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Joel Cunningham

Six SFF Novels That Defy Genre Distinctions

Science fiction and fantasy exist as strata of various subgenres: hard SF and space opera, epic and urban fantasy, steampunk and cyberpunk, and so on. It’s baked into genre fiction, this omnipresence of tropes and conventions that allow picky readers to know exactly what they’re in for.

But some authors say: screw that noise. Why limit yourself to just one genre when you can toss them all across the floor, grease up your book, and roll it around in the resulting debris, picking up a little of this and a little of that? (You know, metaphorically.)

Here are six recent works of SFF that give absolutely no effs about the genre divide.

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Hugo Spotlight: Coming of Age on an Alien World in Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

I adored Charlie Jane Anders’ first novel, All the Birds in the Sky—not that this puts me in rarefied company; it did win the Nebula Award for Best Novel and was named one of the 10 best novels of 2016 by Time magazine. And beyond its proclivity for genre mashing (the story follows a pair of young protagonists as they come of age, one of them a scientific genius capable of building a wristwatch-sized time machine, the other a budding witch who can speak to animals) or its ripped-from-tomorrow’s headlines plot (which brings us to the brink of the climate apocalypse and beyond), I loved it for its narrative voice. Laden with the author’s understated, wry wit—honed across a decade in the internet trenches as the editor of the science and science-fiction website io9—and littered with sarcasm and pop culture references, it reads like a book written for people who came of age alongside the internet (raises hand).

Anders’ follow-up, The City in the Middle of the Night—her second consecutive novel to earn a Hugo nomination—looks, on paper, like a very different animal indeed. Instead of a near-future Earth, it is set centuries in the future, on an alien world colonized by humans. Instead of mining tropes from both sides of the genre divide, it sits firmly in the camp of New Wave-era, Ursula K. Le Guin-style science fiction. And contemporary pop culture references in this context would certainly be… a choice.

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Hugo Spotlight: Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth Is Delightfully Nuts

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

In reviewing the largely unremembered 2006 thriller Running Scared, Roger Ebert crafted a turn of phrase that I will never forget, commenting that the film, “goes so far over the top, it circumnavigates the top and doubles back on itself; it’s the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness.” I find myself leaning on this bon mot every time I tried to explain the plot of Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth to someone who wants to know what the (considerable) hype is all about. I think the novel’s muchness is one of its greatest strengths—this is the kind of book that demands to be discussed solely in exclamations: Necromancers! Swords! Skeletons! Secrets! Space castles! Giant bone monsters! Dirtbag romance! It is, as the kids say, a lot. And in the absolute best way.

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Hugo Spotlight: Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade Is a New Classic of Military SF

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

Like everything else in 2020, genre fiction has become heavily politicized. I don’t mean that in the way people sometimes mean it—people who complain that they don’t want “politics” in their books and only care about “good stories.” It’s more that increasingly, the type of novel you choose to read is seen by some as a political choice, irrespective of its contents: If it’s from this publisher, it’s leftist nonsense. If it’s from that publisher, it’s a right-wing polemic. And at a time when the font choice on a book’s cover is as declarative as an American flag sticker on a Facebook profile photo, no SFF subgenre feels more fraught to me than military science fiction.

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Hugo Spotlight: Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame Is Some Kind of Literary Alchemy

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

Seanan McGuire is a fascinating writer because she is so many different writers. I’m not just referring to the fact that she’s got a pretty successful side gig writing horror under the pen name Mira Grant (funnily enough, Grant has four Best Novel Hugo nominations to McGuire’s one). But even the books published solely under her own name reveal that she contains multitudes: Her October Daye series is the stuff of classic urban fantasy. The Incryptid books are marketed as urban fantasy too, but they are a lot lighter and looser and funnier than the genre classifier might suggest.

McGuire’s written haunting ghost stories and she’s written for kids and she’s written superhero comics and she’s written a stunning series of novellas interrogating and invigorating portal fantasy tropes (picking up an award or two for those along the way). And she’s written Middlegame, a 530-page doorstopper of an apocalyptic science fantasy. It’s appropriate that this is her first novel under her own name to receive a Hugo nod, because it’s the best novel she’s ever written (I say that with some certainty, despite not technically having read them all; reading all of Seanan’s novels would be an endeavor unto itself), but also because it seems like the natural culmination of her career to date: a novel filled with everything that makes a Seanan McGuire book, just a lot more of it.

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Hugo Spotlight: Politics and Murder Take on Intergalactic Import in Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

A Memory Called Empire, by occasional Tor.com contributor Arkady Martine (née historian AnnaLinden Weller) is one of my favorite kinds of science fiction books: the political thriller. That is to say, it is a political thriller pasted into a science fiction novel, or perhaps the other way around. Its story functions as an exploration of the politics of a future human society that feels sensibly extracted from that of our present day, plus cool spaceships and a dash of cyberpunk.

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Hugo Spotlight: The Magic of Storytelling Unlocks Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s best novel Finalists, and what makes each of them great.

The portal to another world is one of the most tried and trusted of all genre tropes. From C.S. Lewis to Lewis Carroll, from China Miéville to Seanan McGuire and ten thousand others in between, characters have been crossing over into new worlds in books published across more than a century, and in stories passed down for centuries before that. The portal need not always be a doorway; it can be a wardrobe, or a tornado, or death itself. It can even be a book: When a little girl goes in search of her mother, who has literally become trapped within the pages of a novel, in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, it’s making a plot tool out of the metaphorical relationship between reader and novel. All books are gateways. They deliver us to new places, and, provided their magic is strong enough, they hold us there until we’ve completed the quest.

That’s the operating thesis of Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January; its titular protagonist is a girl who enters, through a very peculiar book, into the life of Adelaide, a woman from an earlier era who discovers that some doors don’t lead where you expect.

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Blogging the Nebulas Predictions: Place Your Bets

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year and I’ve now reviewed each of them in turn,  figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Now it’s time to make my final predictions. This is Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Nebula for Best Novel is my favorite award in genre fiction. Sure, everyone loves to kvetch about the Hugos, but there’s too much drama there, especially lately, and until recently at least, the winners rarely reflected my own personal taste. The Philip K. Dick Award, which goes to a paperback original, tends to skew weird, which is always interesting, but rarely am I intimately familiar with the entire shortlist, which makes things a bit less fun. The Locus Award shortlist is always fantastic, but that’s… a lot of nominees.

[But the Nebulas are my jam…]

Blogging the Nebulas: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow Explores Life and Death in Jazz Age Mexico

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. Every day this week, I will be reviewing each of them and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Pitch

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow begins as a Cinderella tale of sorts. In the wake of her father’s death, young Casiopeia Tun moved with her mother to live with her wealthy, standoffish grandfather on his estate in  Uukumil, a small town in southeastern Mexico. It is the 1920s, the dawn of the Jazz Age, but Casiopeia’s life is filled with anything but glitz and glamour: she is barely tolerated by her grandfather, who holds the promise of her meager inheritance over her head like a boulder, and looked down upon by her relations, who treat her like the help.

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Blogging the Nebulas: Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth Is Space Opera Unhinged

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. All this week I will be reviewing each of them in turn and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Pitch

Tamsyn Muir’s gonzo debut is the kind of book that demands to be discussed solely in exclamations: Necromancers! Swords! Skeletons! Secrets! Space castles! Giant bone monsters! Dirtbag romance! Shitty teens! A Poochie reference! It is, as the kids say, a lot. And in the absolute best way.

[Read more]

Blogging the Nebulas: Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January Unlocks the Magic of Portal Fantasy

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. All this week, I will be reviewing each of them in turn and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Pitch

My introduction to fantasy took place through the back of a wardrobe that opened up onto a magical land. Portals to other worlds are one of the genre’s definitional tropes, making a plot tool out of the metaphorical relationship between reader and novel: Books are gateways.

[That’s the operating thesis of Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January]

Blogging the Nebulas: Charles E. Gannon’s Marque of Caine Is Packed With Old-School Adventure

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. Every day this week, I will be reviewing each of them and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Pitch

I should say up front that Marque of Caine is not a book for me. I knew this before I even cracked the cover, and my supposition was soon proven correct. For one thing, it’s a military sci-fi novel, a subgenre I generally am not drawn to despite having read and enjoyed an admittedly small number of them, including those still-read classics from Heinlein and Haldeman, more modern updates from the likes of John Scalzi (the Old Man’s War series) and Linda Nagata (the marvelous The Red trilogy), and purposefully subversive trope-skewerers like Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade (which missed a Nebula nod this year but is rightly ensconced on the Hugo ballot). I know there’s a lot of great milSF out there. It just doesn’t call out to me, so I don’t read much of it. (I’m a slow reader, and my time for reading books I don’t want to read—even really good ones—is limited.)

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Blogging the Nebulas: Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. Every day this week, I will be reviewing each of them and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Pitch

Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day is a different novel today than it was when she dreamed it up (growing from the seed of the 2015 novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road”), different than when it was published last September, than when it was nominated for the Nebula, than when I read it last week (and this review isn’t scheduled to publish until more than a week from when I am writing these words, by which point it will have changed again).

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Blogging the Nebulas: Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire Marries Cyberpunk, Space Opera, and Political Thriller

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. Every day this week, I will be reviewing each of them and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Pitch

I’d like to begin with a bit of a mea culpa; I started writing this review series back in early March, at a point when it seemed unimaginable I’d have trouble finding time to write a few thousand words about six fantastic sci-fi and fantasy novels before the deadline of the Nebula Awards ceremony on May 30. But then I got a new full-time writing and editing job, which became a work-from-home job when the pandemic shut down New York City, including—perhaps most significantly w/r/t my productivity—its elementary schools. Regardless, I’m back, and I still have…a couple of weeks to go until we have a new Nebula winner to celebrate, and I’d certainly be remiss not to discuss the rest of this shockingly good ballot. Beginning with…

[A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine]

Blogging the Nebulas: Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day Is 2020 Captured Between Two Covers

The Nebula Awards could be described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature; they are voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year. Every few weeks between now and the announcement of the winner on May 30, I will be reviewing each of them and figuring their odds of taking home the prize. Welcome to Blogging the Nebulas 2020.

The Pitch

Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day is a different novel today than it was when she dreamed it up (growing from the seed of the 2015 novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road”), different than when it was published last September, than when it was nominated for the Nebula, than when I read it last week (and this review isn’t scheduled to publish until more than a week from when I am writing these words, by which point it will have changed again).

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