Tor.com content by

Natalie Zutter

Ashes to Anomalies: Where We’re at After the The 100’s Final Season Premiere

Compared to The 100’s last two season premieres, which jumped forward (respectively) six years and 125 years in time, it’s a little jarring that the premiere of the seventh and final season picks up just one beat after the end of last year’s finale: Sanctum in figurative ruins, its gods either dead or dethroned; Octavia pulled into the anomaly, replaced by an impossibly-aged Hope Diyoza; Clarke still mourning Abby while trying to take care of a Flame-less Madi. As a result, “From the Ashes” feels more like an epilogue than a standalone episode—which makes sense, since we’ve now entered our final 16 episodes, and time is of the essence. But it also means that the action ranges between smaller moments of tying up loose ends and big narrative leaps that hint at where the season is going, even if there’s no way that we can possibly predict the end of The 100.

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The 100 Is a Master Class in Bonkers-But-Epic Worldbuilding

In 2149, on the future-Earth of The 100, mutated gorillas and two-faced deer give Annihilation a run for its money. Middle-aged adults defer to teenagers/twentysomethings in typical dystopian fashion, treating them as prophets or healers or Chosen One leaders. Leather corsets are casual fashion choices. One of the series’ most dramatic deaths was filmed in such an over-the-top fashion, with some overlay/split-screen effect, that I can’t help but laugh every time they reference it in the “previously on” section. Everything about this show is extra AF.

But it’s this commitment to making the biggest possible choices that lets you know that you’re in good hands when it comes to The 100’s worldbuilding. The people who decided it makes perfect sense for the show’s doctor to perform impromptu surgery in a leather harness are the same ones who drop Easter eggs into the opening credits, who hired the best conlanger to create an entire language from scratch that you can actually reasonably learn, who continue to build on the narrative ruins of their own layered storytelling so that every new twist actually makes sense. The 100’s future is ridiculous, but it’s also weirdly familiar, the kind of future that still has recognizable and relatable ties to its past. And that’s all in the worldbuilding.

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The Outlander Season 5 Finale Weighs the Price for Meddling in the Past

All season I’ve been poised, waiting for the consequences for Dr. Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser meddling with history to become clear—for some universal punishment visited upon her for trying to impose any modern hindsight upon the past. But the brutal attack that takes place in the Outlander season 5 finale feels much more personal than any laws of timeline continuity: Claire doesn’t suffer because she’s a time traveler, but rather because she’s a woman.

[Spoilers for Outlander 5×12 “Never My Love.” Content warning for discussions of sexual assault.]

10 Long-Running SFF/Horror Fiction Podcasts

So you want to explore the podcast world beyond short-form comfort listens—really immerse yourself in an hours-long fictional narrative that will transport you in the fashion of a doorstopper fantasy or binge-watch thriller. Lucky for you, fiction podcasting is years ahead of your needs, with independent creators crafting science fiction, fantasy, and horror universes in which to set their heartening, action-packed, funny, disturbing, thought-provoking series. In fact, there are so many that it was difficult to narrow down; but we’ve curated a list of 10 audio dramas and actual play D&D podcasts to get you started.

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Serial Box Releases Pandemic-Inspired Collection of SFF Stories: How We Live Now

One of the debates currently taking place over various creative spheres of social media is when it’s appropriate to write stories about coronavirus—now, in the middle of it, or once we’re through it? While both sides—allowing writers and readers the necessary space to either process the pandemic or compartmentalize for their emotional well-being—are valid, Serial Box’s new short fiction collection proves that it is possible to craft engrossing fiction in this time of crisis. How We Live Now invites ten authors—Madeline Ashby, Steven Barnes, L.X. Beckett, Tananarive Due, Brian Keene, Usman T. Malik, Sunny Moraine, Malka Older, Kelly Robson, and Catherynne M. Valente—to document their feelings from the first few weeks of the coronavirus crisis through the lens of sci-fi and speculative fiction. That means quarantine and self-isolation, yes, but also zombie rats and government-mandated Blooms and sex robots.

What’s most compelling about this collection is that each story is, as Valente put it, “a snapshot of a moment.” They are individualized, highly personal responses that nonetheless manage to fulfill the aim of all great SF and spec-fic: to look ahead to possible futures (many surprisingly hopeful, all things considered) while still commenting on the present.

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Station Eleven, Mr. Burns, and (Re)telling Stories to Survive

There seem to be two types of people, a friend observed to me this week: Those who have absolutely no interest in pandemic narratives at this particular point in history, and those who are strangely soothed by reading about how fictional characters respond to a world paused, and then halted, by a hypothetical disease that suddenly seems very familiar. Despite being in the latter camp, it’s not as if I take any grim satisfaction in how the early days of the Georgia Flu in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven eerily mirror some of our current supermarket-sweeping, social-distancing status quo. Nor do I long to inhabit the post-electric world of Anne Washburn’s incredible play Mr. Burns.

Even Mandel herself has joked that people might want to wait a few months before actually reading Station Eleven, emphasizing the book’s hopeful future over our bleak present. But I would argue that now is the exact right time to get to know both the novel’s Traveling Symphony—who bring Shakespeare and classical music through post-apocalyptic towns—and Mr. Burns’ nameless theater troupe, who filter The Simpsons through oral tradition and eventually transform it into choral mythology. It’s not the pandemic that is central to either work, but rather how both tackle the aftermath. That is, the stories that the survivors tell one another in worlds that need to be lit by something other than electricity. So, what can these works tell us, as we struggle to adapt to our current crisis, about the importance of connection, memory, art, and storytelling?

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6 Comfort-Listen Podcasts to Transport You Beyond Your Living Room

Your relationship to podcasts is probably changing right now. Maybe you’re used to commuting via subway with earbuds crammed in your ears, or with your favorite voices spilling through the car radio, and now you have nowhere to be. Perhaps podcasts were a treat for household chores that now feel paralyzing. But although right now you might feel stuck in place, podcasts are still there to transport you.

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Bad Birthdays and Tragic Hugs: Checking in With Outlander

Can we all agree that this was the worst birthday ever for James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser? You can’t help but wonder if the universe has something against him for reaching 50, as Outlander season 5’s midseason episode is all about the constant bargaining of life in times of war. In the space of an hour, “The Ballad of Roger Mac” delivered the loss of a beloved character, an old favorite figuratively coming back from the dead, and one man’s fate hanging in the balance.

We were going to wait to tackle the midseason review until after “Famous Last Words” resolves that hell of a cliffhanger, but seeing as Outlander is taking a brief break before then, we thought it appropriate to give this episode the proper discussion it deserves.

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Twelve SFF Stories Told From Second-Person Perspective

Writing in second person—forgoing I or she/he/they of other perspectives in favor of that intensely-close, under-your-skin you—can, ironically, be rather alienating. Often it feels too intimate for the reader, or it distracts them from the story unfolding with questions of who is actually telling it. But when a writer commits to telling a story to you, about you, through you, the result can often be masterful—an extra layer of magic surrounding a sci-fi/fantasy/speculative tale and embedding the reader in the protagonist’s journey more intensely than even the most self-reflective first or closest-third could achieve.

Enjoy these dozen SFF tales, ranging from cheeky epistolary novella to intricate manifestations of grief to choose-your-own-adventure Shakespeare, that take on the trickiest perspective and make you (that’s you, the reader) forget you were ever skeptical.

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The Invisible Man’s Feminist Wish Fulfillment Feels Hollow

The opening scene of The Invisible Man, a genderswapped-perspective update of H.G. Wells’ story and Universal’s monster movie, is one of Elisabeth Moss’ finest performances, and she doesn’t even say a word. In the middle of the night, Cecilia opens her eyes and slips out of the bed she shares with her abusive boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Moving quietly even though she has drugged him as a precaution, Cee silently pads through their ultra-modern, hyper-surveilled beachside mansion, withdrawing the go bag she’s stashed away, filled with extra clothes, cash, and birth control. Despite a few heart-stopping noises that threaten to give her away, she manages to dodge the security cameras and make it out of their home and to the road, where her sister is waiting at 3:45 a.m. to whisk her away from her imprisonment. In the first few minutes, Cecilia is the one who’s invisible.

But as Leigh Whannell’s (Saw) adaptation progresses, the film gradually trades that subtlety for increasingly on-the-nose horror beats, culminating in an ending that is supposed to feel brutally satisfying, but instead undermines the entire reasoning driving this new take on the story.

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Badass Librarians Fight for Our Future in 2020

The heroes of the near future, of worlds starved for knowledge and restricted by authoritarian regimes, are genetically-engineered soldiers and six-shooter-toting horseback riders. They know how to cross unforgiving deserts teeming with poisonous snakes and vicious bandits, how to calculate the most brutally efficient combination of moves to neatly dispatch their enemies before they’ve even landed the first blow. And they’ll do it all with their most treasured tool in their hands or on their backs: a book.

Because they’re librarians. Every single one of them. Because the only people who are going to save our future are the ones who still know what the truth is, and who are willing to bring it to the people who need it most.

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Four Big Moments from the Outlander Season 5 Premiere

After an increasingly brutal fourth seasonOutlander marks its return with a party! In contrast to the dark irony of last year’s premiere “America the Beautiful,” “The Fiery Cross” delivers exactly what it says on the tin: one big, blazing eponymous event, and lots of little moments sprinkled around it like so many sparks. It’s not the most thrilling way to kick off the season, but there’s a nice warmth to it—sweet interludes of connection and tension for the fans who have eagerly followed the triumphs and tragedies of Clan Fraser. Considering that this season looks to be building up to the American Revolution, that calmness is probably welcome before everyone invariably winds up on opposite sides—and possibly affecting the course of history.

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8 of the Swooniest Fantasy Romances

This Valentine’s Day, your perfect date is obviously a book—the more achingly romantic, the better. We’ve got eight prospective dates for you, depending on if you want to be thrilled by an enemies-to-lovers tale, take sides in a love triangle, or wonder what could possibly happen when there’s only. one. bed. But these love (or something like it) stories aren’t just heady escapism—alongside the in-denial crushes and highly charged adjusting of collars is thoughtful commentary on consent, on meant-to-be and happily-ever-afters, even on the mere heartbeats separating love and death.

Find your ideal match, or choose them all! We’re open-minded.

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An Ode to My Favorite Obsession: The Outlander Theme Song(s)

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I?

The first time I saw the opening lyrics to Outlander’s theme song posted on a friend’s Facebook post, I thought it sounded ridiculous, way too on-the-nose to start every episode by acknowledging the series’ premise. YES WE GET IT CLAIRE YOU DISAPPEARED.

That was before I actually listened to it, and watched the title sequence—and then, like Claire at Craigh na Dun, I fell hard. Now, I forbid my husband from fast-forwarding through the credits every time we watch… and considering that we binged a season at a time to get caught up in a matter of weeks, that means I’ve got it well memorized. But why do I find this particular TV opening so compelling?

The answer, I think, is that it presses all of my nerd buttons: it’s a remix of a mashup, with an excellent invocation of Rule 63. It is the platonic ideal of a TV theme song.

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The Rise of Skywalker’s Weakest Narrative Choice Nearly Sinks the Story — Until It Works

There’s a moment, in the first half of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, upon which the final film in the Skywalker saga hinges. Regardless of your feelings by the end of the film, I think we can all agree that this no-turning-back point, which seems to set the tone for Rey’s journey of self-discovery as a Jedi, is unanimously devastating. Even in a series known for lopping off limbs and amassing a minimum of one major character death per film, this plot beat is a game changer.

And then, in the very next scene, J.J. Abrams immediately reverses it.

[Spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.]

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