digging deeply into a text that’s singularly important to them.

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts on Provenance? What are your thoughts on gender in the novel, specifically around children, coming-of-age, and nemen? (Or if you have thoughts on anything else I’ve mentioned here, please let me know!)

Photo by NASA on Unsplash


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D&D comics cartoons Naomi Novik Charlie Jane Anders Ann Leckie