Category Archives: Science Fiction

What Harry Potter Taught Me About Celebrating the Holidays

Image credit: Jmh2o.

There are many things I love about the Harry Potter series. How it describes Christmas and the winter holidays in general is one of them. I’m planning to do yet another reread of these books in the near future, so all of the Christmases Harry celebrated with his friends have been popping into my mind again.

Today I wanted to share a few quotes from this series that illustrate some of the most important lessons they’ve shared about food, presents, and celebrations at this time of the year.

Harry had never in all his life had such a Christmas dinner. A hundred fat, roast turkeys; mountains of roast and boiled potatoes; platters of chipolatas; tureens of buttered peas, silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce — and stacks of wizard crackers every few feet along the table… Harry pulled a wizard cracker with Fred and it didn’t just bang, it went off with a blast like a cannon and engulfed them all in a cloud of blue smoke, while from the inside exploded a rear admiral’s hat and several live, white mice.—Description of the Christmas feast in The Philosopher’s Stone

The food descriptions in these books were mouth-wateringly delicious in general, but they somehow always outdid themselves over the holidays.I wanted to eat chipolatas even before I had any clue what they were because of how delicious everything else sounded.

There are plenty of Christmas crackers for sale here in Canada, but a small, playful part of me doesn’t want to buy any of them unless they’re magical and clearly meant for wizards.

Harry Potter: “Will you look at this? I’ve got some presents!

Ron Weasley: “What did you expect, turnips?

One of the things I loved the most about this exchange between Harry and Ron was how it showed the subtle ways their childhoods had influenced their expectations of the holidays.

Ron Weasley’s family was poor but loving. While his parents could only afford simple, homemade gifts most of the time, they were always distributed evenly.

Harry’s family could have afforded to buy him all sorts of things, but they chose to use what should have been a joyful day to inflict even more abuse on him by giving basically all of the love, attention, presents, and desirable food to his cousin every year.

What was a fairly ordinary Christmas to Ron was something Harry found overwhelmingly kind. This was a good reminder that everyone’s approach to the holidays is different. Some people love them. Others find them painful for any number of reasons. ,

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.” – Dumbledore, Philosopher’s Stone

I couldn’t agree with this more. Socks are a deeply under-appreciated gift. There’s nothing like starting the winter off with some brand-new socks that are warm, comfortable, and maybe even cheerfully colourful. One size fits almost everyone, and they can be personalized in all kinds of cheerful ways. I’ve seen socks that have animals, superheroes, rainbows, flags, baseballs, musical instruments, sassy sayings, TTC lines, and all kinds of other stuff printed on them.

Even though I don’t celebrate Christmas, socks would be close to the top of my list if I were expecting any gifts at this time of the year.

“Do people usually give their house-elves Christmas presents?” ~ Harry, Half-Blood Prince

Who deserves presents at Christmas?

To give readers who aren’t familiar with this universe more context for this question, house-elves are owned by wizards in the Potterverse. The only way for them to be freed is if the wizard who owns them gives them an article of clothing.

Normally, house-elves don’t receive Christmas presents, but Harry didn’t know that when he first met one of them. His joy at being fully included in the Weasley family’s celebrations made him assume that everyone should receive presents at Christmas.

I agree with him. If your’e going to give gifts, be inclusive about it as much as possible. It’s like Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, said:

” The more the merrier!” ~ Sirius, Order of the Phoenix

5 Scifi Themes I Wish We Had More Stories About

I know there are fans and writers of the science fiction and fantasy genres who read this blog. Today, I wanted to talk about themes that I wish would be explored more often in these genres and pick your brains. If you know of any books that include these themes, come on over to Twitter and tell me about them.

If you don’t know of any stories that fit these descriptions, maybe it’s time for us to start writing them!

Sentient Plants

By far my favourite characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were the Ents. I was enthralled by the idea of a tree-like creature being as intelligent as any person, elf, or hobbit. The more I learned about their physiology, the more curious I became about what it would be like to exist in-between the world of plants and the world of mammals.

I’m struggling to think of any other examples of this kind of storytelling in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Occasionally I’ll read something about an alien or magical plant that’s surprisingly dangerous, but they’re almost never able to carry on a conversation.

It’s hard to imagine what a plant would think about the world around us. How would staying in the same place for your entire life – more or less – while hoping that nothing eats you change the way you thought about everything from family to how dangerous this planet it? Would a plant be surprised by the human concept of war or understanding of it? How would they compare the seeds they dropped every year to how people raise their young?

If I knew more about biology, I’d have written a story about this already. The more I think about it, the more I feel the urge to research it enough to make educated guesses about what such a creature might be like. There is so much scope for the imagination here, as Anne Shirley would say.

A Replacement for Religion

Organized religion is in a rapid decline in western countries. Fewer people are attending religious meetings or labelling themselves as members of a particular faith with every passing generation.

What will western society be like when the majority of people label themselves as Atheist, Agnostic, None, or vaguely spiritual but without loyalty to any particular religion? Western Europe is a few decades ahead of North America in this process, so there are glimpses of what that kind of society will be like.

My question is, what, if anything, is going to replace religion as a widespread cultural understanding that binds a society together? Will it be sports? Pop culture? A rising interest in science? Nationalism? Has the idea itself of having one thing that most of a population grew up experiencing outlived itself?

How would a post-religious society interact with other countries on Earth that tend to be much more devout?

Yes, Star Trek has given us one vision of what this kind of future might look like, but I’d like to see other people’s extrapolations, too. Science fiction in general seems hesitant to explore religious themes in depth unless it was written specifically to proselytize or as part of the Inspirational genre.

I wish this wasn’t so. There are ways to explore people’s relationship to their faith (or lack thereof) without assuming the audience agrees with the character or trying to (de)convert anyone.

 

Life After Fossil Fuels

Eventually, we’re not going to be able to get enough oil, natural gas, and coal out of the Earth in order to sustain all of the systems that rely on those fuels to keep going. This moment could arrive far sooner than we realize, too.

I’ve read many post-apocalyptic books about people returning to agrarian societies as a direct result of some kind of war or other conflict, but I haven’t read too many that explore what would happen if there wasn’t a single disaster that broke modern society down.

How would you keep communities going after the last drop of gasoline has been used up? What parts of our medical  educational, correctional,and municipal systems could adapt to a world that must rely on renewable resources? What parts of them would become luxuries for the wealthy or fade away entirely as resources grew scarce?

I wouldn’t be surprised if most people began working from home in this sort of future. While I think of that as a positive step for society due to the elimination of commutes, the reduction in the spread of communicable diseases, and the increased freedom that comes with having total control over your work environment, only time will tell what negative side effects from that arrangement could be.

Photo credit: Terminator007007007.

Aliens Who Aren’t as Technologically Advanced as Humans

Imagine meeting an alien species that was a few hundred thousand to a few million years behind us.

How would we treat their planet?

How would humans treat them?

If they could talk, would they be better off or worse off than a species that had no idea what was happening to it?

There are hundreds of stories out there about aliens coming to Earth and trying to steal our resources. I wonder why we so often assume they’d be violent, cruel, and greedy. Is that the way we’d treat them? Is it a quietly lingering cultural guilt over how certain groups of people have been terribly mistreated in the past?

Given how difficult it seems to be for life to take hold in the universe in the first place, I wouldn’t be surprised if any alien species we do find out there is closer to the self-awareness of a houseplant or a lizard than to a fellow humanoid.

 

Crop Circles

I remember hearing all kinds of bizarre stories about crop circles when I was a kid.

Some people were convinced that they were messages from alien races. It was never clear to me what kinds of messages they were or if anyone ever thought they’d decoded them.

Other folks set out to prove that many different types of crop circles could be recreated by humans using simple tools. There have been a few other cases where crop circles were shown to be a natural reaction to archeological remains. When this happens, the same design appears in the field every year because of how those ruins have affected the soil.

For a topic as old and well-known as this one, I’m a little surprised by the fact that I don’t remember reading any sci-fi stories about it at all. This sure seems like it would a topic that could be explored from many different angles, from the extraterrestrial to the paranormal to the bizarre but still completely logical.

How about you? What science fiction and fantasy themes do you wish were more commonplace?

Why It’s Okay to Take Breaks From Science Fiction and Fantasy

I have a confession to share with all of you. I’ve barely read any science fiction and fantasy books recently.

Since I’m a sci-fi writer and a longtime fan of these genres, I’m regularly immersed in thoughts about wizards, robots, aliens, spaceships, science experiments gone wrong, and all of the other tropes you can expect to find in them.

Science fiction and fantasy ideas show up in my dreams, tweets, and random conversations with my spouse, family, and friends.

Most of the time, I love living this way. I’ve read so many different series velw that I can quickly pick out how certain contemporary writers were influenced by tales that were published decades or centuries ago. One of the things I like to do when I’m standing in line or waiting for something is to try to pick out similarities between various universes that I hadn’t thought of yet.

Some authors take careful note of usual patterns in these genres only to figure out how to disrupt them at a critical part of the storyline. It takes a thorough understanding of how science fiction and fantasy stories typically play out to bend the audience’s expectations of how an adventure should end or how a hero is supposed to behave without alienating your readers.

My favourite storytellers are the ones like Douglas Adams who tiptoe across this line perfectly from the first scene to the last one.

With that being said, there can be a lot of repetition in any genre after you’ve spend many years exploring it. I know some people who truly enjoy the familiarity that comes with diving so deeply into this subject, and I completely understand where they’re coming from even though I don’t always feel the same way.

You see, spending time reading other types of stories only reinforces my love for science fiction and fantasy.

Taking Breaks Is a Good Thing

The nice thing about wandering between genres is that it gives the reader a chance to try something completely new. The romance and horror genres might both write about an abandoned graveyard, but the ways they used that setting would be nothing alike.* but  A thriller’s approach to a herd of runaway horses threatening to trample the main character would also be nothing like how a traditional western would solve that problem.

To give another example, a few years ago I began reading mysteries because I was curious about that kind of storytelling and hadn’t read much of it in the past. Needing to pay attention to every little detail of the plot in order to figure out who the murderer was as soon as possible changed the way I approached other genres. If you assume every odd detail might be important later on, it’s much easier to predict how a story will go when the author drops hints about future plot twists.

I also never would have guessed there would be so much crossover between mystery and science fiction, but to my surprise I found a lot of books that couldn’t be easily pinned into either category. This isn’t something I would have ever figured out if I’d stuck to a steady diet of pure science fiction and fantasy.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of young adult and non-fiction books. The young adult genre reminds me of what it felt like to be a child or teenager. Most of the non-fiction books I read are about history or science which are two topics that can be very useful for educational reasons as well as for eventually coming up with new ideas for my own stories. The longer I spend in these other genres, the more I begin to miss the ones I read most often.

The good news is that the science fiction and fantasy landscape is gigantic. My to-read list is still incredibly long, and it includes still includes a decent number of famous authors I’ve been curious to try but haven’t gotten around to yet.  It will be nice to chip away at this list once my break has ended. I’m already beginning to feel the first stirring of interest in magic and technology, so I suspect I’ll jump back into my regular routine soon.

*I have accidentally stumbled across one or two romantic horror tales in the past, though, so in those rare cases it would depend on whether the characters were preparing to fall in love or fight monsters.

How often – if ever – do you take breaks from reading your favourite genres?

A Spoiler-Free Review of Alias Grace

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”
― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace.

The miniseries Alias Grace is based on a Margaret Atwood book by the same name. I will give you a brief, spoiler-free introduction to the storyline before diving into my thoughts on it.

Interestingly enough, this book is based on a real Canadian murder case from the 1840s. Grace Marks, a young Irish servant, was charged with murdering her master, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy MontgomeryJames McDermott, a stable hand on Mr. Kinnear’s farm, was also charged with their murders.

He was hung for that crime, and Grace was committed to an asylum in part because she always claimed that she didn’t remember key parts of the day that Thomas and Nancy were murdered.

Many years later, a young doctor named Simon Jordan was hired to try to get to the bottom of what really happened by a well-do-to group of people who were convinced that Grace was innocent and hoped to see her freed from that institution.

The links above will introduce you to the rest of the cast and share photographs of them, although I should warn you that some of their character descriptions contain mild spoilers. This was especially true for Nancy Montgomery. As interesting as the secondary characters were, though, Grace was the star of this show and therefore who I’m going to be focusing on in this post.

Grace’s timid personality was what first drew me into the book when I read it many years ago. She was afraid to do anything that might be misconstrued in any way, especially if it had to do with improper interactions with people from higher social classes. This personality trait continued even decades after her trial when most of the folks who wanted her to  be hanged for her alleged crimes the way James had been were no longer capable of harming her. That was fascinating and at the same time quite sad to me.

I can’t say too much else about Grace’s backstory without venturing into spoiler territory, but I can tell you that she was a desperately poor immigrant from a despised culture who came to North America with her family in search of a better life when she was a teenager.

Analysis

“People dressed in a certain kind of clothing are never wrong. Also they never fart.”
― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

Last spring, The Handmaid’s Tale showed audiences what the future could be like for women. Alias Grace explored what  poor, working class, and otherwise low-status women living in Canada and the United States in the 1840s and 1850s were up against every time they went to work, or took a walk down the street, or simply tried to exist while being female.

While there were certainly elements of the plot that could be interpreted as paranormal, the core story was steeped in the bitter truth about what the “good old days” were really like for anyone who wasn’t wealthy and powerful. This was even more true for girls and women like Grace whose gender made them extremely vulnerable to any unscrupulous person who crossed their path. They could be – and often were – abused in many terrible ways without the men who harmed them ever facing any consequences for their actions.

When this happened, it was always assumed to be the woman’s fault. There was no room for shades of grey in that debate . This coloured Grace’s story in many ways, from how hesitant she was to share certain memories to how willing the people around her were to take her words at face value.

If you have a narrator who has been socially conditioned to strictly repress certain things through threats of violence or the permanent loss of any type of employment that isn’t prostitution, how do you know that she isn’t only telling you what you want to hear in order to protect herself? Likewise, how do you know that the wealthy and powerful characters haven’t also distorted the truth to suit their wishes?

While society has changed a lot over the last 160 years, these questions are still relevant to us today. As I neared the end of this series and began to read multiple news stories about various famous men who have been accused of abusing the people who worked for or beside them, I couldn’t help but to compare the things some people say about the accusers in 2017 to what they would have said in the mid-1800s:

She’s a liar.

She was asking for it.

It’s her fault. 

She should have known better.

As much as western society has evolved into a kinder, gentler, and more just place since the mid-1800s, some things haven’t changed much at all.

Keep this in mind as you watch this show, especially the violent moments that would be easy to judge from a twenty-first century perspective. So many of these scenarios have been repeated over and over again throughout history. Only recently have there been any attempts at all to correct them, and humanity is still feebly stumbling over many of those corrections. To the extent that black-and-white answers exist at all, they are not easy to find in or apply to Grace’s world because of how unethical the justice system was there to begin with.

No, this does not mean I’m condoning the murders of Thomas and Nancy. I have never and will never cheer for the death of anyone, but I do want to warn my readers that this isn’t the kind of show that wraps everything up neatly for the audience.

No one was completely good – or evil – in this universe. There were moments of pure kindness in characters who otherwise made my skin crawl and dark streaks in characters who were otherwise virtuous.

 

Was Grace Really a Murderer?

“If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.”
― Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

One of the biggest reasons why I loved this mini-series so much had to do with how thoroughly it explored this question from every angle it could from the first episode to the last one.

Viewers who believe she was guilty can find plenty of evidence to support their claims.

Viewers who believe she was innocent can find plenty of evidence to support their claims.

Viewers who believe other explanations, ranging from the paranormal to the psychological, can find plenty of evidence for their claims as well.

I had a strong opinion about what happened when I began watching part 1. By the time I finished part 6, my mind had changed at least three or four different times as new evidence was brought to light and possible contradictions to previous evidence was revealed to the audience.

This is the kind of storytelling that keeps me coming back for more. When I rewatch this series again this winter, I have no doubt that my mind will change yet again.

Once you’ve seen this show, I’d be happy to discuss specific details of the case with anyone reading this who would like to know what I ultimately decided about Grace’s culpability. It was difficult to write this section without giving away hints about how it ended or what I decided, but I couldn’t discuss Alias Grace without acknowledging the most pressing question in the storyline.

10 Fantasy Books I’d Recommend to New Readers of This Genre

Last August I blogged about science fiction and fantasy books I’d recommend for elementary, middle school, and high school students.  Last week I blogged about science fiction books I’d recommend to adults who are unfamiliar with that genre.

Today let’s talk about books that are a wonderful introduction to fantasy in general for anyone who hasn’t explored this genre yet. I’m much more selective about what types of fantasy fiction I read than I am about science fiction. On the positive side, once I fall in love with a fantasy story I will become one of it’s biggest advocates for many years to come.

I generally have a preference for fantasy tales that were written for children or teenagers for reasons that are hard to tease out. This list reflect that, although there are still plenty of novels for adults on it as well.

Fantasy is a genre that requires a lot of world-building in order to make an unfamiliar place feel like home for the readers, so there won’t be any short stories in today’s post. Longer novels usually do better in this regard in my experience.

Finally, I gravitated towards books that have been made into films, TV shows, mini-series, or plays. I often prefer to watch fantasy rather than read it because of how rewarding it is to see a world I’ve spent years dreaming about finally come to life, dragons or intelligent little rabbits and all. Nearly all of the recommendations below have been transformed into one of these things at least once.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

First of all, everyone’s heard of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There are references to it everywhere, and for good reason. This was actually one of the first fantasy tales I ever read, and it’s something I enjoy going back to visit again every so often.

The scene that made me a lifelong fan was the one where Alice drank a potion and magically shrunk to a fraction of her size. I giggled the first time I read it, and it’s still charming to me to this day.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

I saw The Princess Bride movie years before I had any idea it was based on a book. It was a fairy tale that seemed to somehow be self-aware, and it was like nothing I’d never read or heard of before. I’m still not entirely sure if it was supposed to be a kindhearted parody of the fantasy genre or an homage to it. Given the tongue-in-cheek but ultimately warm and supportive writing style, it’s probably a little of both.

What I do know about this story is that it’s timeless and appeals to kids and adults alike. To me, this is a sign of great fantasy.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Before I read The Mists of Avalon, I’d never known that retelling a classic legend from the point of view of an antagonist was something that had been or could be done. Morgan le Fay was someone I’d barely heard of at that point, and all of the reference to her in the versions of the older King Arthur legends I had read were fairly negative.

It came as a shock to me, then, to read about Arthur’s life and kingdom from the perspective of Morgan. I was fascinated by all of the details of her life that the author invented in order to explain why this character made certain decisions and why the other characters didn’t always understand her.  Morgan became much more human and likeable to me after I finished The Mists of Avalon.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.

Creating imaginary worlds and then playing in them is arguably one of the best parts of childhood. Terabithia was as complex and magical as any other world a kid could imagine, and I loved reading about Jesse and Leslie’s adventures there.

This is also one of the few fantasy novels I’ve ever read that had a sad ending. I don’t give generally give away spoilers in my posts, but I would recommend being cautious with this one for readers who are younger or sensitive.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.

Every once in a while I run across someone who has never read the Harry Potter series. I’m slightly surprised every time it happens, but I’m sure there are other series out there I haven’t tried yet that others would have the same reaction to.

This series is a smart introduction to modern fantasy for a few different reasons: it has a large fanbase; the movies were well done; the story telling only gets stronger as the series continues. It’s also aged well and is something I expect people to continue to read for generations to come because of that.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

I have one word for you: puns. This story is brimming with them, and it only makes the Kingdom of Wisdom even more amusing than it would have been otherwise. I also enjoyed the messages embedded in this one about the importance of education and the wonders you can discover if you explore the world around us with curiosity.

The fantasy genre can be quite good at exploring messages like these without feeling preachy or pushing the main plot off topic. The Phantom Tollbooth did a fantastic job of showing the readers the importance of these things without skimping on the development of the plot.

The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read the other two books in this trilogy yet. My recommendation only extends to The Golden Compass at this point.

This is the heaviest and most complex book recommendation for today’s post. I almost deleted it and replaced it with something else, but I eventually decided that it should stay. Complexity isn’t a bad thing, and neither are stories that are darker than what is typical for the age range or genre they were written for.

How do you know what is real? What do you do when your experiences of the world don’t match the orthodox explanations for how things work? When should – and shouldn’t – we trust authority figures simply because they’re authority figures?

These are hard questions for adults to answer, and they’re even tougher for kids to comprehend. I enjoyed seeing how Lyra tried to figure out what the truth really was regardless of who wanted to stop her.

 

Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Watership Down was something I discovered shortly after I developed my love of rabbits. The idea of reading an entire story about a fluffle* of rabbits who were searching for a new home was quite appealing, and I only enjoyed it more once I realized just how unique each rabbit was and how much they all mattered to the plot as well as to their urgent need to find a safe place to call home.

*No, I am not being cutesy here. This is the technical term for a group of rabbits, and I love it.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Not only is this a classic Christmas story, it’s a magical glimpse into what fantasy can look like if its set in an urban society that barely seems aware of its existence at all. Out of all of the different types of fantasy out there, this one is my favourite. It’s exciting to find the subtle hints that a fantasy realm has influenced an otherwise completely ordinary society.

Having such an ordinary setting also made Scrooge’s encounters with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future even more poignant than they would normally be. Who would have guessed that such a wealthy, greedy, and powerful man was being quietly watched by beings who desperately wanted him to change his tune before it was too late?

 

The Stand by Stephen King.

Will the world end with a bang or a whimper? This novel was so long that I only managed to read through the whole thing once. All of those extra pages and scenes were used to to create a frightening world in which 99.4% of the human population died from an unforgiving virus that had been accidentally released into the general human population.

The survivors were gradually separated into two distinct groups, one lead by a devil figure and the other lead by a woman who is fighting on the side of good. That’s when the plot became a must-read for me. This is such a classic trope in the fantasy genre, and it was explored fully in The Stand.

How about you? What fantasy books would you recommend to new readers of this genre?

10 Science Fiction Books I’d Recommend to New Readers of This Genre

Last August I blogged about the science fiction and fantasy books I’d recommend for elementary, middle school, and high school students. Today I’m talking about science fictions books I’d recommend to adults who have never read anything in this genre before. Next Thursday I’ll be blogging about books in the fantasy genre that I think every adult… Read More

Tailored Book Recommendations Are the Best

The Chronicles of Narnia was one of the first series I remember being recommended to me. My generous uncle gave me all seven books in that series at once when I was in elementary school. As soon as I read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, I began quietly touching the back of every… Read More

I Have a Guest Post at The Alexandria Papers About The Handmaid’s Tale

Alexandria Constantinova Szeman published a guest post from me yesterday afternoon. Click on the link below to check it out. Nolite te Bastardes Carbundorum: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Handmaid’s Tale. I will be back here on Thursday with another post. In the meantime, I’ll see you over on Alexandria’s site today! Read More

14 Science Fiction and Fantasy Shows I Can’t Wait to Watch This Season

When I originally started working on this post, I was planning to say that I don’t watch very much television. As you’re about to discover from this list, though, I was wrong about that. There are far more SFF shows that I enjoy than I originally thought! Click on the titles of each shows to… Read More