SFF Adventures: August 2020
Here’s what I’ve been reading and listening to lately in the realms of SFF: Becky Chambers, tabletop RPGs, and more.
I’ve been listening to — and really enjoying! — a new podcast: FOSS and Crafts, hosted by Morgan Lemmer-Webber and Christopher Lemmer Webber. It’s a podcast about Free/libre and open-source software, crafts, creativity, and making things, and it’s already been quite science fictional and fantastic.
Episode one is titled “Collaborative Storytelling with Dice.” It’s a fun discussion about role-playing games (RPGs). They touch on Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) of course, but they also examine other systems, such as Freeform Universal (FU). FU caught my interest, so I went and listened to an arc of the podcast Lakeshore and Limbo, an actual-play podcast that uses FU. Lakeshore and Limbo is an occult-noir detective story that comes in arcs of 3–6 episodes each, and it’s got some good humor to it as well. I quite enjoyed the arc that I listened to (“A Little Danger”). If you’re interested in FU or if you like occult-noir RPGs, I’d recommend you give it a listen!
(Also, I haven’t listened to the two most recent episodes of FOSS & Crafts yet, but those episodes are actually a FU actual-play game/podcast!)
Episode two is about the impact of machines that ‘learn’ and produce. In this episode, Morgan and Christopher mentioned AI Dungeon, a fun and interesting text-based adventure where your game master (GM) is an AI. I recommend you play AI Dungeon! I’ve had fun playing around with it, and it inspired me to GM a text-based game for my partner via Signal.
I also enjoyed episode four of FOSS and Crafts, in which Morgan and Christopher break down an academic paper looking at eight different kinds of fun. If you’re a gamer or a game designer, I recommend you give this episode a listen!
Unrelated to FOSS & Crafts — Our Opinions Are Correct released a good episode recently about indigenous futurism.
Blog Posts & Essays
I enjoyed this conversation between Becca Evans and Catherine Krahe on Strange Horizons. It’s a fun informal chat that covers a lot of different things, but I was most interested in hearing Becca share about her work as an accessibility editor for Strange Horizons. As I shared in a recent blog post, I’ve started nerding out about accessibility, so it was cool to see how web accessibility plays out in the world of genre magazines.
I highly recommend you support Jason Sanford on Patreon, because his regular column Genre Grapevine is terrific. In a recent Genre Grapevine, Sanford rounded up how folks have been talking about “the canon” of SFF again. I liked John Scalzi’s post on the canon, and in particular, this bit:
Some works and writers will rise, some will fall, some will be rediscovered and some will be consigned to the archives, possibly forever. No canon, just a field forever in conversation with itself, choosing its conversational partners from its past rather than having them assigned from a list.
I feel like those two sentences succinctly describe why canons are problematic and not cool and poetically describe what we actually have in lieu of a canon.
What Really Sells Me on a Book
Speaking of Scalzi, Michael R. Underwood recently published a guest post on Scalzi’s blog talking about his latest book Annihilation Aria. Annihilation Aria is a space opera, and it looks like a fun read. But in this post, Underwood doesn’t really spend much time talking about his new book as a space opera. Instead, he discuss how Annihilation Aria challenges the flatly unrealistic “happily ever after” trope and instead centers characters in a long-term, committed, dynamic, and evolving relationship. I haven’t read enough stories that do that, so that — in conjunction with the fact that I love space operas and this looks like a great space opera — put Annihilation Aria on my TBR list.
Michael R. Underwood’s guest post made me think about how sometimes what really sells you on a book isn’t the concept, or the marketing copy, or even everyone else squeeing about it. Sometimes none of those things capture my attention. Sometimes, instead, what captures my attention about a book is one little highly specific detail. For me, those details are likely to be: this book has nonbinary characters, neopronouns, or a different gender system — this book is about characters in an ongoing, committed relationship — this book features fundamentally different family and community structures — this book includes characters who are religious (and who aren’t caricatures). The fastest way to sell me on a book is often to tell me one of these things about it. Do you have this experience as well? What are the specific details that can sell you on a book?
On the topic of books that include religious characters, I recently read Leah Schnelbach’s Tor.com post “Six Books About Spacefaring Missionaries”. I know I’m a nerd for religious SFF because I’ve read four of these books and have the other two on my TBR list. My favorite religious SFF book is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., but if you’re looking for something religious and queer, I recommend Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather. Anyone else out there love religious SFF? Any other recommendations besides these six?
I liked “‘Evil Earth’: Linguistic Worldbuilding in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy” by CD Covington on Tor.com. Are you a fan of either linguistics or N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy? (I know I am!) If so, I predict you’ll also enjoy this.
We don’t have enough SFF about UFOs. Have you been paying attention to the news about UFOs? Legit people from the US military are all like, “Hey, so, our pilots have routinely encountered unidentified flying objects that we don’t at all understand. We’re not saying they’re extraterrestrial in origin, but … the odds seem pretty good that they might be. We should investigate this more seriously.” Last month, Vox published a great interview with professor Alexander Wendt about this that I highly recommend: “It’s time to take UFOs seriously. Seriously.” Please read this, and then let’s start talking and writing more about UFOs.
Dungeons & Dragons
Last month in this column, I shouted out a couple essays about Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), and this month 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.
The Slush Pile
Lastly, I want to shout out Alex Acks’s blog post “Slush v Solicitations: Just tell us where we stand.” This blog post is half “informative and justified rant” and half “really useful resource for writers.” If you write short fiction, check it out.
I recommend everyone read “I’m with Muni — how can I help?” by Annalee Newitz. It’s a short story about defunding the police and instead investing in transportation and social services. It’s an accessible and powerful illustration of (1) what “defund the police” really means, and (2) why that’s important. The story is also a great argument for why speculative and visionary fiction is an essential component for envisioning better worlds and pushing for change. This ties back to the Skiffy & Fanty podcast episode “Speculative Dispatch #9 - A World Without Police,” which I shouted out in last month’s SFF adventures.
Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is one of my favorite short story writers, and their recent story “Bring the Bones That Sing” was a great read. It’s dark in the way that stories about death and reapers are necessarily dark, but the story’s core is warm, beautiful, and poetic. If you like either birds or stories about reapers, I recommend!
I’ve also been reading the Dystopia Triptych, a trilogy of new anthologies edited by John Joseph Adams, Christie Yant, and Hugh Howey. Ignorance is Strength features tales from before the dystopia, Burn the Ashes features tales during the dystopia, and Or Else the Light features tales set at the end or after the dystopia. The anthologies have a great lineup of contributors, and I think every author contributed three stories that tie together (one for each anthology). So far I’ve only read the stories by Carrie Vaughn and Cadwell Turnbull. Their stories were great and definitely worth-reading, and I especially enjoyed getting to read three short stories from an author set within one universe. I want to read more of these anthologies, particularly the stories by Seanan McGuire, Dominca Phetteplace, Violet Allen, and Merc Fenn Wolfmoor. However, I haven’t gotten around to that yet because the stories by Carrie Vaughn and Cadwell Turnbull were too depressing. Don’t get me wrong: they were good stories and I very much enjoyed reading them, but this is a damn hard year, and those stories left me feeling more down about the world than when I went in. Personally, I may need to wait a year and then return to these anthologies.
I recently finished listening to all three novels in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. (Side-note: earlier this year I discovered that you can get DRM-free audiobooks from Libro.FM, and it’s wonderful.) OMG so good! Record of a Spaceborn Few made me cry, and I think Becky Chambers may have now dethroned Ann Leckie as my favorite author? You should definitely check out these books. They are fun and cozy character-centered space adventures that accessibly and powerfully deal with themes of found family, cultural diversity, friendship, artificial intelligence, grief, purpose, and the very meaning of life. Maximally recommend.
Continuing on the D&D thread from earlier, I just finished reading The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore. It’s well-written; the prose and plot are both skillfully crafted. I also enjoyed reading a D&D book set in the Forgotten Realms. My problem with the book, however, is that it’s outdated. It’s set in a firmly patriarchal and sexist world with no clear QUILTBAG+ characters, and I did not enjoy that. The book itself subtly but surely endorses good principles: loyalty, kindness, and friendship. I just find it so tiresome to read a book set in a sexist patriarchy. I did expect this going into it, so fortunately I wasn’t unprepared. While I don’t currently desire to read more books in the series, I do want to read plot summaries for more of R.A. Salvatore’s books, and I’d like to read another D&D novel if I can find one that’s sufficiently queer. (Any suggestions?) Classics have their place, but new books (like Becky Chambers’ delightful books!) really are better.