How To Define a New Subgenre/Trend: The Speculative Epic and an Addendum to the “Squeecore” Debate

I initially put this as an ETA under one of the previous posts in the so-called “squeecore” debate. However, I think it deserves it’s own post.

Lincoln Michel has also gotten into the business of defining a new subgenre/trend as well in his Counter Craft newsletter and that new subgenre/trend is – no, not “squeecore” – but the speculative epic, which is the term Michel has coined for overwhelmingly literary works with multiple timelines, one of which often takes place in some dystopian future.

Lincoln Michel has noted a definite trend here, though it is not really a new thing. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which appears to be the protoype, came out in 2004, and Henderson’s Spear by Ronald Wright, which has past and present timelines, but now future ones, came out in 2001. Green Darkness by Anya Seton, which also has multiple intertwining timelines, predates both and came out in 1972. And there are even earlier examples such as The Star Rover by Jack London from 1915 (a really fascinating book, which influenced H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard among others) or The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt from 1924. You could probably also make a case for Dorothy Quick’s unjustly forgotten Patchwork Quilt series, which appeared in Unknown in the early 1940s. However, those works are scattered examples and what unites them is mainly a fascination with past lives and reincarnation.

That said, Lincoln Michel is right that there seem to be more books featuring multiple intertwining timelines right now, that they share certain characteristics such as addressing social issues (though you could argue that The Star Rover address the issue of prisoner abuse) and that they mainly come from the literary side of the pond rather than from the genre side, whereas the predecessors were mostly genre writers. In addition to Cloud Atlas, the examples Michel gives are Appleseed by Matt Bell, To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu.

However, I’m not just linking to this article because I’m interested in literary trends, subgenre formation and genre taxonomy (though I am), but also because Lincoln Michel demonstrates how to identify and define a new trend/potential subgenre without being a jerk about it.

The article is structured as follows: I have identified a trend and here are some examples of people who have noticed it, too, as well as some examples of works that fit into that trend. I propose this name for it (a name that’s not derogatory) and it has these characteristics. It’s also part of a larger trend towards genre-bending fiction.

What this article notably does not include is snarky asides against authors and books that Lincoln Michel does not like, buzzwords like “neoliberal” and issues that are worth addressing but have nothing to do with the subgenre in question. Also, Michel offers solid criteria for defining speculative epics and not criteria that are so vague that they apply hundreds of things up to and including Shakespeare. And yes, I am aware that I have just retroactively claimed Jack London, A. Merritt, Anya Seton and Dorothy Quick (and Robert E. Howard, whose James Allison series was directly inspired by The Star Rover) for the speculative epic, but they all wrote works which match some of the characteristics given and could be considered predecessors to this genre/trend.

Woll “speculative epic” catch on as a term for this trend/movement/subgenre? I don’t know, though personally I like the term and shall use it, crediting Michel, for works that fit. However, I suspect that Lincoln Michel’s essay will not generate nearly as much attention as the debate about “squeecore”, even though his points are solid and he makes them without being a jerk about it.

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7 Responses to How To Define a New Subgenre/Trend: The Speculative Epic and an Addendum to the “Squeecore” Debate

  1. Steve Wright says:

    This sounds like a solid definition of an identifiable sub-genre… and the reason I say this is because I could immediately think of some other examples. With the “squeecore” list, I have been poring over recent Hugo nominees and muttering “no… no… definitely not… no… oh, that one’s a definite maybe….” Whereas with the “speculative epic” thing, I thought to myself at once, “Ah, Ian Sales’s ‘Apollo Quartet’ would fit, and so would Nick Harkaway’s ‘Gnomon’.” Much, much simpler to define than squeecore.

    • Cora says:

      Oh, definitely. Both are very good examples. You could also make a case for The Witcher TV show (though not the books) with its three timelines.

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  3. FredH says:

    Surely _The Ship of Ishtar_ and _Cloud Atlas_ are not the same subgenre, though? CA absolutely mixes timelines to good purpose as you describe, and “speculative epic” is a good name for what it does — but in TSOI the two timelines (eras? dimensions?) are essentially just two “places” the protagonist bounces back and forth between. They don’t fill out an epic span of history, or serve to make any larger structure or point (unless it be the old adventure-novel “point” that The Days Of High Manly Adventure Were Better Than Our Decadent Modern World, common enough in prewar genre fiction to be hackneyed).

    • Cora says:

      Yes, The Ship of Ishtar maybe wasn’t such a good example in retrospect, because it has only two timelines instead of several.

  4. Lurkertype says:

    I think, in your last sentence, “even though” should be replaced with “because”. 🙂

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