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1.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of circumstances and types of people that spurred on the intellectual achievements of classical Greece. While we admire Greek philosophers, the issues they discussed don’t come up all that often outside university campuses and late-night conversations. In modern life, philosophy has taken on a much smaller role in steering society, and we don’t tie together a broad range of activities like art, literature, biology, technology and the like under the same umbrella anymore.

Jo Walton, however, has gone ahead and tried to imagine a place where we would do these things in the three books that make up Thessaly (2017): The Just City, The Philosopher Kings and Necessity. These are very specifically books about Greek philosophy and the making of philosophers, tackling some of the most basic existential questions such as what is goodness, what is excellence, what is out purpose – and while Walton doesn’t provide universal answers, she centres the constant asking of these questions as the root to living a satisfying life.

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Phantomland by Maaria Laurinen perfectly captures the experience of being tossed into a new job head-first and feeling completely out of their depth. Notwithstanding that in this case, the job is joining an elite law enforcement unit that appears to only employ people who have already died.

This is a webcomic that clearly takes inspiration from the “big coat” fashion of Fullmetal Alchemist – just look at these jackets!

Yet that influence isn’t just aesthetic; it manifests in the impeccable paneling, expressive characters and equally expressive inking. The drawing skill on display is remarkable, as well as Laurinen’s grasp of composition and pacing.

Technical proficiency comes paired with characters the creator loves dearly. Chie is relatable as an apprentice who, underappreciated and underutilized, can’t deal very well with her insecurities on top of the amnesia that’s fundamental to becoming part of the “ghosts.” Jon is a grizzled veteran who hides trauma beneath a veneer of indifference and has no desire to be a mentor. Both are typical archetypes for a buddy cop story like this one, but they’re realized well and play off each other into a broader team dynamic as we’re introduced to other ghosts.

It’s obvious I really like Phantomland. It’s aims, at this point, seem simple – give readers a fun romp – but it’s executed so delightfully well I think more people need to read it.

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I’ve noticed a growing swell of first- and second-generation immigrant writers of fantasy expressing anxiety over drawing on their family’s culture for their work, or the consequences they face when they don’t.

The fears are the same: getting criticism for lack of authenticity – not being a “real” member of that culture – or getting pigeonholed and then ostracized for not reflecting the dominant narrative of “the immigrant.” These fears reflect our own destabilized experiences as liminal cultural actors. We appear steeped in a culture but not in a geography, not quite of the place your family came from but not quite of the place you are, either, and with that lack of belonging comes an internalized sense of inevitable rejection from both places.

I wrote a long time ago about how having a liminal identity can go hand in hand with the desire to write fantasy and science fiction, but I didn’t touch on how carving that space carries its own implicit dangers. Immigrants become scared of casting an already contested identity out into the world; if you don’t conform to certain set boundaries set by others without your experience, you can face backlash.

On the one hand, you wrote your family’s culture and language wrong because you aren’t a true part of that culture and language. You didn’t grow up there. Or you left. 

On the other, you wrote someone else’s culture wrong because you didn’t base your stories on the culture that’s also “yours.” You are an outsider, stay with what you know. And let’s say you do that; well, those without any connection to your family’s culture will still find ways to point out how you did it wrong, because you didn’t stick to the story they’ve constructed about you.

Every choice is a mistake, every attempt to express and navigate your identity in writing isn’t the “right” way.

I have no easy response to any of these anxieties. They are just a part of being an immigrant, along with so many others. You can’t know how your writing will be reflected back on you, but where else to work out these contradictions, than in the imaginative space?

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A long while back, I wrote a short essay called “Writing the city” that I never published, yet the misgivings that went into that essay keep stirring my brain. The main question is this:

In literary criticism of fantasy, why are long descriptions of the natural world and farmland or villages often labeled as boring, but when China Miéville fills page upon page with adjective-laden descriptions of architecture, this passes without comment, or even gets praise?

Picking on Miéville is unfair; it’s a much broader question of why focusing on urban environments and concerns seems to carry more critical weight in fantasy literature than works rooted in descriptions of nature when the quality of the writing itself may not differ. The conversation presents them as more serious, more real – the city as the subject of noteworthy work while nature is less so.

I haven’t had the wherewithal to dig up concrete examples, which is probably why the original essay ended up disappearing with the demise of Windows Live Writer. All I have to go on is a nagging suspicion since I started dipping into SFF blogs and articles that we tend to privilege urban experiences over rural ones.

Of course, urban experiences are more of a norm in western society – more people live in cities, most cultural production takes place in cities, and the same impressions pass on to fantasy that plays at being serious work.

It plays into another experience. When I went to university in Edmonton and Montreal, certain people who grew up or inserted themselves into those cities held themselves as more cultured than I was, dismissed my stories of life in the woods around Whitehorse as of less value than their own, or else expressed disbelief in my stories about growing up here. I hardly consider Whitehorse as some backwater, not when compared to the small communities that dot the Yukon or the people who live far from even those communities. Yet the divide, the sense of alienation is there: your thoughts are less worldly than theirs, your thoughts mean less.

Yet there isn’t anything inherently inferior about stories rooted in these places and experiences, they are just different, in need of a different voice.

Again, these are all impressions, and I open it up to you to tell me if I’m just projecting deep-seated insecurities from my personal life onto the field of genre criticism, or if this is a real problem with the way the SFF world receives stories.

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No other imagined world has generated as much illustration as The Lord of the Rings. Considering the sheer amount of artistic material to draw from, however, even before the live action adaptations came out in 2001, we already had a consensus “look” for Middle Earth in John Howe and Alan Lee’s paintings. Why the collective consensus for what Middle Earth should look like coalesced around these two has a host of factors, one being how prolific they were, how often they appeared on book covers and ancillary material, and the last being their obvious skill. Most later-day Tolkien artwork tends to follow their template. But there are multiple ways to interpret the text and it’s always a pleasure to move out from the soft edges and predominate greens of Lee and Howe to see alternative visions for the world.

Probably the best place to find these is A Tolkien Bestiary (1979). Quibble all you want with the content from David Day, who often gets criticized for poor research and making stuff up, but the bestiary is his finest work and is lavishly illustrated by artists who are not really known for their work representing Tolkien. The wildly differing styles manage to complement each other because they are so carefully-chosen to match their subject matter: meticulous stippling for the Riders of Rohan, jagged baroque ink for the landscapes of Mordor, flowing loose lines for the elves. This is a gorgeous showcase of very personal artistic takes on Middle Earth and I would love to see more like it – it left a huge impression on me as a teenager and remains my go-to example for impeccable art direction. The text is largely a secondary thing – there’s more colour to the descriptions than the thematically similar (and more accurate and exhaustive) Complete Tolkien Companion, but its real edge over other books of this type lies in layout and design.

The Tolkien Bestiary’s prime place in David Day’s career is evident from just how many times it’s been released under different titles (at least 8 from my last count) or repackaged through abridged editions that shuffle around the content and add maps or make formatting changes (An Atlas of Tolkien, The Heroes of Tolkien etc.). None manage to quite match the production excellence and beauty of the 1979 and 1984 editions.

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Rasputin’s Bastards (2012) has a promising start with a giant dying squid. It’s a squid-filled novel, though David Nickle does not go the expected route and delve into the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, his imitators, and the other tentacle-obsessed. Rasputin’s Bastards centres on much more personal horrors of being unable to grasp your own identity and humanity.

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I wonder what it even means to review this book in 2019. You won’t find The Perennial Apocalypse: How the End of the World Shapes History (1998) in stores or online shops. The author, John. J. Reilly, passed away in 2012 and much of his work has disappeared in the years since. The publisher, Online Originals, was one of the first ebook-exclusive publishers and shut down some time ago, taking their whole catalogue down with them. The only way to get hold of it is if someone who has the PDF happens to share it with you – and that’s the only reason I’m able to write about it now.

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