Welcome to A Basic Intro to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror.
I am your guide for this 101-level discussion, Professor Mike.
Ah, if only...
I teach for my day job when I’m not moonlighting around these parts, but it’s all magnets and steel, not the ins and outs of the genre. Ever since I heard about one of the local colleges that offered a Science Fiction Literature class, I’ve always wanted to have at it.
The class skewed heavily toward short stories and one novel, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. (I’ve read it, good book) Unfortunately, the class was perpetually at 10 am, effectively blocking anyone who has a day job from ever sitting in. So, since I teach, and I’ve read oodles of SFFH books over the years, I put together my own class syllabus.
In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve done this. The original Intro to Science Fiction I put together lives on my own blog back when I posted there regularly. But that was ten years ago (and makes me feel old now). The reading list isn’t as fresh as it was back then.
They’re all great books, don’t get me wrong. They’re not the type that aged poorly but if I have a newbie to the genre asking me for recommendations, I want this to skew modern and current. We are in a new golden age of SFF with stacked awards lists every year and these are the books we need to showcase to someone dipping their toe in the genre for the first time.
I want accessible, I want current, I want fantastic. Figure the class is once a week for a solid 3-4 hour session. Six books over the course of a semester. None of these are doorstoppers so this is perfectly manageable.
Get it? Got it? Good.
WITHOUT FURTHER ADO,
HERE IS THE COURSEWARE FOR THE INTRO TO SFFH:
Mercenaries. Planetwide consequences and interpersonal relationships all rolled up into one book. This is a modern take on the subgenre though with queer LGBT and nonbinary people front and center as a matter of fact part of life. Billed as part Mandalorian and part Cowboy Bebop, it takes a Kurasawa Seven Samurai-esque style plot as a starting point. (The AI-powered ship is even named Kurasawa) There is a dose of the familiar rolled up with all the shiny fresh parts of the modern genre. Discussion points will start with the familiar. How does the universality of the plot play into the appeal of space opera? In the grand tradition of science fiction and space operas before it, how is this book holding up a mirror to the current day in between all the fun going on?
This book centers around a face-changing thief and a prince able to detect a person’s unique flavor of magic.Magic is at the center of daily life here making the setting feel very lived in. What originally put this book on my To Read List was the Latinx-based secondary world. It’s a colorful, lived-in world, far from the dour greys of faux England and Game of Thrones or old-school Tolkien.
Now, we’re heading straight to world-building.
Compare and contrast what parts of world-building are universal to the genre versus the specific cultural points coming from the Latinx influences.
… and her Wayward Children series of novellas, specifically the first two, Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones. McGuire has multiple ongoing series and has a bibliography longer than a CVS receipt. Her October Daye series is currently at 18 books and 43 short stories. She is a master of the ongoing series. Currently, at eight novellas, Wayward Children is less daunting than some of the others. It centers on a school for children that had their Narnia-style portal adventure, but then came back home and have to come back to real life. With trilogies and long series being common in the genre, the dual novella week provides an opportunity to discuss the trials and tribulations of keeping a long-running series feeling fresh.
The moon landing happened in 1950 and JFK was never shot so we’ve got a different spin on the Cold War in a new flavor of the 1970s. The protag gets the “Jail or the military” treatment and ends up in the space corp on the lookout for alien invaders. Alt history narratives can act as sociology thought experiments as much as anything else and can create large ripples from small changes such as a nuclear-powered engine rather than a bomb in 1945.
Discussion points are going to lean into history as a setting and how to use and abuse it for narrative gain.
Urban fantasy is another subgenre that starts with a “real world” base and shakes things up.
In Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse takes the familiar, adds a climate apocalypse, and moves the whole thing outside of the London-NYC-Seattle of typical urban fantasy. This book takes place in Dinétah, Navajo land, and their gods and heroes walk the land. Maggie is a supernatural monster hunter and Kai is a gifted medicine man and they’ve got to throw down with a monster that kidnapped a kid. Discussion points are going to compare and contrast the tropes of “urban” fantasy in this rural setting versus a more typical cityscape, the “cli-fi” elements in the worldbuilding and the different storytelling beats that Roanhorse pulls from her Native background.
The last book of the bunch brings in horror, albeit in a very specific niche of horror.
In Final Girl Support Group, Grady Hendrix plays with classic slasher tropes and comes at us with a book that is set after the main event. Similar to McGuire’s Wayward Children series read earlier, this is a book about what happens afterward. It is group therapy for survivors of their own slasher stories. The protag thinks it’s all happening again and she’s elbow-deep in a sequel. Everyone else says she’s crazy and now it’s time to figure out who’s right.
Discussion topics will revolve around genre theory and the evolution of horror tropes and how they’re played out in this different angle on a familiar subset of horror.