Pulp Adventure Meets Metafiction (or Vice Versa): Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat

Go back a few decades in the realm of pulp storytelling, and they abound: stories of adventurers far from home, investigating ancient structures and discovering mysterious events there. There are entire subgenres dedicated to this, and the form has endured. While it’s not nearly as prevalent as it was in the early and mid-20th century, plenty of its DNA shows up in the Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider franchises. But the narrative template of a (generally white and male) hero uncovering lost cultures or artifacts from somewhere in Africa, Asia, or South America is one that hasn’t aged particularly well, and for good reason.

Embracing this narrative unconditionally can mean embracing a whole lot of racist, sexist, and/or colonialist baggage—not the greatest of storytelling decisions. More recent tales of adventure in distant lands have sought to correct this: a whole essay could be written about the arc of the Uncharted ...


A Subtle Apocalypse: Simon Jacobs’s Palaces

What happens when the end of the world sneaks up on you? Many a narrative of civilization in ruins cites an inciting event—a war, a natural disaster, a pandemic—as the root cause of devastation. These are narratives where characters can point to a date on a calendar and say, “There. That was when everything changed.” But life isn’t always like that: sometimes change can come without any warning. Sometimes there are no portents of war; sometimes there are no gradually increasing reports of a strange medical condition. Sometimes something terrible just happens, and a society is forever changed.

The beginning of Simon Jacobs’s Palaces is, as the openings of many novels are, an introduction to the style in which the book will be told and an explanation of its milieu. Here, though, it’s something else: the first part is a brief interlude that feels more like the end of ...


The Future Is the Past: Regressive Science Fiction

It’s logical to think that societal progress will line up neatly with the progression of time, to believe that life will get better as we move towards the future. At least, it’s something to hope for: that, just as most lives are better now than they were a hundred years ago, so too will the lives of our descendants (literal or metaphorical) be equally better than our own. But there’s also a pressing fear that things could go the other way—that, instead of a better tomorrow, humanity might have to deal with a vision of the future that looks suspiciously like its own past.

Evoking the past in stories of the future can make for an unsettling read, and it’s a device that certain writers have found useful to tap into a collective anxiety over the collapse of progress.

Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is set in a devastated future England ...


The Strange Case of Sequels and Genre

There are certain expectations that a reader might have when reading novels billed as sequels or as part of a series. Chief among them: that a novel will fall into the same general category as its predecessor. The third book of a high fantasy series is unlikely to be a cyberpunk romance; the sequel to a novel set in a dystopian hellscape after the collapse of a futuristic civilization probably won’t be about secretive missions on a pre-cataclysm Atlantis. One volume largely sets the ground rules for a world going forward; the works that follow hew to the existing worldbuilding.

Except when they don’t.

Jo Walton’s Thessaly novels use aspects of science fiction (time travel, sentient robots) and fantasy (gods meddling in mortal affairs) to explore different philosophical questions; the result is that each novel focuses on a different aspect of a constantly fluctuating society, with different elements at the ...


Five Books Exploring Questions of Memory and Identity

What happens when we can no longer trust our memories? Who are we when we’ve lost our sense of identity? Not surprisingly, science fiction can turn these questions into gripping narratives, taking the stuff of neuroscience and psychology and turning it into thrilling, sometimes unsettling stories of the mind tipping into something uncanny, mysterious, or fully unknown.

Adding a speculative aspect to a narrative about memory can also turn a familiar story on its head. A tale of identity theft, a narrative about a community wondering who they are, or the story of a law enforcement officer dealing with a spate of unsolved crimes are all examples of ways in which familiar plots can be deepened and made profoundly unsettling when a detour is made away from strict realism. The following five books use a host of devices to explore bold questions about the nature and function of memory, venturing ...


Primal Fears and Haunted Paths: The Thin Line Between Fairy Tales and Horror Stories

In Through the Woods, Emily Carroll’s 2014 collection of comics, the narratives being told feel timeless. They echo the fairy tales of ages past; they feature dwindling families, majestic homes containing awful secrets, and ominous figures biding their time in order to carry out horrific deeds. Told one way, Carroll’s tales could be the sort of story one tells drowsy children as a kind of moral instruction or cautionary tale. Told the way they are in this book, with immersive images, distorted figures, and monstrous forms enveloped in the landscape, the effect is much closer to outright horror. It’s magnificently unnerving, meticulous in its storytelling, and a harrowing example of how hard it can be to discern the line between fairy tale and horror story.

There are certainly similarities in their roots: a fairy tale can act as an example of someone virtuous overcoming a terrifying enemy, or a ...


Five Tales in Which History Meets Horror

Using a historical setting for a tale of monsters or terror can be a reliable way to increase suspense and provide a counterpoint for the horrors described therein. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe summoning up a bygone age–and its accompanying menaces–in “The Masque of the Red Death” or, more recently, John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake setting their graphic novel Kros: Hallowed Ground against the backdrop of the Battle of Gettysburg, it’s the kind of narrative decision that can accentuate certain themes and ratchet up the tension even further. But a specific point in history can also summon up a number of more mundane terrors over the course of a narrative: totalitarian governments, horrific attitudes about race and gender, and unrestrained abuses coming from the powerful all come to mind. Sometimes reading a story set in the past can haunt us for reasons other than literal monsters that lurk on the ...