When the calendar first rolled over into 2021, many of us were hoping for a clean break from the worst parts of 2020—of course many of the challenges carried over, but there were also bright spots throughout.
We here at Tor.com like to end the year by reflecting on the things we’ve enjoyed—particularly in the realm of speculative fiction and adjacent pop culture. Join us for the TV episodes, books, music videos, and other stabs of creativity that made us laugh, connected us, and helped us make it through the year—and tell us about yours in the comments!
[Note: Some spoilers appear throughout the list.]
The Warmth, Kindness, and Humor of BBC’s Ghosts
I started watching Ghosts on HBO Max because I needed something light and silly (which it is), but soon found myself invested in the characters—particularly the non-living ones—as the show explores their backstories and gives them a chance to grow and change in delightful ways over the course of three short seasons. (A fourth season and a Christmas special are on the way, as well!) It’s written by an ensemble of comedians who also play the various ghosts (along with the amazing Lolly Adefope and Katy Wix), clearly having a ball with the Beetlejuice-y premise…I love it so much, and am so glad there’s more to come next year. [Note: I know there’s an American version, but I can’t vouch for it. But this one is the original, and it’s good as hell.]
I know, I know. Just saying “The Expanse” is a little general. But I mean ALL OF IT. The year started with the absolutely stellar second half of the fifth season; all of it was great, but “Winnipesaukee” is one of the highest high points in a regularly outstanding series. And then we got the final book in the series, which I read over the course of one long day. I thought I would want to drag it out, make the end last, but I simply couldn’t stop once I started.
No spoilers here, but it’s a satisfying conclusion, the kind that’s so fitting it’s almost hard to imagine it any other way. And now The Expanse is back on our screens, with a too-short final season (at least on Amazon) that I wish could do more than just wrap up book six. But even if that’s all it has time for, it’ll be great. The showrunners, directors, writers (and everyone else who makes the adaptation sing) have consistently shown that they know how to pick and choose from James S.A. Corey’s dense, swift-moving novels; they’ve trimmed and cut in all the right places, turning the adaptation into its own story—but one with which book-readers are deeply familiar. It’s a story about blue-goo alien things and galactic politics, but more than that, it’s a story about people learning—painfully, gradually, and with losses—to do better. How we should do the right thing when we can, but sometimes a decent thing will do when “right” is out of reach. I’m so grateful for this ride. Rocinante out.
Just want to chime in and second all this! The Expanse is one of the best sci-fi series (book and television!) out there. So sad to see it ending, but at least there’s still hope for future potential on-screen stuff.
Every Single Second of Bo Burnham: Inside
I know, I know, I’ve talked about it a lot. (And I have a WHOLE thing about “White Woman’s Instagram” and death and the use of religious imagery that I’ll write about someday, somewhere.) But for now, I’ll just mention that it’s gotten me through a rough few months, and still renders me helpless with laughter.
OK one more thing: IT WAS FILMED IN THE NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET HOUSE???
Watching Backlist Titles Go Viral on Tiktok
While I am slightly older than the general demographic for Tiktok, I actually really do love the way that social media can help books find their audiences. In the midst of all the Courts of Wings and Fires of Crowns and Fates of Hearts, Tiktok has given new life to titles that were released a few years ago and maybe got a little overlooked. Books like Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End, Holly Black’s Folk of the Air series, and The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton got major love from Tiktok, causing sales to spike significantly.
Not only is it joyous to watch these authors and stories get the attention they deserve, but it’s also so affirming that somewhere out there, readers aren’t just chasing the next hot release. The books will always be there, waiting for someone to love them. Sometimes all we need to do is look beyond the New Releases table.
The Doctor Making This Face Whilst Aiming a Slingshot at a Sontaran
She is perfect. No notes.
(Also, I’m very excited about RTD’s impending return as showrunner. Gimme the camp.)
Cat-Mario in Bowser’s Fury
I wrote about video games in the 2020 version of this list, including a few titles that featured “long-distance human interaction” as a key feature. This year I settled back into solo games, with replays of a few contemplative indies (Hollow Knight, Celeste, Spiritfarer) and new additions to classic Nintendo franchises (Hyrule Warriors, Metroid Dread). But for me nothing matched the pure joy of Bowser’s Fury, a perfect bite-sized game that combined the best elements of previous Mario titles into an open-world platformer—and also lets you transform into a giant golden cat-lion and battle it out Kaiju-style with an enraged Bowser. I can only hope the upcoming Kirby game is equally ridiculous…
Two New Penric and Desdemona Books in One Year
I’ve spent a good chunk of time in Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods over the last couple of years, and I don’t regret it—these books are just as good as everyone always says they are. But just as I started to grieve over having no more Five Gods stories left to shovel into my brain, this year brought us not just a new Pen and Des novella (Knot of Shadows) but a full novel (The Assassins of Thasalon), as well. I haven’t read them yet—I’m saving them—but I’m very grateful for their existence, and look forward to more delightful demonic adventures to come.
Wristcutters: A Love Story
Back at the beginning of the year I did a series looking at depictions of the afterlife in fantasy, which led me to watching Wristcutters: A Love Story for the first time. How did I miss this??? It’s so exactly my kind of movie, picaresque and weird without trying too hard, with an actual point of view. Plus Tom Waits? If you haven’t seen it, off you go.
The Costume Designer on Foundation
It’s not that every outfit in this strange adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is great. Some of the costumes fall into that “dystopian pajamas” space, which is not my favorite. But whoever is specifically responsible for dressing Lee Pace in bright blue armor with cap sleeves? That person has my heart and my admiration. The armor design is somewhat practical, sure; dude needs to be able to lift his arms to give that creepy salute. But somebody clearly knows what the people want, and what we want is Lee Pace’s arms distracting us, just a little, from the fact that he’s playing a space tyrant.
I’m looking respectfully, okay?
WandaVision was the first MCU thing we saw in a while when it dropped on Disney+ this January. The show was decidedly weird, by MCU standards at least, and touched on grief in a way that I wasn’t wholly ready for. The show came out early this year at a time when I—like many of us—was in peak stay-inside mode, not even venturing out to get groceries.
I wasn’t fully grappling with it at the time, but I was also grieving; grieving for the loss of the pre-pandemic world, a world my six-month-old would likely never see. WandaVision touched on all of this indirectly, but it also had wonderous, joyful moments: Vision as a terrible magician; all things Agatha, especially her Emmy-nominated song; and the numerous nods to television sitcoms of decades past. Watching each week (and then rewatching it) brought me great joy at a time when I had little of it.
In the first half of the year I found myself picking up books only to put them back down a few pages or chapters in—not because they were “bad”, but just because they didn’t suit my mood. In short, they were too bleak and depressing. Then I snagged a copy of Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and the clouds parted. The novella was just the hit of small stakes, hopeful science fiction I needed: set centuries after machines have gained sentience and remove themselves from human society, we’re left not with a post-apocalyptic hellscape, but an adaptive and comfortable world. What conflict exists in the story is internal, as characters consider questions of history, philosophy, desire, and purpose.
From there, I sought out titles where characters fight for rather than against something—where it’s not enough to simply survive, but to celebrate the best bits of humanity. Whether it’s the poetic love story at the heart of This Is How You Lose the Time War or the radical compassion of The Goblin Emperor, I only want SFF with good vibes.
Every Glorious Frame of Maya and the Three
There’s so much to say about Netflix’s Maya and the Three—how it brings the thrilling myths and legends of pre-colonial Mesoamerica to life, the fabulous cast (Zoe Saldana! Rita Moreno! Queen Latifah! Stefanie Beatriz, who is the best!), the unbelievable craftsmanship on display in every detail, every character, from humans to animals to an entire pantheon of gods. It’s obvious that director Jorge Gutiérrez and his collaborator and wife Sandra Equihua have invested so much time and thought into every single moment of the nine-episode story, and the result is breathtaking. The visuals glow with life and light, and by the time we reach the finale, the story feels so much larger than the sum of its parts—it feels like a complete world, an epic past that’s gorgeous and fascinating in equal measure.
Lil Nas X Defeats the Devil/Releases an Incredible Album
There is no greater joy than knowing that Lil Nas X is creating his art on his own terms, and thinking of all the misfit kids who are getting to see that art and know they’re not alone in the world.
Adira Tal and Gray on Star Trek: Discovery
I love a lot of things about Star Trek: Discovery, but perhaps the most surprising one is its penchant for creating and nurturing an entire crew of “unkillable” queers. This is Star Trek we’re talking about, a franchise that purports to break prejudicial barriers, but wouldn’t allow gay or trans characters on their shows in the ’90s when that barrier desperately needed breaking. Instead, Trek would resort to allegory, largely contained within the Trill species and their bonds to symbionts that move from host to host regardless of gender.
Discovery has certainly put their queer characters through a lot of pain and hardship—something that’s true for everyone on the show, to be fair—but it has also chosen to flip storytelling tropes and resurrect more than one queer character for the sake of reuniting them with their partners. It’s almost as if Discovery has a vested interest in telling queer audiences that love will save us in a very literal sense, and I am extremely down with that message. One of those journeys was written for Gray Tal, a Trill bonded to a symbiont that gets transferred to his partner Adira on his death. Adira has the experience of all previous hosts inside them, but Gray’s voice seems to come through a lot clearer than most, and it results in a transfer of his consciousness into an android body. Now reunited, Adira can have Gray’s loving support physically present, not relegated to a corner of their mind.
But the real kicker for me was entirely personal here: Adira is an afab non-binary character and Gray is trans-masculine… just like me and my partner. Which makes Discovery the very first time we’ve seen a couple anywhere on screen that resembled us and our relationship. That fact hasn’t stopped being surreal, but it does get me teary any time I remember it.
Lee Pace’s Sci-Fi Book Club
I don’t think I need to say much about this one, because you all probably saw how nuts we went over Lee Pace confessing his love for science fiction to Esquire Magazine. Pace’s illustrious acting career has included a lot of sci-fi roles, so we shouldn’t be that surprised, but it was still so exciting to see a public declaration of nerdery. His picks include Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie ,and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, and he shared love for the master, Ursula K. Le Guin.
Look, I’m not saying reading makes you hot, but it does, and Lee Pace was already pretty hot. So yes, this is a thirst post. Lee Pace loving sci-fi like that is really sexy. Respectfully! Like Molly said. Respectfully, reading Le Guin is very sexy.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on Hulu
No one can be Linda Hamilton, but wisely, Lena Headey didn’t really try. Her Sarah Connor is her own: troubled, secretive, wound tight, and just as fiercely protective of her son John (Thomas Dekker). Headey’s presence is deeply different than Hamilton’s ever was, and that’s what makes this under-seen TV spinoff work. It feels more like a story set in the Terminator world than a continuation of the story we knew, and maybe that didn’t work for everyone. But the show has an amazing cast (a shockingly good Brian Austin Green! Shirley Manson!!!!) and while it gets a little lost toward the end, creator Josh Friedman had a way with this world that made it feel more human—even in the darkness of the robot-run future. It’s been a while since you could find Sarah Connor streaming anywhere, and its arrival on Hulu this year led to one of my most enjoyable binges of 2021.
MST3K Returns (Again) with a Telethon
MST3K is currently filming a new season! That alone would bring me joy. But as they raised money for the new episodes, they hosted a truly bizarre rollercoaster of a telethon that featured everything from a cameo by MST3K fan Michael Sheen to accordion duets to Dana Gould playing Doctor Zaius. Like all great telethons, there were dead periods that lulled the audience before another great bit landed. There was controlled chaos, and what I’m pretty sure was uncontrolled chaos. It was the best possible celebration of how weird and creative MST3K could get, and you can watch the whole thing.
Yelena Talking About Hysterectomies in Black Widow
Suffice it to say, Joss Whedon’s added background for Natasha Romanoff in Age of Ultron made a lot of fans angry back in 2015. Having only known Widow for a couple of movies, Ultron saddled Nat with the usual Red Room upbringing, but zeroed in on her forced sterilization specifically. The fact that Natasha couldn’t have children became a key point of angst, which was a jarring thing to have to confront in the only woman superhero (at that point) in the MCU, as though her quiet grief was the only possible attitude of any person with a womb in Natasha’s position.
Black Widow introduced us to Yelena Belova, a young girl who was raised alongside Natasha by Russian operatives and encouraged to think of her as a big sister. When they are reunited with their old father figure, Alexei Shostakov, and he tries to make light of their experiences in the Red Room, Yelena and Natasha both take him to task for his ignorance. And when it becomes clear that Alexei has no idea what a hysterectomy even is, Yelena takes pleasure in explaining the procedure to him with all due bluntness. After the eggshell walk that was Natasha’s Ultron confession, Yelena’s lack of gruff acceptance of the situation and willingness to talk candidly about her body was long-awaited aria. And it means that one of the year’s biggest blockbusters gave everyone a little education about what it’s like to have a uterus.
All the Willow References in Reservation Dogs
Reservation Dogs is a show that loves playing with pop culture, encompassing everything from Tarantino films to Futurama. It’s a key element of the inspired, bubbly, low-key humor of the series, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, which sweeps you along even as its four main characters are dealing with a serious trauma and loss that’s not fully explained until the penultimate episode. And throughout it all are woven random, amazing references to Willow: some obvious (one of the four leads is named Elora Danan), others sneakier, all absolutely wonderful if you grew up wanting to marry Madmartigan and/or Sorsha (or both). It’s admittedly the tiniest part of what makes the show so excellent, but it makes me really, really happy.
Can I second all of that? (And can we give Zahn McClarnon a special prize for his perfect turns in this and Hawkeye?) Reservation Dogs is the best new show of the year, hands down.
Seeing Movies With My Friends
I am an incredibly lucky person. I did not get sick during the pandemic. I got vaccinated. And I live in a place where not only are films are regularly distributed, but there are theaters that have space enough for patrons to social distance. I also have an incredible group of friends (like the writers included here on this list) to go to the cinema with, when it feels safe to do so.
We all wrote up some of our feelings here, and they are extremely mixed when it comes to doing things inside, especially when there might be strangers around. But it sure did feel good, after taking the proper precautions, to sit next to my friends and watch both Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and The Green Knight this year. It just feels so good to enjoy movies, to be at the point where I feel ready to take in new media, and to put some real pants on and take a walk over to the theater. Even better than that, it feels good to get to talk about media, not only with these nerds, but with all of you, too. It’s a nice reminder of why we do this writing about SFF on the internet thing. Because it’s fun, it’s fulfilling, and we just love these stories.
Also it was just really good to finally see The Green Knight after being edged about it for so long.
(Tor.com overlords, please don’t fire me for using the term edged)
Everything About Space Sweepers
Please watch this movie. It is everything you want from the space opera genre. Every person in our ragtag Victory crew is lovable and fierce and good, everything they are fighting for is important, and they do it all while a delightful, farty little girl scrabbles her way into their hearts. What more could you ask for?
The Depiction of New York City in Soul
I have issues with Soul, and yet I keep writing about it? I think I’ve thought more about it than any Pixar movie since Ratatouille. One thing I am fully onboard with is its depiction of New York City. When Joe Gardner needs a way to convince #22 that Earth is good, where does he turn? PIZZA. What finally convinces #22 that Earth is Good? PIZZA. Specifically a folded New York slice, dripping with grease, eaten while walking down a crowded sidewalk, listening to a half dozen conversations in as many languages, the train barreling along beneath your feet, spindly trees poking up through the concrete, showering you with leaves. This place even make me want to stay here.
Oscar Isaac’s Beard in Dune
I will never miss an opportunity to post this photo where I can. Look at Duke Leto. Look at this beard. You’re welcome.