“There are many different types of people in this world, and they’re not all human.” Saga Press at NYCC 2014

The Saga Press panel introduced Simon & Schuster’s new science fiction/fantasy imprint to the world, with some great conversation and a fantastic announcement! The panel was moderated by David Barr Kirtley, whose Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast can be found on Wired, and the panelists were Joe Monti, the lead editor of the imprint, Lee Kelly, author of City of Savages, Sam Munson, author of The War Against the Assholes, Ken Liu, author of Grace of Kings, and Nnedi Okorafor, author of Lagoon.

First, the announcement is that the press will publish its e-books without DRM! Joe Monti, executive editor of Saga, said in a prior statement that “The science fiction and fantasy community were early adopters of electronic formats, and have enthusiastically embraced DRM-free content while showing great respect for authors’ works under copyright. In launching our imprint, we are pleased to offer this convenience to our readers and test the waters of DRM-free publishing.”

In the NYCC panel, Barr Kirtley started things off by asking Monti to explain Saga’s origins. The imprint has been around for about 11 months, and is the first new imprint for S&S in 30 years. The idea was born during what Monti called “Bookspocalypse 2009”—the extreme downturn that publishing took during the recession—when some of the people at S&S noticed that the things that still worked, despite financial hardship, were YA and genre fiction.

Barr Kirtley followed up to that, asking if anyone thought it was indicative of a general mainstreaming of science fiction and fantasy? Sam Munson jumped on that one, saying “There are two things happening: the business side is taking a hard look at what’s earning money, and the critics are setting aside the old-fashioned ideas about what ‘counts’ and what doesn’t. What fits into a taxonomy of literary vs. genre. That word, ‘mainstreaming,’ is interesting, because sci-fi and fantasy have always had a broad and passionate audience, going back centuries.“ (This earned a cheer from the crowd.) ”I don’t think it’s mainstreaming so much as the erosion of a taboo…. People who are interested in reading and writing SFF feel like they have more room to play. For me, struggling to write a fantasy novel is how I started writing in first place. Cause it’s harder. It’s harder than writing straight fiction. You don’t have to build physics in literary fiction.“

Barr Kirtley asked about the physics of Munson’s upcoming novel for Saga, and the author replied that he was trying to create “a physics of magic that hadn’t been done to death.” They opened the question up to the rest of the panel. One of Kelly’s books, American Shine, “has two wizards fighting each other in 1920, so it has a magical realist feel. I had to figure out: how does this elixir take effect? How does this play out against background of real, historical prohibition? It was a tough balance, but it’s fun.”

Barr Kirtley asked about Kelly’s other novel, City of Savages, which is about people who have never left the island of Manhattan. “I know a lot of people like that…” After the laughter died down, Kelly explained that this novel is set in a post-World War III Manhattan, which the main characters, a mother and daughter, must try to escape. Kelly drew on stories of the New York Blackout of 2003—“36 hours when Manhattan was not itself.”

Ken Liu’s novel, Grace of Kings, is an epic fantasy, “but not in style of Tolkien or Western tradition. The epic is the essence of a people’s history, it’s the way a people tells its history. There’s nothing truly equivalent in Chinese history to the Western idea of an epic.” Liu has taken a story of the founding of the Han Dynasty, and adapted it for a fantasy archipelago setting. “Very East Asian-inspired, but using the techniques of the Aeneid and Beowulf.”

Barr Kirtley asked if Liu’s translation work (most recently in the forthcoming Liu Cixin novel The Three-Body Problem, which you can stories from here) has effected his own writing: “I don’t think so. The Chinese SFF stories are heavily influenced by Soviet and American tradition, there’s not a huge amount of influence on me from there.” Liu’s other book coming out from Saga is a short story collection, Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, which will include the title story, and which became the first work of any length to sweep the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. Joe Monti referred to the book as a “greatest hits collection.” Liu was quick to assure the audience that there was also a new story included! “It’s a story that I like, that I had to convince Joe to like.”

Nnedi Okorafor’s novel, Lagoon, is something of a corrective to District 9: “It’s an alien invasion tale in Nigeria. I was writing a screenplay for Nollywood, (the Nigerian Hollywood/Bollywood) then I saw District 9, and I was pissed off about portrayals of Nigerians in it. So I thought, how would an alien invasion happen in Nigeria? I thought of the city of Lagos, which I always say is New York on crack: there’s a lotta good, lotta bad, all at same time. A great place for an alien invasion to happen!” But the more she worked on the piece, the more she realized that the format of a screenplay just wasn’t enough. “I wanted to put some monsters in, and a whole bunch of stuff…so I jumped the rails and started writing it as a novel. Normally, I focus on one character, but Lagoon begged to be written from many many many points of view. The initial first contact doesn’t happen with humans, but with sea creatures. You get the perspective of a swordfish, of a bat, lots of different points of views, and many different types of people in this world, and they’re not all human.”

Sam Munson told us about how prestidigitation figures into his novel. “It’s set in and around the Upper East Side, upper middle class precincts of Manhattan, and the main character is a senior a linebacker at a Catholic high school. He gets tricked into joining a terrorist magician cell. They’re the good guys…but their methods are questionable. They’ve codified prestidigitation, using S. W. Erdnase’s The Expert at the Card Table, which I recommend if you’re interested in learning magic, or… just how to cheat at cards.” Barr Kirtley then asked about the title, which Joe said was a simple choice: “There’s a point where the protagonist is asked, “Are you an asshole?” and he has to decide whether he is or not.” 

Ken Liu talked a bit about research! ”I had to develop ‘silkpunk’ where I had to come up with technology that used East Asian-inspired techniques. I read through a lot of patents, which isn’t too bad, since I work as an IP litigation consultant for my day job. But I needed a novel way to design airships, and I needed to figure out how to make them work with that level of tech. I came up with something that was cool, but some of my beta readers said it wouldn’t work… so then I sent the patent applications around to prove that it would!”

When Barr Kirtley asked if Monti was ready to elaborate on Saga’s decision to go DRM-free, he said, “If you buy an ebook, you’ll get it so you get to keep it and it’s yours forever, on any application. We’re an experiment for Simon & Schuster, but in the science fiction and fantasy field there have been precedents—Tor, Baen, Angry Robot. The science fiction and fantasy community is open to this sort of thing.” Munson added: “If people are pirating my ebooks, I don’t lose any sleep over that.” 

Barr Kirtley wrapped up by asking Okorafor about the controversy over the World Fantasy Award statue. “I was just pointing out the issue, why is the award in his image? I put it as a question, and it touched off a great big discussion that is raging hotter and hotter. There’s been a lot of nastiness, I’ve been called a racist for bringing it up. It highlights a great issue not just in our community, but it’s come up in my Ph.D. work as well. How does the author’s belief impact how we read them? I’m glad its come up, and that we’re having this discussion.” Ken Liu chimed in: “One of my daughter’s first reactions was that she was terrified of it, so I put a sock on it as a silly hat, and now she thinks it’s hilarious. There’s a long tradition of science fiction and fantasy that has some roots that we need to examine. There’s no question that Lovecraft is important! And we’re not trying to cleanse him from the genre… Jack London, for instance, was one of the most virulent advocates of genocide against the Chinese. He advocated a grand union among Europe and America to use biological warfare against Chinese so that China could be repopulated by ‘civilized people.’ What do you do? The genres have a long tradition of this kind of stuff. It does no good to say “Oh, they’re men of their times, lets just move on.” I think it’s important to examine these things, and see what aspects of their work permeate the genres.”

Joe Monti expanded a bit on the press’ overarching theme at the end of the panel, saying that Saga wants to “broaden the image of what fantasy and science fiction are, and in answer to a question about social obligations in art,“ saying, ”Science Fiction and Fantasy strives toward examining deeper truths. Fantasy is trying to find truths about society in a different way, and Science Fiction is trying to extrapolate the now into the future.”

Be sure to check out Saga Press’ upcoming books! The first titles will be published in spring 2015, and in addition to City of Savages by Lee Kelly, will include Persona by Genevieve Valentine, and The Dark Side of War by Zachary Brown. The list will also feature newly repackaged massmarket editions of the Harper Hall Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, and the Monstrumologist Quartet by Rick Yancey.

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