Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘science fiction’

BEA 2012 (Day 1): The Relationship of Speculative Fiction to Mainstream


NOTE: This is a brief write-up of Tuesday, June 5th, the first full day of BEA. You can find my write-up of the pre-BEA Book Bloggers Conference here, and I’ll do a write-up of the second day (Wednesday) tomorrow.

Overall Impressions of BEA 2012 and its Relationship to Speculative Fiction

Last year, speculative fiction was omnipresent at BEA, though subsumed by other genres (see my write-up here). This year, I got the impression that outside of YA, that trend has slowed. Yet that is not all bad: YA strikes me as the most vibrant category here at BEA, and it seems like half of the YA titles at BEA are speculative to some degree (take that, folks who claim YA has no SF!). But outside of YA, adult fiction publishers seem to be focusing on more mainstream titles.

Even the large houses (almost all of which have SF/F imprints) seem to be soft-selling their speculative lines at BEA year, with fewer signings and fewer galley giveaways than I’ve seen in the past. Of course, there are plenty of genre publisher parties and the like, but the official / formal presence at the expo is muted. I’m sure there are many solid economic reasons for this, and I’m also sure that it was carefully discussed and considered by the various publishers. Since I’m not privy to those discussions, I’m curious as to what they might be, and why adult speculative fiction is becoming increasingly sidelined at BEA.

The Tor Panel: Was It Preaching to the Choir?

The highlight of Tuesday’s speculative fiction programming, at least for me, was the panel of Tor authors who spoke to genre’s crossing into the mainstream. The panel featured Walter Mosley, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and John Scalzi and was moderated by Ryan Britt (of Tor.com). The discussion was definitely interesting, and as erudite and thoughtful as anything we could have heard from mainstream authors.

One statement from early in the panel struck me as particularly interesting: Walter Mosely said that “For a hundred and fifty years [weird] fiction has been preparing us for the world [we live in],” which the panelists suggested is why speculative fiction is and will remain relevant for readers and our culture. I cannot agree more.

Yet despite the panelist’s erudition and intelligence, I walked away with a worrying impression: looking around the audience, I saw many faces I recognized from the SF/F community. That’s not a bad thing, of course, since I love that community. But were the panelists preaching to the choir? I fear that in some ways, much of the rhetoric about speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream fiction is isolated within the confines of the genre. Are we just marinating in our own sauces? Or are we in fact engaging and educating booksellers, librarians, and consumers outside of our existing fanbase?

As I walk the aisles of BEA, the relative invisibility of speculative fiction makes me worry that we have been isolated in our ghetto for so long that we have become acclimated to its confines. Our narrative devices have escaped to live free and exciting lives across all genres. But as a component of the broader publishing industry, perhaps the creators, editors, salespeople, and booksellers who created and popularized those narrative devices in the first place should break out themselves.

Audiences love speculative fiction, which means booksellers and librarians should, too. Speculative fiction is all about powerful stories, and the genre itself has one. So why do we tell it so quietly?

Accessibility: Speculative Fiction’s Pernicious Strawman


NOTE: My thinking here is a bit of a tangential response to some of John H. Stevens’ recent Erudite Ogre columns over at SF Signal. I strongly recommend those columns as an insightful exploration of genre and genre identity. Here’s a link.

Once we create a work of art, the next step is to get that work into the hands of the largest (hopefully appreciative) audience we can. That’s a natural and universal desire, and it is this desire that lies at the root of the ever-present question faced and posed by speculative fiction writers: how can we get more people to read speculative fiction? But a real, substantive answer to that generalized question is a lot more complicated than the question itself. Which is why, more often than not, we re-formulate that question into the more tractable: why don’t more people read speculative fiction?

That question tends to elicit a Pavlovian response among fans and creators alike: SF needs to be more accessible. Characters over idea. Et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, the question and its stock answers suffer from three related problems: first, they observe non-existent symptoms (audience disinterest in speculative fiction), and then misdiagnose the causes of their incorrect observations (accessibility), and prescribe the wrong medicine for the wrong illness (making SF more accessible).

Hypochondria in the Speculative Genre

The rumors of speculative fiction’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Those who claim that interest in speculative fiction is flagging must be living on a different planet. Consider:

  • Box Office Results. This past weekend, six of the top ten grossing movies were explicitly science fiction, fantasy, or horror. According to Rotten Tomatoes, their combined weekend gross was over $120 million, which represented 83% of the top ten combined weekend gross. If speculative fiction no longer resonated with audiences, would they flock to see alien invasions, science-based super heroes battling it out over New York, or vampires?
  • Adoption of SF Devices across Genres. Genre fans like to grumble that mainstream literary fiction is “stealing” genre devices (the fact that all literature steals from other literature tends to go conveniently unmentioned). But why would mainstream literary novels – neither marketed at genre cons or with genre markers on the cover – adopt the devices of a “failing” genre? It would be rather counterproductive. And the fact is that they aren’t. In fact, they are adopting new (for their genre) narrative devices that resonate with readers.
  • Young Adult Speculative Fiction is Going Gangbusters. The younger generation is devouring speculative fiction. But these younger readers don’t distinguish between science fiction, fantasy, and horror and older readers don’t notice what’s happening in YA (see my earlier rant on this score).

If speculative fiction were dying, then none of these three observable phenomena would hold true. What these trends do mean, however, is that a genre that spent most of its life cloistered in its own “genre ghetto” is now interfacing with a broader community – with new readers and new viewers, who are not as versed with genre history, or who are ostensibly not as focused on the issues that our community holds to (the future! big ideas!).

It is not that this new audience rejects speculative fiction: they simply value different aspects of it, and thus prefer certain types and flavors of SF. That’s evolving taste, and it is nothing new. Every genre – speculative fiction included – is at all times subject to the evolution of taste.

The Misdiagnosed Illness: Accessibility

Those who lament the death of speculative fiction look for a quick fix. That’s only natural, and I certainly understand the impulse. But much of the community tends to see both the illness and the solution in one place: accessibility.

Speculative fiction has spent so long in its ghetto that it has developed a natural superiority complex to “other” genres. This psychology has even filtered into our genre’s discourse: ours is the genre of ideas, ours is “high concept”, we build worlds, etc. That all of these statements are true, however, only makes it easier for us to (by implication) look down on works that lack SF elements. And “accessibility” is more of the same.

The concept of “accessibility” is vast, and it does contain many facets. But the least complicated, most easily-grasped dimension is that accessibility equals simplicity. When many of us say that SF needs to be “more accessible” what we are really saying is that it needs to be “less challenging” or “simpler”. You know, so that mainstream folks “can get it”. Fewer neologisms, less science, more unobtanium, etc. This is a solution that lets us retain our superiority: after all, we are the cognoscenti who grok the rarefied heights of speculative fiction. But to be more popular, we have to dumb it down for everyone else.

This type of thinking is wrong-headed. The fact is that “everyone else” groks SF just as much as we do. That’s why consumers lap it up in film, books, comics, television, etc. Time travel, alternate reality, dystopia, space travel, magic…these are no longer outré narrative devices: they have entered our social consciousness, have been absorbed and internalized by popular culture.

Terms like “accessibility” are dangerous because they make it too easy to prescribe simplistic and inaccurate solutions. For too many, they mischaracterize the symptoms, misdiagnose the illness, and prescribe the wrong treatment.

Engage-ability vs Accessibility

The dimension of accessibility that, I think, makes more sense and is more helpful (and more accurate) is not the degree to which a work of fiction is “accessible” or not. Instead, it is the degree to which its audience can engage with it.

Some might say they are the same, but that’s incorrect. Accessibility is a negative concept: it implies that someone “can’t get in.” But engagability (and yeah, I know that isn’t really a word…but it should be!) is a positive concept, and it is a lot more difficult to both define and achieve. To make a work more accessible is simple: just make it easier to follow, easier to understand. But how to make a work more engaging? How do we make a work of art more compelling for our audience? That is the question that keeps artists up at night, always has and always will.

Engagement with a work of fiction is driven by a host of factors, and the balance between those factors among different readers will vary significantly. That’s why it is so complicated. Some of us might value plausibility over excitement, or characterization over world-building. And even these are false dichotomies: the reality is a spectrum spanning all aspects of narrative.

Alas, I don’t have a prescription. I wish I knew how to make stories more engaging. I have my theories, but they work for me as a reader and me as a creator and might not work for either other readers or other creators.

If we write the stories we care about – stories that engage us intellectually, emotionally (whatever pushes our personal buttons) – then odds are those stories can find a like-minded audience. Getting the word out, informing that audience of these stories’ existence, is an entirely different challenge, and one in which the artist is only one actor among many (publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers, and yes, readers, all play a role). If we focus on the quality of the work, on making it as compelling and as engaging as possible, then by doing so we maximize the likelihood that it will develop a devoted audience. And an entirely separate discussion should be had around the marketing and promotional methods that can help maximize that audience’s size.

As creators of speculative fiction, we should rejoice that our potential audience – that segment of the population who can grok the devices we employ – is now so large, and growing every day. We should credit them with the intelligence to recognize compelling art when they see it. After all, we don’t like it when mainstream literary snobs condescend to us. Should we really return the favor?

REVIEW: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod


Title: The Night Sessions
Author: Ken MacLeod
Pub Date: April 3rd, 2012 (US reprint)
August 7th, 2008 (UK original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A near-future SF thriller with painstakingly-explained world-building that slows the pace significantly in its first half.

Science fictional world building is a double-handed balancing act. On the one hand, it teeters between the communication of relevant facts to the reader and the maintenance of the narrative’s forward momentum. On the other hand, it wobbles between the implausibility of the conceit and the effort the reader must make to accept it. When either of these two balancing acts tilts in any direction, it threatens to upend the other. And in Ken MacLeod’s hard SF thriller The Night Sessions, the string that ties them together is the year 2037, when the book is set.

The Night Sessions is a near-future police thriller: it has a crime (the murder of a Roman Catholic priest), and it stars an engaging though forgettable crime solver (DI Adam Ferguson), who uncovers a complicated conspiracy with extremely high stakes. What sets MacLeod’s thriller apart from the usual fare is its near-future science fictional world. The book is set in 2037, in a society that has managed to erect a pair of space elevators, developed ubiquitous self-aware robotics, and whose recent religious wars have led to the global primacy of political and cultural secularism/atheism.

It is an ambitious work that tries to marry the thriller’s frenetic pace with classic hard SF themes of robotic faith. And in this case, I found the marriage a bit rocky. Structurally, police thrillers count on their high-stakes action and non-stop pacing to keep the reader flipping pages. We get so wrapped up in the events of the story that we don’t have time to consider its plausibility, or to really examine the hero’s leaps in logic. Thrillers rely on the speed of the narrative train to keep us from counting its rivets. But in the case of The Night Sessions, MacLeod’s pacing gets swamped by world-building.

The book features a fascinating vision of a future Edinburgh (and to a lesser extent, a future New Zealand). The settings, and the characters’ interactions with them, make for a great extrapolation of contemporary technology trends (MacLeod’s conjectures about augmented reality and self-aware AI are particularly well-rendered). The sociological concept of people willingly abandoning religion, of faith becoming an embarrassing family secret, is the type of high-concept theme that brings to mind classics like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, or Anthony Boucher’s “The Quest for St Aquin”. It was the idea of exploring how such a society came about and what life in such a society might be like which first drew me to the book. Yet because the story is set in 2037 (which isn’t that far off), MacLeod bent over backwards to establish how our world gets from where we are today to where his fictional environment becomes possible, and in doing so slowed the book’s pace significantly.

World-building is a particular challenge for near-future SF. When we write a story set one, two, or even twenty years from now, we always run the risk that life will outpace fiction. Far-future SF, or SF that is utterly removed from our contemporary environment, ducks this problem by asking us to accept the fictional environment as-is. Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space stories, or Frank Herbert’s original Dune are great examples of this at work: the scientific, sociological, and cultural conceits that are needed to make the story possible are easily accepted because the setting is fundamentally divorced from our reality. In one sense, they are secondary world fantasies, however plausible the science in their construction. Yet when a story is set in the near-future and on our planet no less, it automatically asks the reader to consider how our world gets to become the fictional one.

It is a challenge that some authors, notably Ian McDonald (especially in The Dervish House, see my earlier review), Paulo Bacigalupi, William Gibson, or Cory Doctorow (particularly in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) do very well. The trick, it seems to me, rests in avoiding history lessons. For example, in The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi wastes very little time on a high-level, abstract discussion of the ecological disaster that makes his fictional world possible. Instead, we see the near-future environment that his ecological disaster wrought filtered through the prism of his characters’ experiences. His characters know their world, live in their world, and we learn its dimensions and history through their perceptions of it. This technique is one which the New Wave’s sociological SF popularized in the ’70s, and which was further honed by the cyberpunk movement in the ’80s and ’90s. When done well, it takes a book’s themes and artfully expresses them through the story’s unfolding action, wasting no time (read: word count) on explanation when implication will suffice.

MacLeod, unfortunately, chose a different route. He painstakingly explains to us the history of his world’s Faith Wars (which he tells us began on September 11, 2011, and which were economically tied up with oil), and how they led to a (apparently global) rejection of religion, how global society grew disgusted the atrocities of war, and by society’s subsequent rejection of the faiths that spawned it. The book’s first half is essentially devoted to explaining this history and to establishing the characters’ relationships to it. This is a significant departure from a thriller or police procedural structure, and it is one which does the story no favors. Because so much of the book’s first half was explanatory, I found myself spending too much time questioning its conceits.

Even if I accept global disillusionment with faith, thirty years is an awfully short period of time for people to forget basic components of major global religions. MacLeod expects us to believe that his hero, who was raised in a society where religion was present, who served on the police force’s “God Squads” in persecuting religious citizens, has forgotten basic terminology associated with Christianity. I have difficulty believing that cultural concepts like the privacy of the confessional would be forgotten so quickly.

Furthermore, the book focuses exclusively on the Judeo-Christian faiths, with some off-hand references to Islam. This is somewhat understandable considering that the book is primarily set in Edinborough, with its strong Presbyterian and Calvinist traditions. But with MacLeod’s painstaking explanation of his world’s history, the lack of reference to Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of the other non-Catholic/Protestant denominations of Christianity (Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example) was striking. I suppose that it is possible that I missed a glancing reference somewhere, but as far as I noticed, there was precious little discussion of any religion outside of the Christian worldview. Where were the world’s other major religions during the Faith Wars? Where are they in MacLeod’s 2037?

Second, thirty years is an incredibly short period of time for a war-ravaged society to develop self-aware artificial intelligences and deploy them ubiquitously throughout society. The technological concept is interesting, the way that the robots operate within MacLeod’s fictional society is insightful, and the thematic exploration of AI and faith is reasonably well-executed. But frankly, I thought it unlikely that in twenty-five short years we might be at that point…especially if – as MacLeod makes clear – the United States was ravaged by a second civil war after the Faith Wars. I might be willing to offer a pass on the advanced technology: the Faith Wars would likely have spawned a lot of frenetic technological development, and MacLeod makes clear that the AIs were initially military technology. But for such technology to get broad distribution throughout society (rich and poor alike) in so short a time period also struck me as somewhat implausible.

However, these issues really only affected the book’s first half. By the second half, the world-building is mostly out of the way and allows us to buckle up for an exciting thriller. Though there is a bit of deus ex machina in places, and the unmarked perspective shifts were a bit jarring, the second half is paced well enough to be fun and intellectually engaging. While the doubts I experienced about MacLeod’s world-building continued to flutter in the back of my mind, I was able to get past them to enjoy the overall story.

The themes of faith, ecology, economics, justice, and identity that MacLeod explores were all interesting, but I felt that they all got fairly short shrift. With so many interesting concepts raising so many compelling questions, the relatively short novel was spread too thin to adequately explore all of them. Thankfully, novel’s the central question of machine faith gets just enough attention to ultimately be satisfying.

To be clear, despite its weaknesses Night Sessions is an enjoyable book, and it is ambitious. But it is not without its problems. It would have benefited greatly, I felt, from more rigorous attention to the methods of world-building, and to their relationship with the book’s pacing.

Fans of hard science fiction who are looking for an intellectual, mind-game playing book will likely enjoy Night Sessions, though they may find some of its conjecture irregular and implausible. Readers looking for a science fictional thriller will likely be disappointed by the book’s slow-paced first half, but may find that the conclusion makes up for the first half’s weakness. But readers who enjoy near future SF, and in particular those who are willing to deal with the challenges endemic to that sub-genre in exchange for stimulating extrapolation of current technological/economic trends, will find a lot to enjoy in Night Sessions.

Explorations of Religion in Science Fiction…but what about Fantasy?


In the real world, organized religion is messy. It has inspired wars and peace treaties, marriages and shunnings, art and book burnings. It is incredibly varied, both between areas where different organized religions predominate and within each area as well. There is no aspect of human history – anywhere on the planet – where organized religion has not influenced and been influenced. It is only natural that our species’ fascination with the divine and its concomitant expression in the organized structures of society would figure prominently in our fiction. And when we look at speculative fiction, some of the greatest works explicitly deal with it (A Case of Conscience, The Sparrow, A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc.) and yet I find that they are almost always science fictional, as opposed to fantasy. Which leads me to wonder why?

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford and David Langford point out that science fiction’s roots lie in sixteenth and seventeenth century organized religion. And while fewer SF titles today deal explicitly with religion, it remains a theme that we return to time and time again. Here’s a brief overview of the ways in which science fiction explores religion:

Faith versus Reason One of religion’s functions is to provide an explanation for the reality we live in, and when scientific discovery expands the boundaries of that reality, organized religions have to either incorporate it into their faith or reject it. Naturally, science fiction – which pushes the boundaries of science – can mine this vein for rich conflict.

Syncretic Science Fiction By couching the descriptions and events of a story in scientific terms, some authors are able to construct a metaphor which achieves a syncretic unity between religion/faith and science.

Time Traveler vs Facts of Faith By taking certain articles of faith at face value, science fiction authors can explore the events and implications of the underlying tenets of (a usually Christian) faith.

Religion as Sociological Construct The role that religion – and in particular, organized religion – plays within society is another dimension that science fiction often explores.

The Identity of God An exploration of the borders between humanity and God, as well as an exploration of the more metaphysical/spiritual aspects of faith.

But is a similar table even possible for fantasy? I wracked my brain to come up with one, and simply couldn’t do it. Instead, when I trolled through my library looking for interesting secondary-world fantasies that explore religion, I almost always found:

  • A thinly-disguised version of the late medieval or early Renaissance Catholic Church.
  • A Corrupt Church riven by internal power struggles more tied to politics than faith.
  • A Church which usually bans the practice of magic, and hunts and kills magic practitioners.
  • A Church which dominates militarily and sociologically its sphere of influence…with relatively little diversity in its practitioners or its practice.
  • A Church which is opposed by some (usually implicitly pagan or animistic) external (read: savage) religion.

In the cases of some books, Christian religious scripture is literally appropriated to serve the purposes of the story. And while I don’t have a problem with this per se, the sheer frequency with which I see it makes me scratch my head. Shouldn’t secondary world fantasy be able to support and explore the more complex dimensions of religion? Must it always boil down to the (I think false) dichotomy of dogma versus magic?

To some extent, science fiction has an easier time of it because it can assume some reader familiarity with most major religions. As a result, there is less risk of bogging the story down with the world-building that a realistically complicated imagined religion demands. Is this weight of world-building the only reason why religion is so superficially addressed through fantasy? Or have I just missed the really interesting fantasy books that explore religion the way science fiction does?

The only examples that I can think of that do a good job with it are Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion, David Eddings’ Belgariad series (though this is somewhat debatable), Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. Surely there are others? Am I just missing them?

An Unscheduled Rant: The Death of Science Fiction and Unrepentant Ignorance of YA SF


While I do tend to blather on about my thoughts about speculative fiction, I don’t normally post off my weekly schedule or post rants. In what is perhaps a bit of a departure from my norm, today I’m going to do both. What set off this rant is a couple of thought-provoking posts, the first from Jason Sanford over at SF Signal and the second a thoughtful response over at Nerd Redefined.

Sanford’s post started the simmer of my rant. He poses a good, thoughtful question: why are there so few readers of science fiction while so many consumers of science fiction in other media? That is an interesting question, relevant to storytelling across all media, and to our society’s aspirations and future. And – perhaps unsurprisingly – the answers suggested by both Sanford’s post and the comments in response lay the blame squarely at the feet of YA science fiction:

However, in today’s marketplace there are relatively few current SF novels aimed at young readers (with the exception of dystopian novels, like The Ember series by Jeanne Duprau and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and movie tie-in novels related to Star Wars and Star Trek).

This is one of those “facts” that I see SF fandom trot out time and time again. And this fact is wrong. Let me be clear: it is factually incorrect. It evidences a basic ignorance of what is being produced within the YA community, which – BTW – is actually a vibrant community often completely separate and unaware of the SF fandom/writer community. For those who want evidence, at the end of this post I’ve got a brief list of some YA SF novels published in the last couple of years.

I also took the time to go through the last seven e-mails I’ve received from Publisher’s Marketplace listing deals that were announced in the past week. Bear in mind that not all deals are announced in Publishers Marketplace, and that a one week sample isn’t statistically sound (if I wanted to be methodologically reliable I’d need to go through at least one or – better yet – two years worth of deal announcements). But even this cursory glance at titles/deals announced in the US and the UK is telling. Here’s how the numbers break out:

DATE YA SF YA Fantasy Middle-grade SF Middle-grade Fantasy
March 8, 2012 3 1
March 7, 2012 1
March 6, 2012 1
March 4, 2012 2 5
March 1, 2012 1 1 1 1
February 29, 2012
February 28, 2012 2 1
TOTAL: 9 6 1 4
as % of Non-adult SF/F 45% 30% 5% 20%
as % of Age Group 60% 40% 20% 80%

Now, there are a lot of methodological caveats to be made here, not least:

  • I am doing a categorization based on the little snippet of information included with the deal announcements.
  • My categorization of titles is neither anonymized nor corroborated to exclude personal bias.
  • I selected the last seven e-mails from PM that I had in my inbox. Thus the time period is not random, nor is it broad enough to draw far reaching conclusions.

But these methodological caveats, coupled with the list of titles below, should at the least be suggestive that perhaps there is more YA/MG science fiction being published than the traditional SF community is cognizant of.

Now, I’m not a YA or MG (middle-grade) author. Not writing for those age groups, I don’t have a horse in that race. But because The Professor edits YA/MG for a living, I do tend to read a lot of it. And hear about a lot more than I read. And so when I’m confronted with authoritative statements being made that evidence little awareness of the facts, it tends to get me riled.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of Jason Sanford’s post. His post was thoughtful, respectful, and intelligently constructed. Instead, what I wish to indict is the fact that in almost every discussion of YA SF I have come across – whether at cons or online – those invited to the table are almost always SF authors with little exposure to the contemporary world of YA literature. Their arguments all too often are based upon ignorant assumptions.

Let me bust out some – potentially heretical – knowledge here:

Heinlein juveniles are utterly and completely irrelevant in today’s YA marketplace.

I know, I know. We all grew up reading them. And we all love them. But readers below the age of twenty thirty who’ve ever heard of them are few and far between. Tomorrow’s science fiction readers are not interested in whiz bang technology, or in “accessible” science fiction. They want good storytelling, tight prose, and most importantly, engaging characterization. In casual conversations with some of The Professor’s colleagues (who all edit YA and MG for a living, I should add) I once asked if they’d ever heard of Heinlein’s juveniles. The only one who had (and who groaned at my question) was The Professor. Now, some of us might say “Aha!” and point to that as the problem. But it isn’t. Because these same editors publish tons of science fiction. They just don’t call it that: they call it YA or middle-grade.

And this is the problem, which Nerd Redefined touched on. The traditional SF community and the YA community are completely and utterly ignorant of each others’ existence. It’s like a middle school dance. In one corner, we’ve got the SF folks who are all lamenting the fact that there’s no science fiction being written for kids. And across the gym we’ve got the YA writers who are happily writing science fiction while blissfully wondering who’s whinging in the other corner.

Here’s how I see it: today’s young audience is devouring speculative fiction. Whether it’s science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, they’re eating it up in video games, in movies, in sequential art, and — yes — in books, too. But for today’s audience, the borders between genre have become porous. A teenager doesn’t give a damn whether something is science fiction or fantasy. They want a good story, and they go to their store’s YA section to find it, which itself you’ll note is rarely subdivided into “YA SF” and “YA Fantasy”. We have a vibrant, active community of YA authors who are writing SF for young readers…only they think of themselves as YA writers first and SF writers second (if at all).

SF fandom likes to make sweeping (lamenting or condemning) statements about YA science fiction: there’s very little of it, it doesn’t sell, it’s all dystopian. These kinds of generalizations remind me of the same ignorant statements often made about SF: scantily-clad greens skinned women, nothing more than “escapist” fantasy, etc. I suggest that our compatriots writing for YA audiences deserve just as much respect as those of us toiling in the SF mines.

If we’re going to make broad generalizations, I’d like to see the hard data backing those claims up. There’s precious little data that I’ve seen on YA SF publishing, or on YA SF sales. And as for the “all dystopian” brush-off, even a cursory familiarity with the YA marketplace would suggest that the “dystopian trend” is just that: a momentary trend in a genre where trend cycles are three to four times faster than in adult genres. I think these are fascinating issues to discuss, and I’m delighted whenever anyone wants to discuss them, but they require us to converse based upon a familiarity with both the YA world and the SF world.

I suggest that anybody who in 2012 suggests that SF readership is declining because there’s no equivalent for Heinlein juveniles is stuck in the 1950’s. Consider that Heinlein’s juveniles were published from 1947 – 1958. During that same time period, young adults were consuming Leave It to Beaver, Captain Video and his Video Rangers, Dragnet, The Adventures of Superman, Gunsmoke and a host of other television programs which by the standards of today’s YA media are “quaint” at best. Do we really expect kids to like the same kind of books? Try getting a fourteen year old to sit through an episode of Gunsmoke. While I still enjoy Heinlein’s juveniles, and while I think a YA reader can, they are simply no longer relevant.

Which is why I think the SF community’s concern with “accessibility” is missing the mark. First, because there is a lot of SF being published for kids today (it’s just not on the radar of most adult SF fans). And second, because it prescribes a solution (the Heinlein juvenile equivalent!) to a non-problem (no SF for kids!).

If we want kids and teenagers to read science fiction, we need to put the story and characters first and the science second. Because what kids care about today is the story, and not the science. Science is transparent to kids: they live in a world where digital information surrounds them. They can play an immersive three-dimensional multi-actor game before they ever go to school. The hard science that it takes to make these playthings work is uninteresting: it is taken for granted, just as is the air we breathe. But the characters and stories that unfold in that reality, that’s a different matter.

So here’s my appeal to science fiction fandom: accept the fact that Heinlein juveniles are a product of the 1950’s, and consign them to the nostalgia for yesterday. Before you start making authoritative statements on “the state of YA science fiction”, at least take the time to familiarize yourself with what’s happening in that arena. Take a stroll through your local bookstore’s YA section. Hold your nose at some of the cover art: remember, unless you’re a hormone-crazed teen, odds are you’re not its target audience. Crack some of the spines and read some of what you find. Not all of it will be good; in fact, some will be pretty lousy. But I guarantee you that you will be surprised at what you find.

To help, here’s a quick list of YA and MG science fiction books. These are the ones I was able to spot just taking a quick spin around our home library: I’m sure there are tons more out there. Pick ’em up, there’s good reading there…even if it isn’t much like a Heinlein juvenile. And if anyone wants to chime in with their thoughts or with other suggestions, please do so!

NOTES:

  • For books in a series, I’m only listing the first book.
  • I’m going by the publishers’ recommended ages to categorize books as MG/YA.
  • I haven’t read all of these books, and so can’t really “recommend” every one of them. But I have read many of them.

Middle Grade: aged 8 – 12 Young Adult: aged 12 – 18

REVIEW: Ride the Moon ed. M.L.D. Curelas


Title: Ride the Moon
Editor: M.L.D. Curelas
Pub Date: February 29th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An enjoyable, entertaining anthology with a wide variety of new authors.

When I think about the anthologies I have read, I tend to break them out into three different types: exploring a particular style (e.g. Supernatural Noir ed. Ellen Datlow, reviewed here), showcasing a particular sub-genre (e.g. Steampunk ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), or plumbing the depths of a specific theme (e.g. Paper Cities ed. Ekaterina Sedia). Through painstaking editorial curation, anthologists consolidate different voices and stories into a meaningful, unified whole. They can become more than the sum of their parts, and at the same time are packed full of fun, entertaining stories. And while I found that Tyche Books moon-themed debut anthology Ride the Moon didn’t culminate in a deeper insight into human nature, the collection of fantasy and science fiction stories was well-selected, well-organized, and definitely a fun read.

Thematic anthologies like Ride the Moon are, in my opinion, the hardest type of anthology to pull off. A stylistic exploration requires attention to style and tone, a sub-genre survey requires breadth and depth within that sub-genre, but a good thematic anthology necessitates building a TOC of excellent stories that are linked on a superficial level (the ostensible theme) and whose underlying truths are simultaneously unified in some fashion. The best example of this kind of anthology in recent times that I can think of is Ekaterina Sedia’s Paper Cities, which (despite the weaknesses of some individual stories) still managed to offer insight into how cities are employed in modern fantasy.

Ride the Moon is the debut book published by a new Canadian small press, Tyche Books. As their launch title, it is impressive. If I hold it to a high standard, it’s because on most measures I believe it comes pretty damn close to meeting it. Most of the stories are original to the anthology, though the occasional reprint (Edward Willet’s “Je Me Souviens” I recognized) is well worth inclusion. Most of the authors are Canadian, and I strongly recommend readers who might not be familiar with SF/F north of the border to check them out. While I recognized some of the authors (notably Claude Lalumière, Edward Willet, and Marie Bilodeau), most were brand new to me.

As the title suggests, every story in this anthology somehow touches on or deals with the moon as metaphor, god(dess), monster, or setting. With its lunar theme, the anthology skews somewhat fantastical: of the eighteen stories, only six are clearly science fiction. However, the remaining twelve fantasy stories tend to blend nicely between the explicit dark fantasy of Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” to the more science fictional fantasy of Ada Hoffman’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams”.

About half of the stories – most notably C.A. Lang’s “Tidal Tantrums”, Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon”, Keven Cockle’s “The Dowser” and Amy Laurens’ “Cherry Blossoms” – wrestle with the relationships of myth and magic in a modern, technological society. And while it might be tempting to say that therein lies the anthology’s unifying truth, I’m afraid that theory doesn’t hold up when faced with the anthology’s other stories.

The stories that I enjoyed most invariably did something fresh with both the lunar theme and their storytelling. Isabella Drzemczewska Hodson’s “Husks” is a beautifully written dark fantasy. The prose is lyrical and flowing, and Hodson’s imagery just draws you in. Her use of omniscience in the storytelling works to great effect: despite the omniscient narrator, I found myself embedded in the characters and their experiences. A. Merc Rustad’s “With the Sun and Moon in His Eyes” employs excellent characterization with tight prose. Both the subject matter and story structure reminded me of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, and appealed to me in many of the same ways. Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon” and Ada Hoffman’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams” both do a great job of drawing the reader into their characters, though I found the plot resolution of “Aloha Moon” a little too convenient. The biggest stand-out for me, however, had to be Edward Willet’s “Je Me Souviens”: a quiet, emotional, and intensely powerful story about mourning, loyalty, remembrance, and faith.

Some of the other stories, notably Krista D. Ball’s “On the Labrador Shore, She Waits”, Tony Noland’s “Sunset at the Sea of Fertility”, and Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” didn’t work for me. In most cases this was because I found their characters and plot structures fairly predictable. They were well executed for what they were…I just found that they didn’t appeal to me, and were otherwise unmemorable and unremarkable.

In sum, I would say that Ride the Moon is an entertaining, well-written, and well-structured anthology. Despite their significant differences, the stories flow into each other nicely. I enjoyed reading it and – perhaps most importantly – it has turned me onto a number of authors who I might not otherwise have encountered. This is an anthology well worth picking up if only for those two traits. And as a debut from Tyche Books, it makes Tyche a small press that I’m going to be paying attention to going forward.

Post-scarcity and Realistic Utopia: Where’s the fight?


One of the WIPs I’m working on right now is a far future SF novel inspired largely by Le Guin’s classic The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. As I’ve observed before, utopian novels are hard to pull off because an ostensibly perfect society removes – in most major ways – meaningful (read: existential) conflict. But I think I might have been wrong about that.

Fictional utopia and dystopia are tools through which we negotiate our society’s ethics. They are, in a very real sense, a debate about the values our society holds. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, or James Morrow’s City of Truth all ask us what price we are willing to pay for a perfect/harmonious society. In all utopian/dystopian stories, conflict occurs at the levels of logos and pathos, and traditionally, there are two structures through which that conflict gets expressed: the Outsider, and the Dissident.

The Outsider: Conflict in Utopia

A utopia is ostensibly a perfect environment, and that perfection tends to make society somewhat static. Lacking conflict, debate, the society becomes relatively unchanging. In some utopian environments, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture or John C. Wright’s Golden Oecumene, “constant change” may be the most static characteristic. But lacking internal debate, most authors positing a utopia turn to the borders of that perfect state to find conflict.

Older utopias, like Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Skinner’s Walden Two, tend to adopt the structure of a travelogue/fish-out-of-water story, and they typically prioritize logos over pathos in their conflicts. What little conflict they generate is produced by putting the utopian society’s values into conflict with an Outsider: typically a guest who comes to visit the perfect society, and thus disturbs – to some extent – that society’s equilibrium. More modern utopias, like Banks’ Culture novels, also rely on the Outsider to produce conflict. However, these stories focus on where the utopia’s remit ends, and where it comes into contact with different value systems. As such, it presents the utopia as being in constant conflict, to a greater or lesser extent, with the world outside its borders.

The Dissident: Conflict in Dystopias

Dystopias are generally characterized by their lack of defined borders. Look at any of the great dystopian novels, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Morrow’s City of Truth or even Collins’ The Hunger Games. The ostensibly perfect society is all-encompassing. Borders in Orwell are political and expedient, as opposed to ideological. Elsewhere, the totalitarian state controls the entire planet save for some few wild places that lack any structure through which the One State can be opposed. The classic dystopian narrative arc takes a character inside the dystopia, and translates them into an Outsider. These stories derive their tension from the fact that there is no Outside. Which is why their conflict stems from the creation of a Dissident.

The Dissident plays a more violent version of the Outsider’s role. His or her purpose is to oppose the dystopia’s value system, to express the nature of that opposition and to either withstand or fall beneath the system’s crushing totalitarian jackboot. And it is precisely that totalitarian, militaristic dimension which sets a dystopia apart from a utopia.

Characteristics of Dystopian and Utopian Environments

A utopia is generally a society which operates harmoniously, effectively, and perhaps most important, equitably. Historically, utopian fiction has been heavily influenced by the 18th and 19th century anarchist and socialist movements. But the basic premise underpinning all utopias is that within their borders, they function effectively and smoothly. Because utopian fiction tends to put value on its utopian precepts, it is typically a given that the society is internally cohesive. There is no dissidence, and nobody falls through the society’s cracks. Utopias are defined by the fact that, in their fictional universes, they work.

Dystopias, however, do not. They present the superficial appearance of effective operation. But that veneer hides the stick that the regime uses to enforce its values. Without the totalitarian police/military force, it would be impossible to concretely express the Dissident’s conflict with their society. When faced with internal opposition to its values, a dystopian regime cracks down, and does so violently, and it is from this conflict that we get a fun, action-packed narrative.

And yet, in thinking about it in light of the United States’ current economic troubles, I think we’re at a point in our societal development where a new type of utopian fiction can be proposed, and one which opens a third source of potential conflict: the Post-scarcity/Realistic Utopia, which can derive its conflict from the Marginalized.

The Realistic Utopia

Post-scarcity science fiction has been around for awhile, and lots of people have talked and written about it before. Much of the philosophical debates around post-scarcity society stem from anarcho-capitalist philosophy, which I’m going to leave to one side. Instead, I’d like to make the case that in essence, the developed world is today already a post-scarcity society. We produce more food than our population could ever consume. Consumer goods are available at a lower economic cost than ever before in the history of our species. We have access to healthcare that would boggle the finest minds of our great-grandparents’ generation. If there is a problem with our post-scarcity society, it is that the benefits of that post-scarcity are not evenly distributed.

Unlike the anarcho-communist utopias dreamed of yesterday, our society today still retains a division between the haves and have nots. And as a species, we have never been able to scale an equal distribution of societal benefit (whether we’re talking economic wealth, military power, healthcare, standard of living, etc.). As a result, the debates of today – as exemplified by the Occupy Movement – are less about ensuring economic equality, and more about negotiating how our society interacts with individuals or groups who otherwise fall through the current system’s cracks. The folks protesting in the Occupy movement are, to a great extent, either the Marginalized or the voice of the Marginalized in what by most measures can be considered a near-Utopian society.

If the past hundred years have taught us anything, it is that it is naive to believe that society will ever eliminate crime, or completely eliminate poverty, etc. These are ills that will always plague human society, and any utopia that tries to dream them away fails my plausibility test. Yet the mere existence of these societal ills is less important than how we as a society respond to them. And this, I believe, is fertile ground for utopian SF to explore. By focusing less on the economics of the utopian society, and by turning a lens on the values of that society through its marginalized constituents, we can gain greater insight into the human condition, and at the same time develop conflicts through which to tell compelling stories.

While it isn’t a perfect example, I believe that Samuel Delany’s Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, his response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, presages this future. His Bron Helstrom is ostensibly an Outsider, coming to the heterotopia of Triton from much more conservative Martian culture. In his new home, he is marginalized through his own value system, which is inimical to that of his new home. Yes, Delany also uses an Outsider structure in this novel, pitting his Triton against Earth in a devastating interplanetary war. And yet, it is Bron Helstrom’s narrative and personal experience of trying to adjust to his new – ostensibly Utopian – home that takes focus. Triton is not a perfect example of the kind of realistic utopia that I’m talking about here, but the focus on a marginalized individual who falls through the cracks of a supposedly perfect society is exactly what I believe utopian science fiction needs.

And I think it is exactly the kind of philosophical discussion that our society needs as well.

Romance as the Emotional B-Plot in Speculative Fiction


If you live in the United States, then no doubt all of the chocolate manufacturers have made damned sure that you know today is Valentine’s Day. I know plenty of people who grumble that it’s a made-up holiday, developed and popularized with the sole purpose of schilling chocolate and greeting cards. That may be true, but I like it anyway. And since romance is in the air, I thought I’d briefly ruminate on how romance can provide the emotional core of a story.

The Ubiquity of Love

There’s a reason why most stories are – at least in part – love stories. The cynic in me says it’s because sex sells, but I think the reality is a little more complicated. While we might read for very different reasons at different times, the capacity for love and affection automatically promotes emotional engagement. Don’t believe me? Check out this photo:

Kitten & Bunny, via The Sound of the Nosing Machine thru Google Images

When we see pictures like that, our response doesn’t end on “Awww, cute!” We engage with their subjects emotionally because we automatically feel affection for any living being that does the same. And the same holds true for characters in our fiction. Cheryl Klein, executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books and author of Second Sight (which I reviewed here) lists Fourteen Qualities of Attractive Characters (they’re mid-way through the linked post), and it is telling that six out of those fourteen can be shown through romantic attachment.

The reason why love works so well is because it immediately exposes the emotional core of our character. By its very nature, love puts their motivations, fears, and value systems on display. But in speculative fiction, the love story rarely drives the action. How does the emotional journey relate to the adventure?

Love as the B-Plot

In realistic literary fiction, love is often the central pillar of the story. Conflict is internally generated by the characters, and with its emotional highs and lows, love is an effective source of both conflict and pathos. In speculative fiction, however, we have much wider options for generating conflict: the fate of the universe can and often does hang in the balance. And with tremendous adventure, danger, and excitement it’s tempting to quote Short-round and say “No time for Love, Doctor Jones!” but as Indy shows us: there is always time for love, even if it’s just a side plot.

That’s because when it is shunted into a story’s side plot, the romance can then buttress the story’s entire emotional journey. I found a great example of this at work in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Ostensibly, it’s a fun epic fantasy adventure, stuffed to the gills with monsters, magic and mayhem. The action of the story centers on Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, an aging ghul hunter who rather than retire must instead battle a threat greater than any he’s ever faced before. The danger is physically and spiritually existential, but Ahmed uses his characters’ romantic relationships both to structure his story and provide emotional depth.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is principally told from five perspectives, and it is notable that four of these five are matched pairs: Raseed with Zamia, and Dawoud with his wife Litaz. Our central character, Adoulla, is pointedly alone. His love interest, Miri, has basically given him the old heave-ho. Structurally, his companions’ relationships present varying stages of Adoulla’s (now failed) relationship with Miri: Raseed/Zamia are young love, nervous and fiery. Dawoud and Litaz are the settled, comfortable love of long-standing companionship. Adoulla has neither of these, precisely because Miri has kicked him to the curb. And why has she done so? Because despite the fact that he’s getting old, Adoulla still insists on haring off after monsters out of his sense of duty.

Now that paragraph provides a neat summary of the romantic relationships in the book. But you’ll note that it doesn’t really touch (at all) on the action of the story. That’s primarily an adventure / mystery, where our heroes must figure out who is creating these monsters, why they’re doing it, and then stop them before they destroy the city (and eventually the world). But the romantic relationships add depth to all of the characters, and get us to invest in them. Without that romantic dimension, the characters would be cardboard.

Adoulla’s relationship with Miri employs a classic device when romance is a side-plot: duty versus desire. Adoulla wants to stop adventuring, to retire to a life of domestic pleasure and comfort with Miri. But his innate sense of duty will not let him. And through this opposition the first chapter of Throne of the Crescent Moon already provides us with a profound insight into Adoulla’s character.

By complicating his hero’s love life and then structuring his characters’ relationships in contrast to that emotional conflict, Ahmed creates an emotional resonance chamber: each supporting character individually gains depth through a deeper understanding of their motivations, desires, and values. And together, they escalate the hero’s emotional conflict by dangling an emotional brass ring before the hero and the reader. It is an elegant structure.

The Structure of Love and Thoughts on the Love Triangle

Structures like Ahmed’s are only effective when the emotional arcs they produce are either reflected or opposed by the action of the main story. In this case, Adoulla’s duty (the action) opposes his desires (the emotion). Another example is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss’ emotional desire for familial security is intrinsically bound up with her conflicting feelings towards Gale (a hunter/provider type) and Peeta (a feeder/reliable type). Unlike Adoulla, Katniss’ emotional arc and the story’s action are not in opposition: the relevant themes reflect and amplify each other, where decisions in Katniss’ emotional life mirror those in her political life.

Collins’ love triangle is also an excellent example of a classic romance structure executed well. I love the love triangle as an emotional structure because when done right, it has a multiplier effect on the story’s emotional and thematic resonance. However, it is not without significant risk: the failure mode for love triangles is utterly atrocious. And since one can’t swing a cat in a bookstore’s YA section without knocking over a bookcase full of such triangles, Sturgeon’s law takes hold and most of the those I come across these days fail.

Love triangles only work when they mirror or oppose the themes of the story expressed through its action. When I look for classic triangles, there’s no one better than Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Miserables both feature amazing love triangles that are packed with emotion…and which reflect the story’s broader action.

Hugo is interesting because his love triangles (in particular that of Marius/Cosette/Eponine) simultaneously reflect and oppose the action-oriented themes of the student revolution. Hugo is often called melodramatic for that reason, but c’mon…is there any way to have a love triangle avoid melodrama? Either in life or fiction, I don’t think it’s possible. And melodrama can and does add to many stories.

But if a love triangle fails to oppose or reflect the action-themes of the story, I find that my engagement with the characters is destroyed. Characters who would otherwise be engaging and interesting, suddenly become incredibly self-centered. If a love triangle, or even a love story, has no thematic or emotional relationship to the story’s action, it just becomes an exercise in narcissism. I love well-constructed narcissistic characters: they often make amazing villains or foils, and their emotional journeys can often be incredibly fun. But there’s a world of difference between aiming for and hitting a narcissistic character, and trying for engagement and getting a dreadful jerk.

When it comes to romance — triangular or not — unity is absolutely essential (see my earlier thoughts on unity here).

Techniques for Expressing Love

Honestly, there are so many ways to express a love story that trying to outline some of them is rather daunting. While I continue to try and put together a concise set of notes, I’m constantly reminded of Kipling:

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!

As I try and put my notes together, I’d really love (terrible pun absolutely intended) your help:

What are some stories that you’ve found do a good job with romance? And why do they do a good job?

The Aesthetics, Structure, and Themes of Noir Speculative Fiction


Last week on Twitter, I got into an interesting discussion on whether noir fiction is inimical to science fiction. The original conversation got fairly involved, and while we reached few conclusions (substantive discussions in 140 chars are tough!) the conversation made me wonder: is there something about the aesthetics, tropes, and themes of noir that make it oil to speculative fiction’s water?

The Components of Noir Fiction

In thinking it through, I’ve come to the conclusion that what we think of as “noir” is like any other genre: a broad spectrum of storytelling methods that at their basic root share some combination of the following traits (there may be more, but this is the list I came up with over lunch):

Stylistic / Tonal

  • Sparse prose lacking in emotional qualifiers (e.g. Dashiell Hammett).
  • Heavy use of juxtaposed similes rather than metaphor (e.g. Raymond Chandler).
  • Focus on realistic characters, plot, and and mimetic description (all).
  • Characters mired in a particular setting, situation, or themselves (all).
  • Sensory and simile-laden descriptions of atmospheric settings (all).
  • Hyper-localized (usually to a particular city) scope and setting (all).
  • Frank / mimetic treatment of violence and sex (all).

Structural Tropes

  • Innocent protagonist is wrongly accused of a crime.
  • The protagonist’s action is incited by competing interests who want the same thing.
  • The protagonist is betrayed by someone (typically a lover) he had trusted.
  • The love interest in need of saving turns out to be just as bad as the bad guys.
  • The femme fatale who excites self-loathing, pity, anger, and distrust.
  • The detective with a violent past.
  • Taciturn, bitter, damaged heroes.

Thematic

  • Moral protagonist at the whims of an amoral world.
  • Moral trajectory (clawing upwards or sliding downwards) of the flawed hero.
  • Unimportance of individual lives/crimes to the broader world.
  • The supposed futility of moral action.
  • The fraying of an outdated moral code in the face of changing values.

Can all of these traits – or any of these traits – work in speculative fiction? Are there some that cause the narrative to break if combined with aspects of speculative storytelling?

Noir Stylings in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Noir is often called a style, rather than a genre, precisely because of its stable set of stylistic tendencies. It’s easy to spot a noir sentence: “The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel” (Raymond Chandler from The Big Sleep). Noir owes much of its stylistic roots to the 1930’s obsession with mimetic fiction. Yes, the stories are lurid and over-the-top. But that doesn’t change the fact that classic noir writers eschewed metaphor in favor of journalistic storytelling or colloquial simile. At the level of world choice and sentence construction, this aesthetic stands in sharp contrast to the way much speculative fiction is written.

Whether we’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or horror, we are working with realized metaphors. Sure, sometimes a sword is just a sword. But Bilbo’s Sting is much more than a sword. Colonies mining selenium three in the asteroid belt? That’s an aspirational metaphor, a conceit, that the author asks us to accept for the sake of the story. While all fiction is – at some level – a metaphor, speculative fiction brings that metaphor forward: the very world in which it operates is meant to function according to different rules. For all we know, the physics and morality of that fictional universe are very different from our own. And it is the author’s job to engage us in that strange world.

The most common technique for establishing this world-building is to use an extended metaphor: to treat the unreal as if it were real. If the characters accept it, then so too will the reader. However, there is an inverse relationship between the familiarity of the story’s world and the work that the prose must do to communicate that world. Speculative fiction uses simile and metaphor to make the unfamiliar world understandable. Sparse descriptive prose works for the traditional noir story because it is – by definition – set in a world familiar to its readers. But in speculative fiction, layering simile upon simile and metaphor risks turning the story into a stylistic house of cards. Executed poorly, the story collapses under its own stylistic pretensions.

Applying a noir style to speculative fiction is an exercise in careful and precise balancing. On the one hand, we need to employ metaphor and simile to communicate our world-building. Yet on the other hand, we need to use sparse and carefully selected simile to give the story its emblematic noir feel. I suspect that achieving noir style is more difficult in fantasy than it is in science fiction.

Beneath its core speculative conceit, much science fiction aspires to a mimetic presentation of plausible action. As such, science fictional prose generally tends to rely less heavily on metaphor (besides its central world-building) than fantastical prose. Which is probably why I can think of many more science fiction novels which employ noir style than fantasies (George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran novels, William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, Richard Paul Russo’s Lt. Frank Carlucci novels, and A. Lee Martinez’ The Automatic Detective all come instantly to mind). Because fantastic prose relies more heavily on metaphor, it approaches noir more through its reliance on the classic tropes than through the style of its prose.

Tropes and Structure as a Window into Noir

We all know the noir hero when we see him: he’s wearing a trench coat beneath a streetlamp in the pouring rain, the smoke from a cigarette curling around the brim of his drenched fedora. You can see the weight of his history in his eyes. And while this kind of description is cliché, it is no less accurate for all that.

Noir and speculative fiction both share their roots in the pulps, and thus derive many of their stock characters from the same sources. It is hard not to see the connections between the tough-but-sensitive private eye, the cowboy with a past, or the scruffy space pirate. Noir structural tropes play well into the traditional independent ethos of much speculative fiction, which is probably one of the reasons why they so often get co-opted. And when the noir writing style won’t really work (as in much fantasy) then this puts that much weight onto the tropes and themes.

Consider for a moment Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The basic premise behind them (the only wizard in the phone book) is straight out of hard-boiled crime fiction. In fact, much urban fantasy relies on the structure of the classic noir story to shape its plot. Of course, such urban fantasy tends to straddle a spectrum of storytelling: for every horror-tinged Southern Gothic (like Southern Gods by John Horner Jacobs – see my review here) you have a PI tale (Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, Glen Cook’s Garrett PI, etc. ) or a criminal-as-good-guy (Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces).

However, it takes more than just using plot structures or character tropes intrinsic to the genre to make a speculative fiction story noir. Those that do it well (like the ones I just mentioned) start with other noir devices. For example, Butcher and Connolly both tend to employ fairly sparse, descriptive prose. Connolly and Jacobs both have frank, bare-knuckled approaches to violence. Hamilton is just as frank when it comes to sex, itself an “innovation” often laid at the feet of noir. Their books also tend to oscillate around themes familiar to readers of noir.

However, there are plenty of times when fantasy stories tack on the structures and tropes of noir as mere window dressing. For example, in Ellen Datlow’s enjoyable anthology Supernatural Noir (see my review here) there were a couple of stories which failed to go beyond the most superficial employment of noir tropes. And as a result, for me at least, they neither worked as noir, nor as good fiction.

The Thematic Dimensions of Noir and Speculative Fiction

In our Twitter discussion, Kip Manley raised the argument that science fiction, fantasy, horror, and noir can all be characterized by their relationship to modernity. And while I agree with that statement on its basic tenet, I think that the thematic exploration of all four genres can go much deeper. In particular, noir has always been much more concerned with the individual than with a broader generality. This was not always true of science fiction.

People often call science fiction the “literature of ideas”, and it is often criticized for prioritizing concept and technology over characterization. And for a long time, this criticism was pretty accurate. In our time, this type of idea-focused science fiction tends to reside in the “hard science fiction” sub-genre written by Greg Egan, Peter Watts, Ben Bova, and Gregory Benford. Fiction which places its thematic focus on the ideas (technological or sociological) is to a great degree inimical to noir. And that’s because noir‘s central thematic concern has always been the individual, who typically gets lost in hard SF.

And yet. Noir themes show up frequently in “less hard” science fiction, be it in space opera (Alastair Reynolds comes to mind), cyberpunk (William Gibson, George Alec Effinger) or near-future science fiction (Ian McDonald, Lauren Beukes). Alone, themes focusing on the individual and their struggle in an amoral universe are not enough to make a work of speculative fiction “noir“. Too much fiction – let alone speculative fiction – focuses on the individual. But where those themes appear with other nods in the direction of noir, whether in structure or style, then I think it is safe to call a work of speculative fiction noir or at least noir-inspired.

But what about fantasy? Just as hard science fiction is made inimical to noir through its central concerns, so too are certain branches of fantasy. For example, epic fantasy – by its epic scope – breaks noir‘s reliance on hyper-localized concerns. Even if, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels or N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (see my review of the second book here), an epic fantasy’s themes focus on the individual, by elevating that individual above the concerns of the everyman, an inherent trait of noir gets broken. Yet in plenty of other fantasy (and especially in urban fantasy), the hero’s everyman status is maintained and the story can safely be called noir.

How to Write Noir Speculative Fiction

In other words, I believe that there is no inherent reason why noir cannot be melded with speculative fiction, either in science fiction or in fantasy. The genres are not, as some would believe, mutually incompatible. However, it takes more effort on the writer’s part to take a piece of speculative fiction and give it a noir sensibility. If noir is composed of a combination of certain stylistic, structural, and thematic devices then the use of any one of those devices isn’t enough to give speculative fiction a sheen of noir. To really meld the genres, the writing needs to combine multiple dimensions of noir: style and tropes, or style and themes, or themes and tropes. Which is why doing that kind of noir mash-up well is so bloody difficult.

And because I love me some lists, here are a bunch of excellent speculative fiction books that I consider to be rather noirish:

Science Fiction Fantasy

REVIEW: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald


Title: Planesrunner
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: December 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced adventure story that reads more like adult science fiction than YA science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s adult science fiction. His complex, multi-layered plots and penchant for near-future science fiction set in non-western cultures (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) have always struck me as interesting, engaging, ambitious, and structurally complex. So when I heard that Pyr was going to be releasing a new YA novel by Ian McDonald entitled Planesrunner, I jumped at the chance to read it.

McDonald has earned a large, loyal, and very much deserved following for his adult fiction, I don’t know if the decision to market this particular story as YA lay with the author, his agent, or with his publishers, but it does make reviewing the book an interesting challenge. UPDATE: but his foray into MG/YA fiction represents an interesting critical challenge. The YA and SF genres have different (though overlapping) conventions which stem from both their respective histories and their divergent audiences, and it is unclear through which lens we should look at Planesrunner. What comes first: the science fiction, or the YA?

Planesrunner is told from the perspective of Everett Singh, the fourteen year old son of a quantum physicist involved in the development of doorways onto parallel worlds. Everett watches his father get kidnapped, and then finds that he alone has the clues and capabilities to rescue him.

Judged solely by the protagonist’s age, Planesrunner falls firmly into YA territory. Though the book opens in London, McDonald’s hero comes from a Punjabi background, and McDonald’s excellent ear for local cultures comes through in Everett’s voice. Particularly in the novel’s first third, McDonald paints Everett in solidly contemporary British colors, albeit filtered through his Punjabi background. Everett’s cultural background can likely best be compared to that of Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra in the excellent Bend It Like Beckham: to say that Everett is a soccer-loving British boy tells only half the story, while to say he is Punjabi does the same. This is a blend culture more accessible to western readers than the India McDonald took us to in his (adult) Cyderabad Days, but it is definitely not the whitebread England of Harry Potter. As always, I applaud McDonald’s presentation of cultural complexity.

The first third of the novel focuses on Everett’s reactions to his father’s kidnapping. From the high-powered opening, the story’s pace slows down significantly as we learn more about Everett’s family background (his parents have split up, he has a younger sister, etc.) and we get gradually introduced to our protagonist. We learn about Everett through his interactions with his mother, his soccer team buddy, the police, and his father’s co-workers. Throughout this process, we gradually learn more about the work his father does, and about the parallel worlds that he helped discover. This part of the book is written with McDonald’s typical skill, providing a good feel for Everett, his values, his cultural background, and his life. We grow to care about him, and get engaged in his desire to save his father. All of this is good, however by the standards of contemporary YA it happens rather slowly. Most contemporary YA that dives into the action the way this story does maintains and rapidly escalates the tension from page one. Here, the tension is maintained but its escalation unfolds more slowly. It is effective, but it has more of the feel of an adult novel than a typical YA story.

Once Everett deduces that his father has been taken to the parallel world of E3 and follows him through the gates, the book’s pace accelerates substantially. First, the alternate reality Everett crosses into is a vastly different London, where oil was never discovered. As a result, its 21st-century society runs on coal-powered electricity and has no access to technology we take for granted (e.g. plastics). It is a delightful and compelling steampunk world, complete with vast airship fleets. The concept of a 21st-century London where oil had never been discovered is an interesting one, and McDonald does an excellent job of rendering its technological development believably. But while he does a fine job of nailing the technological/scientific world-building, I am less sold on the cultural flavor of his alternate London, which blends contemporary and pseudo-Victorian sensibilities.

On the one hand, we see that the alternate world has values and a cultural background commensurate or at least compatible with those of our modern world. The villains in E3 are quite at home in skyscrapers, modern dress, and with modern weaponry. But they are set in opposition to a romantic rabble of airship sailors who dress, talk, and generally act like they stepped out of the Victorian era. Perhaps this disconnect is part of McDonald’s point, but upon reflection, I found myself doubtful. Nevertheless, it is a testament to McDonald’s skill at world-building that these quibbles only arose upon reflection: while reading the story, I found the world compelling, engaging, and believable.

Once in this new world, Everett quickly joins up with that staple of the steampunk sub-genre, a crew of airship pirates sailors. They are second-class citizens presented as a rough-around-the-edges but still lovable rabble, quasi-Romany in nature. The characters Everett runs into, in particular his fiesty love-interest Sen, her adoptive mother (the captain), and her Bible/Shakespeare-quoting crewman are all extremely distinct, very interesting, and very engaging. In portraying both this world and the harsh underbelly of its society, McDonald made an interesting authorial choice: most of these characters speak in polari, which IRL is a cant slang developed in the British theater community in the 17th and 18th centuries. McDonald portrays this dialect directly in dialog, making it hard to parse for the uninitiated. I found myself torn as to its effectiveness.

The strategic use of polari deepens the credibility of McDonald’s alternate world. Yet at the same time, it decreases the accessibility of that world. As an American whose only previous encounters with polari had been limited to a handful of phrases in a few episodes of Porridge while living in Europe, I found that it took real work to decode what characters in Planesrunner were saying. Interestingly, Everett had very little trouble doing so: it is possible that growing up in London, he would have had more exposure to polari than I have had growing up in the States. Readers as unfamiliar with it as I was might find that it takes a bit of effort to get through. Overall, this strategy marks an interesting choice, and one that in general McDonald pulls off effectively. However, it is a choice that I have rarely seen in YA. Experienced genre readers will probably just accept it and make use of the glossary at the end of the book, but I am less certain that YA readers will be willing to invest the same amount of effort.

The biggest weakness I found in Planesrunner was that once Everett stepped into the parallel world, it seemed as if he had entirely forgotten about the mother and younger sister he left behind. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the plot’s focus on rescuing his father. Nevertheless, I had the impression that themes of Everett’s family introduced at the book’s opening remained unaddressed (let alone resolved) at the book’s end. Above all, it is this fact that makes the book feel more like an adult SF novel than a YA SF novel.

Themes of family, of choosing/balancing sides, and of cultural identity are all frequently explored in YA. One can argue (and I’ve done so on this blog before) that at some level all YA novels address the challenge of finding one’s place in a complex, multi-layered, and ambiguous world. McDonald sets these themes up fairly well in the opening of Planesrunner, but fails to follow through on them by its end. Themes of family get re-introduced, with the focus on Everett’s place within the airship’s “adopted family”, but it never ties back to the family he left at home. Perhaps as the series continues we will return to these themes and gain some closure. But stretching a single unresolved thematic arc across a series and without clear inflection points in each installment is something adult series may pull off, but flies in the face of typical YA conventions. It is one thing to end the plot of the first book on a cliffhanger as McDonald (more-or-less) does, but to leave thematic threads dangling (as opposed to tied, whether loosely or strongly) weakens the book’s emotional resonance.

Overall, Planesrunner is a solid adventure. Read as such, it is perfectly enjoyable. Fans of adult science fiction will find it especially satisfying, and will likely find it fast by the standards of the adult genre. Fans of YA science fiction will likely enjoy it as well, though I suspect that long-term it won’t be as memorable as more tightly themed YA novels. Readers of McDonald’s earlier work will enjoy Planesrunner for how it builds on McDonald’s strengths and how it diverges and expands on his previous patterns. However, readers looking for the thematic, structural, and sociological complexity of McDonald’s adult novels won’t find it here. That complexity may exist below the story’s surface, incorporated into the story’s world-building, but Planesrunner is a simpler, more adventure-focused story than McDonald’s earlier work. In general, I found Planesrunner a fun if only partially-satisfying read, but I am definitely invested enough to pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.

%d bloggers like this: