MIND MELD: Directions Speculative Fiction Hasn’t Taken
[Today's Mind Meld was suggested by an SF Signal reader. Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Speculative fiction is always experimenting with new writing styles and creating new sub-genres. Some of the newish ones deal with shiny vampires, the inevitbale response to that, and steampunk. But there may be other areas speculative fiction hasn’t explored yet.
There are certainly things I’m surprised I haven’t seen more of, though given the impossibility of keeping up with everything that comes out in the field, I don’t know that I can fairly say that there’s anywhere speculative fiction hasn’t yet gone. That said, and given the success of mixing fantasy and romance, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more in the way of interstitial subgenres.
In particular, given the success of paranormal romance and the rise of steampunk, I’m rather shocked we haven’t seen much in the way of fantasy/western crossovers. Seriously, who wouldn’t be interested in the intersection where Deadwood meets Game of Thrones. The history and mythology of America’s western expansion provides plenty of scope for dark, morally ambiguous stories with tons of drama and very high stakes.
For that matter, I’m continually amazed not to see more in the way of cybermagic books. Including mine, I can only think of about a dozen, and that seems like a shockingly small number when you think about how much the web and the internet have impacted how we communicate and publish in the modern era. It’s nearly impossible to enter the field anymore without a good understanding of computers. Why people aren’t doing more with that I don’t know.
I know that some of that comes down to the difficulties of marketing hybrid works, having had some experience in that area myself, but given the vast untapped storytelling space that lies between the established genres I really am surprised that we don’t see more people pushing into those areas.
I think there’s a number of them but what I’ll focus on here is realistic depictions of aging protagonists in science fiction and fantasy. My new novel, Silver Moon (Lethe Press, 2012), is about a woman who, much to her surprise, turns into a werewolf shortly after she enters menopause. Audience and reviewer reactions have been quite positive, even enthusiastic. This thrills me no end but I admit to being stumped that the notion of equating menopause and lycanthropy apparently hadn’t occurred to anyone else before I wrote it.
Or at least I was stumped until I moderated a recent #FeministSF Twitterchat on the topic of depictions of aging in sf/f (written up at the Clarion Foundation Blog under Writer’s Craft #88) and discovered that even well-read readers of genre fiction struggled to remember books and stories with aging protagonists. At one point in the discussion, “aging” became any protagonist over 35 or so, or characters who felt “old” to the reader. The disconnect between the character’s modes of expression and activities versus their described chronological age became a topic of discussion, largely because there are a fair number of examples of it. POV characters are described as “older” but feel “younger” to readers than their stated ages or vice versa (seen frequently with protagonists identified as being in their teens/early twenties). Alternatively, POV characters are described as being “old” but have a magic potion/genetic engineering/fantastic medical procedure that makes it possible for them to come across as much younger than their stated ages. Certainly there are realistic and believable depictions of aging POV characters (Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters or Lois McMaster’s Bujold’s Paladin of Souls or Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon spring to mind) but they are the exception, not the rule.
All things considered, some of this is to be expected in genres that celebrate escapism and/or envision a future where the problems of today can be resolved by some heretofore undiscovered scientific solution. Or at least an alternative where the specter of aging and its accompanying shadow, Death, can be delayed or completely averted. It’s hard not to deny the appeal of that, and I’m certainly not exempting myself. Lycanthropy looks like a fine escapist alternative to hot flashes some days. Alright, most days.
That said, I am still interested in writing a protagonist whose experience of aging feels reasonably realistic to me. And as a fan, I also like to read a range of genre fiction with protagonists I want to read about and that includes middle-aged and old protagonists. To do otherwise seems to me to be both a loss and a missed opportunity. Given the various discussions on the “graying of fandom,” it’s worthwhile to note that not all of that readership wants to read YA all the time. Why not write (or publish, for that matter) a novel with an older protagonist who feels like a realistic older protagonist? The odds may always be in your favor.
A tricky question, because, there’ll be always someone who will say, “Hold it, have you read-?” to any response that I’d give to things I, personally, am surprised that haven’t been done yet.
Additionally, it’s harder to pinpoint what directions speculative fiction is taking, or even what qualifies as a “new turn” in spec fic, because right now, I see sci-fi as becoming increasingly self-referential and prone to genre-blending. The rise of the cross-genre can also be linked to the increasing visibility of science fiction & fantasy in pop culture.
New subgenres and the start of new literary movements today can still happen, but I also think burgeoning subgenres are hard to distinguish from marketing slick and authors trying to sound original. And it’s getting harder to distinguish between what is a legitimate style and what is just another coined phrase an author is using to help sell their work. Or that line when a clever turn of phrase magically transforms into a subgenre.
Steampunk is the exemplary example. It started off as sci-fi self-referential in-joke, and then transformed into something else, which goes to show how the sub-genre is still very much at the flexible whims of whoever wants to slap the label on, until something sticks. And the definition of steampunk has been stretched out and evolved since its inception as well, influenced by marketing stratagems seeking commercial viability.
If someone asks me, “Recommend me a steampunk book that I’d like,” I actually ask them, “Well, what do you like to read already?” Because from there I can recommend any sort of “steampunk book” that’s also a cross-genre with something else, whether it’d be western, romance, sci-fi, horror, YA, new weird, alt history, etc.
So when I think about the areas that spec fic hasn’t gone yet, I think I’ll tweak the question into two “sub-questions”, per se, that address different but important issues at hand:
A) How can we expose ourselves to novel speculative fiction that we — as readers, bloggers, agents, editors, and publishers — may be ignorant of? And all of the other “sub-sub-questions” that this one implies–
i) How can we ensure that proper media platforms and creative spaces are provided to foster new and obscured talent?
ii) How can readers easily access those “innovative directions” that speculative fiction is taking?
iii) How can writers whose work may be unheard of reach wider audiences?
iv) When we talk about measuring accessibility, what about the social, geopolitical, international, economic, racial, and gender barriers that marginalized writers face in the industry?
B) How useful can genre definitions be when more often, they can be bent to pander to commercial whims?
i) Do writers need to stick to labels to help distinguish their works, and what consequences does that mean for the stabilization of a “genre?”
ii) Are readers the ones who tend to categorize, or is it us, the producers and creators, who rely on labels more? Is it possible to go “labelless” and have readers find their own words to describe it?
iii) Conversely, how can further stratification help ensure market growth for the publishing industry by catering towards to a niche readership that loves to examine and cross-examine the books they read anyway?
iv) Then again, why does the industry propagate the attitude that writers have to be sure their books can fit a certain “category” while at the same time, espouse the artistic credo of “write what you want, and if it’s good, people will figure out a way for it to sell?”
v) Why do these questions about genre continue to haunt us like hungry ghosts?
And now, more sub-sub-sub questions, plague me—
a) Why am I over-thinking this question? How am I, sufficiently contributing to this conversation?
b) How can any of us, indeed, contribute anything at all to this discussion?
c) Then, is the original question… moot? Rhetorical? Or even, existential….?
Does anyone else remember when, during the pre-Internet PC boom, there were CD-Roms of hypertext fiction being sold? To my impressionable mind, this was a universe-expanding thing. I remember hearing that you could click on just about any word and be taken to another, previously unsuspected part of the story. It sounded like the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I read and re-read, but larger in scope and less static in shape. The reality, when I finally got my hands on one of those discs, fell rather short of the potential I had imagined.
As a kid, the closest I came to this kind of storytelling was Marvel Comics–a universe in which dozens of comics took place in the same universe, along the same timeline, sometimes presenting different angles on the same events. Nowadays crossovers are the bane of comics, but at that time they were the device which expanded the world in which they took place–a simple editor’s note in an issue of, say, The Mighty Thor that referenced an event in Amazing Spider-Man could fire my imagination for days.
At that time I wasn’t aware of Jorge Luis Borges’ story The Garden of Forking Paths, which is a story about a book in which an infinite number of possible realities are presented, or of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela), a book whose meaning changes according to the order in which it is read and which of the multiple endings you see as a conclusion. Writers have been turning the novel inside out since Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in the 17th Century, but always from within the confines and restrictions of the book as a physical object. (Having read Hopscotch in the prescribed order, I can tell you that there is a great deal of paging back and forth–much like with those Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks!)
Now, it seems to me, the technology is there for a truly interactive novel. It’s been attempted; Penguin Books’ disastrous A Million Penguins project in 2007 was a fully open-source novel, but it fell prey to vandalism and incoherence. (Now it’s a spam page, and the “finished” product is nowhere to be found.) But with the rise of the e-reader and the software capabilities already in existence, all that’s lacking is a motivated writer or group of writers to create something truly epic in scope, and genre fiction seems like a natural fit for it. I’d love to read a thoughtful, plot-driven work in which one click can switch protagonists, take the story into an alternate universe, or unravel everything that’s happened in the plot so far. It’d probably never quite reach the scope of what I imagine it could be, but it only needs to do enough to entertain and inspire.
I recently participated in this year’s Fourth Street Fantasy Conversation. One of the running themes was panelists saying, “I wish there was more X in SF/F,” followed by numerous enthusiastic readers in the audience giving examples of how X appeared in this novel or story many years ago. Like Internet Rule 34, there isn’t a single wacky or fringe direction for speculative fiction that I can dream up that some author hasn’t used somewhere.
What surprises me more is how some of these directions in individual works haven’t led to major movements. Two thematic examples spring to mind:
1) The Plausible Near Future- specifically stories set a decade or less in the future that explore how small changes in science and technology affect human beings. Though there are notable recent examples of this (works by Maureen McHugh, Ian McDonald, Walter Jon Williams, for example), the vast majority of things I see on the market are either set in a distant future and deal with significant scientific changes (space exploration, massive body modifications, alien contact, post-petroleum earth), or contain major, implausible disasters in the near future like alien invasions or particle physics gone amuck.
One of the most significant works of plausible near future SF the last few years is Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Though few of its predictions of young makers overthrowing the DHS surveillance state have come to pass, it’s still a powerful and thoughtful novel that resonates with many readers, especially teens.
If I had to guess, writers are hesitant to make predictions sure to go wrong in their lifetimes. All you need to do is watch Disney World’s 21st Century room on the Carousel of Progress (built in 1993) to see how cringeworthy a poor prediction may look just a few years later. (At least the song is still fun.)
We rarely see plausible near future stories submitted to Apex Magazine.
2- Average People Tales- Though literary fiction is full of stories about average people struggling through their daily lives, I still see very few SF stories that focus on how the future and its developments affect lower and middle class people with typical intelligences and careers, who lead “unremarkable” lives. (There are exceptions like the works of Geoff Ryman, Will McIntosh, Rebecca Ore, Bud Sparhawk, of course). From the Vorkosigan Saga to The Windup Girl to 2312, the vast majority of mainstream SF’s major works continue to focus on extraordinary people at the center of major events. (So many scientists and upper class characters!)
For me, the greatest SF novel of the last 20 years is China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh. I’m in love with its mosaic stories of regular people going through the normal issues of their worlds. I’m very surprised that this novel didn’t kick off a major, sustainable movement in SF literature.
We occasionally see stories like this at Apex Magazine, but not as many as we would like.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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