A little over two years ago, just after the pandemic started, something in my brain flipped/switched/shut off. Suddenly, I lost all desire to read science fiction and fantasy, two genres I have loved my entire life. At the time, I didn’t think much of it — or, at least, I didn’t think much of it beyond “We’re in a pandemic. Everyone’s reading life is changing. Eventually this will go away and I will love space operas and epic fantasy again.”
That was two years ago. My ability to read science fiction and fantasy has not returned. Look, I know a lot of folks have experienced shifts in their reading due to the pandemic. A lot of folks have written about it here. We’re pretty deep into this thing now, and I’m honestly not that interested in talking about how it has or hasn’t changed the way I read. I’m interested in a bigger question, one I’ve been wrestling with for a while now. What do we do when something — a pandemic, a breakup, a death, a shift in identity — fundamentally shifts the way we experience books? How, as readers, do we deal with that change?
Here’s the thing: I still love fantasy and science fiction. These were the genres I fell in love with as a kid. I still have vivid memories of reading Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen deep into the night (or at least what felt like deep into the night) at age 12. It was the first adult fantasy book I ever read, and I was hooked. I haven’t stopped being hooked since.
I’ve fallen in love with new genres and forms: romance, comics, nonfiction. I’ve gone through phases of favoring one genre or another. There was the winter I read contemporary YA almost exclusively. That period in my early 20s when I devoured every nonfiction farming book I could get my hands on. But through it all, SFF has been there for me. Robots and sword fights and distant planets. Magic and time travel and epic quests. My reading tastes have evolved, but magic and space have been my constants. I never imagined a day would come when I’d pick up a sci-fi novel, flip through its pages and say, “nah, not for me.”
Early on in this shift, I just read other things. I devoured contemporary queer lit. I read beautiful memoirs and historical fiction and book after book of poetry. But in the past few months, I’ve started craving sci-fi and fantasy again. I’ve been longing for it. I’ve been craving fast-paced space operas and long epic fantasies with huge casts and complicated world-building. I’ve been craving that sense of utter immersion I used to get from sinking into other worlds, from the breathtaking creativity of books like The Fifth Season. I never stopped loving these kinds of stories. I just stopped being in the mood for them. And now that I’m in the mood again — well, my brain has other ideas.
I have tried to read so many sci-fi and fantasy novels over the past six months. I read Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. It was fine. By which I mean: it was amazing and full of tension. Queer characters! Polyamory! Revenge! Magic and mythology and intricate world-building and wild tech! Friends, this is a great book. But I could not get into it. My brain bounced right off. Last year I read Winter’s Orbit and Light From Uncommon Stars and Black Sun, all books that friends have raved about, all books I should have loved, all books that are exactly in my SFF wheelhouse…and all of them were fine. Just. Fine.
A few weeks ago I started Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliot and then The Jasmine Throne by Tashi Suri. They’re both been on my TBR for ages. I listened to about 20 minutes of each and just…floated away. Could not stay focused. After giving up on both of them, I switched to The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard and was immediately riveted, from the first five minutes. The difference was startling. It was like waking up from a dream. Suddenly I was I alert and excited, my brain online.
The stark differences in my experiences of these books is not because a historical novel is objectively better than a space opera. Obviously. And it’s also painfully clear that it’s not about me picking up the wrong book at the wrong time. This isn’t a mood reading thing. I am in the mood for spaceships and dragons. I’ve been in that mood for a while. I feel it in my body like a physical ache. I long for those stories. I miss them desperately. But I pick one up, and there’s my brain getting in the way. I can’t relate. I can’t understand. I am immediately bored, immediately confused. The words do not leave a mark. I can’t access whatever it was in these stories that used to speak to me so deeply.
So here I am: a sci-fi fan who cannot read sci-fi. A fantasy lover who can’t read fantasy. We fall out of love all the time — with people, places, foods, books. Falling out of love is sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes quiet. Sometimes it blows a big hole in our lives and sometime it’s just a natural consequence of the constant change that is being human. This, though, is different. I haven’t fallen out of love. I’ve just stopped being able to appreciate the thing I love. And the scary truth? I have no idea if I’ll ever experience SFF the way I used to. This might be a temporary thing. It might be permanent. I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that wanting it to go away isn’t doing a damn thing.
For months, I’ve felt like there’s something wrong with me. If I could just get back, I keep telling myself. Get back to where? Get back to what? I’ve been clinging to this idea that this is a loss that’s reversible, that an internal shift like this is something I should have control over. I just have to push through it, I keep telling myself, picking up epic fantasies and sci-fi mysteries and historical fiction teeming with magic, finding disappointment in every one. I’ve blamed the pandemic. I’ve analyzed the whys. If I can just pinpoint exactly why my brain is struggling so much with SFF, then I can fix it. I tell myself it’s temporary. I tell myself that wanting to read SFF again is a sign that soon I will enjoy it again. On and on and on my reasoning goes, never changing the simple, basic fact: I do not like science fiction and fantasy the way I used to.
Throughout life, all of us experience big and small things that fundamentally change who we are, the way we think and feel and walk around in the world. Losing a loved one. Going through a heartbreak. Having a kid. Moving to a new city. Changing careers. Falling in love. Becoming an aunt. Discovering something new and surprising about yourself. Writing a book. Getting sick. Living through a global pandemic. Surviving a trauma. Making a hard decision. We can never predict how something is going to affect the small minutia of our lives — what music we like to listen to, how much alone time we want, what foods we find comforting, what books we like to read.
This is what I think about now, when I scroll past a fantasy audiobook in my Hoopla favorites folder, my thumb hovering over it, my whole body flooded with want and sadness. I am constantly changing person. There’s a lot I can’t control. So I’m not trying to fix it anymore. I’m not trying to get back. Instead, I’m letting myself mourn. I’m mourning the reader I used to be. I’m mourning the joy I used to find in books I can no longer take joy in. I’m reveling in the books I do find joy in (hello, queer lit fic and weird hybrid nonfiction), but I’m making space for the loss, too. Giving myself permission to acknowledge that loss — to call it what it is, loss — is a huge relief.