Some trends in the SFF genre that I don’t enjoy at all

Library Journal has an extensive article on new trends and new books in fantasy and science fiction.

The article actually does a good job of highlighting new work both in established subgenres as well as new developments. But it is marred by the smug insinuation that urban fantasy, steampunk and zombies are fading in popularity and were only a transient fad anyway, supported with quotes from various editors, which may well be taken out of context, so I won’t pass judgment on them. Though it is telling that of the four editors quoted, two work for houses that barely feature in my personal library at all.

Now I believe that more variety on the shelves is a very good thing. And urban fantasy and steampunk once brought in that much needed variety along with New Weird, because the scope of SFF available had gone very stale in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, if not for discovering urban fantasy, I probably wouldn’t be reading fantasy anymore, because I had become bloody sick of the whole genre when book upon book was a disappointment.

So why are so many people hoping for urban fantasy and steampunk to go away? Even if you personally don’t read that stuff, why would you deprive those that like the subgenre of what they enjoy? Personally, I don’t care for zombies at all, but I don’t begrudge those who like zombies that there are zombie books available for them. I would get a bit annoyed, if there was nothing but zombies on the shelves, similar to the situation with epic fantasy in the 1990s (pretty much nothing else on the shelves). But right now we have an almost unprecedented variety of fantasy subgenres on the shelves (SF is a different story) and there should be something for every reader.

Though the article actually does mention a few upcoming zombie, steampunk and urban fantasy titles. However, the urban fantasy novels mentioned are all written by men and feature male protagonists. Now those authors listed that I have read are good and certainly deserving of some love. But the exclusive focus on men with the implicit “Look no girl cooties or icky romance” message bothers me. Especially as there are plenty of urban fantasy novels by women who are a bit off the beaten track and equally deserving of love. For example, Rob Thurman’s Leandros Brothers series, Caitlin Kittredge’s Black London series and Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts series are all wonderful and not nearly as well known as they should be.

My reaction to the supposed renaissance of epic fantasy (of which I do see signs) was, “Oh please, haven’t we gotten over all epic fantasy all the time already?” Never mind that epic fantasy never went anywhere, it just wasn’t as dominant for a few years.

It is notable that the current trend in epic fantasy seems to move away from the Tolkien clones towards more and more George R.R. Martin clones. And I was sick of George R.R. Martin clones before the Game of Thrones TV show started. This also puts me into an odd position, because while I think that George R.R. Martin is a swell guy who deserves all the success he has, even if A Song of Ice and Fire was never to my personal taste, I do worry about a flood of more and more George R.R. Martin copycats who will make up for Martin’s storytelling skills with more gore, more torture, more rapes and more murdered children. And that I really don’t need, nor does the genre. After all, it’s not as if the SFF genre is short on gritty epic fantasy. There’s more than enough of that fare around. Just take a look at the book that prompted this rant. The bad Tolkien clones that dominated the subgenre for many years were at least somewhat enjoyable, if terribly derivative. Bad Martin clones, however, tend to be just gore and shock value and sometimes tedious philosophizing.

Of course, I’m probably biased because my few genuinely bad experiences with arsehole authors were all with people writing in the gritty epic fantasy subgenre (all in the second or third tier, none of the really big names). As a result, gritty epic fantasy pretty much equals dickhead genre to me.

But I have another problem with epic fantasy in general, namely that I find it incredibly difficult to find books that I will enjoy. I can pretty accurately tell whether a given urban fantasy or space opera novel will appeal to me, though I’m still wrong on occasion and the book that sounded so wonderful turns out to be a dud. But for some reason, I have enormous problems finding epic fantasy that appeals to me. I’ve tried everything, blurbs, reviews, recommendations from people I trust and I’ll still end up with a book I don’t enjoy far more often than with one that hits the spot. And because of this abysmal hit to miss ratio, I tend to avoid the genre altogether in favour of other genres that deliver the goods far more often.

Still, because we should discuss the good rather than complain about the bad, Sherwood Smith points out this great interview with Kate Elliott at If there was more epic fantasy like that, I’d have less issues with the subgenre.

As for science fiction, it’s not dying in spite of the obituaries for the genre penned every six months or so. But looking at the science fiction novels recommended in the Library Journal article, I can’t help but wonder whether it wouldn’t be best to just bury the SF genre already. Because none of the books featured sound even remotely appealing to me. I’ve had problems with epic fantasy for a long time now, but SF was always my favourite genre in spite of the occasional dud. Nonetheless, I can’t I find anything remotely appealing in the recommendation list for a genre I used to love. Nor is this a new development, I find SF less and less readable. In the past few years, pretty much the only new SF I enjoyed were borderline works marketed as YA or futuristic romance.

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10 Responses to Some trends in the SFF genre that I don’t enjoy at all

  1. Kaz Augustin says:

    Have you been having secret conversations with my husband, Cora? 😉 We’ve been having a long-term argument over SF. He turned his back on it years ago and I’ve been trying to tempt him back. He likes the BSFA magazine, Vector, and I thought that was a giant step forward. Then I bought him/us a hard-sf anthology. He read five stories, threw the book against the wall and told me it’s all mine to read now!

    Why is so much hard sf military? was one of his questions. Yeah yeah, so it has 200 rivets, but what about the characters? was another. There you go.

    • Estara says:

      Does he like space opera at all? Because there’s a lot of character based enjoyable space opera out there – The Vorkosigan Universe, the Liaden Universe, the Nuala Universe.

    • Cora says:

      I haven’t had any conversations with your husband (at least not as far as I know), but I sympathize with his frustrations. Hard SF as a subgenre is very frustrating nowadays and I actually liked the hard SF of the Golden Age. Though Analog publishes some good writers, e.g. Juliette Wade who writes linguistic/sociological SF.

      And I agree that space opera is largely military these days. If you like space opera, the go-to publisher is Baen. And with Baen you have to be careful, because they publish a lot of very militaristic and very rightwing stuff alongside writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Sharon Lee/Steve Miller. Never mind that one of my formulative SF experiences was the classic German TV show Raumpatrouille Orion, which was very critical of mindless order following and the military in general (at one point, the heroic commander tells a subordinate that he shouldn’t just mindlessly follow orders that might get him killed but rather think for himself in a scene which contains the first time the word “shit” was uttered on German TV), so I was permanently ruined for much of military SF.

      I also hear you on the lots of rivets, but no characters to speak of. Some time ago I read a novel by a highly regarded SF writer who gets nominated for lots of awards. The book had great ideas and some lovingly detailed technology and the least convincing romance ever. Barbie and Ken would have had more dimensions than those characters. After I struggled through the book and saw the two cardboard cutouts that were supposed to be the protagonists talk of love and wanting children, I thought, “This author has never been in love or had sex in his life. In fact, I am not convinced that he has ever met another human being before.”

  2. Kaz Augustin says:

    Just went and read that article. Oh my, aren’t we the smart ones?

    “I will only publish a zombie novel or an urban fantasy if it’s a good book,” says Betsy Wollheim.

    Does that mean she’ll publish any ole crap if it ISN’T urban fantasy or a zombie novel? And the whole article seems to completely contradict feedback from various authors who say that their mss have been rejected by agents/editors because they’re not “sure fire winners”. Great books are getting rejected because they don’t fit neatly into any category, advances are shrinking…have I been living in a parallel universe or something?

    And, tbh, a “resurgence of epic fantasy” is not, to my mind, breaking new ground. Yeah, there was Tolkien. Then there was the rebirth of epic fantasy with the Thomas Covenant series, remember that? Then there was the rebirth of epic fantasy with David Eddings. Then there was the rebirth of epic fantasy with Raymond Feist. Then there was the rebirth of epic fantasy with Gene Wolfe. I’m sure there were others (I’m not a fantasy fan) but now there’s the rebirth of epic fantasy with George RR Martin. Oh good grief.

    “Where publishers see growth is in the male urban fantasy market.”

    Where publishers see growth, or where publishers WANT to see growth? And I find the line, “urban fantasy also appeals to male readers — and female fans of the subgenre will read about male heroes” to sound almost like an edict, don’t you?

    As for trad sf, it sounds like publishers are emulating the reboot movies that are now so popular in Hollywood. Can’t (won’t?) find anything original? Let’s repackage and resell the past! Better odds and more profits for us!

    Ah maybe I’m just generally grumpy after quarreling with some Linux guys. I’ll go pour myself a drink now.

    • Cora says:

      The Betsy Wollheim quote also hit me the wrong way – after all, I’d hope they’d only buy good books in any genre. Though it is possible the quote was ripped out of context. Because Betsy Wollheim always struck me as one of the good ones, after all she kicked John Norman’s misogynist arse out of the door once she took over the company. Tor has never really been the go-to publisher for urban fantasy anyway – St Martin’s Press, which is also part of the Pan MacMillan Holtzbrinck group, publishes more than the explicit SFF imprint Tor. And the Orbit editor has made negative remarks about urban fantasy before, though they publish some in the US and quite a bit more in the UK.

      I suspect the popularity of urban fantasy has surprised many genre publishers, because the readership is different from their core readership. They don’t understand it, so they want to get back to the audience they do understand, male readers. And the women will just have to adjust. Besides, women already read about male urban fantasy heroes – Harry Dresden is very popular with women, ditto Anton Stout’s series and the Leandros Brothers series by Rob Thurman (who is a woman in spite of the ambiguous name). Besides, the whole “girls versus boys” tone of that paragraph does no favours to the authors featured.

      I hear you about the rebirth of epic fantasy. Epic fantasy is reborn about as many times as science fiction has died. And of course, George R.R. Martin has been writing for more than thirty years and A Game of Thrones came out 15 years ago, though it received a boost via the TV show. And the Martin imitators mostly started publishing in the early to mid 2000s. So there’s nothing new about this trend except for a popular TV show. And there was never so much positive publicity about True Blood, even though it’s broadcast on the same channel and Charlaine Harris actually sold more books in the wake of True Blood than George R.R. Martin sold in the wake of Game of Thrones, probably because she writes faster than he does.

      The story behind Fuzzy Nation, which is a reboot, is that The Little Fuzzies apparently was one of John Scalzi’s favourite books and that it’s in the public domain for some reason, so the rights were available. And Scalzi has a lot of people who will buy anything he writes because of his ultra popular blog. Most of the other SF titles strike me as Cyberpunk 2.0 (and I didn’t even like Cyberpunk 1.0) and one guy is actually writing about the Atari games he was obsessed with as a kid.

      Edited because I mixed up St Martin’s Press and Grand Central

    • Cora says:

      All of which reminds me that I owe you an e-mail. I’ll get back to you today or tomorrow.

  3. Estara says:

    Hmm, epic fantasy that works – well, Kate Elliott was already mentioned, so Sherwood Smith Inda (which I know you know ^^) and Michelle West in her Essalieyan world – so the Sacred Hunt, Sun Sword, House War. Actually I think her Elantra Chronicles for Luna are epic urban secondary world fantasy ^^ – concentrating on one main heroine.

    I share the fear of more gritty, violent, misogynistic epic fantasy…

    • Cora says:

      I like the Elantra Chronicles. Luna had some very good epic fantasy in general, though they seem to have faded. I also liked the series Judith Tarr did for them under a pen name.

      As for the George R.R. Martin clones, the problem is that many of them copy the violence and the gore without copying what actually sets Martin apart from the rest. Besides – like I said I used to know a couple of guys who wrote in that subgenre – some of them took not Martin for their inspiration but his more violent imitators.

  4. Pingback: Emotions in science fiction, more on urban fantasy and the cultural issues of translation | Cora Buhlert

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