The Rise of Cosy Sci-Fi and Fantasy in the Pandemic Era

Fiction always responds to, and reflects, the context it is created in. In the year of our lord 2023, we’re several years deep in what one might politely call Historic Times. COVID-19, and the social context surrounding it, is gradually making itself known in various genres.

Jodi McAllister’s rom-com Here For the Right Reasons (2022) asks what might happen if a cast of reality TV contestants were suddenly trapped together by a snap lockdown. Emily Gale’s middle grade novel The Goodbye Year (2022) explores how the already weird, transitional phase between primary school and high school is disrupted by the first, scary wave of the pandemic in 2020. Contemporary YA novels are increasingly having to decide if, and how, they factor more than a year of remote learning (and a boatload of collective trauma) into the high school experience of their characters.

Alongside these texts that address the realities of COVID times, though, seems to be a rising wave of speculative fiction that responds to the pandemic. And I don’t mean sci-fi thrillers about post-pandemic post-apocalypses—quite the opposite vibe, in fact!

Legends & Lattes is a “cosy fantasy” story following Viv, a big, buff, sword-slinging orc who retires from adventuring/questing/slaying and settles down to open a shop—selling this funky, exotic drink called “coffee” she came across in the gnomish lands. The reader is with her every step of the way, from buying the rundown building that will become the café, to renovating it with the help of a local tradesman, to slowly gaining a customer base, befriending her staff, tussling with the local organised crime syndicate, and building a cosy, welcoming community foothold. As the cover happily informs you, this is a novel of high fantasy and low stakes—essentially a coffee shop AU of any given Dungeons & Dragons campaign. And it is delightful.

Author Travis Baldree initially self-published the novel, which was soon scooped up by Tor after word-of-mouth sent its popularity skyrocketing (it helps, of course, that one of those mouths putting the word out was the legendary Seanan McGuire!). The idea for Legends & Lattes was inspired by Baldree’s work as an audiobook narrator and his immersion in the fantasy genre, but it really came to the forefront during COVID. As he explains in an interview in the back of the paperback edition:

…during the height of COVID, I told some friends that I wished I could read a Hallmark Channel story set in the Forgotten Realms. Something that wasn’t fraught, and that was more like chicken soup than pub food.

I was definitely missing a neighbourhood coffee shop at the time, too—seeing other human beings and chatting over a cup seemed like the height of escapist fantasy to me.

So, it began as a bit of a joke, honestly, and I figured the story would have a lot of nodding and winking. But when National Novel Writing Month hit and I began actually writing, it turned into something else entirely, and I couldn’t do anything but play it straight.

The story ended up heartfelt and personal in a way I absolutely did not anticipate. (2022, p.309)

Knowing its context, Legends & Lattes really does feel like a piece of pandemic fiction, even if it feels off to label it that way. It does not directly concern the events of the real world, but it feels like an earnest response to them, and an earnest response to fill the specific cracks in the tired hearts of readers of this era. It taps into the simple desire for a nice place, good company, and a comfy, understated sense of security. The fantasy of sipping on a cup of something warm and knowing you don’t need to worry about anything for a few minutes. It’s this peace that Viv gives her customers, and it’s this peace that Baldree’s cosy prose gives the reader.

But just because Legends & Lattes is low stakes, doesn’t mean there are no stakes. In fact, there’s some real threads of tension throughout the novel, and its climax is honestly pretty devastating. Because the café is the world of the story, when the café burns down—with magic flames set by one of Viv’s vindictive former party members—it feels apocalyptic. It’s intense, reading about Viv and Tandri escaping from the building, and Viv burning herself as she runs back in to rescue the lockbox and her beloved coffee machine. It’s heartbreaking, envisioning them sitting in front of the smoking heap that was once their home.

This hits hard because the stakes are so personal. But I feel it also speaks to a very real-world fear, perhaps not unique to pandemic times but definitely amplified by them: the grief and terror of losing a community space where you felt safe. Maybe your local haunt was not literally destroyed, but I know many people have felt a tangible sense of loss of place over the past few years. This jarring, frightening realisation that going outside and moving through your local world is now fraught with danger. This sense of lost connection, of isolation, and of vulnerability.

Whether consciously or not, Baldree’s narrative taps into this. But, because this is a cosy fantasy, Baldree also gives his protagonists the chance to recover. Viv is desolated, but quickly discovers that she’s not alone. The community she’s built come to her aid and help her to rebuild the café, bigger and better than before. The process is gruelling, but they get there together. It’s a happy ending and the beginning of something new and hopeful. It promises that Viv—and her space—are stronger for everything they’ve been through.

Plus, as a bonus bit of catharsis we don’t always get in real life, the epilogue shows the greedy asshole who caused the trouble getting his comeuppance.

Maybe you’re more of a tea-drinker than a coffee fan. In which case, I’ll point you towards Becky Chambers’ sci-fi series Monk and Robot, which unmistakably sits in “cosy sci-fi” the way L&L sits in “cosy fantasy”. Although they were commissioned and announced back in 2018, the books were completed in a pandemic context. In the acknowledgements to A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, Chambers notes that “I finished A Psalm for the Wild-Built just before lockdown started; A Prayer for the Crown-Shy was handed in three months before I was able to get my first jab” (2022, p.151). While I can’t say for certain how much the pandemic vibe influenced Chambers as she wrote, there is something in these novellas that speaks to those same emotional cracks.

Look no further than the dedications: first “For anybody who could use a break”, second “For anybody who doesn’t know where they’re going”. The objective cosiness of the novels—their personal stakes, their mild pace, their soothing atmosphere—offers respite from cold, harsh, frightening reality.

Funnily enough, a little bit like L&L, this is a story about someone trying to reinvent themselves: in this case, tea monk Dex, who feels aimless and frustrated in a way they can’t quite put their finger on. I read these books at a stressful time in my life and this aspect hit me quite personally. Even if you’re not in my exact position, though, I feel like Dex’s feeling of being left afloat rings true to another common human quandary dialled up to eleven by the conditions of the pandemic.

I know so many people who lost their jobs, suddenly faced career changes, or more generally found themselves disorientated and disillusioned with the working world that had previously shaped their lives. Routines were disrupted, parts of our lives that had once seemed secure and mundane were suddenly pulled away, and corporate greed and dehumanisation were revealed on a global scale. Fun and not at all panic-inducing stuff! Again, even if the job crisis did not affect you, I’m sure locking down in your own space in the midst of such upheaval gave you some time to think, perhaps to do some soul-searching and re-evaluate.

Sibling Dex is lost, grasping for some sense of grand purpose that always feels just out of reach, becoming fretful and claustrophobic even when everything in their life seems to be going just fine. Across the two books, Dex (monk) and Mosscap (robot) have many philosophical conversations about how human society functions, and about this idea of beings “needing” purpose to justify their existence. As well as presenting a hopeful speculative world where capitalism has basically been eradicated—a comforting and intriguing place to spend some time!—this series draws you into a very gentle, affirming place where Dex’s fears are validated but ultimately soothed away.

You can just be. It’s an enormously relaxing thought in what have been incredibly stressful times, and I can’t help but feel this is a product of, and a rebellious response to, that stress.

There are other spec-fic novels that deal with COVID in more head-on ways: for example, John Scalzi’s The Kaiju Preservation Society, whose protagonist gets laid off in March 2020 and is stuck working the thankless job of a delivery driver until he gets pulled into a world of giant monsters. While less “cosy” than my other two examples in that respect, I’d argue it sits alongside them and nicely represents what I’m talking about. Scalzi describes the novel thusly in the author’s note:

KPS is not, and I say this with absolutely no slight intended, a brooding symphony of a novel. It is a pop song. It’s meant to be light and catchy, with three minutes of hooks and choruses for you to sing along with, and then you’re done and you go on with your day, hopefully with a smile on your face. I had fun writing this, and I needed to have fun writing this. We all need a pop song from time to time, particularly after a stretch of darkness. (2022, p.262)

How different authors respond to this “stretch of darkness” in their work, both in realistic genres and in more imaginary ones, will be interesting to watch over the coming years. I have to say, there’s something that warms my heart about this wave of cosy, defiantly hopeful SFF that’s arriving on the shore of the book market. There’s something to say here about all hope for humanity is not lost as long as we can imagine kinder worlds. There’s also the simple truth that these books are very fun and very chill for everyone involved, and there’s value in that even without all that philosophy.

This post is not sponsored by Tor publishers in any way. I noticed while editing that all my examples came from that imprint (or TorDotCom in Monk and Robot’s case) and was like, “oops. lol”. They just put good stuff out, I promise!

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Filed under Archetypes and Genre

2 responses to “The Rise of Cosy Sci-Fi and Fantasy in the Pandemic Era

  1. Just finished A Psalm for the Wild Built myself. Definitely has that more relaxing, cozy atmosphere. It was a nice reminder that allowing yourself to just exist without any expectations of your productivity and purpose is very healthy and sometimes necessary.

  2. Pingback: Monk and Robot and the Spirit of Iyashikei | Animated Observations

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