Five Things I Don’t Miss from 90s SFF

A lot has changed in the past twenty years. Is that statement ever not true? My next sentence should probably be something like: “nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of speculative fiction”. But that would be a lie … we’ve seen far more important changes in the past couple of decades than the evolution of genre literature (climate change, smartphone addiction, the steady erosion of mainstream media).

I digress.

The point of this blog post is not to list all the terrible things. The point is to list terrible things that are no longer terrible things in science fiction and fantasy books. I am currently reading a pre-2000 fantasy novel, one that is on many people’s “best of” lists. It’s a great read, with incredible world-building and a plot that keeps me turning pages.


A lot has changed in the past twenty years.

Let’s play “top five terrible tropes” – here is my list of things that ought to have withered on the spec fic tree during the past couple of decades, courtesy of the Nameless Nineties Novel I’m currently reading. Had enough alliteration yet?

1. Wry smiles. It was mandatory in 20th century fantasy novels to have one rogueish character who delighted in nothing more than throwing off wry and sardonic smiles. I’m looking at you, Jimmy the Hand.

2. Non-consensual kisses. It was also mandatory for said rogueish characters to get away with kissing intelligent, confident, successful women who, instead of adding the asshole to their #metoo list, would be somehow charmed by getting law-of-surprised on the mouth.

3. Titillating m-m / f-f action. There are lots of examples of genre fiction from this time normalizing queer identities and relationships. There are also lots of examples of lines such as: “Guilford Aelfoldeas bedded a few ladies (and, it was rumoured, a few men) in his day.” Mro ho ho, you don’t say! Colour me titillated, my dear 90s author!

4.  Nice guys. No elaboration required on this one.

5. Chivalry. Pre-2000, it didn’t count as fantasy if an honour code wasn’t a central plot device. Even the rogueish characters were bound by them. I’m all for honour, and I understand why we need to fantasize about it when we live in a world seriously lacking in it, but I’m also glad to see modern SFF characters experiencing motivations that I can identify with (e.g. existential dread).

I could go on. Don’t even get me started on feast scenes. What’s your favourite / most hated SFF trope? And how many of these are still going strong? Drop me a line!

Eagle Nebula, Pillars of Creation

Optimism: Nihilism’s Best Friend


New Years can be a dsepressing time. There is pressure to change and there is the weight of all that needs to be changed. I read that the world will be without chocolate in thirty years, that the oceans are filling up with plastic, that glitter is killing fish. I see in my children all that they do not know, and feel complicit. When they are my age, will the lack of chocolate in the world be the least of their concerns? It’s no wonder that billions are spent to make movies about superheroes – we devour those movies, because we feel so helpless ourselves.

When I feel a spiral of ecoanxiety looming, there is one thread I reach for, which might be called optimistic nihilism. I’m no physicist and I’m no philosopher, but here is what makes sense to me.

We are far less than a millisecond on the universe’s timescale. We are a grain of sand on a beach vaster than we can imagine. We are one inhale in the life of an eternal beast.

We can take this knowledge and be depressed. If nothing means anything, then self-destruction, global destruction … they’re all the same thing. We could decide to live our lives eating Big Macs and launching nuclear warheads.

Or, we could see the potential for meaninglessness as a deep well of comfort. If we truly are just an inhale, then it’s up to us to create a world that has meaning. Optimistic nihilism is freedom and opportunity. It’s up to us to find and create as much kindness, compassion, joy, love, and meaning as we can wring out of this life.

The “things” that make up “Everything” are always changing, but there has always been an Everything, and Everything will go on whether we are here to bear witness or not.

Anyways, these guys can explain it much better than me:

A photo of The aMAZEing Labyrinth board game, now called Labyrinth
Writing Inspiration

The Labyrinth Story Prompt

How many speculative fiction nerds out there played this game as a kid? I loved Labyrinth – it sparked my imagination in a way that few board games did, and I spent a lot of time imagining with board games. I have this distinct memory of lining up all the boards in my basement, from one end of the room to the other, then taking the pieces from all the games on a journey, from the first square of the first board to the end of the last board.

Usually, they would end up on the board for I.Q. 2000, which was an awesome space-themed trivia game for kids from the 80s. The pieces would all find their way back to their home planet (it was the 80s, so either E.T. was an influence or my future as a spec fiction writer was set from an early age).

Now that my oldest kid is 4, we are starting to introduce real board games to him. We played Labyrinth yesterday (formerly known as The aMAZEing Labyrinth) and it stood the test of time for sparking my imagination. Since he’s only four, we played a modified version (i.e. zero competition), which involved collecting four items, then telling a story to link them together.

A picture of gourds and four cards from The Labyrinth board game

My first four were a map, a sword a dragon and a lizard, so my story went something like this (again, remember my audience is four!). One day, my hero was walking through the forest, when he came across a folded paper, tucked within a hollow tree. He opened the paper and found an old, crumbling treasure map. The map led him into the depths of a labyrinth. Deep in the labyrinth, in a dark room, he found the treasure. It was a sword in a stone (again – four – I can get away with it for now!) and on the stone it was written that whoever could pull the sword from the stone could defeat the dragon. He pulled the sword from the stone and as it came free, he heard a roar from deeper in the labyrinth. It was the dragon! He followed the sound, and as he traveled deeper into the maze, the heat grew stronger. At last, he found the centre of the maze, and there stood the great dragon. He tried to creep closer, but the dragon spotted him. He could not get close enough to use the sword, and as the dragon opened his mouth to breathe fire on him, he squeezed his eyes shut and held the sword above his head. But then, instead of hearing the dragon’s roar or feeling the heat of its flames, he heard a tiny squeak. When he opened his eyes, he saw that the dragon had turned into a harmless lizard. He realized that the sword was a magic sword and had defeated the dragon using magic, not steel.

I’m not submitting that story anytime soon, but it was really easy to come up with on the spot. If you don’t have a copy of the game, you could use an illustrated deck of cards or a tarot set just as effectively (if not more so – see this blog for some great resources on using tarot cards for writing inspiration). On a non-writing day, it’s great to have some tools for inspiring quick stories or sparking your imagination.