MIND MELD: What is the Next Big Thing in Speculative Fiction?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
As a critic, aspiring author, and a fan of fiction I always keep an eye out for what could be the next big thing. This could range anywhere from authors to series, from genres to themes. But who better to provide an opinion on the matter of The Next Big Thing than authors themselves?
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
I’ve always been bad at predicting the future, despite my claims as a kid that my dreams were prophetic; I tend to worry over the worst possible scenarios. But in terms of the future trends in speculative fiction, I’m optimistic. I’ve been noticing a strong focus on diversity in speculative short fiction. I mainly read short stories, so I will speak in terms of the next big thing in short story writers. As a bisexual woman, I was thrilled last month to read “Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado in Strange Horizons, in which the main character’s relationships with women and men are depicted as equally important to her. I think in the future we will certainly see more of an emphasis on diversity in sexual orientations and gender identifications.
Some other writers I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future: I keep running into Damien Walters Grintalis’ work. Brooke Wonders’ “Everything Must Go” in Clarkesworld 74 blew me away, and I think Wonders will be a force to be reckoned with in the near future. Helena Bell’s work has been popping up a lot lately; her Clarkesworld stories “Variations on Bluebeard and Dalton’s Law Along the Event Horizon” and “Robot” are worth checking out. I’ll be keeping an eye on Brooke Bolander as well. It’s great to see so many up-and-coming female short story writers in the speculative fiction field, and I think that this trend will continue as well.
The Next Big Thing? Don’t bet on it, Bub.
I think we can be sure of this much about “the next big thing” in science fiction: it won’t be anything that one would predict from a conventional vantage point, surveying the future of the world and of tastes. The conventional prediction from outside the SF field would probably guess at one of the following themes: biotechnology and/or geneering, or global economic collapse, or fresh-water shortages, or some politically “predictable” war. Which may all occur in Real Life™, but they won’t be the next big thing in SF—largely because they’re already receding in the rearview mirror of the Magic Bus that is our genre’s forward-speeding imagination.
So what about the “next big thing” as projected from the SFnal perspective? How should we hope to foresee what no one else foresees?
Well, in large part, you begin by accepting the possibility that the next big thing will not be quite so new as it seems. Cyberpunk? Hmm… you can find plenty of those themes in earlier fiction, often with very serious cultural and political spins (find Poul Anderson’s novella, “Kings Who Die” for instance…). Steampunk? Well, that’s new—unless you consider that, in the late 1980s, there were several very successful games (e.g.; Space: 1889, by GDW) by major companies that actually birthed the milieu. Unless, that is, you dig back a little further to find Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air and and…
Well, you get the picture. I am certainly not saying that the “next big thing” will actually be reheated leftovers from an earlier creative feast. Straight-up retro rehash doesn’t usually work very well, or for very long. There are probably dozens of reasons for that, but the most basic may be the most simple: that it is incredibly rare for a reboot to have the sheer energy and enthusiastic, edge-of-your-pants adventurousness and inventiveness that comes with the first blush of a new creative discovery.
Besides, completely revolutionary literary or generic invention is about as supportable a notion as the outdated counter-evolutionary concept of “spontaneous generation”. There’s pretty conclusive evidence that, in the case of both life forms and literature, new species do not arrive ex nihilo, popping out of the aether—wholly formed—in some unobserved corner. Almost everything has some traces, some tincture, of evolution from what came before—whether that predecessor is temporally proximal or distant.
So enough caveats. I’ll take my sure-to-be-wrong stab at the “next big thing.”
SF has a tendency to mirror evolving social attitudes, but what is seen in that mirror is often wracked by fun-house distortions—and seen through a glass darkly, to boot. So let’s take a powerful social force right now, and then put a contrarian creative spin on it.
If we look at the big picture, there is a great deal of cultural churn over what I’ll call the balance between reasons for hope and reasons for panic. Yes, we live in an age of incredible genetic advance, IT diffusion, miniaturization, and electronic interconnectedness: is that rising sound the blissful moan of an impending, singularistic “rapture of the nerds?” But it is no less true that we live in a time of shut-down and contraction. Forget the absence of the Golden Age’s implicitly promised flying cars: where’s our space program? Where’s economic stability—and by stability, I don’t mean today’s numbers on the Dow: I mean a fundamentally sound market and fiscal structure, that doesn’t jump and start at each new sign of promise or peril. And then there are little issues such as poorly understood climate shimmies, fresh water shortages, WMD proliferation, increased radicalism and polarization both within and between nations.
It is true enough that there has never been a halcyon age (except for in the forgiving memory of older generations), but this one is teetering between extremes that make it difficult to know where it is reasonable to site our attitude: in the domain of hope, or worry. And a fictional form which can connect to the terrific conflictual energies generated by that rift running down the middle of our cultural outlook certainly will find a receptive audience.
But another key part of this contemporary mindset is how well-founded each outlook—positive and negative—is. That is likely to be a powerful variable in the equation of what might produce the “next big thing.” So how does this impact what will sell in SF?
I’d like to begin by suggesting that, with rare epochal exceptions, SF is generally an optimistic genre. I do not mean happy or reassuring: it is more often than not quite dystopian. But it is nonetheless wedded to stories of how those crushing adversities are overcome—whether the victory is broad based and culture-spanning, or personal and ultimately Pyrrhic. And in an era when there is so much reason for worry, and in which it is important to believe that we humans can positively influence each other to avoid the outcomes we fear the most, it is likely that there will be a growing appetite for stories that translate those wishes into an imaginary reality .
But in this age of uncertainty in science, in method, in reason itself, overcoming these challenges will either depend upon luck, or competence and courage. And since luck has little power to make us feel better about our chances of “beating the odds,” only the latter qualities—competence and courage—provide a reasonable basis for the hope and reassurance that might be provided by these stories.
If it sounds like I’m obliquely suggesting that we are about to chart a return course to the Golden Age of SF, well—yes, but no. I do suspect there will be an unusual re-embrace of the conviction that humanity can and will overcome. I could easily foresee an increasing trend toward imaginary tales of futures which, reflecting back upon our current conditions, become a basis from which we might reasonably draw a sense of present-day hope.
But I suspect they will also be the photo-negative of the Golden Age stories’ typically upbeat tone and self-congratulatory triumphalism. If there is optimism to be found in these mid 21st century tales, it will not come along with the cheery smiles of a giddy adolescent, but the measured affect of a seasoned, even grizzled, adult. Will we overcome? Yes—but at a steep cost, and haunted by the eternal noir-ish threat of further debts unpaid or looming. Many of our victories may be won by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul—and discovering that it wasn’t so good a great deal, after all: it was simply a better deal than the other alternatives.
So here’s the name I’d give to the SF I could anticipate as the “next big thing”. Hard SF Noir. Or Hard(-bitten) SF, if you prefer. I suspect it would continue the steady trend of reaching across the narrowing gaps between our genre and mainstream, simply because it would have an inherent grittiness that would be familiar from thrillers and procedurals of all kinds.
And having asserted all this, I can now collectively rest assured that this is the “next big thing” which will never occur. As a famous SF author has pointed out, “The one thing you can be sure of is that, once you’ve predicted a future, it will never come to pass.” So too, I suspect, with Hard-bitten SF Noir.
I see two trends in new Science fiction and fantasy; I’m not sure that they feed each other, but I think they will eventually. One is that readers, with increasing access to knowledge via the web, will want increasing levels of authenticity whether a character is flying a star ship or using a sword. There’s a problem with this–Hollywood, for example, can create an image of authenticity that it can take a generation to change or fix (swordsmanship leaps to mind here) and which is intrinsically false but leads to an audience expectation. But across the speculative genre, I expect to see an increased awareness of causality and authenticity. At the same time, as speculative fiction becomes ever more mainstream (so much so that it is almost banal to say so) I expect to see plots that are less driven by meta-events (like saving the world) and more driven by character and character motivation (like, saving the farm instead of the world. Or saving a relationship that’s gone wrong.) Perhaps I’m slightly crazed to mention these two very different authors in the same breath, but I see China Miéville and Lois McMaster Bujold as representative of this trend.
While we’re being banal, it’s probably trite to say that fantasy and sci-fi sales are deeply linked to modern gaming realities, from vast MMOs like World of Warcraft and Eve to up close and personal dice and figures roll playing. I’m pretty sure I could spin you a doctoral dissertation about audience expectation of world building and plot based on changing games standards. Or just the occurrence of certain terms embedded in gaming consciousness as descriptors in speculative fiction… I digress. But a Big Thing requires large scale buy-in from a mainstream audience (Twilight, anyone? Harry Potter?) and I expect the winning entry will offer an authentic experience in a character driven and motivated story about an environment that is accessible to readers either via their life experience (school seems popular) or their MMO/RPG experience; some instantly comprehensible form of reality that can be explored to fascinate yet immediately resonates with a wide slice of readers. Once, that was Arthurian. Now, I suspect it is Zombies. Can I hope it is Neo-Victorian steam punk? I can hope.
For twenty years I tried to answer that question. From 1990 to 2010 I ran my own bookstore, I sold on-line and I did a few shows every year, I like to think I was good at it, I turned a profit. But I was always trying to watch for that next big thing the hot author, the hot trend in sub-genres, the rediscovered books; it was part of my job to figure out the next big thing. I had some successes: I invested heavily in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, and in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I did well with the early Harry Potters, and abandoned them when print runs went too high to matter. I avoided both the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises. My bread and butter has always been Lovecraftian fiction and anything by Neil Gaiman, John Norman’s Gor books come and go in cycles. I once paid my mortgage using a box of very rare Doctor Who paperbacks. So, I should know a thing or two about the next big thing.
Want to know what the next big thing is? Your guess is as good as mine.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to tell you that Lovecraftian fiction is the next hot genre, that it has been stewing through the fiction of King and Gaiman. That it has entered the global consciousness as evidenced in works by Eco, Chabon and Diaz. That my kids know about Lovecraftian monsters from South Park, Billy and Mandy, Ghostbusters, and Anthony Horowitz. That Hollywood is on the verge. And that I Peter Rawlik, am the writer who will lead the way into the future. That’s my hope, but its not what I know. Nobody knows whats next, anybody who says they do is just catching a wave that has already started.
That is what I have learned from twenty years reading and selling books. Don’t try and figure out what the next big thing is, because you’ll likely be wrong. The next big thing is something that you’ll absolutely love that comes out of left field, or has been laying around for years unnoticed. It’s zombies, steampunk, and literary mash-ups. It’s an author who drags a literary novel through genre tropes and impresses fans of both. It’s old masters like Martin reinventing the genre; new masters like Gaiman writing great characters; it’s upstarts like Miéville challenging expectations; it’s outsiders like Doctorow expanding the horizons. That is what’s next: When everything old is new again, and new branches lead us back to our roots.
I can’t tell you what is next, but there are signs.
Disney is re-tooling large portions of their theme parks to focus on princesses, princesses from around the world. Mattel has created the Monster High line, horror themed glamour dolls for girls, that appeal to growing sub-cultures of girl horror fans. More and more video gaming companies are focusing on girls, girls from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. So if I were a betting man, I would watch for SF/F/H ethnic chick-lit targeted to pre-teens, teens and the twenty-something crowd.
If I had to, that is where I would put my time, money and effort, but then again what do I know, I’m just trying to catch a wave.
Now I naturally have a vested interest in this being the case, since I am the creator of (what my publisher tells me) is the world’s biggest Steampunk series – Pax Britannia. To date I have written eight novels set within this steam-powered world (the most recent being Pax Britannia: Time’s Arrow), as well as various short stories, while comics writer Al Ewing has crafted his own bizarro out-there trilogy set within the same universe.
But my claim that Steampunk will be the next Big Thing isn’t born out of some fatuous statistic. I’ve got an IBM computer that says ‘Yes’ to back me up on this. In case you missed the news item yourself, here it is:
“Retailers attending the National Retail Federation Convention in New York yesterday (Jan. 14) got an ear-load, and eye-load, from researchers about the next big trend steaming toward the retail industry. Based on an analysis of more than half a billion public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources, IBM predicted that ”steampunk” will be the next major trend to bubble up and take hold of the retail industry.”
Steampunk has been growing slowly but steadily in popularity ever since K W Jeter first coined the term in a letter to Locus magazine back in 1987. Every once in a while there has been a landmark event or publication that has pushed things forward, exposing the movement to the masses even more that before: Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine, published in 1990; Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999); Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009); the British Steampunk convention ‘Weekend at the Asylum’ (first held in 2009) and the American ‘Steampunk World’s Fair’ (first held in 2010); the London 2012 Olympics opening and closing ceremonies!
Steampunk has finally crossed over into the mainstream. It is a word that now means something to people, rather than causing them to furrow their brows in confusion. And what it means to them is Victorians, incredible steam-powered machines, clockwork robots, corsets, waistcoats and top hats. Oh, and airships (even though the Zeppelin was a 20th century invention).
In fact Steampunk is so mainstream now that, just as it once started off as a sub-genre of SFF, it is now developing sub-genres all of its own, including dieselpunk, dustpunk and even piratepunk! And, of course, as soon as something becomes popular, it provokes a rash of bandwagonism. Just type the word ‘Steampunk’ into Amazon and see what happens. (The same thing happened a couple of years ago in fiction with regards to the term ‘Young Adult’.)
The origins of Steampunk can be seen quite clearly in the proto-science fiction (or ‘scientific romances’) of the Victorian era but don’t ever let anyone tell you that H G Wells or Jules Verne are Steampunk. Steampunk requires a certain knowing awareness of its own anachronistic appeal to be properly Steampunk.
In a world in which good manners seem to be the exception rather than the norm, in which adults no longer dress for dinner and instead dress like their children, in which powerful machines no longer look like powerful machines (consider the smartphone in your pocket), in which NASA’s budget is being cut and the latest lunar rover will never actually go to the Moon, there is something appealing about the etiquette, fashion, inventions and aspirations of the Victorian age.
As the author (and creator of the tagline ‘In space no one can hear you scream’) Christopher Fowler once put it, “When a nation is strong it tells stories of the future. When it’s weak it tells stories of the past.”
Yes, it may occasionally be accused of celebrating imperialism or of being ‘Fascism for nice people’ (as one steampunk author once put it), but in general Steampunk is seen as a wholly positive movement, inclusive, optimistic, and self-improving. It champions craft over soulless mass production, the betterment of oneself through invention and re-invention, and pulpy page-turners over worthy contemporary literature (in which very often very little actually happens).
I myself am developing multiple steampunk projects at the moment, and not all of them set within the world of Pax Britannia, and yet they are all, quite clearly, Steampunk.
Other authors leading the charge include Mark Hodder, Lavie Tidhar, George Mann, Liesel Schwarz and Raven Dane, while more and more publishers are releasing explicitly Steampunk titles, and aren’t afraid to label them as such. What’s old is new and what’s new is old.
The next Big Thing in SFF in these still early days of the 21st century is a reinvention of the 19th century, and long may it remain so!
I write and mostly read fantasy, so I’ll keep to that. First, I see it getting more popular. It’s a good time to write secondary world fantasy. Having Game of Thrones on TV and Hobbits in the movie theaters helps too! I see a continuing upsurge in quality and quantity in adult epic fantasy. People have a lack of control over their lives with the economic collapse, so epic stories in which heroes take control on a regional or even global scale appeal. Fantasy is darker and more serious all the time, more reflective of real life and less romanticized, a trend I don’t see stopping any time soon.
Secondary world fantasy is also a great place to offer sophisticated commentary on social issues, and I think editors and reviewers are coming to expect a message in fantasy. (I know as a short story editor I’d love to see epic fantasy with real world themes!) I don’t see that trend stopping, and I expect politics, especially expressing the divisiveness in US politics, will play even a bigger role in themes. I’m reading a lot of fantasy right now, and my current favorites in no particular order are Brent Weeks for darker themes amid the sheer creative fun of his worlds; Carol Berg for her intelligent, scholarly approach to the conflict between magic (read: spiritual) and mundane, Courtney Schafer for exploring the impact of friendship, hardship, and prejudice on her characters; GRR Martin for revenge, politics, power, and vice; Miles Cameron for redemption through glory; Martha Wells for her explorations of family; Mazarkis Williams for upending my notions of power and weakness; Jeff Salyards for loyalty; SM Stirling for putting today’s people in a medieval world and seeing how they react, Robin Hobb for her unconventional heroes, Jacqueline Carey for pitting sex verses power… I’m sure there are many more I’m forgetting. I usually do!
John R. Fultz
John R. Fultz lives in the North Bay area of California, but is originally from Kentucky. The first two volumes of his Books of the Shaper trilogy, Seven Princes (2012) and Seven Kings (2013), are now available everywhere from Orbit Books. The concluding volume, Seven Sorcerers, will be released this December. John’s short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Black Gate, Space & Time, Lightspeed, and the anthologies Way of the Wizard, Cthulhu’s Reign, Other Worlds Than These, and The Book of Cthulhu II. In a former life he was a wandering storyteller on the lost continent of Atlantis.
I’m going to focus mainly on the fantasy side of the question, since that’s more my domain that sci-fi (although I am a fan of both genres). In the past few years I’ve seen a real resurgence in the Sword and Sorcery fantasy–as well as a fresh swell in the popularity of Epic Fantasy. Of course, the line between these two sub-genres can be very blurry, but there are several reasons I can think of for the upswing in fantasy. The number one reason is probably the uber-talented juggernaut known as George R.R. Martin. Not only has has his Song of Ice and Fire series been steadily gaining fans since the 90s, the adaptation of those novels into the Game of Thrones series on HBO drove Martin’s popularity through the roof. Frankly, we fantasy writers could not ask for a better representative. Martin is a true master of the genre for many reasons; whereas fantasy authors used to live in the shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien, nowadays they work in the shadow of the great Sir Martin.
I’m especially glad to see a lot of newer authors enjoying success, including Howard Andrew Jones with his rave-reviewed Desert of Souls debut, and James Enge’s World Fantasy Award-nominated Blood of Ambrose. Both of these Black Gate alumni favor styles that are more Sword and Sorcery than Epic Fantasy. There are plenty of other new writers following in this tradition, while well-established writers like Steve Erikson and Joe Abercrombie are leading the pack of the “New Sword and Sorcery”. As for my own work, I try to strike a balance right smack-dab between S&S and Epic Fantasy, but I don’t really worry about it consciously when I’m writing.
One of the most important trends in fantasy today is the rise of great female writers–this ain’t just a boy’s club anymore. One of the most impressive “new school” fantasies I’ve read in years was N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which really blew me away with its fantastic imagery, cosmic sorcery, and compelling characters. When I was a kid it was rather rare to discover a woman writing Epic Fantasy, and even more rare in the Sword and Sorcery realm. The great exception to that was the living legend that is Tanith Lee (one of my idols). Nowadays you find as many female fantasy authors as male, each of them bringing their own unique sensibilities to the field. This gender equality is a sure sign of a healthy and vital genre.
If I had to pick one writer who is “leading the way” in terms of vision, style, and elevating the fantasy genre to literary proportions, it would be R. Scott Bakker. His Prince of Nothing series was awe-inspiring, and I can’t wait for the next book in his latest series The Aspect-Emperor. As a philosopher and a deep thinker of the highest order, his gritty epic fantasies are invested with high-order questions about the nature of humanity, reality, and mankind as a whole. His voice is unique and complex and completely absorbing.
Overall, it’s a great time to be writing fantasy. The genre is getting more attention than it has since the 1970s, and there are a lot of different flavors and voices out there for readers to discover. All of this, plus the ongoing The Hobbit movie trilogy, is giving our genre a nice high profile these days. But it’s the good writing that will keep readers coming back for more.
Mea Culpa first: I hardly ever read any sff (last year was exceptional –I read 4) so what authors do I see leading the way? No idea. I throw out the idea that it may not be author led at all. I was prefer it if it wasn’t. I like the idea that it may be an across-the-board response to the way we live in the second decade of the 21st century –which is by any SFnal measure: Da Fuchure.
I enjoyed what I read in the genre(s) though. All great books –2312 shone particularly, as I was taken with the fact that it wasn’t another Tired Old Dystopian Future. That’s one trend I won’t mind seeing dying of radiation sickness and phage out in the wastelands. It’s a bit adolescent. It’s getting tired and its getting lazy and it’s falling into the same Trope-ic Black Hole that Zombies have –the old joke about the comedian who’s material is so familiar all she has to say is ‘Number 7′ and everyone laughs until their spleens rupture. My brothers and sisters, if zombies are still tickling your zones, you need more danger in your lives. I look forward to the end of this age of risk aversion, where, because books are cheap and the only real investment is time, readers would be scared to punt a few pence on something that isn’t marketed as being the same as the last thing you bought because it was the same as the last thing you bought. SFF is the genre of ecstatic strange –the moment of shivery pleasure when you think (and I thank the Kaiser Chiefs, via Paul Cornell) ‘Oh My God, I can’t believe it, I’ve never been this from home before.’
And another thing I appreciated about 2312 –it was plot light. Or perhaps, plot-clever. Now, I know some of you run screaming from this, but to me it was a major strength –I’d be very interested in a SFF that got away from to rely on Plot plots –that plot is, literally, a Plot –a conspiracy, a mystery to be revealed and ‘solved’ (yes, I know there was a conspiracy in 2312, but I get the feeling that KSR was sly about it, deliberately showing the Frankenstein bolts in its neck –the Obvious Plot Mechanism –see how it lumbers! See how artificial it is!) The real story in 2312 (yes, it was my favourite SFF from last year) was a love story, and like the best love stories, it was improbably, impossible, changed the world and changed nothing. I’d be very interested in an SFF that was less generic in its plot structure –thriller format, military format, romance format, policier format –oh, and that’s another trend I’m well tired of as well — the surfeit of coppiness. Everything has to have a crime and a cop or a noir trope in it. Booored now) and explored older, bigger, grander story ideas –the love story (which is quite quite different from romance), the tragedy, the social novel, the family saga, the political novel. It’s a challenge to make these work with the tropes and values of SFF –but surely that’s what it’s about for us as writers? If we’re not constantly challenging ourselves to write better, characterize better, use words better, think better, why are we bothering?
I’m interested in non-conventional narratives. Let films and TV do the conventional Hollywood 3-act narrative. Books can do different things, tell stories in different ways, can delight in unexpected ways, play games that other media cannot. Perhaps more than any other medium. I’d love to see an SFF that was more daring in its structure and approach. One of the novels I enjoyed most in the past couple of years was Christopher Priest’s The Islanders which told its subtle, playful story as a gazetteer of an imaginary world. It’s a book I’ll come back to because it holds so much more in it than a straight beginning-to-end linear narrative. Sometimes, it’s the journey, not the destination. Books are the art form most like a human life. A life isn’t a dash to find out what happens at the end. We all know what that is: the life ends, the book ends. SFF works where the pleasure is in spending time in them, noticing them, savouring moments: that’s a trend I would welcome.
One monumental presence broods over all this waffling like Batman on a Gotham gargoyle, and that’s Paul Kincaid’s boot to the perineum of science fiction The Widening Gyre (http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=904). The exhaustion of science fiction has been debated here (and personally, I’m on the side of the exhausted rather than the ‘I’m okay, I’ll perk up in a moment’. Yes, I’m in the middle of a straight-ahead, purely entertaining SF adventure series for Younger Readers (and for me, that is a challenge), but I have Ideas for my future works for older readers. I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I shall, I hope, continue to plough my lonely furrow far from the jigs and reels of the general hootenanny.
The current trend for identity-informed SFF excites me; even moreso, that non-Anglophone SF is beginning to be seen and read in the West –in no small measure due to the efforts of Lavie Tidhar–here’s a link to online mag Indian SF http://indiansf.wordpress.com/ (though, with Indian Sf writers the Anglophone/non-Anglophone label is problematic –such complexities are to be welcomed). The mark of the true success of a trend or a trope is that it becomes incarnate in the body of the genre. Cyberpunk was painlessly Borged into the body SFnal –I look forward to the time when Standard Western characters, values, orientations, languages become the norm.
But we live in conservative, self-absorbed times. SF is my primary genre, and I’d be interested to see it doing the same thing that Fantasy and Horror have, by –to use a Superhero movie analogy– ditching the spandex and dressing like the rest of us. Urban fantasy dresses the way we do (okay, more tank top and leather), Battlestar Galactica and Dr Who dress like us, Horror works best when it wears Gap. I’ve said that SFF is the literature of alienation, but it needs drip fed. We’re going through a period when we want familiarity –as basis in a world we know, in the mundane. Is there a trend for SF –near-future perhaps, like Charlie Stross’s Halting State and Rule 34– that rigorously explores scientific and technological extrapolation, but without the lycra? (I’m looking at you, Star Fleet uniforms)
And I’ve drip-fed my final point, back there in that paragraph –did you get it? The ‘M’ word. Mundane. Back in 2002, Geoff Ryman with a coterie of Clarionistas drew up a Dogme for a new, –and better– form of SF –The Mundane manifesto– that demanded a radical look again at the tropes and values of the genre, and to what degree ‘science fiction’ actually used ‘science’. A wiki here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mundane_SF. I sense that there’s a trend to the close-future and everyday in science-fiction –in some ways like 80s cyberpunk but with lattes and skinny jeans. Science and technology that affects our lives and our worlds –that comes out of our geeky obsessions and fads. I’m thinking of the likes of Ready Player One, much of Cory Doctorow;s work… I’ve said on twitter that to me, Sheila Heti’s dazzlingly self-absorbed How Should a Person Live is the first great novel of the Attention Economy –it’s not SF, but by God, it feels more science fictional (and alienating in its casual narcissism) that any barrow-load of Space Marine fiction. (oh, sorry, was I naughty there?). Thou has conquered a won, oh pale Mundanes… It only took a decade.
It’s an interesting time to be writing the fantastic –especially SF –that’s where the action is going to be, as the genre seeks to rediscover and reinvent itself. I’m glad an honoured to still be apart of it.
It’s easy — and comforting — to develop a skewed sense of average from that environment. In my rarified Cloud Cuckoo Land, everybody reads genre fiction, plays games online or on a table, owns an iPad or a laptop, makes some kind of art, browses SF Signal and io9, and knows the difference between “SF” and “Sci-Fi.”
And while I love you all, we’re not even close to average. What trend do I see for us? More reading, more watching, more writing, more “unseemly” enthusiasm for big crazy things that aren’t yet true, more arguments arising from that enthusiasm about the orthodoxies of what is or isn’t truly innovative.
Boom. Straight from Nostradamus.
But I do have access to another demographic, a scarier demographic, a kind of field study performed behind a camouflaged duck blind as the wildlings cavort in their natural habitat.
Of course, I’m talking about my work teaching undergraduate creative writing courses in science fiction and horror at a state university.
The three hundred students I’ve taught fall into a pretty standard bell curve: a few geniuses and a few idiots and a whole lot of average people who will one day be selling you insurance or taking your blood pressure. Most of them are nineteen or twenty years old. Most of them are white, though for some odd reason there is always exactly one African American male, one African American female, one Asian male, and one Filipina studying to be a nurse in every class. It’s really eerie, actually, like it’s the law.
They’re a whole different kind of average — still not wholly representative of society but a bit closer than you and me. They’re drawn to genre writing classes with only a vague interest in the subject, mostly because they want to make things up more than look things up. I’m okay with that.
What’s THEIR average?
- Fiction in almost any media prior to the late 20th century is all but impenetrable to them — at least, not worth the effort. They take it for granted that if it’s worth watching, someone will make a new version for them. Fewer than a third have read anything by Stephen King. Fewer than half have seen the original Star Wars trilogy.
- They have zero patience for anything in a story that doesn’t actively TELL or SHOW the story. They read dialogue and the first and last sentences of paragraphs.
- They tend to enjoy young adult literature because the stories have complex and personal plots told in a simplified and conversational style with a good sense of voice.
- They don’t really know or care the difference between “science fiction,” “fantasy,” and “horror”; they want to see things happen that don’t happen in the real world. The closest name for what they think of is probably “speculative” fiction.
- They essentially fall into two camps: the literalists (“That couldn’t happen like that”) and the figurativists (“It’s that way for the story”).
- To most of them, “genre” is the means by which they GET the story, either books or moving images or video games. They don’t seem to care much about TV versus movies because it all comes on the same screen most of the time.
Probably the most interesting thing I’ve seen is that while you or I may have been heavily catered to by a commodity-driven entertainment machine over the last few decades, they expect to be personally SERVED by that machine. They think they’re the drivers of it, that their opinions shape what gets made instead of the other way around. They’re probably right.
I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m yelling at kids to get off my lawn. I mean, let’s face it: none of these characteristics are that different from any generation. This one just seems a bit less abashed in expressing it and the technology has made stories easier to aim at the readers who want them.
What does this mean for us as writers? I think it means that self-expressive writers hoping for accidental connections with their “kind” of readers are going to be at an even greater disadvantage than they are now. I think that writers who tune their work for an audience will be at an even greater advantage because that’s what readers expect in an increasingly consumer-driven, focus-grouped, trend-conscious artistic economy.
That’s not a revolutionary opinion. It may not even be right. But there’s really no question that the younger readers I’ve encountered in class expect a level of influence on what they read that many writers aren’t ready to yield.
Whether that’s good or bad, I leave to all of you.
The limited space available in bookstores causes feedback loops that favor big trends. If a genre like paranormal teen romance suddenly rises to the top, stores order more of these books, leading publishers to produce more of these books, leading readers to buy even more of them, leading the stores to order more, and so on. Less popular genres and difficult to categorize books lose their space in stores, and are mostly invisible to consumers.
But ebooks change the whole dynamic. There’s suddenly an infinite amount of shelf space and reduced production costs compared to the cost of printing, warehousing, and shipping physical books. The economies of scale become less important. If a paperback sold twenty copies a month, it wouldn’t be earning enough to justify continued existence. But, as an ebook, those twenty copies a month over time can add up to a decent sum, thanks to the long tail. I’ve released nearly all of my back catalogue as ebooks and, while they aren’t making me wealthy, most months I earn enough to pay my mortgage, all from books that you’re unlikely to find currently sitting on a shelf at Barnes and Noble. The success of my back catalog led me to try publishing an original novel. It was by no means a bestseller, but after a year of sales I’d earned about as much as I did for my first novel advance.
What’s significant about that novel for me is that it was one that a traditional publisher would have had very little interest in. Burn Baby Burn is a sequel to my superhero novel Nobody Gets the Girl. Nobody was a pretty big flop in print, so even though I had the sequel in mind for a long time, I never bothered to write it, because I thought that no publisher would want the follow up to a book that had lost its original publisher money. But, it was a story I wanted to tell, so once the option of self-publishing it as an ebook became available, I cranked out the entire novel in a single feverish week. A few months later, I had the book online. I got my first royalties paid for the book two months after that. By the following month, I’d earned enough to cover the editing service I’d paid for to help ensure it would be a quality product. Only a few times has the book sold more than a hundred copies a month, but, for a few weeks labor, it’s definitely paid off.
I’m still writing books that I intend to market to traditional publishers to find a home in what bookstores might still be around five years from now. But, each year, I also plan to write at least one book that doesn’t have a ready made slot in a bookstore. The world of ebooks is a like a new continent opening up. The first creatures across the land bridge are the big dinosaurs, who continue to be the biggest thing on the landscape. But, the new world is full of ecological niches where smaller creatures can adapt to make a good living. My superhero novels didn’t really have a good place in bookstores, but this subgenre is doing swell on Amazon, and already spinning off into microgenres, like steampunk superheroes and superhero erotica. A lot of this stuff is indistinguishable in quality from fan fiction… but there are people who want to pay money to read it. There may be only a few thousand fans of a given microgenre, but with the high royalty rate available through ebooks, a few thousand fans can provide a revenue stream worth chasing.
I think we may be seeing a new golden age of pulp fiction. Writers who can produce a lot of books quickly are going to be able to satisfy the cravings of the most voracious readers. In the pulp magazine era, writers often cranked out a novel or two each month to feed the demand for material. I think we’ll see a similar model emerge soon, with a few big name authors able to survive on bestselling novels that still go into print, while the vast majority of authors make a decent living by finding small, dedicated fan bases that buy their work as quickly as they can produce it.
What I see coming is the New Wave of Literary Darkness (NWoLD.) It’s the convergence of horror and the other genres, but in a different way than has been the norm, to this point. People want to see the darkness, to be scared, to be unsure, but the economy and the world’s daily unpleasantness has begun to wear on people, I believe. The old extremes of gore and guts and villainous heroes are too much to maintain in an atmosphere filled with it.
I imagine people want to see a more subtle, a more vague approach to the stories they read. They want to see the beauty in the darkness not the brutality. They want poetic prose and finely honed characters they can understand and relate to. And while the last bit isn’t anything new, I think the desire will push authors to step up their characterization, force them to create characters whose impacts are longer lasting than the norm, the everyday underdog out of their league.
Not much of a reader of science fiction, I plead some measure of ignorance when I say fantasy writers will lead the way to the NWoLD. Much of the Night Shade and Angry Robot authors are heading that way, writing powerful stories that don’t drag on into million page books. The writing is crisp and sharp, characters standing head and shoulders above the story lines and tropes of the genre. The darkness is there, but there’s also hope, and that’s what I think people will gravitate to next.
This is a difficult question. Conjecture at its best. The authors leading the way for me though are Peter V. Brett, Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Jacqueline Carey, Naomi Novik, Mark Lawrence, Steven Erikson, China Mieville, Richard Kadrey, Neil Gaiman — the list goes on and on. They are writing very different kinds of stories from the safe Tolkien-esque authors they grew up reading. They are creating characters who are more real, for lack of a better word. I know my protagonist in The Dark Thorn is a broken man due to life’s very real vicissitudes. While we as readers once gravitated toward the innocence of the orphan farm boy on his hero’s journey during our own innocence, the trend right now is to read fantasy that matches our adulthood and the darker world we now live in — with all of the sex, hard choices, conflicted relationships, and cursing that comes with it. It doesn’t matter what sub-genre it is in (urban, epic, high, etc.). I think that trend will continue with the before mentioned writers. Will there be a “big thing” from any of them? Can’t tell. I sure hope so! I know Rothfuss is on his way to finishing a story I would term a “big thing,” but we need more of them.
If I were to hazard a guess though, the next big thing might not come from new writers. I am biased when it comes to Terry Brooks — being his webmaster — but he has two projects in Hollywood that have big names attached and things are beginning to steamroll. If one or both of them are green lit into production, look out. George R. R. Martin only had five books to sit atop the New York Times bestselling lists. Imagine 20 Shannara novels up there?! That’d be a “Big Thing” in SFF for sure! And Terry is not the only one. If Peter Jackson produces and directs Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, the next “Big Thing” could easily be an explosion of fantasy set in the Victorian era and/or a return of dragon-centric fantasy, kicking sparkly vampires to the side for a bit! Smaug could be just a test to bring Temeraire to the screen. How cool would that be? I know one thing though: it will be interesting to see how all of this plays out!
The next big thing in sff will likely be me. Just kidding. Maybe. In all seriousness, it’s a great time to be a writer, and I hope authors take more chances; turning genres upside down, developing characters in new and exciting ways, and really letting their minds explore. China Mieville (Railsea) has always been my ‘go to’ author when I want to read something really “out there.”
I see a lot of heavy saturation in some genres, zombies and demon-hunters, for example. Some well-established authors like Caitlin R Kiernan (one of my all-time contemporary favorites) will take advantage of the growing audiences with offerings like Blood Oranges.
Another trend will be more self-pub authors getting traditional publishing contracts based on their proven work, with authors like David Dalglish—and his recent deal with Orbit—leading the way. This is a good thing as it shows traditional publishing houses shifting their thinking and taking chances on authors they might not have five or ten years ago. It is good for publishing houses too, because the authors they engage have built-in followings and have shown they can produce.
The question used to be, “Why?” Now the question is, “Why not?”
Tagged with: Betsy Dornbusch • Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam • Charles E. Gannon • Ian McDonald • james maxey • John R. Fultz • Jonathan Green • Kenny Soward • Miles Cameron • Mind Meld • Peter Rawlik • Shawn Speakman • Tim Marquitz • Will Ludwigsen
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