This December brings us to the close of a truly extraordinary and transformative decade for SFF. Epic series like The Wheel of Time finally concluded as A Song of Ice and Fire rose to mainstream prominence on television (with Wheel of Time to follow suit?). Newer stars like N.K. Jemisin rose, while familiar faces like Neil Gaiman published some of their most innovative work yet. We saw the rise of fiction that dealt directly with the ongoing Climate Crisis, works that wrestled with the tumultuous political shifts, cozy space opera, gritty space opera, and literal space opera, with like, actual singing. Zombies faded from favor while orcs and goblins and fishmen found their time to shine. Readers went from celebrating Strong Female Characters to asking for Complicated Female Characters, and the literary landscape became much more inclusive for writers who had previously been marginalized. And, as in every decade, the villains threatened to steal the show entirely.
Four members of the Tor.com fam, Publicity Coordinator Christina Orlando, Tor.com writers Leah Schnelbach and Natalie Zutter, and Tor Books’ Senior Marketing Manager Renata Sweeney sat down for a rollicking, five-hour-long conversation about the decade in genre, discussing trends, favorite books, the heroes and villains who have stuck with them, and even a look forward to some titles that will help define the next decade.
LET’S JUMP RIGHT IN WITH DYSTOPIA!
Renata Sweeney: I did mention that in this decade there was a trilogy from Paolo Bacigalupi that I read: Shipbreaker, Drowned Cities, and Tool of War. I loved that series—all of them made the list, but… I think that—I’m not sure, this might be a pretentious genre thing to say, but—I love worldbuilding, and I feel that it suffers a little bit in some dystopian books because they’re like, “Just assume that it’s our world, but sort of worse.”
Natalie Zutter: There’s definitely a formula for dystopia, I think.
Christina Orlando: It relies on the knowledge of our world and just sort of saying, “Well, we’re fucked up, and this is what our fucked-upness is gonna get us.”
Zutter: Like for a reader in 2010, jumping forward based on what you’re feeling right now and projecting or extrapolating out.
Sweeney: This was also the same year that [Suzanne Collins’] Mockingjay came out. It was the crux of [sic]—I think 2010 might have been peak YA dystopia. We’ve cycled into, like, more of fantasy being more successful now, but for a while it was dystopian so hard. YA dystopian was king.
Zutter: Divergent, Delirium…
Orlando: Why do you feel like that was?
Orlando: Yeah, was there anything happening that you felt like we were all craving the dystopian narrative?
Sweeney: I mean, it’s a tough one ‘cause it takes so long for a book to go from acquisition to publication of the last in the series—this is the end of the Hunger Games series, and the beginning of the series for Paolo Bacigalupi’s books. But I think that—Paolo Bacigalupi, one of the things he’s really good at, is that worldbuilding—it’s very evocative—and one of his main focus’ was climate change. Like, the way climate change will change our world—and of course, his thought, his focus in the series, and I think in another one of his books that predates this decade—The Wind-Up Girl, which is also for adults—he definitely is interested in the way that environmental change will disproportionately affect people who don’t have money. How the haves are gonna be able to fuck off to, like, Ohio where it hasn’t flooded yet; and the have-nots are gonna be stuck, in this case, breaking down ships for money. It’s so based in the real world but at the same time, a really evocative, intense future that I can see, it feels tangible.
Orlando: I have notes about cli-fi [climate fiction] when we come to 2015 and [N.K. Jemisin’s] The Fifth Season, because there is a growing canon of cli-fi literature. And it does seem mostly written by marginalized voices, by women, and by people of color who are starting to already see the effects of climate change in their communities. One of my favorite books came out in 2015: It’s called Gold Fame Citrus [by Claire Vaye Watkins]—one of my favorite books of all time. It’s similar; the protagonists are Latinx, they’re in California, there’s been this huge drought, and everyone has fucked off to the middle of the country. So they’re living in, like, abandoned LA mansions and it talks about the people who are left behind.
Zutter: The people who have to adapt as opposed to ignoring it or running away from it.
Sweeney: That plays into, also in 2015, and also by Paolo Bacigalupi, is The Water Knife, which deals with, again, the effects of climate change and, again, the effects of it on haves versus have-nots—like, what happens to marginalized persons when this happens. They’re the first to lose water, and people who have power now just end up with the power over the water, the power over the places that are dry in the other series. I think that obviously dystopian literature in general is an expression of our fears—and our hopes—for the future, and I think that The Hunger Games taps into that.
Orlando: ‘Cause they’re coal miners.
Sweeney: Yeah. I think that one is less climate focused and more… Dystopian YA for a really long time was focused on, “The world ended, and this is what happened after. There were nukes! And then we ended up with thirteen districts in the United States. And we ended up murdering children.”
Zutter: They skip over the end of the world.
Orlando: Because we don’t really know what happened.
Sweeney: We know things blew up. There was also that series, dystopian post-apocalypse America… [Kiera Cass’] The Selection! So that one is also “The world ended… and now America’s a monarchy.” It’s a fine jumping-off point, but I think what we see in this decade is a shift into surviving the actual apocalypse. The world is ending right now, not “the world ended, and this is how we are now.” That’s one of the things that we see really strongly in both The Water Knife and that trilogy from Paolo—the world is ending right now, and this is who’s affected first. In the end, it’s poor kids who are suffering, not [sic]—because the richer you are, the easier you can escape the effects of your grief.
Orlando: Now at the end of the decade, we’re getting a prequel to The Hunger Games [The Ballad of Songbird and Snakes]. How do we feel about going back to earlier times and digging deeper, now at the end of the decade? There seems to be a trend—we’ll see that with Philip Pullman, too—of continuing the series years after.
Zutter: But starting with a prequel of that as well.
Leah Schnelbach: The George Lucas-ification…
Zutter: Maybe Suzanne Collins was picking up on this trend of the latter half of the decade, of “oh no, people do want to know how we pushed through the bad part, before things got worse.” Because isn’t it President Snow and Mags…
Orlando: It’s the seventh Hunger Games or something like that? So it’s really early and really soon after—
Zutter: The Dark Days.
Schnelbach: Trying to deal with how they sold [the Hunger Games itself] to people—I’m more interested in that story than in the after period where everyone’s just accepted it. How they onboarded that, and got people to accept it, rather than having a mass rebellion.
Zutter: I think there was the Dark Days, and to punish them, it was “Now we punish your children.”
Orlando: It was subjugation.
Schnelbach: And they just kind of accepted that—
Sweeney: I think it was meant to be that, “Instead of killing all of you when something goes wrong, just know that you will always have to pay us a child. Every year, we will kill one of your children—and the exchange is that every year we don’t kill all of your children.”
Schnelbach: And they accepted that. I’m interested in that period because by the time we caught up with The Hunger Games it’s turned into a reality show, which is fascinating.
Zutter: And she was speaking to the reality show trend of the early 2000s.
Schnelbach: And how do you build that from [Shirley Jackson’s] “The Lottery” to a reality show.
Sweeney: Mockingjay, since it came out this year, is also really interesting for the trend of how you end stories like that. Because for a while, I think, we’re like, “It’s YA, you have to end happy.” Then there was this trend of, when the Divergent series ended [in 2013 with Allegiant], that ends with the protagonist’s death.
Zutter: Going full Jesus.
Sweeney: She dies to save their world—
Zutter: And she’s happy to.
Sweeney: Yeah, she like, happily dies in the end. That book was not as well constructed as the previous ones, so a lot of people resent it for that reason. But I think that Mockingjay struggled with that, where people were like, “This is not a happy ending, this is a confusing ending. [Katniss] was like, “No, more fascism is coming, so I have to kill this person.”
Orlando: One of the things that The Hunger Games did really well was, what YA started to talk about more, was her mental health. She’s fucking damaged, and she’s got PTSD, so the end—the little epilogue where she’s married to Cake Boy and they have a little kid, but she’s still kind of detached from her happiness; it feels like she’s a little bit disassociated.
WHAT MAKES A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER?
Orlando: I wanted to talk about—bringing up Divergent as well—the “strong female lead” trope. Because in YA that was the thing for a long time, of having a young teenage girl be the savior of the world. Maybe this has always been true in YA fiction, but I think during this decade we started to see things in the news reflect that—I wrote down Greta Thunberg and Emma Gonzalez as examples, because when Emma Gonzalez was on the TV, they were like, “Oh my God, she’s fucking Katniss Everdeen.” I wanted to talk about how we feel about that trope in particular and that narrative that we sell to teenagers especially.
Sweeney: In fantasy especially for so long, we’ve seen a lot of young boys that grow up to save the world—we’ve seen that a thousand times—and then YA captures the fact that young women wanted to see themselves do that too. And because they captured it so much, it ended up becoming a trope. The “oh, this is missing” and then they flooded the market with “this is a strong female character who can save the world,” and then you had men who didn’t want to read it because “ooh, it’s a Mary Sue who’s really good at shooting arrows.” So it’s an interesting trend as a reaction to the trend of the farm boy who saves the world.
Orlando: We’ve started to talk about what we mean when we say “strong female” and are they allowed to be damaged, are they allowed to also be soft with their boyfriends—how do we deal with what female strength looks like in fiction? Because it is marketed to teenagers and young women especially, what are we teaching them through these narratives?
Schnelbach: I do feel like—when I started at Tor, halfway through 2013, people would say “strong female character” as a compliment, and it was just a completely… [like] ”you’ll like this, it has a strong female character”—it was just a marketing term. And then within two years, that had already been complicated with “it’s a strong female character, this is a cliché, she’s not going to be able to have any emotions, she’s not actually gonna be complex; her only attribute is that she’s strong in some way.”
Orlando: Because “strong” became “emulating what masculinity [was doing].”
Schnelbach: It was interesting to me that there seemed to be a concerted effort to complicate what strength actually is over this decade in particular. Definitely in film.
BEYOND THE WALKING DEAD
Zutter: I was going to jump into, speaking of worldbuilding, Seanan McGuire—well, Mira Grant’s—Feed series. It’s one of those I managed to actually read in real time because they came out one after the other, in 2010 / 2011 / 2012. In brief: It was interesting how it fits into this worldbuilding stuff, because in hers it was, “The zombie apocalypse happened… and now it’s twenty-five years later.” It does touch upon that period, because with zombie apocalypse you have to be a little more specific than just, like nuclear codes; you have to have your reasons for what happened and why. But the focus is on the world after. When the zombie apocalypse happened, traditional news media were very dismissive of it, because they were like, “It’s a flu, or mad cow disease”… it can be explained. It was bloggers on the ground who said, “No, my neighbor has turned, here’s my video” or “Here’s my reporting”—which we may not even have thought of as reporting, it was just that they were there streaming something, or telling people something authentically without viewers being able to dismiss it as a stunt or somehow fake. So then, twenty-five years later, the news media has shifted, where all the characters are these on-the-ground bloggers. They have different names, like Newsies, the objective reporters; and Irwins. who poke zombies with sticks; and Aunties, who blog about recipes and cozy stuff. It was really interesting how it remolded the future into, this one particular industry are the people who are the ones in power.
Oh, and it’s one of my favorite naming conventions, which is where people name their kids after zombie media. That’s the interesting thing—it’s a world where zombies already exist as entertainment. So lots of kids are named George, for George Romero, or Buffy, or Shaun for Shaun of the Dead.
Sweeney: We wanted to talk about how zombies were bigger from 2000 to 2010 than they were this decade. We’re finally getting another Zombieland after more than ten years. With the exclusion of Feed and [Justina Ireland’s] Dread Nation, which is a very different take on the zombie apocalypse because it’s a historical zombie apocalypse. It’s an alternate history as opposed to the traditional zombie narrative, which the 2000s saw with Max Brooks’ [World War Z] and an explosion of zombie media to feed into how much people engaged with that.
Schnelbach: The other one that I wrote down in 2011 was a literary zombie book by Colson Whitehead, called Zone One: zombies on Long Island. So there, again, you’ve got five years or so after it hit genre literature and mainstream or horror film, it finally hits litfic, because one writer of color is the one who wants to examine the zombie phenomenon as a sociological thing through literary fiction.
Orlando: I was thinking also about Severance by Ling Ma, which was not about zombies, but there’s a disease happening—it’s a disease-specific apocalypse, it’s about everybody else just making it work. It’s focused on media; the main character is a journalist or works for a media company. They called it the millennial apocalypse novel.
Schnelbach: Because she has to deal with a found family or something—try to find safety.
Orlando: It’s very soft sci-fi in the way that [Emily St. John Mandel’s] Station Eleven is, where it’s not really about the sci-fi element, it’s about normal people just living their lives.
Orlando: The thing that jumped out at me on this list was Nnedi Okorafor’s first book, Who Fears Death, and I wanted to talk about the rise of Afrofuturism.
Sweeney: A term that Nnedi—
Orlando: That Nnedi hates.
Zutter: She identifies as Africanfuturist?
Orlando: There’s a distinction because when we talk about Afrofuturism, it makes a difference whether it’s written in America by an African-American versus whether it’s written by an African person. It’s marketed as Afrofuturism to American audiences, but Afrofuturism in Africa is just sci-fi. It is interesting, we started to talk a lot more about non-western sci-fi and fantasy, and Nnedi sort of—maybe it probably isn’t the beginning of this, but it did become more part of our cultural conversation about this… This list of [sci-fi and fantasy book releases] 2010 and 2011 is dominated by men, and dominated by white men mostly, and it isn’t until later years when we start seeing more people of color on the adult list especially, and not othered, and we start seeing non-western-based sci-fi and fantasy really making a significant mark. That book [Who Fears Death] started—it became kind of like a publishing thing—once it got coined as Afrofuturism, it was like, “Oh now we can categorize this and find a market for it, we can find those readers.”
Zutter: And now, ten years later, Who Fears Death is being adapted by HBO, with George R.R. Martin attached.
Zutter: I’m fascinated to see that this list includes [Martin’s] A Dance with Dragons, which was the most recent A Song of Ice and Fire book, and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear, and also Leviathan Wakes, the first Expanse book [by James S.A. Corey]. It’s all these series that have not yet been concluded, especially the most recent installments of ASOIAF and Kingkiller Chronicle, released in the same year. I wonder if that contributes to the reader frustration—it’s not like they were staggered, you got both in the same year. And then to see something like The Expanse, where they steadily chug out a book every year; it helps that it’s two of them.
Schnelbach: And they [James S. A. Corey] were actually mentored by Martin. “Mentored” might be strong, but he encouraged them. And then they went in a sci-fi direction rather than high fantasy.
Orlando: On that subject, 2011 is the year that the first season of Game of Thrones airs. Do we feel that, after that happened, there was an increased interest in epic fantasy series? There certainly were a lot of adaptations, and now we’re starting to see His Dark Materials and The Wheel of Time and The Witcher; there are a lot of adaptations happening now, but did we feel that there was a hunger for that from readers specifically?
Sweeney: I think there was a hunger for it from readers. I think the reason we’re seeing an explosion of shows now is that no one was willing to compete with Game of Thrones in the same space; it ate up all the air in the room. I think that far more people started reading epic fantasy because of Game of Thrones. [Brandon] Sanderson, obviously, has had a really steady career track as far as that goes. Every single one of his big chonky ones in The Stormlight Archive—every single one is more popular than the last, and I think that’s because people are hungry for something like Game of Thrones in that real, “we’re gonna go into the explicit political detail of every country in this continent”—there is an interest in that, and because of that so many books have been marketed as “like Game of Thrones.” Obviously the marketing perspective is super of interest to me, but it’s one of those things where because of the show you cannot call a fantasy “the next Game of Thrones” anymore; it’s too much.
Orlando: In the same way that they did that with YA and Harry Potter. Because it was such a huge publishing phenomenon, every YA series after that was “the next Harry Potter,” up until we see [Tomi Adeyemi’s] Children of Blood and Bone. Her publisher’s whole marketing thing was, “She’s the next J.K. Rowling.”
Zutter: Rowling also had her big chonky books, which opened that up for the industry in the early 2000s. I remember Tamora Pierce, whenever her latest book was coming out in that era—she preceded Rowling, and had her whole established canon, but she was saying to her fans, “It’s because of this book selling that the draft I turned in for this third book can be as long as I want it to be, as opposed to slimming it down.” A lot of credit was given.
Schnelbach: Because they realized that a lot of readers—especially a lot of young readers—would have the emotional commitment to stay through a long book. So I think people had it ground into their heads that people wanted a book short, which makes no sense to me—a lot of people want to immerse themselves in that world.
Zutter: This is “cancel your plans, make a pot of tea” books.
Sweeney: I personally love a big, thick book, and it’s only recently that I discovered that I like big, thick sci-fi, which I feel like has been something that I only discovered in the last few years. I feel like sci-fi has gotten more… epic in the last couple of years, because people who like epic fantasy are interested in epic sci-fi as well.
SPACE OPERA AND THE ENTRY-LEVEL SF OF THE MARTIAN
Zutter: It does feel like there’s been a rise in space opera.
Sweeney: That’s the right term, because those are like “Yeah it’s OK, we can go 800 pages.” Sci-fi, I think universally, has been shorter. It’s almost as if there’s an idea that people can’t handle space empires as long as they can handle, you know, empires that are full of ice and snow.
Orlando: I wonder if that has to do with hard sci-fi being defined as being kind of technical, and publishers and editors assuming that the average person wouldn’t be able to keep up with the technical aspects of sci-fi. Because it did seem like, in order to be categorized as science fiction, it needed to be well-researched, and it couldn’t be like, “We’re in space and there’s no reason why, who fucking cares.” There really needed to be some discussion of the technology and buttons and shit like that. It seems like because we knew that people could follow really complex histories and family trees, that maybe translated over to “Sure, we can follow how this spaceship works, and how empires work, and how time travel works” in a more complicated way than “There’s a door, and we walk through it.”
Zutter: And introduce weird alien societies that are not just humanoid, or Kameron Hurley’s [The Light Brigade] with teleportation. They can start making their own in-universe explanations for stuff without it always having to have the backing.
Orlando: Because Game of Thrones the TV show was so huge, it was no longer just something that nerds were doing; the average person is now ready for this.
Schnelbach: Which I will jump in with the other side of things from 2011: [Andy Weir’s] The Martian!
Sweeney: The Martian was actually my gateway sci-fi book, because I never read any sci-fi books, and then someone told me I would like it because of the math. I would like to point out, the math is very simple, guys; it’s super fucking simple, it’s written to make you feel smart. I loved The Martian and was like, “This is a book designed to make people feel smart.” The math is really basic, but he’s using it for something very complex.
Orlando: The fact that you even include math, and talk about math and science, will make people feel smart.
Sweeney: This is a whole thing with my writing group, where we talk about first lines of books—and of course the first line of The Martian is, “I’m pretty much fucked.” It’s a great first line. It starts with, “I’m fucked,” and then it continues: “I’m trapped on Mars.” And so it’s just an extremely accessible sci-fi book, one of the most accessible ones I’ve ever read, because it’s so—this is our world, a couple of years in the future. Don’t worry about this, we have the technology to do this, I’m on Mars. And the whole “I’m slowly figuring out how to get off Mars”—I think it was a really great trend in sci-fi as well. Yeah, we’re talking about big, fat space empires, not afraid to go all Star Trek-y but in a book—you’ve also got this trend where sci-fi is becoming more accessible to the common man.
Zutter: It’s a survivalist story.
Schnelbach: It’s Robinson Crusoe in space, but with math!
Orlando: And poop potatoes.
Zutter: Part of what made it accessible was it was self-published.
Schnelbach: Fun fact: It was online, and then he edited it into a book with help from actual NASA people. Because the NASA people would write in to his site with comments like “here’s what you got wrong.”
Sweeney: It ended up becoming this incredibly popular book. I remember, I read the actual book even though I knew it was available online, which is an interesting thing, too. That’s a trend we might not be ready to talk about now, but I think the past ten years have shown us a lot of electronically self-published people being snatched up by the big five publishers, or traditional publishers, and remarketed. I think The Martian is such an interesting case, because so few people actually know the book was self-published online. It’s a really, really big success story, but it’s not often used as an example of one because it didn’t have a huge following online, but it did have a dedicated one—not, like, enormous.
Orlando: What’s interesting is that during these past ten years there was the rise of Kindle and the ebook, and everyone was like, “It’s gonna kill publishing and we’re not gonna read traditional books,” but that’s been proven so wrong. And so the fact that it did start out online—and we have a lot of stories that started out online, we can talk later about writers that came out of fanfiction traditions as well—we do have so much accessibility to writing online, but people will still go out and buy their physical books, which I think is nice. You’re putting your money where your mouth is.
Schnelbach: I tend to think, and this is purely anecdotal, but my thought is that so many people at this point work in offices where they’re under fluorescents or staring at a computer screen all day, plus we’re on our phone all day, the idea of reading on paper and looking at paper is so soothing.
Orlando: It’s a tactile experience.
Schnelbach: I would argue that since The Martian did have real math, that introduced people to the idea that they could read a book with math and science in it, and it would be funny. Because it’s so profane, and it’s hilarious.
Sweeney: That was the great thing about that book—he was profane, he was funny, and he also was calculating with algebra, like, “how many potatoes can I grow with my poop?” and everyone’s like, “wow, I understand this” and thus (a) that makes me feel really good about myself and (b) be able to enjoy the story on a deeper level than I would have been able to do if he had ignored that stuff. If you didn’t include the fact that this goofy engineer is trying to figure out how much surface area he can devote to poop potatoes, you would not have a book.
THE NIGHT CIRCUS! or, DOES ROMANCE BELONG IN SFF?
Orlando: I want to talk about [Erin Morgenstern’s] The Night Circus. It is one of my favorite stories; I think it is a perfectly crafted novel. I wanted to mention it specifically because it was everywhere that year. And in the same way that we’re getting a sequel to The Hunger Games, we’re now only just getting her second novel. The Night Circus, I think, made a lot of splash in literary circles even though it really was hard fantasy, to the point where there’s a portal and really traditional sort of fantasy elements. It was a huge publishing phenomenon.
Schnelbach: I do think the marketing on it was extremely good. To give context: In 2011, I was halfway through a graduate program, getting an MFA. I was not reading anything I was not assigned, I was mostly writing my hands off to try and finish a book. So I didn’t have time, I didn’t read it then, but it was still everywhere, and that was in a very hardcore MFA program that did not have, at that point, a spec-fic track or anything. This is not the kind of book that would have been bandied about or traded around class, but everyone still knew this book.
Orlando: I didn’t read it until later. I listened to it as an audiobook at a dead-end job, and it was something that—I don’t usually listen to audiobooks, but it kept me so entertained I couldn’t wait to get into the office because I was listening to it.
Schnelbach: I think that’s an ideal way to experience it.
Orlando: There are probably other novels about circuses, but it does take the “running away to the circus” to the next level. It adds in that magical contest. And at the heart of it, it’s a romance.
Schnelbach: There’s a couple of romances embedded in it. Some of them are star-crossed, some of them aren’t, some are very swoony.
Zutter: I want more swoony fantasy.
Orlando: How do you feel about the intersection of romance and fantasy? There are some, sort of, anti-heavy romance people on the Internet and on fandom at large, like “It shouldn’t be super-swoony,” but there’s also a large market for that.
Zutter: I feel like there’s a feeling that romances are… it’s almost like, if you were looking at a hard/soft dichotomy—like what you were saying about hard sci-fi being technical, and then you’re talking about romance, feels like soft, feminine, kind of end of the spectrum, and this idea that it should be very low stakes [in comparison]. It’s a will-they/won’t-they, either they do or they don’t, and if it’s romance, they almost always do. Which I think is, unfortunately, the way people feel, but is so debunked if you read an actual romance novel. The will-they/won’t-they is the entirety of the story and the arc—they go into the nitty-gritty and make it unique. So I love to see that in fantasy, rare as it may be, because I think the setting amplifies those moments on the romance track: the meet-cute, the obstacles, the profession of love…
Schnelbach: Don’t forget the best romance couple of all time, Frodo and Sam.
Zutter: The declaration of love! “I cannot carry it, but I can carry you.”
Schnelbach: And they throw the wedding ring into the lava.
Zutter: I’m trying to think of swoony fantasy of the decade—
Sweeney: [C.L. Polk’s] Witchmark! I was just so… To have a very sweet and swoony romance in a fantasy, and to also have it be queer—
Zutter: And two guys!
Sweeney: There’s sometimes love in fantasy books. I’m usually not quite satisfied, because I’ve read lots of fantasy books by men, and I’m trying to fix that in my life, because I feel better when I read women written by women… There’s just so many romance stories where I’m like, “Fine.” I’m one of those people who say, “Oh, I don’t want to shoehorn a romance in there”—I do feel that way sometimes. Maybe because I’m demisexual, but I’m like, “Do not give it to me unless you’re actually going to give it to me.”
Zutter: Justify it.
Sweeney: Justify it, own it. So, Witchmark is swoony—there’s a bicycle chase, and at the end of the bicycle chase, he’s like lightly hurt, and his sweet perfect boy patches him up. And I’m like, “I love this so much! It’s so cute!” A high-stakes bicycle chase in the middle of a fantasy is kind of unusual, I guess, but I loved it.
Zutter: There’s also something in Witchmark, without giving too much away—the typical romance obstacles of “We can’t be together” or “We don’t know if we can be together” is baked into the story, this idea of one person in the couple is a being who is on a different level than the other character, and there being this level of glamour and allure and the question of, “Am I actually attracted to him, or is it because my kind of person, if they interact with his kind of person, become almost entranced?” So it makes him doubt that the feelings are even real, and it fits within the larger story, which is about magical beings of different tiers using each other for energy, or for adoration, or for whatever. You can have the swooniness and those actually are very high emotional stakes in a fantasy.
Orlando: That brings me to Maggie Stiefvater and The Raven Boys, which is one of my favorite series from 2012. The story starts with the girl knows that she’s destined to meet the love of her life, but the moment they kiss, he will die. So it starts with that premise, but the romance is such a subplot to that story; and even that setup is a subplot to the romance of the two boys that develops later. There’s a slow-burn, queer romance, and we discover that while this prophecy did bring all these people together, these two boys are really the ones who are carrying the magic that’s happening, the plot that’s happening. I find that really fascinating; I did find it shelved in the teen romance section, but the romance is such a—it’s part of it, but it’s really not the point. I love that story; it’s so complicated, and the threads that are set up in the first book are highly irrelevant by the last book. It’s just about, these four people were brought together, and shit ensues. And it has one of my favorite things, which is a magical forest.
MONSTERS! PERSONHOOD! SEXINESS! ER, DROID RIGHTS? …DROID RIGHTS!
Sweeney: I wanted to talk about the perspective of monsters. It’s a trend I’ve seen in a lot of books I’ve read this decade, where it’s about—Ruthanna Emrys does it [with Winter Tide], talking from the perspective of the Eldritch beings. In this year, we had [Ransom Riggs’] Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which is like, “These children are very, very strange, but they’re not monsters!” and [Patrick Ness’] A Monster Calls, which was like, “There’s a big scary monster, but it’s not entirely bad.” The perspective of the monster’s very interesting. Also one of the most popular YA books from the next year is [Rachel Hartman’s] Seraphina, where she’s half-dragon and there’s that perspective of, the dragons are civilized monsters in their world. I kept seeing it a lot in this decade; I think it’s something that’s been in fantasy in the past, but was just something that people were willing to examine more now. I think it’s because the genre’s gotten more diverse and people are more willing to be like, “This thing that you othered is not a monster.”
Orlando: Like, is it a metaphor for racism, and does that change when there is actual racism at play? We talk about that with X-Men a lot, which was always a metaphor for the queer community, for discrimination against disabled people—but now we’re starting to have more creators from marginalized backgrounds, who have faced actual discrimination, and does it change the narrative when we talk about monsters, or aliens, as the other?
Schnelbach: When the person who has been othered historically is the one actually in charge of the story.
Orlando: Like, “I have superpowers, or I have magic, but I’m also actually black.”
Zutter: Do you feel like the metaphor of the othering becomes more explicit, like they lean into it further; or they lean away from it and address other stuff?
Orlando: I think it amplifies, and I think it becomes less metaphor and more explicit. It’s less like, “we’re trying to create empathy”—no, you should empathize with these people, but you should empathize with them as actual people, not as a monster. And you empathize with real-ass fuckin’ struggles. Plus, there’s a magical element.
Sweeney: It takes it for granted—”Of course you’re going to empathize with this person, I don’t have to persuade you.”
Schnelbach: “I don’t have to convince you of my humanity.” To jump to the end of the decade, and to bring TV into it—that is what Watchmen’s whole deal is: These people kinda maybe sorta have superpowers, or at least they’re extremely well trained in martial arts and stuff, but they also have to deal with real-ass racism. There’s a lot of people who don’t care—like, “here’s Superman, and he’s black, but a lot of you don’t give a shit that he’s Superman, what you give a shit about is the fact that you are a racist.”
Orlando: It became less of, “Let’s stop making it a metaphor” and tell people, “No we’re gonna talk about race for real. We’re gonna talk about queerness for real, and talk about the implications of that.”
Schnelbach: Which is basically what the back half of the decade has been leading to.
Orlando: Exactly, because creators of color and more queer creators entered the conversation.
Schnelbach: It’s not just well-meaning white people.
Sweeney: The other thing I noticed was an uptick in books about traditional fantasy monsters. There was the “Orcs” series, The Goblin Emperor, next year’s Unspoken Name—also about orcs—they’re from the perspective of the monster, and these things aren’t automatically “monstrous” anymore. We’re still, as a genre in fantasy, reacting to J.R.R. Tolkien—you made an entire race, unequivocally monstrous, there’s no ambiguity, all goblins, all orcs, are bad. They all want to kill you. We’re basically saying that these beings are like…wild animals that can talk. But because that makes things a little too simple, that reaction of, not only are we doing stuff where we’re talking about monsters aren’t monsters, but we’re going to take “races” which is so complicated in fantasy where we call these groups “races” but these are types of beings that we consider monstrous, we’re reexamining that, and like, in the Goblin Emperor, you’ve got a very sweet, soft-spoken Goblin teenager in a world of Elven-type beings, who think that he’s the worst.
Orlando: I think what’s interesting also is that there’s a type of monster that we as a culture have a familiarity with, vampires and werewolves and witches and fairies, that are…sexy? I feel like there’s a big market now for not traditionally “sexy” monster stories made kind of sexy, like Unspoken Name.
Zutter: Yeah, sexy orcs! Sexy goblins!
Orlando: Yeah, sexy goblins, sexy giants…
Schnelbach: Sexy fishmen!
Orlando: THERE’S A LOT OF SEXY FISHMEN.
Zutter: Similar to how you’re saying the Strong Female Character was at first one-dimensional, and then we started asking, “What does strength mean?” Strength can be softness, strength can be nurturing. I feel like “sexiness” is also being changed where it’s not just sleek, or…
Zutter: Yeah! Or hyper-masculine, like, this bulky creature can be sexy, or this person who has jutting teeth.
Orlando: There’s been a redefinition of what we think of as “sexy” and interesting, and valid of being the main character.
Zutter: Valid as having wants and desires and being sympathetic enough that readers think, “I want that person, or that creature, to find happiness.”
Sweeney: One of my favorite tropes in all of fiction is an examination of what it means to be human, or in this case what it means to be a person? And I think that when you reexamine the tropes of “this is a monstrous being” we’re also talking about what it means to be human or a person, because obviously orcs and goblins, in Lord of the Rings and D&D, are not “people.” And they have changed that in D&D, but I think it’s also been a reaction to the fact that fantasy has evolved, and says, “No, let’s examine what it means to be a person, and these goblins, these orcs, are people.”
Orlando: What it means to have autonomy and feelings and be a recognized part of the world. All of the art that we create is asking people to see us: “Recognize my humanity! Recognize my emotions! See me as a real thing—rather than just as a background character.”
Schnelbach: If you don’t mind me jumping up to 2018 again, Agent of Utopia by Andy Duncan, there’s a story in this collection called “Senator Bilbo”, in which one of Bilbo’s descendants is a senator who is actively attempting to “keep the Shire halfling” in all of his legislation. He wants strong borders around the Shire, so that no orcs can infiltrate, he doesn’t want Elvish influence taught to the children—all this kind of stuff. But over the course of the story he’s forced to deal with the humanity of all these other Tolkienesque creatures.
Orlando: Because hobbits are the ones we’re told to sympathize with, they’re the most, not human, but English?
Schnelbach: Yeah! They’re the stand-in for the English! He wants this “pure” society, and then suddenly what we’re learning is that there are trolls and orcs who are just as sentient and three-dimensional as Bilbo himself. He’s the only one who can’t see that.
Sweeney: Sci-fi wrestles with this in an extremely specific way. Yes, with aliens sometimes, like, “what does it mean to be a person” through an alien’s lens, which I think we’ve seen a lot of great stuff there, too, like Semiosis by Sue Burke had the idea of “sentience craves sovereignty” where we don’t know how to deal with other sapient beings when they don’t think or act or interact with the world the way we do. And then the things that sci-fi deals with over and over again, in every decade, is robots, and androids, what does it mean to be a person in terms of that? In this decade we’ve had Autonomous and all the Martha Wells Murderbot books, Ex Machina, Prey of Gods, where robots of some kind are wrestling with what it means to be human or a person.
Orlando: There’s a great Tochi Onyebuchi essay about sexy female androids, and the trope of having a sexy female robot assistant, or a female android that’s a recipient for male loneliness, and I was just at a talk with Jeanette Winterson—her new book Frankissstein deals a lot with sexbots and I didn’t like everything she was saying, but because sexbots have become part of our real-life conversation, there is more of a discussion of: is this the right way to deal with masculine loneliness and sexual impulses, would a sexbot brothel be a good idea, or is that just inviting more people to treat real women like they’re breakable?
Zutter: There was a Paolo Bacigalupi story on Slate’s short fiction arm, Future Tense, “Mika Model”, that was a police procedural with two cops investigating a sexbot who killed her client, which raised the question of, if she can feel sex enough to reciprocate the way the person who’s using her wants her to, what else can she feel, and what rights does she have?
Sweeney: I was talking with some friends about Star Wars. I was pretty young when I watched the Original Trilogy, like 6 or 7, and I was unsettled by the restraining bolts on Artoo, and that they were going to wipe the droid’s memories in order to make them useful. And even at the time I understood that this was a complex theme, these beings were enslaved, and they clearly have personalities and agency—but they’re enslaved! And yet, Star Wars didn’t ever interrogate that explicitly. Solo gets close to it, but it does some awful stuff with it.
Schnelbach: It does the worst possible stuff with it.
Sweeney: They never interrogate that. That was something I was shocked by. Because I thought, eventually, there’d be a droid revolution, because they use these things that can think and feel like servants, and they never once look into that. They never ask, “Is Artoo with you because he’s your friend?” We know enough about Artoo to know that he’d leave if he wasn’t interested, but most of the droids don’t appear to be on that level. If you told C-3PO he could do anything, would he stay with you?
Schnelbach: Nah, he’s going to open a piano bar.
Sweeney: One of the things I really appreciate about modern sci-fi is that it doesn’t allow itself the luxury of dropping shit like that on its viewers and readers without interrogating it.
Orlando: Are there novels that deal with droid autonomy really well?
Sweeney: I mentioned the Murderbot books. Murderbot was not born, Murderbot was created, and is a piece of property. That series is about what it means to be a person, explicitly, Murderbot talks about that, like: “[the soap operas] are a thing I started watching when I became free, and I kept watching because it was the first thing I ever experienced that made me feel like a person.” And that’s very explicit. And in Autonomous there’s a robot that begins to feel sexual feelings toward a person and the person reciprocates them, but the person consistently misgenders the robot. Eventually they explore these feelings a little bit but in the end, was that being truly autonomous? Because in this world, robots have to work off the debt they’re born with—they were created, and in this world they’re like, “It cost us to create you, and you have to work off the debt for seven years.”
Zutter: And there are some humans who have to work off that debt, but all the robots do.
Sweeney: All the robots have to work for years to be given their autonomy, because their freedom is a gift that they earn by working off the cost of their creation.
Zutter: The other thing with that relationship between Elias, the human, and Paladin, the robot, is that Paladin technically is genderless but…
Sweeney: Paladin wants to be a they, and they believe they’re a they, but they answer to “she” from Elias.
Zutter: Paladin is dealing with this binary where they’re a big bulky robot who looks kind of “male”—the way that we gender a bulk-chested robot—and Elias is very squirrelly about their attraction. Paladin changes gender to “she”, and it’s unclear whether Paladin did this to make Elias feel better (because then they do embark on a sexual relationship) or if Paladin does actually feel like a she. It’s not like Paladin is a sex robot with a silicon vagina or anything, or any sort of erogenous zones, really. They download a program that makes them literally short circuit, and it’s their equivalent of an orgasm. So when they’re doing stuff with Elias, they can be like, “At a certain point I will trigger this program and white out for a sec”, so it’s almost like they’re sharing that moment with Elias.
Orlando: On the subject of cyborgs becoming more human, I wanted to bring up MEM by Bethany C. Morrow. It’s one of my favorite stories—society has come to a point where they can isolate memories, they extract them—from rich people, more often than not, who can afford this procedure—and put them into, essentially, robots. The robots look like the original human, and relive one moment over and over again. It’s a way to talk about memory and trauma. The main character is one of these robots, they call them Mems, who has somehow been able to create her own memories. But because her beginning is from someone else, the question is, “Where do I come from? How do I become part of this world here everyone ‘normal’ has a family and an origin?” And the cyborg is forced to reconcile with her difference and the fact that she came from this unprecedented place. It’s a way to talk about the way that we hold trauma and how it makes us into a new person. Because the original person extracted that trauma, and so doesn’t have to deal with it anymore, but the Mem has to.
Zutter: So the rich are able to get rid of [the trauma].
Orlando: But then somebody else has to carry it.
Sweeney: That does come back to our point that in this decade we find a greater willingness to explore mental issues, PTSD, and the processing of trauma and depression.
Orlando: We see a lot more unhappy endings and unresolved feelings because these things aren’t neat in real life.
Sweeney: One of the many reasons I love the Six of Crows duology is because they introduce trauma and pain, and then they’re not like we’re not going to tie this up with a bow.
Sweeney: There’s also a trope of modern realistic fantasy of “Is this fantasy, or is this person…crazy? Which I do not love. There’s still plenty of that going on.
Schnelbach: That’s also huge in horror, where, “Oh no, it’s actually just that they’ve gone nuts!” But not interrogating what “going nuts” would actually mean? They’re just using it as trappings to be able to get horror imagery into literary fiction.
WHERE ARE OUR SUPERHEROIC NOVELS?
Orlando: 2012 is the year the first Avengers movie came out, and the SFF community was centered on Avengers talk at this point. But we don’t see a lot of superhero narratives in fiction.
Sweeney: Just the next year, though, we get VE Schwab’s Vicious. That one is more of a reaction to mutants and X-Men, but it is true that we’ve seen more superheroes of late.
Orlando: We see more post-Avengers. Marissa Meyers’ series.
Sweeney: We see them in YA more.
Zutter: They came out of comic books, so for me at least I find it difficult to apply those stories to prose when I’m so used to the mix of visuals and words.
Schnelbach: The trend was more for prose writers to GET a comic, almost like it was a reward for achieving a certain amount of success—you get to have your comic.
Orlando: We see major literary figures writing comics now—rather than making superstars out of comic books writers, you make comic books writers out of superstars.
Sweeney: An interesting trend I’ve noticed is that if your book is big enough, there will be a graphic novel adaptation of prose novels [sic]…I think it works for some books. Kindred, the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s book, is, lovely. It’s beautiful, and I unequivocally recommend it. I mean, I also unequivocally recommend Kindred, by Octavia Butler! But if you want to experience it in a more visual way, maybe the graphic novel is for you.
Zutter: Emmet Asher-Perrin wrote the piece about how people visualize stories, and sometimes there is—some people prefer the idea of your favorite book never being adapted because you can hold onto the version in your head,? But we are in this age of adaptations, when suddenly there is one canonical visual version of a book. But the idea of getting to see a classic novel visualized on the page must be great for a certain kind of reader.
Sweeney: I also really appreciate the trend of re-centering some of these really incredible writers that we forgot. I wouldn’t say that Octavia Butler wasn’t popular, she was…
Orlando: But she was also a Black woman.
Sweeney: Right, and they didn’t give her the attention she deserved, and now people remember her. She was the first genre writer to win a MacArthur Genius Grant. So I love that now we’re giving past giants their due, because they deserve it.
Zutter: And now we’re in a context where people are, at least somewhat, more open-minded.
Orlando: And more receptive of genre.
Zutter: The other 2012 book I wanted to mention was Redshirts by John Scalzi. I feel like it tapped into this era of self-reflexive, meta sci-fi. Riffing on Star Trek, in sort of the Galaxy Quest realm.
Orlando: I was going to bring up Space Opera by Cat Valente, that element of taking the trope and just running with it, even to the extent of calling the book “space opera”. It’s a commentary on tropey stuff, where I think for a long time tropes were something to be avoided, but we see more and more, especially from people who came up through fanfiction, the love of tropes, and the idea of leaning into “there’s only one bed” or those kinds of things, cause it’s the stuff that we find comforting. It does get tongue-in-cheek, and creates layers of commentary on genre itself—
Zutter: This shared language.
Sweeney: The previous year’s Ready Player One was sort of nerd nostalgia, so it’s Redshirts-adjacent. Armada and Ready Player One are steeped in nostalgia in a way that I don’t think Redshirts is, in that self-referential, “This is a joke that you only get if you understand nerd culture” way.
Zutter: And RPO and Armada are both built on the notion that you need to look to the past and scrutinize it, excavate it, in order to save yourself.
Sweeney: Armada is very much built on the idea that you’re good at one, maybe not useful, thing and it turns out that that’s the thing that can save the world. It very much is that nerd wish fulfilment that we see a couple books like this try to emulate. That feeling of wishing that your obsessions would save the world…wouldn’t it be great if my very intense Tumblr gif collection of Baby Yoda could save this world?
Schnelbach: I wouldn’t be surprised by that.
Orlando: I think this also comes from nerdy people, and people who like books, being dismissed for such a long time with “Oh, this is just a hobby, this isn’t gonna make any money, this isn’t where you should spend your time”. There was a narrative in our culture for a very long time, and probably still is, that any sort of nerdy something is lowbrow, worthless. Now again, to go back to Game of Thrones and Avengers, we see a huge uptick in the amount of interest in something that would traditionally be seen as nerdy, and so we see value and real dollars being put behind these types of stories.
CENTERING THE “OTHER”
Orlando: Also in 2012 we get Alif the Unseen, which is the first G. Willow Wilson novel; and she went on to have a lot of literary success with The Bird King. But I wanted to talk a little bit about—going back to non-traditional fantasy monsters being featured—we see a little bit more influence from the Middle East, and from non-white cultures, which brings in djinn and genie stories, we see that with Djinn City, and Frankenstein in Baghdad, with the rise of non-Western fantasy, it diversified the types of stories we were talking about, and brought in new sorts of monsters and creatures.
Zutter: And this trope of the djinn who is a prisoner, and has to fulfill their master’s commands. Charlie Jane Anders has a story about a djinn as well, and there was that anthology, The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories.
Orlando: And there’s a Djinn in American Gods – the Hot Djinn.
Schnelbach: Probably the single best sex scene I’ve ever seen in my life. And that was an example of a much more queer writers room taking this thing that had been written by a straight man, and diving into in a way that [author Neil Gaiman] presumably wouldn’t have had the direct experience to do.
Orlando: We have to realize that the stories we have, whether we’re talking about fairy tale tropes, or fantasy monsters, or folklore elements, that the conversation was so heavily dominated by English, Irish, Northern European influences, that when we start to see djinn enter the conversation, we’re like “Oh, this is new!” but actually it isn’t—they’re just part of cultures that have traditionally been excluded from the conversation.
Schnelbach: And if I can just give a shout to Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, which is about an African-American, biracial man, who is a New Yorker, who has to fight a couple figures out of Norse mythology to save his family. It’s a Black guy in a fairy tale in New York, essentially, who is dealing with immediate racism, constantly, from the cops and just from various people, and then on top of that he’s having to fight these mythological creatures who are alive in his reality.
Orlando: Anna-Marie McLemore retells fairytales, like Blanca y Roja, is “Snow White, Rose Red”, she’s done “The Swan Princess”, through a Latinx magical realism lens. So it becomes the reclaiming of—not these stories because they are Western, European stories—but viewing the genre through an on-Western lens and adding that level of commentary, which I think is really beautiful.
Sweeney: There have been a lot of interrogations of fairy tales. Seanan McGuire, both the October Daye and the Wayward Children series, and Naomi Novik has been doing it recently, Uprooted and Spinning Silver…
Schnelbach: Theodora Goss.
Orlando: And that’s not to say that we haven’t been doing fairy tale retellings, but I think when we start to see, like, “It’s Cinderella, but gay” or “It’s Sleeping Beauty but she’s Black” and seeing how that changes the story, because a queer person or a person of color or a disable person—oh, Marissa Meyer! Cinder, Scarlet, Cress—it would change the narrative of these stories, and how these characters interact with the world.
Sweeney: In Cinder one of the interesting elements is that she’s part robot and she’s not fully taken care of, so she loses her foot at the ball. And then the whole the about Cinderella having small feet is changed because she has to use a child’s prosthetic foot because she isn’t given enough money to replace her adult-sized one.
THE DOMINATION OF NEIL GAIMAN (AND SOME PORTAL FANTASY)
Orlando: Let’s talk about the domination of Neil Gaiman. He is a crossover figure, part of pop culture, through only writing genre.
Sweeney: He’s gotten a lot of adaptations.
Schnelbach: None of those adaptations did like, what Game of Thrones did, that, I’m using air quotes here, “sexposition”—they didn’t change it in any ways to try to get, like “Oh, if somebody’s bored by talking about all this political chicanery we’ll have a naked woman.”
Orlando: It was never marketed to a non-fantasy audience.
Schnelbach: Exactly. All of his adaptations, are, just, “No, this IS the story, we’re just adapting it, we’re not dumbing it down, we’re not making it less fantasy at all”, and people went for it.
Orlando: Partly because he was saying “No, if you don’t ‘get’ my story, then you don’t get my story.”
Sweeney: I love the Good Omens adaptation, I thought it was beautiful, and even though the book was not that explicit about the love story, the show was pretty explicit about the love story. And at no point did they do the shitty Star Wars thing of “Officially there is NO ROMANCE here.” And Ocean at the End of the Lane—as I mentioned I do enjoy that sense of deja vu that a book can give.
Orlando: It was a book that spoke to certain childhood experiences, but since it was told around and through the perspective of children, there was a lot of, like, if you were ever a kid who wanted to escape to the woods, or fall through a portal, it speaks to that experience.
Sweeney: I think a lot of portal fantasies are popular because of that, every kid wants it, every adult remembers it: “I want to escape this world and go to a better, more interesting one, where I am more important.”
Zutter: Where I am the key to some sort of prophecy.
Orlando: Or in the way that Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series does, the thing that makes me different in this world is the thing that other people want in that world. Like if I’m queer it’s a non-issue, if I’m weird in any sort of way.
Schnelbach: So even if the new world has problems with it, at least I fit there.
Orlando: Yeah. It’s about finding a place where you fit.
Sweeney: I think that’s the biggest fantasy within the portal fantasy. Everybody wants that, it’s tapping into the universal feeling of “I want to belong somewhere.”
Schnelbach: Everyone, I think, others themselves. Everyone feels that they don’t fit somehow. Some people compensate for that in ways that others don’t.
Schnelbach: [Through mouthful of Challah] ANSHULLARY JURSTESH [Ancillary Justice]
Zutter: How radical it was that Ann Leckie decided to have the female pronoun just be the baseline one. And how much blowback there was. It’s just such a good interesting space opera. [The main character] started as a spaceship that controlled hundreds of corpses and bodies kind of simultaneously and then because of a tragedy that gets revealed as the story goes on, the spaceship, Breq suddenly gets reduced to one person.
Schnelbach: One reanimated corpse.
Zutter: it goes from operating simultaneously out of hundreds of sets of eyes to suddenly just one. The only one that made it.
Sweeney: Like we were saying earlier, I love examinations of what it means to be a person, and I think the whole, “I’m a ship, in a body” is a different twist on it than we normally see in sci-fi.
Schnelbach: There is definitely a…um, “If ya like Murderbot!”—there is a lot of conversation with Murderbot.
Orlando: When did the first Murderbot [by Martha Wells] come out?
Schnelbach: That’s more recent than I thought!
Orlando: She’s been banging them out!
Schnelbach: It is very similar to that, Breq doesn’t think of herself particularly as human, so it’s very much like, “I need to micromanage how my face looks so the humans won’t find me out. I have to hold myself a certain way so the human won’t find me out. And then when I was reading Murderbot it’s exactly that, of like trying to figure out how to…walk, even.
Zutter: They also both have these like quirks that…so much of the self-regulating with “I need to pass as human”—and we’ll go into Murderbot and trans stuff in a second, because there are people who can speak to that better than I can—but there’s this need to pass as human so I’m hyperaware of these various micro-expressions, but then they also each have their own quirks that aren’t about regulating. Like, Murderbot loves its stories, its soap operas, and Breq has this wonderful weird quirk about singing tunelessly. If I remember, one of Breq’s bodies was a better singer, but by the time it’s just Breq—
Schnelbach: She still wants to be able to sing but she can’t sing the way she used to.
Zutter: She can’t carry a fuckin’ note! But as the books go on she has people who follow her it becomes like a running joke among them about what a bad singer she is, and how she can’t let go of this thing she likes.
Schnelbach: Yeah! Cause she used to be able to do anything, she used to have so many arms, basically, at her disposal.
Zutter: There was also, a whole thing with the antagonist of the first book, who I believe is the Emperor Anander Mianaii is this character who is cloning themselves through multiple bodies as a form of longevity, and there were a number of books I started seeing that did that. Mur Lafferty with Six Wakes, it’s a murder mystery on a generation ship, and as people keep dying new clones get pulled out of the goo.
Orlando: Jupiter Ascending!
Schnelbach: The Murders of Molly Southbourne!
Zutter: Noumenon, clones going through generations in space…
Sweeney: And that happens in Across the Universe, a YA trilogy. It’s a generation ship where everyone is a clone. Each one is raised by their elder. And I do think of that as a fascinating examination of mortality….and that idea of, if you were created but you didn’t have a childhood, how different does that make you from other people.
LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE SHY GOBLIN BOY, LET’S HEAR IT FOR OUR BB
Sweeney: Well, I just want to reiterate: THE GOBLIN EMPEROR.
Schnelbach: BEST BOOK OF THE YEARRRR.
AGAIN WITH THE DYSTOPIA! BEFORE? DURING? AFTER?
Sweeney: Also, Bird Box was an interesting crossover between horror, sci-fi, and literary people.
Orlando: Station Eleven! Also has a lot of literary crossover success, and the perfect book. A perfectly crafted book.
Zutter: Literally people saying we’re going to tell each other Shakespeare’s stories in the post-apocalypse.
Orlando: Performing Shakespeare with an orchestra. It’s a commentary on the value of art in those situations, and what makes us feel human is entertainment.
Zutter: And then in contrast to this mobile troupe, there’s the Museum of Civilization that exists in an airport. When people were stuck in the airport when the flu happened, these are items the people decided they didn’t need anymore. A woman leaves a pair of stilettos, there’s an iPhone, it’s all held in one place, because these objects don’t need to move, or be part of people’s daily lives anymore, they become artifacts.
Orlando: But what remains is stories and music and the things we’ve created.
Sweeney: We talked about the shift from not including the apocalypse to including it. And if you look at Station Eleven, it goes back to that trend of, “We don’t need the apocalypse. The story we’re interested in telling is what exists after the apocalypse.”
Orlando: Station Eleven tells before and after, but very little of during.
Sweeney: Bird Box does the same thing—there’s a mixed timeline, right as things are starting to go wrong, when the shit really hit the fan, and five years later, when the lady is trying to bring the children to a safe place. The mixed timeline thing really works for a post-apocalyptic story, because people do want to know what happened in your apocalypse.
Orlando: Because it’s about how to survive, and also what brought this person to this point where they HAVE to survive.
Sweeney: I mentioned World War Z, which was last decade, because we have less zombie media. What made that so novel was that was a zoom out rather than in a zoom in, when I think what most people need to do to tell a focused story is to zoom in. Like, in Bird Box it’s about that one woman, and Station Eleven is about this troupe. The Water Knife is about three people in this water crisis. The stories that really work for post-apocalyptic storytelling are the ones that zoom in the best.
Schnelbach: One I’d want to give a shout to is one section of The Bone Clocks. So, Bone Clocks is HUGE. It follows this enormous plot of a group called the Horologists, people who travel through time—kind of—and transfer their consciousnesses to different people—kind of—and they fight each other across time. Mostly though, it is the story of one young woman named Holly growing up, and her various weird encounters with the Horologists. The part that is the best section of the book is at the end. David Mitchell refers to himself as a novella writer, because almost all of his books are small sections strung together. And Bone Clocks ends in, I believe it’s set in about 2045, in a tiny town in Ireland, and it’s as the oil reserves are running out. There is very little electricity, very little internet, and people are basically living on their tiny plots of land, if they have them, and various parts of the world are completely lost. We have no idea what’s happening in them. It’s very much “during” the apocalypse, because over the course of about two weeks, the town’s food starts to run out, and a gang from two towns over starts to take over, and you can see that within a month it’s going to be fully feudal, this gang is going to run the town through violence—it’s basically The Rise of Immortan Joe. It is easily the most frightening thing I’ve ever read in my life.
HORROR VS. “THE WEIRD”
Orlando: Ooh I also want to bring up Jeff VanderMeer and the Southern Reach Trilogy.
Zutter: It was so cool in a publishing way that all three of them got released over six months.
Orlando: The thing that pops up around VanderMeer’s name the most is the word “weird” and surrealism, and bizarre elements in science fiction, in this decade we started seeing more bonkers-level shit happening.
Schnelbach: This is a technical, genre term.
Sweeney: BONKERS. LEVEL. SHIT.
Orlando: What qualifies as “weird”? At what point does already genre stuff cross the line into “surrealism”?
Schnelbach: When it’s marketed to fans of literary fiction.
Sweeney: One of the things I’ve noticed is the active mutation of the human form. In movies, Arrival, with the whole idea that she’s not fully human anymore, the same with Annihilation, they’re not fully human anymore. But it’s that you slowly lose your humanity in such a gradual way, that you don’t notice it happening, that I think is a hallmark of work that’s surrealist and “weird”. The surrealist thing is losing humanity and not realizing it.
Orlando: Where does that cross the line into horror?
Schnelbach: I don’t see Annihilation as horror.
Sweeney: I think people saw it cross into body horror.
Schnelbach: I thought the interesting thing that they did—which they played up even more in the film—was the idea that these changes were not “negative”. It was a horrific experience in certain ways, but it was also revelatory, a lot of the people seemed to be actively happy about the metamorphosis.
Sweeney: Yeah, the mind-fuckery of “I’m slowly using my humanity, and I don’t mind.” I think surrealism has to include a certain level of mind-fuckery.
CHINESE SCI-FI AND INEVITABILITY
Orlando: Also in that year we got The Three-Body Problem and a wave of Chinese sci-fi, and we’re getting what sci-fi looks like in other cultures through their own lens, not through an Americanized lens.
Sweeney: Sci-fi is an expression of cultural anxieties. I think experiencing science fiction in translation is interesting because I’m fascinated by what these other cultures anxieties are. Like, Waste Tide, where a character gets powers because of an absolute TIDE of garbage.
Zutter: Because of garbage islands, right?
Sweeney: Yeah! And it’s specifically relevant to the U.S., because we’ve been shipping garbage to China for 25 years, and very recently China has decided to no longer buy our garbage. And in The Three-Body Problem aliens are coming to Earth, and how we prepare for them will define out fate. But then, Supernova Era, there again, what’s coming is COMING, and we can’t stop it, we just have to prepare. Which is an interesting way of doing sci-fi. The obsession of the The Three-Body Problem and Supernova Era is, “No, this is happening, and how we react defines our era.”
Zutter: It’s not like fuckin’ Armageddon, where we go blow up the asteroid so it passes us by.
Schnelbach: Yeah, it’s more like is there a way we can survive this, and then, how? There is no way to avoid it, but the aliens are going to take a while, so there is time to prepare.
Sweeney: Yeah! And then in Supernova Era, there’s a supernova coming, and everyone on the planet over 13 will die. So adults are taking on really young apprentices, like “You have to learn computers, and infrastructure, and all this shit, so when we all die it doesn’t turn into Lord of the Flies!” and it asks what kind of adults you would get if that’s how you spent the collective childhood of an entire nation. Like, you have to learn how to be an adult by the time you’re thirteen, and after that everyone you know is going to die.
CHOOSE YOUR TEAM: STANDALONE VS. TRILOGY VS. DUOLOGY
Orlando: More than anything it seemed like the publishing world wants trilogies now more than multi-book series like Wheel of Time or George R.R. Martin-style series. What is the benefit of doing a trilogy compared to a longer epic fantasy series?
Sweeney: I think in YA, some standalone ideas were forced into trilogies. But most adult fantasy writers are prepared to write a longer series, so if you tell them you want a trilogy they can siphon their ideas into that framework. It might even be helpful for a fantasy writer. Like, A Darker Shade of Magic I think is a really tight trilogy. And the fact that we’re getting a sequel trilogy is very cool, but at the same time it’s not like—
Orlando: It’s not more of that story, it’s more that same world.
Sweeney: The Binti story is a trilogy, but they’re also novellas, so you could squish them into one book, but as they are each book has their own structure. I also really appreciate the trend where I’m seeing more standalones, like Uprooted. I love a good series, but at the same time there’s a comfort in knowing I can start and finish this story and not have to wonder where it’s going or when it’s ending.
Zutter: And you still get the lushness and the worldbuilding, and maybe it’s just one book, but it still feels like a room where every single corner has been explored, and you know when you step out of that room, there’s nowhere else to go.
Orlando: You don’t have any unanswered questions.
Zutter: You can have a satisfying experience, without having to be on the hook waiting for the next one.
Schnelbach: If I can go back to Goblin Emperor, it’s beautifully detailed, it’s a perfect fucking story in its own way, but then if Katherine Addison is going to write another one, which she’s said she’s going to write another book, but about a different character. So you can still return to the world, but you’ve already had a satisfying arc from that world, so you can commit to the story in a stress-free way.
Zutter: Or potentially read the second book first!
Schnelbach: And then everyone will have their own—as I hope that eventually we will have a Goblin Emperor Cinematic Universe, everyone will have their own entry point, and that will affect how you read the rest of them.
Sweeney: 2015 was also the year of Six of Crows. I dream of it [sic] …and it has in some ways resurrected the duology, if you were to pitch a YA book anytime this decade they would be like, “Ah, yes, you have a trilogy?” and this one was, “How about…two?”
Orlando: Twin novels!
Sweeney: Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are a full story, If we’re talking about trends, I’ve got mad respect for doing a duology.
Zutter: In some ways I think the duology is more ambitious. In a standalone the author can decide, this is everything I’m going to do within these constraints, and in a trilogy or anything beyond that, you can outline it and know which beats will be in which book, but in a duology, you have to have enough in the first book, but also save enough for the second that it doesn’t feel like a prolonged epilogue.
Orlando: And a trilogy would seem like a beginning, middle, and end, a very clear story structure, where the duology has to play with where those boundaries are.
Sweeney: Six of Crows can stand alone, but it’s even better with the whole thing.
Orlando: What I find interesting about Leigh Bardugo’s career in general is that she’s worked within this world, the Grishaverse, in many different formats. So, the original trilogy, the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, is YA about a strong female protagonist who’s destined to save the world, Six of Crows is an adult heist story, but still in the Grishaverse, but then she also has a book of fairytales, The Language of Thorns, in the same universe, but it’s a collection of short stories. And then the TV adaptation is going to be a mix of all these different things that exist in this world.
Orlando: 2015 is also the Rise of Queen Jemisin.
Orlando: We’ve talked about cli-fi already, but I want to talk about the idea that one of the most significant voices in SFF right now being a Black woman. Well respected, getting her roses, I think The Fifth Season is a significant moment in genre.
Schnelbach: I believe at least Entertainment Weekly and maybe also Vulture chose it as Best Fantasy of the decade. And I believe at that point [when she wrote The Fifth Season] she still had a day job. She was still working her day job until the next year.
Zutter: When her Patreon was funded.
Schnelbach: She’s putting out the best fantasy of the decade while going to a 9-5.
Sweeney: While being a psychologist!
Orlando: And the books are complicated, they jump through time, and deal with forbidden magic, slavery, a world that is just hit with giant earthquakes, a school of magic-users called Orogenes, and, basically, it’s partly about power structures and oppression and the climate falling apart? But they’re also wayyyy too complicated to sum up here. Everyone who’s serious about fantasy should read them immediately!
LIKABILITY AND THE HEROIC VILLAIN/VILLAINOUS HERO
Zutter: Also in 2015, Traitor Baru Cormorant which is one of those books—the next one is coming out soon. And we were talking about Strong Female Characters, but the push toward, and backlash against, unlikeable female characters. Baru is a queer woman of color living in a colonialist society, who’s trying to throw off her oppressors by becoming like them, and she’s sympathetic, but she also does such heartless stuff.
Sweeney: And like, Monster Baru Cormorant is a continuation of that, “I must become a monster in order to do the things I need to do.” which is very relatable and scary, and also something we don’t get to see women do a lot? We see that in really masculine stories, like the Punisher: “I’m a monster now, but I get rid of criminals”
Zutter: And Baru has the self-loathing, but also that, leaning into being monstrous, that gives her a narrative, and if she leans into that gives her the belief that the end justify the means, but that sense of: “other people have to die, to justify my master plan that I can’t tell people about” and the idea of one person carrying all of that, and how that manifests.
Sweeney: I think allowing women and female-coded characters to be monstrous, to be everything, warriors, or anything, is a thing I think we’ve gotten so much better about in genre, and as a genre community. I was thinking of The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley, and that essay that came out earlier, “We Have Always Fought”, it was a huge thing because people forget that women have always been capable.
Orlando: This year is also A Darker Shade of Magic—Lila Bard is very unlikeable, and more violent than her male counterparts and it’s interesting none of the other male characters shed as much blood as Lila does.
Sweeney: Holland is…neater?
Orlando: Yes! But it’s interesting that we still root for her even though she has violent instincts, and we don’t ever get to see her background so we don’t get to see why she’s like this, this is just the woman that you get. There are no excuses. There’s an implication of past trauma but it’s never defined, so it feels like, it doesn’t matter what made her this, she just IS. And we still like her. We still want good things for her.
Sweeney: Schwab is very invested in sympathy for villains, but Lila is not a villain.
Orlando: No, she’s not.
Sweeney: She’s a hero…of sorts. She’s one of the heroes of the story, but she’s not a good person. But one of things Schwab explores more in the villains duology is the concept of sympathy for the villain. The characters are not “good” people, but you understand them.
Orlando: And it’s all about the narrative that’s told around their actions rather than the actions themselves. Victor is painted the villain, and Eli is painted the hero, through media and news and other narratives around them, not really what their story is. There are two sides to the story and both of them are true.
Sweeney: Marcella in Vengeful is not a good person, but so relatable because she’s been made powerless and suddenly has the power to make everyone that ever made her feel powerless feel just as bad as she used to. And that’s so relatable to anyone who has ever felt powerless, and that happens to female-coded people A LOT. Sometimes you feel that itch of, “wouldn’t it be great to make everyone that ever made me feel this way just as powerless?” and the fact that we get to explore that in fiction with stuff like Vengeful, or The Power by Naomi Alderman, one of the demographics that lacks power, teenage girls, gets super powers, and how does the world navigate that? The thing I really appreciated about those and The Geek Feminist Revolution was the ability to examine these power inversions—what are women like when they abuse power—and I find that a really refreshing inversion, to be able to see women as complicated villains, that aren’t just femmes fatales.
Orlando: It’s almost like the parallel to the strong female hero that we were talking about earlier is that we wanted the hero to be strong but also complicated, we want our villains to be complicated, and we want to be able to empathize with both, and to show all shades of a female experience.
F#$%ING AROUND WITH LOVECRAFT: FURTHER ADVENTURE WITH DIVERSITY IN SFF
Orlando: The one thing I wanted to talk about coming up on 2016 is that the YA list especially becomes significantly more diverse, it’s the year of The Underground Railroad which is a big thing, and then we start to see Renée Ahdieh, Zoraida Córdova, Anna-Marie McLemore, Kekla Magoon, and a bunch of other young writers of color writing identity and issues-based books, and that becomes a huge trend. And we also get first novels from Heidi Heilig, Dr. Malka Older, Nisi Shawl, a bunch of other non-white young women, and it is part of this growing trend of issues-based, identity-based books, using sci-fi and fantasy elements as a way to talk about these kinds of things.
Zutter: Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country also is 2016, and I wanted to mention fucking around with Lovecraft.
Sweeney: I mentioned Ruthanna Emrys when we were talking about othering and reversing the othering, and examining and centering things that had been others, including monsters, and I think she re-examines Lovecraft in a really interesting way.
Schnelbach: Winter Tide and Deep Roots and obviously Victor LaValle with The Ballad of Black Tom which is, I would say, still my favorite thing that Tor.com Publishing has done. Victor’s best friend Mat Johnson wrote a book called Pym which deals with the most racist of the Poe stories, a troupe of mostly black explorers go to Antarctica and deal with these indigenous monsters that they refer to as “snow honkeys” and it’s hilarious, and they have to try to fight these giant yeti-like monsters and it’s explicitly about whiteness.
Orlando: Along with The Underground Railroad which had cross-over literary success, science fiction and fantasy as a vehicle for talking about trauma and strength through alternative history. And there’s a couple of sort of slavery-based narratives, and we’ll see this with Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts also.
Zutter: Generation ship as slave ship.
Orlando: Dread Nation is very similar, there’s a couple of similar narratives this year, Remembrance by Rita Woods and there’s that Janelle Monae movie, Antebellum, coming out this year, using alternative history and horror science fiction elements to talk about slavery specifically.
Zutter: Is that like a recalling or processing in a different way? Because there’s intergenerational trauma talked about, too, especially in An Unkindness of Ghosts.
Orlando: Generational trauma, talking about ghosts as metaphor, but also as a real element within the context of the story, and I think it’s a way to process our history and the history of Black Americans, especially given that there’s still so much trauma going on. We talk about what if things had been different, what if people had survived, what if we had more of a connection to our past.
Schnelbach: And excavating that genealogy is almost certainly going to lead to unearthing what was done to your ancestors by white people, which is extremely difficult to deal with—that then becomes part of your bloodline and there’s no way out from under that. And to me, all these books are in the tradition of Beloved and Kindred. I see them as twin book by Black women trying to actually deal with this horror in a way that forces people to relive it, and hopefully to process it.
Sweeney: I feel like Dread Nation is a different processing of slavery, in the end it’s about who owns Black bodies. In the world of Dread Nation, the responsibility of fighting zombies is entirely on people of color.
Schnelbach: Because they’re basically mobilized as infantry.
Sweeney: And this is, the North and South happened, the Civil War stops because the soldiers at Gettsyburg turn into a zombie horde, the dead of the Civil War rise again and march across the land and people die. As the story begins you’ve got a young Black woman who has been trained to use a scythe and a pistol and all these things, and her goal is that she’s meant to be—she’s at a finishing school—and if she succeeds she’ll be sent to protect a rich white girl. And that’s her goal, she’ll be the protector and the bodyguard of a rich white girl. It’s a fascinating world and there’s the whole thing of, in the East it’s more common, and in the West BIPOC have begun to claim more space because they’re like, “No one is stopping the zombies except us, and if we protect this land ourselves, we own it”, and there’s a whole thing about who owns the land, who owns the body? If your body is little more than a shield between the closest white person and zombie then you don’t own your body. It’s a processing of slavery that is a little different than what we normally see, and is super relevant to the modern era—who owns Black bodies is obviously still an important question when you have police officers murdering people.
Orlando: And the prison industrial complex as modern slavery.
Schnelbach: There is somebody coming in from the lit fic side—George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (won the Booker Award that year), which was my favorite book of 2017, where in death people were separated, even in death there was a class system, and even in death the Black bodies had been buried outside of the cemetery, so the Black ghosts had to come in from the outside to deal with the trauma that was happening to the ghosts in the white cemetery, and it’s really interesting because it’s a little bit more removed, and by taking historical stuff about Abraham Lincoln, and a ghost story, but then filtering it through Buddhist philosophy, Saunders is able to make points about human nature that are, I would say less visceral. Because the idea of ownership gets swamped because everyone now is non-corporeal in the story. But then that’s extremely interesting, because there’s a point where a Black ghost possesses a white body and moves into the white body. It’s not exactly like Ratatouille and you’re suddenly marionetting that person, but the possessed person is able to have a second thought in their brain, which is then forcing the white character to see things through the eyes of the Black character.
Zutter: It’s like reverse Get Out!
Orlando: I was just going to bring up Get Out. Two of the books that come up later – there’s a book called Blackass by a Nigerian author, A. Igoni Barrett (2015), and then We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, two books that deal with blackness. Blackass is about a man who wakes up one day, and in the tradition of The Metamorphosis, and appears white—except for his ass. So it’s something you can cover up, but is still very much a marker of the way Black bodies were treated and hypersexualized and fetishized. And We Cast a Shadow about a father who’s trying to make his son white, so that his son can have opportunities.
Schnelbach: Physically, it’s like a near-future where you can have yourself genetically changed.
Orlando: Yes, physically have his son’s body be made into a white body. Because it’ll allow him to pass through the world more easily and have more privilege. And it’s about like, the father would do anything for his son. So we do start to see more narratives directly interrogating racial boundaries using these sorts of near-future-y kind of vehicles.
Schnelbach: All the genres are being used, all the tropes are being used, and usually by writers of color.
HER BODY AND ALT HISTORY CLASS
Orlando: I’m also going to bring up Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which is one of my favorite books of all time. Her body and other parties, is unique in that it was a short story collection that garnered so much literary success, and unique in that it’s written by a queer Latinx woman.
Zutter: I think it was “The Husband Stitch” that was the story that kind of went viral—and it had already been released online—and there was an essay that was released by someone who teaches that story in her class and that was my first introduction to this, and this story that I, as a white girl, remember, this urban legend about the girl with the ribbon around her neck.
Orlando: But also they discover that “the husband stitch” was a real thing, and the stories in that book are all about women’s trauma, and in particular queer women’s experience.
Sweeney: I haven’t read that book, and I heard about Her Body and Other Parties but also, I know what a husband stitch is.
Zutter: I think a lot of us didn’t, and it’s so interesting that it’s SFF bringing in this real-world horror.
Schnelbach: Which, Watchmen again, a lot of people didn’t know about the Tulsa Massacre, a lot of people didn’t know about the Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden.
Orlando: We see authors re-educating the American public about things that were left out of our history classes, and Exit West comes out this year also, and Unkindness of Ghosts again, we start to see these real world things re-imagined, or alternative histories using SF elements. And even Her Body and Other Parties, the biggest chunk is a novella based off of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, which is a spectacular achievement. It’s using these things to talk about women’s trauma. And I remember, I was at an event with Machado and Daisy Johnson, who wrote a spectacular collection called FEN, again a sort of fabulist surrealist woman writer, and I asked, “Why do you feel like women are drawn to this literary speculative fiction fabulist surrealist kind of genre?”—in the vein of the two of them, obviously, but also Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link, and others—and she said something about “When you’re already marginalized, it’s easy to blur the lines in other places, these things don’t seem so fantastical when you’re already on the margins of existence and society” and I found that really profound. I think that’s why some of these stories are so effective. It’s just a little bit of a heightened reality. Watchmen is also in this vein, it’s not really hardcore sci-fi, it’s just a little bit of a heightened reality.
Schnelbach: Just a little off to the side.
Sweeney: Now, 2017 is when the first Martha Wells came, and Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth, which is alternate history, and Robyn Bennis’ The Guns Above. River of Teeth is, and I know this is probably just me missing out on things, but it was one of the first pieces of genre I read where they/them pronouns were used for a nonbinary human character. Not a robot, not a mystical fantastical being. It is an alternate history book but it’s a human character. I really appreciated that. And I think I’ve already talked about Martha Wells and how much I love the examination of what it means to be human.
A BRIEF INTERLUDE IN WHICH WE ASK MURDERBOT ITS PRONOUNS
Zutter: And with Murderbot, it’s just been good to see how other people have fallen for this character, and whether it’s like, through a lens of trans-ness? Or just the idea of a robot that has its name and function so clear: Murderbot—-but it’s still redeemed.
Schnelbach: And also a reaction to our current weird peak TV binge culture! This is the first character I can think of, (other than that one Portlandia sketch) this is the first character I can think of that watches TV the way we all watch TV—and they…I never remember which pronouns to use?
Sweeney: They call themselves an “It”, and they also call themselves Murderbot rather than using a pronoun. I also think that Murderbot is a really beautiful thing for several different kinds of neurodivergent persons, I personally felt very gratified in that, because one of my particular issues manifests in me sometimes feeling like an alien or eldritch being, and I’m feeling like I don’t understand the human world. Like, “Ah you have feelings and you process information really different from me, and I don’t know how to process that!” And Murderbot is so explicit in the, “I don’t understand how humans work, this is how I work, why don’t they work the same”. And it’s just extremely relatable, and that sense of Otherness that it takes into every situation is just relatable for a lot of different types of people.
…AND BACK TO ALT HISTORY CLASS!
Sweeney: I do want to mention, since we mentioned alternate history, Bo Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing. I sobbed when I read that, I think that there used to be no genre book that had ever made me cry, and that has changed.
Zutter: It’s such a braiding of different bits of history, with the Radium Girls and the elephants and the Nuclear Brotherhood. I had more of a geeky, “Oh I’m learning so much from this!” The elephant poetry parts didn’t quite do it for me.
Sweeney: I love the poetry, it made me sad, and I love all of the elephant parts, and the ending killed me.
Zutter: I think it’s striking that they use that language, and I don’t know if I’d quite call it crossover, but that format was part of the story and part of its success.
Orlando: It was certainly a more literary form and a more daring approach to a science-fiction story.
Schnelbach: Like Ursula Le Guin would fold in anthropological stuff and poetry and song, Samuel Delany would have his partner, Marilyn Hacker, write poetry for his books, so there is a tradition of having that, but I do think that one kind of pushed it! And it was also educating us about our history—a lot of people don’t know that the Radium Girls happened, they don’t really know about Topsy unless they saw her on Bob’s Burgers, so they’re educating people about this shadow history of the U.S. and about how people were exploited, and how terrible capitalism is.
Zutter: Shadow history is a lovely phrase.
Schnelbach: And that’s kind of what the last few years of SFF have done, they’re teaching us our own history that was hidden from us.
Orlando: I also have Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi under this year, and I want to touch on the retelling of the Frankenstein narrative, I also have The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley listed here, about retellings with an identity lens. I think Frankenstein in Baghdad especially is a direct byproduct of the war in Iraq of the past couple of decades, and it is not a subtle narrative, it is about bodies, dead bodies.
Zutter: It’s sort of SFF-adjacent, but last year was the re-translation of The Odyssey, the first mainstream one by a woman. And speaking of not being subtle, it opens with “Let me tell you the story of a complicated man”, which is a killer first line. And I follow the translator, so I was very invested in the story from her point of view. I didn’t look to see if there was any backlash about “SJW” whatever—but none of the coverage seemed dampened by that, which is joyful.
Schnelbach: Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf is gonna start with the word “Bro”, instead of “Hwæt”, which people think probably meant like “Hark!” or “Listen!”—but instead it’s “Bro!”.
Sweeney: As long as we’re bringing up The Odyssey translation, Circe came out last year, the whole retelling that centers an insufferable man that we’re meant to celebrate, Circe instead centers a complicated woman from the same story, which is nice.
Zutter: Especially because in pop culture we’re hitting this era where we’ve been re-contextualizing all these vilified women from our childhood in the ‘90s, like Lorena Bobbitt and Monica Lewinsky, and Circe fits right into that.
Sweeney: I remember being a kid and being taught that Monica Lewinsky was a slut that did oral on the President in the Oval Office.
Zutter: As opposed to what he did. And Lorena Bobbitt was crazy and cut off her husband’s dick, but no, she was abused.
Sweeney: And in today’s era, when we think about the power dynamics, suddenly it becomes really gross that the most powerful man in the world wanted this young female intern. That’s a little different, that we get to understand the story with more complexity now, we don’t accept simple narratives anymore.
A SPEED ROUND OF WHAT WE LOVED IN 2019, WITH INTERLUDES ON THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE
Schnelbach: More people have access to stories than have had access before. I’m reading Inland right now, Téa Obreht’s first book was a giant hit the same year as The Night Circus, and her follow-up is coming out the same year as The Starless Sea. So I think it’s really interesting that those two are completely in parallel. Inland is an Old West story about the Camel Corps—like how Sarah Gailey dealt with the hippo thing—that never happened but it was a real idea—the Camel Corps did actually happen. This is about a group of Middle Eastern people who were shipped over to America to try and have a troupe of camels instead of horses, to “civilize” the Old West, because people figured the Indigenous people in the West would be afraid of camels in a way that they were not afraid of horses. So people on camels would be able to settle the area. But it’s also a ghost story in which the ghosts are objectively real.
Sweeney: Gideon The Ninth. What a joyful book. I know that the ending has been shocking for many people but honestly, what a joyful book. Me, reading a book like that, that delights in language, it enjoys itself, you’re meant to have a good time and it’s not a book lightly repackaged for me, something I’ve read 56 times before.
Zutter: And such care is taken, down to the individual words, that each House has to do with, the names: “sextus” and “pal” and “septus”…it never takes itself too seriously. It has that fantastic pull quote about “Lesbian necromancers in space”, and they’re lesbians but it’s not really…clearly there is love and attraction there but that’s not the thrust of the story. These queer people are just having an adventure. This shadow cult that was literally supposed to have entombed themselves and never come back up, is like “we exist and you might be in this crumbling furthest edge of the galaxy, but we still matter and we still have a place at this table” the fact that they’re both queer is super interesting.
Schnelbach: It doesn’t define them. And Silver in the Wood, that was another one—they’re queer and it’s just there, it doesn’t matter. That’s not why people are afraid of the Green Man, dude.
Orlando: It seems to be the way that queer narratives have gone –it was a metaphor, then it was sort of hidden, we were side characters and whatever, and then it was main characters with coming out stories, and now it’s not the main point of the story—it’s just queer people living their lives.
Sweeney: All my favorite 2019 books are gay: Gideon, Empress of Forever, Monster of Elendhaven, A Memory Called Empire. A lot of them, minus Monster of Elendhaven, they’re WLW, which I’ve seen even less. I was excited to read this joyful gay romance in Witchmark, and this year I was just delighted to read all of these WLW books.
Orlando: And Magic for Liars, also.
Zutter: And kudos to Max Gladstone, because Empress of Forever is a sort of-retelling of Journey to the West, but he did it thoughtfully and has a character who is an Asian woman and it has WLW stuff, and like, kudos.
Sweeney: Viv! I remember they described her as a female Tony Stark, and she is that. No one’s ever done that to my satisfaction before. And I used to be interested in some actual gender-bent Tony Stark stuff, because they gender-bent him sometimes, but only so they can put him with Captain America without being icky and gay—they never actually explore what it would mean for the smartest person in the world to be a woman. And what would it mean for a hyper-intelligent billionaire to live under the scrutiny a woman undergoes.
Orlando: Think about the backlash of when they introduced Riri Williams into the Marvel Universe, because suddenly the smartest person was a young Black teenager, and people flipped out about it.
Zutter: A Memory Called Empire—the fact that everyone in this world hundreds or thousands of years from now, they have their own history and they have all these epic poems, so when the shit starts hitting the fan they’re like “It’s just like in that one poem when this happened!” and I love that they’re nerds, and they’re doing in their future what we do in our present, which is all this stuff happening in the news and on Twitter and we say, “It sounds like a movie”, “Truth is stranger than fiction”, and “If it wasn’t real people would say it’s a shitty plot twist”—but we’re regarding our reality as a piece of entertainment, as a coping mechanism.
Sweeney: “Released, I am a spear in the hands of the sun.”
Zutter: I need to reread it because it’s so beautiful.
Sweeney: It was so beautiful to me because I love the intensity of the exploration of the Empire, and the poetry! It was so complicated and intense but also related in such a way that it made me feel smart. I feel like such a nerd.
Zutter: And maybe I don’t read enough space opera, but it felt unique, kind of like Gideon, where I hadn’t read a lot of this worldbuilding before, the naming conventions were so cool.
Sweeney: But I also feel like the examination of imperialism is fascinating, because the main character’s obsession with the incredible art and scope of this amazing empire, but at the same time her culture is about to be swallowed up by it. Everything that makes her people her people is in danger, but she’s also in love with thing that is making it endangered.
Zutter: And it happened to her predecessor, and him literally projecting that love of culture and of empire onto specific people and her just discovering how he mixed business with pleasure. And the moments where she gets caught up in it and almost feels a part of it, and someone says to her “Oh I like you anyway, even though you’re a barbarian…” it just—her moments of getting pulled back into “Oh no, I’m still the Other”, you realize you and she wanted to not be the Other. And that was scary.
Sweeney: Because you know she shouldn’t want to belong with them, but yet you feel it and you want it for her too. That she’s actively being colonized and she’s like “But I don’t hate it”—that it’s an all-consuming terrible thing, it’s like fire, it’s warm but also I’m going to get burned. It’s such an interesting examination of that. And the Byzantine influence, Arkady is a Byzantinist—we’ve talked about other authors who have day jobs and it comes through in their writing, and not everyone can afford to or has that thing where they’ve lived multiple lives before they were an author, but it’s so rewarding to see that stuff comes though.
Zutter: This is How You Lose the Time War! Speaking of poetry and beauty of language…
Orlando: In the way that Gideon does, I think it just reveled in the romance of language. I mean the story itself as it unfolds is incredibly romantic, but the metaphors are so lovely and lush, especially the garden metaphors are absolutely stunning. Again, a queer narrative where queerness is not the point. I talked about this earlier about taking joy in the tropes—the enemies-to-lovers trope just on speed in this book.
Sweeney: I think we need to mention how incredible the year 2019 was in terms of genre. I read so many just incredible 2019 books. And books that are reveling in the things that we’re still capable of. You’ve been in genre for a while and sometimes you’re like, well this was fun but it was what I’ve read five times before. And then This is How You Lose the Time War and Gideon and Memory are a glimpse of the places we can still go without feeling like we’re treading the same ground. We are capable of so much more.
Orlando: And I would also put Future of Another Timeline along with that. I didn’t feel the language was super inventive but it was so much fun, and so much playing with the things we can still do with these old tropes with time travel and crossed timelines and all that. And I’m interested also in the Sarah Pinsker novel Song for a New Day using punk music elements, and the music of angry women, specifically, to tell their story.
Sweeney: I do really appreciate that angle of, “You are allowed to be angry”, and particularly in terms of the Newitz book: this is one way to be angry and do good. Be angry but do not sin. It’s okay to be angry about it but don’t make the world a worse place because you’re angry. So I really appreciate narratives that own that. It’s okay to be angry, you have every right to be angry.
Orlando: And we’re starting to see that in issues-based books and books by marginalized writers that anger—
Sweeney: —is a gift?
Orlando: Anger is a gift, and I was going to bring up Captain Marvel, that her anger and her passion and her feelings are the things that make her strong. And anger at the world and its systems especially are the things that give you strength to keep going and keep fighting this good fight towards something better. It’s not hope that fuels you necessarily, we don’t want to wash away your anger by saying keep it positive and keep it hopeful, we say this is a good feeling sometimes when you’re rallying against the system. And we’re already seeing that for 2020—Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is all about channeling anger.
AND IN CLOSING
ALL: Fuckin’ Gideon, man.