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Unsettling Futures - Colouring inside the lines of the genre

Unsettling Futures - Colouring inside the lines of the genre
By Matthew Claxton • Issue #26 • View online
What if you don’t like where the genre is going?

William Gibson, photo collage, Creative Commons, original image by Astrojunta Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC BY-SA 2.0
William Gibson, photo collage, Creative Commons, original image by Astrojunta Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic — CC BY-SA 2.0
One of the things that almost kept me from becoming a science fiction writer was the fannish use of the word mundane. That used to just, like, like kill me. Because, y'know, they’d be talking about some unutterably mundane piece of science fiction, and yet it was a completely fantastic piece, a mind-shattering piece of realistic fiction, that was ‘mundane.’ And I found that like, so lame, that it almost put me off the entire project of writing anything that people like that would ever want to read.
– William Gibson, Coode Street Podcast #220
When you’re a new/developing/unagented science fiction writer, you get one piece of advice pretty consistently: You have to read in your genre!
Not just a broad sweep of science fiction and fantasy, you have to know your chosen subgenre. You’re doing space opera? Better be an expert on space opera, especially recent space opera, popular space opera of the last five years or so! Know what’s new, what’s hot, which direction the winds are blowing!
You have to keep up with the field!
This is not entirely bad advice. But it is marketing advice more than writing advice, so take it with a grain of salt. I’ve also come to think that it’s part of a more insidious trend in the way pros and aspiring pros talk about the genre, about what’s good and bad about it.
Keeping up with the field
Let’s start with all the positives, and there are several, to this advice.
First of all, it’s just… fun? It’s why we’re fans of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror in the first place? Sure, there’s a lot of new stuff coming out all the time, a constant firehose of #content, and yes, the hype is sometimes exhausting. I guess you can turn your back on that and go re-read your vintage Ace Doubles for the Nth time, but isn’t the thrill of the new part of why we got into this thing?
I also understand that a lot of the people giving this advice are editors and agents who get approximately 9,537 manuscripts a year which are poorly-written, warmed over versions of Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or peak-bloviating-libertarian Heinlein. If I got The Boy Wizard Who Taught the Elf Lords About the Virtues of Anarcho-Capitalism thrust at me a dozen times a day, I’d probably scream “KEEP UP WITH THE DAMN FIELD!” until my throat was bloody, too.
It does help to know what isn’t selling at all. No, teen supernatural romance is not cutting edge. No, your katana-wielding chrome-and-neon cyborg is not au courant. Oh, your adolescent protagonists discover they’re heir to mystic powers and embroiled in a supernatural war hidden from humanity for generations? How novel!
It also helps to see where the edges of the genre are being pushed outward. If you were writing epic fantasy a couple of years after A Song of Ice and Fire had come out, or as Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy was being published, well, you had a pretty clear signpost for where things were going.
“Keep up with the field” also carries overtones of someone going around and locking up doors and putting sharp objects out of your reach.
No, don’t read those books, they’re old!
No, don’t write in that subgenre, it’s out of fashion!
Here. Here’s where the genre is now. Colour inside the lines. Yes, like that. Good little writer!
Gibson’s outburst, quoted above, isn’t wrong. He was describing the field when he was starting out in the late ‘70s/early '80s, but there’s an awful lot of popular mediocrity in SFF today too, and, rightly or wrongly, I’ve come to associate it with this particular bit of advice. (Possibly because I once saw “Keep up with the field!” paired with “Come up with a new twist on a popular trope!” and that made me desperately sad, like the point of writing SFF is to just create small iterations on an existing body of quantifiable tropes. Jesus.)
I read a book recently, a new space opera (first in a series, because of course it was). And I’m not going to name the book, but it was fine. It was good, even. It was well written. The characters were well put together. The narrative didn’t bog down or get boring.
But I could taste the comps on that thing.
I read it cold, without seeing the dust jacket copy, and halfway through, I looked it up out of curiously. Sure enough, even the book jacket and the author’s website trumpeted it as “[Popular epic fantasy novel] meets [popular sci-fi media franchise]!” It was just A and B, mashed together and spackled over with some basic hero’s journey guff.
It was a book that spanned galaxies and dealt in centuries, and it was crushingly mundane. It felt small. If that’s the future of the genre, I want nothing to do with the genre.
And it has hundreds of positive reviews and ratings on Goodreads and the damn thing is selling well, so what the fuck do I know, right?
I know that none of the SFF authors I really admire from the last 30-odd years wrote books that look like they were “keeping up with the genre.”
I look at the careers of folks like Susanna Clarke, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, N.K. Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, China Mieville, Kai Ashante Wilson, Martha Wells – you can tell they don’t give a good goddamn what anyone else was writing. In some cases, they were only paying attention to the state of the field so they could go in exactly the opposite direction.
Read outside the genre
The second piece of advice new writers see frequently is to read outside your genre, and that is pure writing advice, no marketing at all.
Go and read mystery novels, thrillers, romances, lit novels, history, biography, whatever. Don’t just read SF, you’ll be missing out. Reading other genres will teach you new things about writing, it will broaden your horizons.
Sometimes this advice is phrased in a kind of eat-your-vegetables way, as if SF is dessert you get as a reward for chowing down on all that mundane roughage. But for the most part, it’s given by writers who have a genuine appreciation for the things so-called mundane fiction can do well, often better than mainstream SFF.
I would go a little further.
Read outside the genre. Read within the genre, including the parts that are out of fashion. Re-read the old books that lit you on fire when you were a kid and see what you can learn there. Read books by authors you couldn’t get into a decade ago and see if you can find what you were missing the first time.
Keep up with the genre, and hate where it’s going if you want to.
The passion for destruction
No one within publishing encourages you to be pissed off at the current state of the genre. It’s not really beneficial for them to suggest that some of the trends within modern SFF might kind of suck.
But being pissed off is a legitimate starting point for any writer.
I am not universally angry at what’s going on in SFF. There are good books published, good writers emerging, old favourite authors still producing good work.
But there’s also stuff that makes me roll my eyes. There are far too many books that originated as a clever comp, and the writing skill isn’t there to lift the story beyond the premise. There are books that are literally assembled from lists of tropes. There are books written ostensibly for adults but which use the pacing and primary-colours emotional shading of bad YA. And there are far too many books whose core influences are a shallow re-hash of recent movie, TV, and video game franchises. Yes, Sturgeon’s Law and all that. But poor execution is a given; cruddy trends can and should be jettisoned.
You can be inspired to write because you’re in awe of an author, a book, a subgenre, and you want to add something to that conversation. But you can also write because you flung a book against the wall and declared, “I could do better than that!”
Over the last decade, the extremely online contingent of SFF fandom/publishing has become increasingly reluctant to call any new book or story bad. Bad books might get ignored, but they’re less likely to be called out. (Unless someone has a specific beef with the author, which is a whole other extremely online thing and only rarely is directly related to the quality of their work.) There are a lot of understandable reasons for this. It’s not exactly in the interests of publishing professionals to rip apart anyone’s new release, mutually assured destruction being very much a thing on social media. Up and coming authors don’t want to make enemies. Semi-private shit-talk about a book on social media will inevitably get back to the author; some jackass will @ them.
But it is okay to not like things.
The advice to keep up with the field is a tacit endorsement of the status quo. It isn’t narrowly prescriptive, it doesn’t directly conflict with the advice to read outside the genre, but it generally suggests that new writers should look to what’s happening now for guidance.
It might be good career advice. But if you don’t like what’s happening in your particular subgenre right now, it’s bad writing advice, and you should ignore it.
The best response to a bad story is to try to write a better one.
Obligatory Self-Promotion Corner
Is it kind of awkward pushing my own work on people after launching a screed about the failings of the genre? Yes. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes. Yes I am.
Payday Weather is out on Jan. 27 on Escape Pod. It’s about firefighters in the dry and too-hot near future, it’s about economic precarity, about loyalty and suspicion and friendship, but mostly it’s about people just trying to make it through some difficult times and get out the other side whole, which as far as my stories go is kind of a uniting theme.
I will also be blathering about this on Twitter, where you can find me as @ouranosaurus.
Feel free to tell me you hate it and that it’s part of the trends that are making SFF worse, if you’d like.
As always, remember not to like, subscribe, or tell your friends. If you enjoyed this post, photograph it on microfilm, and swallow the film in a capsule at the train station bathroom sink, to smuggle it past customs. Wait, was that the microfilm capsule or the emergency cyanide capsule? Why did headquarters make them look so similar? you think as the vaulted glass ceiling of the station swims and dissolves before your eyes…
Did you enjoy this issue?
Matthew Claxton

Unsettling Futures

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