As readers, we sometimes find ourselves drawn to a particular sub-genre of the fantastic again and again. For example, some readers may favor portal-quest fantasies, others are drawn into time travel adventures, and still others crave dark or Gothic elements in their fantastical tales.
This week we asked our esteemed panelists…
My favorite sub-genre goes by many names. It’s been called literary fantasy, slipstream, interstitial, the weird. Its relationship to genre fiction resembles the relationship of the traveler and the familiar in Jeff VanderMeer’s story “Three Days in a Border Town.” The familiar is attached to the traveler by an umbilical cord that connects with the back of the traveler’s head. As the traveler walks, the familiar flutters above on crippled wings. Their thoughts are intertwined and yet distinct. A suggestion of deeper mystery haunts this symbiosis. Together, they are traveling to the City.
My favorite sub-genre is ghostly. It’s the circular ripples of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, the embedded narrative, the return of the repressed. It’s the sly disorientation of a Kelly Link story, like “The Specialist’s Hat,” in which we learn the difference between “grey” and “gray.” There are a lot of twins in my favorite sub-genre; there’s also lots of language play. This sub-genre is trying to recover or invent a strange twin of the language we know. The secret language has power. Like the yellow light of the city in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, it makes you nostalgic for a place that never was.
My favorite sub-genre is symbolic, but nobody knows of what. It’s formally experimental, but without a clear purpose. It gleams in the marvelous and deadly mineral called “blue spire” that fuels the engines of Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City and transforms those who mine it into radiant statues. Its relationship to contemporary times is the relationship of crowd-sourcing to Carmen Maria Machado’s story “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead.” Its relationship to your personal life is the relationship of Jamaica Kincaid’s story “My Mother” to autobiography. In “My Mother,” the narrator and her mother are huge and small, frail and invincible, upright and crawling, tender and full of teeth. It’s hard to tell whether this sub-genre runs parallel to your life or perpendicular; I guess I would say it runs at a slant. It takes Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” literally. It takes everything literally: metaphors, proverbs, dreams. This is what gives it the power to return language–temporarily–to itself. My favorite sub-genre is both over-named and nameless, but it still believes in the power of names.
My favorite sub-genres in speculative fiction are subject to change, but the ones I drift back to often are space opera (extended interpretation), cyberpunk (and beyond), and slipstream / weird.
Space opera and its cousins (space western, near-Earth, etc.) resonate because of the scope and scale – the press of space against generations of family, corporate, and interplanetary politics. My interpretation is pretty broad: everything from Greg Egan’s transhumanist, hard SF Diaspora and Anne Leckie’s Radch series to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Aliette de Boddard’s Xuya short story series, Ian Mcdonald’s Luna series, Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep and Children of the Sky, Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s Boojumverse (short stories), and Ian Banks’ Culture series. I am giddy with expectations for Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit for this very reason.
Cyber and cyberpunk (again, broadly interpreted) speak to me because of the interaction of people with technology and technological evolution, and the intersection of culture, commerce, tech, and community. William Gibson’s Burning Chrome short story collection (with “Winter Market” being one of my favorites), Neuromancer, and The Peripheral, Pat Cadigan’s Synners, and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicron were all early entry points into this subgenre, but I also shelve Ramez Naam’s more recent Nexus series here, and Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty. And Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema. Plus Candas Jane Dorsey’s 1988 short story “(Learning About) Machine Sex” and even Vandanna Singh’s 2015 “Ambiguity Machines” as well.
Slipstream & weird are harder to pin down because for me, the sub-genre ranges from Borges, China Miéville (the Bas Lag universe, Looking for Jake, even Embassytown, though that can arguably go in space opera too), and Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities especially) to N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season), Max Gladstone’s Craft series, to the short stories of Carmen Machado and Sam Miller, A.C. Wise and Alyssa Wong. Elizabeth Bear’s Shoggoths In Bloom is a favorite here too. Transformation, that feeling of being caught between many places and worlds, and the sense that things are much stranger than we can perceive are part of why I love it. So, too, the re-envisioning of society and language cast within the act of storytelling.
Man, I love time travel.
Bring me your Back to the Futures, your Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Times, your Time Traveler’s Wifes. I want them all yesterday.
Some people haaaaaaaaaate time travel, largely because a time travel story is almost guaranteed to make no sense because of paradoxes and continuity errors. And I get that, though that’s maybe why I’m so drawn to it—time travel upends one of the most fundamental, ingrained truths of our existence: we live linearly, moving only forward through time, leaving the past to be eaten by the Langoliers. Unchained from the tyranny of a linear existence, a time travel story can explore all the delicious what-ifs in thought experiments like “What if you took a Connecticut Yankee and put him in King Arthur’s court?” and “What if you are the future savior of mankind and they sent a cyborg back in time to protect you?” Which, let’s face it, is the stuff we all think about on a daily basis.
But seriously, who hasn’t ever thought, “If I could only go back and do this differently…”? Or “If I could only go back and kill Hitler”? We wonder about the future as well: how will we die? What will the world be like in a hundred years? Being stuck in time begins to seem like captivity when you compare yourself to Billy Pilgrim. Time travel gives you immense freedom, not to mention the entire timeline to play with.
Did I say timeline? I meant timelines. Because one way to handle time travel is to have divergent timelines, whole realities where Things Went a Different Way. In some conceptions of time travel, the very act of time traveling inherently demands a new timeline for you to travel to, so, uh, have fun figuring out what the hell happens in Primer. You could maybe have one singular timeline that is held together by the power of time travel. One of my favorite college memories is discussing with my roommate into the wee hours of the night whether the timeline of 12 Monkeys worked. There was a whiteboard involved. But the idea of multiple timelines is close to another of my favorite sub-genres: alternate realities/dimensions. In the Redverse, that’s what I wrote about instead of time travel.
Man, I love time travel.
Bring me your—wait a second, didn’t we already do this? Oh right, another kind of time travel story is the time loop, where a character constantly relives the same period of time, looking for romance or a way to stop the alien invasion. This feeds into the fantasy of the do-over, the ability to redo a day until you get it right. Plus, you get to be the only variable in an otherwise predictable world! How cool is that?
Time travel is just plain fun, okay. As final proof, I offer the Future Girl episode “Live/Shower/Repeat,” in which a time traveling grad student and an ordinary girl continually time travel to beat each other to the shower. Also there’s a Viking.
The earliest fantasies I loved were what I would describe as “books with magic in them.” All of these took place in our world, although usually in England, which to a girl in Queens sounded like a fairy tale world in itself. It was The Hobbit that introduced me to what we now call secondary world fantasy—and what I recall now was the wonderful weirdness of it. (Now that it’s a vanilla Hollywood blockbuster universe, spawning hundreds of imitations, it’s hard to believe that Middle Earth used to be weird—but it was!) And of course, Tolkien was the gateway to a rich and addictive sub-genre of fantasy.
I was a teenager in Jerusalem when I discovered what are now classics of the secondary world genre. I think part of why these books resonated so deeply is that they are saturated with meaning in a way few other stories can be. Eddings’s Belgariad is mostly a light comedy, yet there is something transcendent about his handling of magic, a hint of something large and deep at the edge of our experience. I think that is what drew me time and again to big, sweeping epics of secondary world fantasy—that aspect of transcendence.
When your tiny city is a battleground, when literally any moment might be your last—as you’re buying groceries, or eating ice cream, or of course taking the bus—death is not abstract. It is real and it is always with you. As a life-ravenous teenager I wanted to extract meaning from every experience, every book, and I wanted to write something that mattered, too. This then is probably how I became immersed in a sub-genre of fantasy in which conflicts possess world-breaking consequences, are a battleground of the soul. It was an attempt to transcend the meaningless ugliness of death by suicide bombings; a means of reaching higher.
As a magazine editor, I’m a little wary of answering this question for the fear of seeing too many hastily written sub-genre stories in the submissions queue next month. So I’ll preface my answer by saying that my favorite sub-genre of all is excellently written stories in any genre that explore the writer’s weird obsessions in a layered and emotionally resonant way. (Send me more of those.)
With that caveat in place, in short fiction I have a strong affection for well-done alien or other non-humanoid, non-anthropomorphized POV stories. They work like the contrast dye in medical imaging, revealing human behaviors and hidden assumptions that we normally wouldn’t see. The classic story in this sub-genre is “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” by James Tiptree, Jr. It won the Nebula Award in 1973 and if you haven’t read it before, I’ll wait here while you go find it and read it right now. A less well known, and more optimistic, treatment of a similar theme that I like is “Ovigonopods of Love” by Joe Murphy, which appeared in Strange Horizons in 2001. That’s the story that made see this as a sub-genre.
I’ve published a couple stories in this vein since becoming editor at F&SF. Brian Dolton’s excellent “This is the Way the Universe Ends: With A Bang” was in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF, and is being reprinted in David Afsharirad’s The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF 2015. Sarina Dorie has also started a series of Alien POV stories for F&SF, beginning with “The Day of the Nuptial Flight” in the July/August 2014 issue that I guest edited. Her second entry is “A Mother’s Arms” in our current March/April issue. (It’s the story in this month’s F&SF free Kindle download on Amazon, so I can pause while you go read that one too.) Dorie’s stories show human exoplanet colonization from the POV of non-humanoid aliens on the colonized planets. Like all alien POV stories, it’s a completely different, and more revealing, perspective than the same events would be narrated from a human point-of-view.
In a way, this is the ultimate extension of one of my favorite aspects of all speculative fiction, which is that, even more than other genres, by constantly conditioning us to explore our underlying assumptions about a particular world, it can help us step outside our class, race, gender, and personal backgrounds to see things from other perspectives. Reading fiction is an act of empathy. The world needs more of that.