Ruthanna Emrys’s “The Litany of Earth” uses the Cthulhu mythos to talk about a subject dear to Lovecraft’s heart—racial hatred. It uses a mythology created by a racist in the 1920s to tell a story that directly addresses racism, in a context of Elder races and people who worship Cthulhu and have been persecuted for it. It’s the kind of story that uses the familiar and the strange together to make you think and make you care. It’s an excellent story. It’s also a milestone.
Most of us take longer. Talent alone isn’t enough for most people, and craft skills take a little time to develop. It’s hard to say for sure what age most writers emerge, but if you look at the age of Campbell nominees for instance you see a median age of 33. (There’s a lot of variation of course. I was 37! And one of this year’s nominees, the wonderful Sofia Samatar, whose first novel A Stranger in Olondria is nominated for the Nebula, is 43.) But in general, you tend to see clusters of people coming into the field in their thirties with something to say and the skills to say it.
“The Litany of Earth” was Ruthanna’s third sale to a pro market, qualifying her for professional status by the rules of the Science Fiction Writers of America. And looking at it the other way around, it was the first story purchased by Tor.com editor Carl Engle-Laird. As I know both of them, even though they didn’t then know each other, in my social media I saw both sides of this, two people bouncing excitedly about the same event—Carl about buying a great story, Ruthanna about selling one.
In congratulating both of them, I started thinking about how young they are, especially Carl, who’s only a few months older than my son. And I saw Ruthanna’s sale of this story to Carl specifically as symbolic of this awesome new generation that I am seeing emerging into SF. It’s different from all the other generations—well, all generations are different from each other. But these are people who have grown up in the future—the future I never expected to see. We had an expected future in science fiction when I started reading it. We were going to the stars, sure. But there was a nuclear war in our way.
People who grew up (or in Carl’s case were born!) after the fall of the Berlin Wall without that shadow hanging over them grew up with a different paradigm, in a different history, wherever in the world they were. They had different expectations and different ambitions. They’re also more diverse than earlier generations of genre writers—in gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity. More of them are outside the US. Best of all, they’re confident about who they are and where they’re coming from. What they’re writing is different and exciting, challenging expectations, going to the heart of issues, taking the traditions of genre and wringing changes on them, using SF in new ways. These are writers literate in genre conventions and not afraid to play with them, and they’re bringing more diverse and interesting expectations to the table. It’s so great!
A pile of younger writers seem to have been emerging into my consciousness lately—all born between 1974 and 1984, so in their thirties now and just starting to make names for themselves.
Some of these people have recently sold first novels. Ada Palmer, born in 1981, when The Snow Queen won the Hugo, has recently sold a four book series beginning with Dogs of Peace. It’s dense chewy philosophical SF precisely to my taste, and I can’t wait until it’s out and I can talk to people about it! Ken Liu was born in 1976, the year The Forever War won the Hugo. His stunning short story Paper Menagerie was the first thing ever to win all three of the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards. He has also just sold three novels, which I’m looking forward to eagerly. Max Gladstone was born in 1984, when Startide Rising won the Hugo, his first novel is Three Parts Dead and he’s up for a Campbell this year. Aliette de Bodard has an astonishing number of novels and award nominations for somebody born in 1982, the year Downbelow Station won the Hugo. Saladin Ahmed was born in 1975, his first novel Throne of the Crescent Moon was nominated for a Hugo last year.
Others have been dazzling me with work at short lengths. Rachel Swirsky, born in 1982, has been writing wonderful stories and novellas. She won a Nebula in 2011, and has been nominated for Hugo and World Fantasy awards. Alter Reiss, born 1976, has also been publishing some great short stories. Marissa Lingen, born 1978, the year Gateway won the Hugo, has been knocking my socks off with wonderful things lately.
And these are just some I’ve noticed! I’m sure there are lots more of this generation just coming into prominence that I’ve missed, or that I’m not thinking of. Please add more in comments, and I’ll either smack my forehead that I forgot to mention them or be sure to check them out.
There’s marvellous work being done by people of all ages, and by established as well as new writers. But there’s a special thrill to finding first novels and early stories bursting with promise and knowing somebody is just at the beginning of their career and is likely to go on from this kind of beginning to do wonderful things. “The Litany of Earth” isn’t just good in itself, it makes me hope for more to come.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published three poetry collections and nine novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She has a new novel My Real Children out soon. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.