White Bears in Sugar Land: Juneteenth, Cages, and Afrofuturism

We resist enclosure. Deer roam forests. Vines colonize abandoned Coliseums. A human being held in solitary confinement will self-harm, scream, plead, kick doors, smear feces on their cell walls, and refuse food if there exists even the promise of seeing the sun for fifteen minutes of their day. There are many words in English for what that human being quests for: liberty, emancipation, freedom, independence. So much of the American project has been dousing its cultural fabric in these colors. No mention of brotherhood and precious little of equality. Justice is nowhere to be found. Peace, somewhere far off in the distance. Over the horizon, in fact. Those messy words presume an After, and they presume that this After is other than post-apocalypse. Liberty, emancipation, independence, without brotherhood or equality or justice or peace, presume utopia. Any alternative imagining can only be fiction.

An episode in the second season of Black Mirror, titled “White Bear,” dramatizes precisely this conundrum. The protagonist, a woman played by Lenora Crichlow, awakens with amnesia, haunted by a symbol that flickers on the television screen in her room and hunted by unreasoning pursuers. People on the street catch sight of her and immediately raise their cameraphones to record. Even as her pursuers shoot at her and those who have decided to aid her, the spectators remain just that. Spectators. They’re being held captive by a signal from a transmitter at a facility called “White Bear.” Get to White Bear, destroy the transmitter, and free the world from their stupor. When she and her confederate reach the transmitter, two hunters attack. In what is supposed to be the episode’s climax, she wrestles a shotgun away from one of her assailants, aims, and pulls the trigger.

Out comes confetti.

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Our Favorite Groundhog Day-Style Time Loops in SFF

The now-classic Groundhog Day flirts with (and breaks) the rules of multiple movie genres: romantic comedy, time travel narrative, small town dramedy, spiritual redemption tale—and it’s also given birth to an entire subgenre of its own. The “Groundhog Day episode” is a mainstay of many television series, and the plot even pops up in films, novels, and short fiction. It’s a fun way to play with established characters, putting your faves through the emotional wringer while trying to solve a murder or stop a crime. And it can be an equally effective tool for riffing on entire genre tropes; mixing in high school drama, slasher horror, or other well-worn genres can lead to some fascinating mashups. And in (almost) all cases, the protagonist stuck in the time loop comes out on the other side all the better.

We’ve compiled a list of our favorite Groundhog Day riffs and the most memorable time loops in SFF. Take a break from listening to “I Got You Babe” for the nth time and instead check out these 14 recursive tales.

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A Little Horror, a Lot of Delight: Andre Norton’s Ralestone Luck

Of all the Norton books I’ve read so far, Ralestone Luck has both delighted and horrified me the most. According to the introduction to The Andre Norton Megapack, this was her first novel, written while she was in high school, though it didn’t appear in print until about a decade later, in 1938, as her second published novel.

I had no idea what to expect, except that it would not be science fiction and would probably have a historical bent. It turns out to be a contemporary, set in the Thirties, but it’s steeped in history. There’s a very old family with very old secrets, a crumbling castle that’s purportedly haunted—in the Louisiana bayou, no less—and a series of mysteries to solve. Also, pirates. And the Crusades. And rogue oil drillers.

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The Power of Queer Play in Dungeons & Dragons

Over the past five years, Dungeons & Dragons has experienced not only a revival, but a renaissance. With more cultural connections, digital assets, and online gameplay opportunities, the barrier for entry into the tabletop game is lower than ever. Within this revival, D&D has found a large, outspoken following among queer and gender non-conforming people.

While queer people have always been nerdy as hell, the vocal contingent of gay-mers and queer roleplayers has created a new facet of appreciation and understanding for D&D. Because of the way that the game is set up, D&D allows for new methods of play as identity and queerness intersect and are explored. The power of queer people to interact with a game that does not question their existence, but molds itself to support it, is a hugely emancipating and rewarding experience. Dungeons & Dragons is an open sandbox in which queer folk can enact their fantasies of power and gender without consequence or question.

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Five Books Featuring Medicine and Magic

I like the small things in fantasy, by which I mean I like germs and figuring out if the characters know about them. People in the real world didn’t know about germs for a long time, either (though many people put forth theories about spores, contagions, and small bodies and how to prevent their spread). Our previous theories and treatments made sense given what we could observe, and many fantasies draw from the centuries before we put names to the things that cause and spread illness.

There’s a terrifying tinge of dramatic irony to injuries in fantasy, especially when the reader knows the limits of the world’s medicine and magic. It is easy to cast aside the scientific history of a fantasy world when the focus of the story isn’t medical in nature, but good books still hint at their world’s medical knowledge. This part of world building can be so small that it’s nearly imperceptible, but as in medicine, small things can make all the difference.

Here are a few incredible fantasies where magic and medicine combine.

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Series: Five Books About…

Artificial Intelligence in Fiction, Fact, and Our Dreams for the Future

To celebrate the launch of Machina, a new story about the race to build the robots and AI that will take us to Mars, from Serial Box, Machina co-authors Fran Wilde (The Bone Universe, The Gemworld), Malka Older (The Centenal Cycle), Martha Wells (Murderbot Diaries), and Curtis Chen (Waypoint Kangaroo) sat down with Naomi Kritzer (Catfishing on Catnet) and Max Gladstone (The Empress of Forever, The Craft Sequence) for a Tor.com Roundtable to talk about AI as it appears in fiction, fact, and in our dreams for the future.

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Five YA Books That Blur the Line Between Good and Evil

Sometimes, the lines between right and wrong are blurred. Sometimes we do the wrong things for the right reasons. And sometimes even the best of intentions go awry.

Which means, for us readers, it isn’t always clear which side we’re supposed to be rooting for.

Here are five of my favorite books that test our loyalties at every turn.

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Broadswords, Time Travel, and the End of the World: Nick Mamatas’ Sabbath

Readers familiar with Nick Mamatas’s work will know that he’s more than capable of finding a comfortable place between genres—and is more than willing to use that position to make his readers deeply uncomfortable. His 2016 novel I Am Providence riffed on toxic fandom and horror fiction, even as it kept readers guessing as to whether its central mystery would end up having a supernatural solution. The stories in his collection The People’s Republic of Everything offer a good overview of his strengths as a writer: sharp characterization, a terrific sense of place, and a willingness to change things up among them.

In the acknowledgements for his new novel Sabbath, Mamatas alludes to growing up near L’Amour, a storied Brooklyn venue referred to in one article as “a CBGB’s of metal.” Mamatas is making this allusion for a reason: as you might be able to tell from the cover design—including a sword, gothic lettering, and plenty of fire—Sabbath might as well have a blistering guitar solo play as you begin reading. But when I say “Sabbath is a very metal novel,” that’s not to imply that its tone is monolithic. And the impressive trick that Mamatas pulls off here is how he pivots this novel from one style of supernatural fiction to another.

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Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings Brought Tolkien From Counterculture to the Mainstream

In a previous article, I wrote about how Rankin/Bass’s TV movie The Hobbit , which debuted the same year as Star Wars, served as a prophecy for the future of entertainment. These days, Tolkien’s legendarium isn’t just mainstream: it’s the foundational text of mainstream pop culture, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to Star Wars —Tony Stark even calls Hawkeye “Legolas” in The Avengers.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, the main places for Middle-earth references in the greater pop culture were Rush and Led Zeppelin songs, and graffiti declaring “Frodo Lives” on subway station walls. Tolkien was a conservative Oxford don, but The Lord of the Rings had found its first popularity in the counterculture.

It’s fitting, then, that the first person to bring Tolkien to the big screen was the counterculture cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, aided by screenwriter and The Last Unicorn author Peter S. Beagle. Most famous for the X-Rated cartoon Fritz the Cat , Bakshi brought a distinct artistic approach to The Lord of the Rings that simultaneously fit its countercultural caché and helped to bring the story out of funky hot-boxed rooms filled with lava lamps and into a more mainstream consciousness.

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Classic SF Works Set on Futuristic Space Habitats

In 1974, Gerard K. O’Neill’s paper “The Colonization of Space” kicked off what ultimately proved to be a short-lived fad for imagining space habitats. None were ever built, but the imagined habitats are interesting as techno dreams that, like our ordinary dreams, express the anxieties of their time .

They were inspired by fears of resource shortages (as predicted by the Club of Rome), a population bomb, and the energy crisis of the early 1970s. They were thought to be practical because the American space program, and the space shuttle, would surely provide reliable, cheap access to space. O’Neill proposed that we could avert soaring gas prices, famines, and perhaps even widespread economic collapse by building cities in space. Other visionaries had proposed settling planets; O’Neill believed it would be easier to live in space habitats and exploit the resources of minor bodies like the Earth’s Moon and the asteroids.

Interest in O’Neill’s ideas waned when oil prices collapsed and the shuttle was revealed to have explosive flaws. However, the fad for habitats lasted long enough to inspire a fair number of novels featuring O’Neill-style habitats. Here are some of my favourites.

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Star Trek: Picard Comic Fully Explains Jean-Luc’s Romulan Companions — Laris and Zhaban

Spoilers ahead for aspects of Star Trek: Picard episode 2: “Maps and Legends”.

One of the quirkiest mysteries at the start of Star Trek: Picard has suddenly been answered. If you’re confused about why Jean-Luc is living with a couple of Romulans at Château Picard, you’ll only get hints in the actual TV series itself. (Well, thus far.) Because the complete answer to this huge change in the status quo is elucidated in the final issue of the IDW comic book miniseries, Star Trek: Picard: Countdown.

Here’s how the third and final issue of the prequel comic reveals Laris and Zhaban’s fate and explains why they’re so loyal to Jean-Luc in Star Trek: Picard. 

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All the New Genre-Bending Books Arriving in February!

It’s just in the corner of your eye, a slip, a glimmer—the way things bend around you. You aren’t supposed to be here, but you are, and maybe this is where you fit after all. This month’s genre-bending releases are all about discovery. Rediscover a long lost manuscript in The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata; go back in time to the 1621 witch trials in The Mercies by Kieran Millwood Hargrave; and experience a time-scrambled life in Margarita Montimore’s Oona Out of Order!

Head below for the full list of genre-bending titles heading your way in February!

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