When I made this list last year I titled it stories that were kind to me in 2016, and I think that’s what I really needed then. I needed kindness a little less from fiction this year, but I didn’t need fiction any less. This year I needed distraction, and empathy, and a firm place to stand. Here we go.
On Venus, Have We Got A Rabbi!, by William Tenn. an extremely Jewish science fiction story from the 1970s, which I’ve read two or three times in the last year — it’s at the same time both very pessimistic and optimistic about people (“that’s very Jewish of it,” you may say, and you may be right), and it contains a line I have not forgotten since I first read it in January of last year: Listen, boychick, a rational man has to worry in an organized way.
There’s an mp3 of the author reading the story out loud at the link, along with the text itself, and I highly recommend you let this Jewish grandpa read to you this extremely Yiddishe story.
Provenance, by Ann Leckie, and I’m going to tag in Martha Wells’ All Systems Red here as well, because I read them close enough together to think of one when I think of the other. (This week I caught up on the Wolf 359 podcast and it feels like it’s got something complementary to say here as well, but that would be edging maybe too far out of the point of this post. later!) Provenance is a stand-alone novel set in a far corner of the universe as Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, about Ingray, a typically fairly sensible young woman who’s decided to do something hugely rash in a last-ditch bid to gain some kind of status within her family. It spirals out from there, and involves some very alien aliens, cultural identity, coping with family, and the question of what makes people and the things they care about matter.
All Systems Red is a novella, the first in a series, about an AI security bot (that privately calls itself Murderbot) on a scientific research mission that goes pearshaped, about personhood and who gets to claim it and how while it’s good to have help, there are some things you have to do alone. Murderbot is very shy around people who treat it like more than a piece of furniture, and mostly just wants to be left alone to watch soap operas.
I love science fiction that operates at a human scale and that has a sense of humour about itself. I love science fiction that asks who do we respect? Who do we honour? and blows the answer wide open: everyone, of course everyone. is an AI a person? is a noncitizen a person? of course they are. There isn’t another possible just response. Provenance does this in a wider way and All Systems Red does this by spending all its time within Murderbot’s head, and they both do it really well. I think both of these books I finished and immediately flipped back to the front to read again.
Also, Provenance has a big worm aunt who just thinks you should maybe call your mother more, alright? She worries.
Night in the Woods: a video game, the first on this list. I love the story, the art, the music. I love that the heart it’s got is so very angry, and so very full of love. The second requires the first.
I picked it up because a friend was streaming it and I saw one character, Angus, say about going to parties with his boyfriend, Gregg: “You know how you want to just go and stand in a corner sometimes? Gregg’s my corner.” and I thought that was a very true and sweet sentiment said in a really interesting way.
NiTW’s main character is Mae Borowski, who left her Rust Belt small town for college and is now coming back, having dropped out a year in because of mental health issues, to find out that while she was gone the town changed around her.
The first time you wake up in Mae’s house and see her mom in the kitchen, sitting with a book like she does every morning in the game: I cried for about five solid minutes. The Borowskis are drawn with just enough detail to make them seem real. Her parents work bad jobs, the ones they can get, and worry about money and each other. Mae’s mom reads true crime books and her dad likes late-night comedy and they all poke at each other over whose responsibility it is to move the boxes out of the crawlspace. “Cuties, the lot of us,” Mae says, looking at the second-floor hallway and its wall of family photos.
I played NiTW five months after the death of a parent, and that warm little house, with its curios from the old country, and its childhood mementos, and the morning light falling onto Mae’s mom at the kitchen table, asking hard questions with as much care as she can: of course I cried.
NiTW has a lot to say about family, and friends, and what capitalism does to small towns, and how unequally the world grants people opportunities, and how goddamn hard mental illness can be, and how necessary empathy is, and also, mineshaft death cults and playing baseball with light bulbs and maybe seeing God.
Angus says it best: the game’s about a universe that doesn’t care, and people who do.
Destiny and Destiny 2. More games! And here’s where it gets long.
I got the original Destiny last December, after two years of friends telling me I should play it with them. I didn’t know what to expect from it — I hadn’t had access to a console since my sister’s PS2 back in high school, hadn’t played a first-person shooter since Goldeneye, and hadn’t played an MMO ever. I bought a PS4 to play Destiny. But I loved it — I could explore these enormous, strange, beautiful worlds, solve puzzles to figure out the backstory, talk to my friends on mic when we played together.
I really, really needed something to sink my time and mental energy into last year. Like I told another friend of mine in August, at that point I felt like the previously solid world had been revealed to be made of paper and cardboard, and I could fall through at any point. I needed anything solid I could rely on, and one thing I could rely on Destiny, because it was always there, and it always had some small task I could tick off when I needed to feel accomplished. (This sounds dramatic, especially now that I am doing better. But sometimes Autoclave is the truest song in the world.)
In the eleven-ish months between picking up Destiny and Destiny 2 coming out, I put about 130 hours into Destiny, and in the four-ish months since I’ve put nearly as many into Destiny 2. I genuinely never thought I would be able to do that; I’ve bailed on more than one JRPG (and at least one Dragon Age) because I couldn’t face the fact that after playing eight hours I probably had another eighty to go. But Destiny didn’t ask me to be there for eighty hours — if I wanted to be there, there was something for me to do; it wouldn’t say no. But it didn’t require it of me. It let me go at my own pace, spend one evening exploring the quiet corners of Venus and the next cheerfully failing to be any good at aiming in PVP at all.
There’s a ton of story that doesn’t exist inside the games themselves — it’s just there to flesh out the world. I’ve recced people the Books of Sorrow as an amazing piece of standalone cosmic horror, and I’d do it again. Destiny has short stories about a robot wizard and her girlfriend the cheerful brawler, and that’s not even the only lesbian SF buried in the lore. The games show off a wide world and big stories, and the lore cards spin smaller, more human-sized stories out of that. And together they pull off one of my favourite things about the games: the tonal contrast. They’re stories about immortal mage-soldiers who spend their offtime on goofy horseshit.
Destiny and its sequel got me through a hard year. I used it to talk more to some of my friends, I used it as an escape when I needed it, I used it to get myself writing again for the first time in years. (I wrote eighteen thousand words thanks to Destiny in 2017: more than I’d managed since maybe 2011.) I care about its characters and its worlds, and I care about my one character, who’s an Awoken Warlock (here read: blue space wizard) with a fondness for big stompy boots, jumping puzzles, and her companion AI buddy who lives in her backpack.
(screencap of our fireteam stolen from Eddi.)
I don’t know what I’ll need from fiction in this year, but I hope whatever it is, I get even half as much as what I got in 2017.