Chasing the Serpent into Fantasy

“Fantasy” and “science fiction” and labels of the like are oft-discussed but, by me, more heard about than explored. I can pretend I “get it,” but at the end of the day I’ve only ever read or watched the most accessible stuff. In the last month or so, I’ve followed the vapor trail of the vibrant trio of the Be the Serpent podcast.

On one level a fandom deep-dive, on another level a nuanced and enjoyable ongoing literary discussion, the podcast panders to nobody. Titles, authors, built worlds, and plot lines spin, expand, contract, splinter, and coalesce. Their show notes are an archive of note. Their discussion’s range is a creative act in itself. The engaging hosts sustain the momentum on this sustained tour. I can’t look away from their exuberance, their delight in language, their vibrancy.

I’m nearly done with the first Ursula LeGuin book I’ve ever read, The Tombs of Atuan. Pleasure derives from uncovering what magic is imagined by the characters and what is real in the universe of the book. When the rules are hidden, the reader’s biases are challenged alongside the characters. LeGuin is a great and economical writer. The old paperback I picked up is crumbling in my hands. When I’m done, there may not be much left.

One offshoot has been my new awareness of the Hugo Awards. I’ve long heard of them but never mined them. I was happy to learn that Michael Chabon received a Hugo for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, a book I love. With its many categories, there’s much to consider. One title jumped from this year’s list (which join Yiddish in as a teeming revisionist history): “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018). Good news: you can read it online! Clark drenches Mt. Vernon lore in guilt and magic. The tools of fantasy construct something rich and full of life.

The podcast Imaginary Worlds takes on fantasy and sci-fi like Ira Glass might. LARPing, for example, gets star treatment. Wonderfully produced, complex, often touching, you’ll leave an episode feeling a deeper respect for the creators and

Genre guides abound. My brother-in-law introduced me to Terry Pratchett. Though I have yet to act upon the recommendation, I stumbled upon a signed copy of a Pratchett novel. You can buy it if you’d like. You’ll love the inscription even more if you’re named Steve.

What We Do in The Shadows is on now on TV. I loved the movies (are they movies? Long-form multi-part streaming media things?) with Jemaine. The new series is nearly its equal. They are both deeply Serpentine, extracting comedy from the collision of secular daily existence with ancient magic. The trappings of fantasy are at once more dignified and more ridiculous. Picture a cabal of self-important vampires at a city council meeting. I would have watched Shadows even without Be the Serpent, but they gifted me a broader perspective.