Science Fiction Is Never Evenly Distributed

Camestros Felapton has an interesting post on his blog asking if there is a currently dominant mode of speculative fiction. Camestros’ post is a response to two episodes of the Rite Gud podcast, namely this one where host Raquel S. Benedict and guest Kurt Schiller discuss the Sad and Rabid Puppies drama and detect a dominant mode of award-nominated science fiction that they dub “squeecore” and this episode where Benedict and guest J.R. Bolt from The Podhand attempt to define “squeecore”.

ETA: There is now a transcript of the episode available.

Now I have not listened to the full podcast episodes in question. I tried listening to the episode which attempts to define squeecore, but gave up after 45 minutes, because I didn’t much care for the podcast, which mixed in some genuine criticism of current SFF trends with a lot of snarky asides (ironically while decrying snark) against writers they dislike. The host and guest seem to be the sort of left-leaning writers/critics who always complain that current SFF is stale, too twee, not radical enough and that change is needed, but definitely not that kind of change, that have been a fixture of the genre (though the protagonists and antagonists change) for decades now. I spent more than enough time arguing with folks like that fifteen to twenty years ago and dubbed them the “anti-nostalgic fraction” back in 2016. I don’t want to rehash all that again. There will always be genre revolutionaries wanting to storm the gates of the SFF fortress and the vast majority of these mini-movements fizzle out and when a new trend arises, it rarely comes from the corner of the noisy would-be revolutionaries.

Camestros Felapton paraphrases the Rite Gud podcast’s definition of squeecore as follows:

The podcast moves on to list some of the elements that the hosts see as elements of what they call squeecore. Rather than another hefty quote I’ll try and sum it up in list form.

  • it tends to be very uplifting and upbeat.
  • It is didactic.
  • It has a young adult fiction tone to it, even when it’s supposed to be for adults.
  • Central characters can feel weirdly young, like they always think and act and feel as though they’re in their late teens or early 20s. They’re kind of inexperienced, naive, still very full of wonder.
  • It has notable influence from films and a lot of influence from mainstream commercial narratives…
  • One such influence being three-act structure screenplays and the ‘save the cat’ style narrative.
  • Central characters can feel like they are intended to be reader-inserts like video-game RPG protagonist.

The podcasters are not wrong, cause all of these trends definitely exist in current SFF, though they’re not one unifying trend, but several different trends. Uplifting and upbeat SFF is certainly a trend and it already has a name that is much less derogatory than “squeecore”, namely hopepunk. Reader-insert characters and a video-game/RPG feel is a trend as well and there is a term or rather two for it, namely LitRPG and gamelit.

I agree that there is a strong influence of YA fiction and a tendency to show younger characters gaining skills rather than being already fully developed in contemporary SFF, but that’s the result of the YA SFF boom of the past twenty-five years, which served as a gateway to the genre for countless readers. By now, the teens who read Harry Potter and His Dark Materials twenty-five years ago have grown up and some of them have become writers. It’s only natural that they draw on their early influences just as previous generations of writers drew on theirs. Besides, young and naive protagonists are nothing new. Robert A. Heinlein’s so-called juveniles from the 1950s are full of them and Ande Norton built a decades long career out of writing young and naive protagonists discovering strange new worlds. Because this sort of thing sells to younger readers coming into the SFF genre, only that it wasn’t shelved separately from adult SFF until fairly recently.

I also detect a definite influence of movies, TV shows and mainstream pop culture in general. For all his faults, Joss Whedon’s TV shows and movies – particularly Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly – have influenced a generation of SFF writers. And talking of Whedon, here is a great article by Gita Jackson from Vice about Whedon’s influence on SFF and fandom. The Marvel movies and the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender are big influences as well and the influences of older properties like Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who (and Marvel comics) is lingering on, especially following new takes on those old stories in the 21st century. However, writers have always drawn on pop culture trends and popular media. King Kong sparked a wave of giant apes rampaging through the SFF genre and later comics from the 1930s well into the 1950s and also beget the kaiju genre, which has in turn inspired countless writers and other creatives.

One point made in the podcast that Camestros does not address is that there seems to be a proliferation of retellings and reimaginings of and responses to older stories right now. This is absolutely true, since we’re having a wave of fairytale retellings (somewhat receding by now), Lovecraft retellings and – to a lesser degree – Narnia retellings right now. The current wave of retellings often focusses on the sort of people – women, people of colour, LGBTQ people – for whom there was little to no room in the original stories and attempts to give them agency. And since our genre has become a lot more diverse in the past ten to fifteen years, we see writers from different backgrounds putting a new spin on old stories. Not all of these retellings work and indeed, I’ve been weary of fairytale retellings for a while now, especially since many of them are not nearly as revolutionary as they like to think. But there is clearly a big desire for this sort of thing.

And besides, SFF has always been a genre in conversation with itself with new stories responding – directly or indirectly – to older stories. People have been writing Lovecraftian fiction, since Lovecraft was still alive (and he tended to encourage others to play in his sandbox). Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War in response to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade are further responses to Starship Troopers. All of them were Hugo finalists, two won. Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” has generated dozens of responses – I committed one myself – and indeed, Raquel Benedict and her guest snark about Aimee Ogden’s recent (and excellent) response “The Cold Calculations”.

Rite Gud also makes a point about the dominance of three-act-structures and the Save the Cat book by Blake Snyder, the influence of workshops like Clarion or Viable Paradise and about the professionalisation of SFF writing in general. Now the three act or five act structure is nothing new – Gustav Freytag defined it in Die Technik des Dramas (The Technique of Drama) back in 1863 and he certainly did not invent it either. Save the Cat is an updated take on the hero’s journey (and in fact I’m surprised that they don’t complain about the influence of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), which is one of the oldest story structures we have.

What has changed, however, is that writing advice books and creative writing workshops are a lot more accessible than they used to be, because they have proliferated a lot in the past thirty years or. It’s far easier to find a copy of Save the Cat today than it was to find a copy of Die Technik des Dramas in 1863. Rite Gud correctly addresses the economic and geographic privilege of being able to attend the big genre workshops like Clarion or Viable Paradise. However, you don’t need to attend those expensive workshops, because every library has writing advice books and every community college offers creative writing classes these days and there are dozens of writing advice websites, podcasts, YouTube channels, forums, etc… It’s never been easier to learn about the theory of writing.

Besides, creative writing workshops are not a new phenomeon. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was founded in 1936 and the Milford Writer’s Workshop, the first SFF focussed writing workshop, dates back to the 1950s. And I have seen complaints about the influence of the Milford Workshop and the aesthetics championed there dating from the 1970s.

Also, the myth of the “real scientist or engineer” (TM) who writes science fiction on the side is just that, a myth, even though complaints about all of those people daring to write SFF who are not “real scientists” (TM) go back more than fifty years at least. However, the vast majority of published SFF has long been written by professional writers who often wrote in multiple genres. And yes, pulp writers definitely considered themselves professionals. John W. Campbell may have preferred “real scientists or real engineers” (TM) to professional pulpsters, but even Campbell published a lot of the latter. He kept publishing L. Ron Hubbard, for fuck’s sake, and Hubbard was the prototypical hack of all genres. Never mind that a lot of Campbell’s “real scientists and real engineers” (TM) quickly ditched their real careers in favour of writing, once they were successful enough at it.

But even though the Rite Gud podcast does correctly identify some current trends and themes, there is no one dominant mode of SFF now, just as there has never any single dominant mode in SFF (or any other genre) at any given time ever. Cause you always have several trends, styles and movements going on at the same time as well as older trends still hanging on and newer trends emerging. There usually is a cluster of certain themes that are popular at a given time, but even those themes tend to come in cycles. For example, robots and AIs are having a moment now, probably because AI has made a great leap forward in the real world and robots are part of our lives now. However, robots also had a moment in the 1940s, at a time when they truly were science fiction. What has changed is the focus. In the 1940s, the focus was on, “How can we make these machines work and make sure they don’t hurt anybody?” (which was a response to earlier stories about rampaging robots and “Why don’t they work as intended?” Meanwhile, contemporary robot stories are often written from the POV of the robot or AI and often focus on questions of identity and who counts as human.

I’ve written a lengthy three part post arguing that the Golden Age was not nearly as uniform as people remember it and what is considered typical golden age science fiction these days is actually Campbellian science fiction. And even Campbell published a lot of works that don’t fit the stereotype of straight white American men using their superior intellect to conquer space, solve problems and fight aliens,. If you include magazines like Planet Stories (which has a remarkable number of stories critical of capitlalism and colonialism), Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Weird Tales,etc… let alone works published outside the US pulp magazine eco-system you get a much wider range of styles and trends. Yes, Campbellian science fiction was a thing in the 1940s, but it coexisted with planetary adventure stories (a lot of whom turned into “Social justice warriors of the solar system”), occult detectives, stories about hidden non-human communities living among us, industrial horror (i.e. machines run amok), humorous mythologically based fantasy, gothic horror, Lovecraftian horror, early post-apocalyptic/nuclear war fiction and lots of other styles. Never mind the authors of the so-called radium age who were still hanging on. You also had mainstream influences such as westerns (Bat Durston came from somewhere) and hardboiled and noir fiction or the historical adventures of Harold Lamb and Talbot Mundy, who influenced writers like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber and whose influence echoes down the ages, even though they themselves are very obscure today.

In the 1960s, you have the New Wave, but you have the sword and sorcery revival going on at the same time and often written by the same people (Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny were prominent in both, as were Joanna Russ and Samuel R. Delany), you have plenty of golden age holdovers as well as the beginnings of feminist science fiction, you have the nascent fantasy boom, you have the gothic romance boom (lots of which have supernatural subplots and yet were almost completely ignored by the SFF community), you have a sword and planet revival, only that the term sword and planet didn’t exist then, and you have mainstream influences such as the huge impact of the James Bond movies and novels on the SFF genre.

As for different eras of SFF coexisting, Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose popularity peaked in the 1910s and 1920s, was nominated for a posthumous Hugo for “Savage Pellucidar” alongside Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny and the largely forgotten Rick Raphael in 1964. E.E. Smith, maybe the prototypical golden age writer (though he started in the 1920s) was nominated for a Hugo Award for Skylark DuQuesne in 1966, losing out to Dune by Frank Herbert and This Immortal/Call Me Conrad by Roger Zelazny (the remaining two finalists were Squares of the City by John Brunner and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein). Golden Age stalwarts like Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Clifford D. Simak were still getting Hugo nominations and even the occasional win well into the 1980s. Robert A. Heinlein lost his last Hugo (for Job: A Comedy of Justice) against William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

As I explained in this post, Galactic Journey is very good at showing how different trends as well as older and newer forms of SFF coexist in the same period, because we try to cover everything and not just the cherry-picked examples that later eras choose to remember.

Also, quite often works are shoehorned into a trend, because they vaguely match some characteristics thereof and came out around the same time, even though they don’t really fit. The Expanse novels by James S.A. Corey are a good example. They are often shoehorned into the 2010s space opera revival, even though The Expanse has nothing in common with the likes of the Imperial Radch trilogy, the Paradox trilogy, the Hexarchate series or A Memory Called Empire beyond being set in space. Meanwhile, The Expanse draws heavily on mundane science fiction (a movement that never really got beyond its manifesto), Cyberpunk, golden age science fiction and the 1990s “cast of thousands/everybody and the dog gets a POV” style of SFF epics that never got a name, even though it was very much a thing and still lingers on.

But while there is no one dominant mode of SFF at the moment, there are certainly several notable trends. Hopepunk, which comes closests to what Raquel Benedict calls “squeecore”, is a definite trend, though grimdark, the trend in response to which hopepunk arose, still hangs on and is doing reasonably well, though it’s no longer as dominant as it once was. Space opera is having a moment right now with the Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire/Hexarchate series, Rachel Bach’s Paradox trilogy, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series (one of the earliest examples), Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, John Scalzi’s Interdependency series, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, Tamsyn Muir’s Lost Tomb trilogy and many others, but it’s a much weirder and more personal type of space opera with a strong focus on characters and found families than the New British Space Opera of the early 2000s. On the other hand, very conservative “Let’s shoot all the aliens” military science fiction is also booming, both in self-published form and at Baen Books. So called “prepper fiction”, post-apocalyptic fiction in which manly men survive the apocalypse, because they have more ammunition and canned beans than their neighbours, is another trend that flourishes in the indie and small press realm, but doesn’t really register outside its bubble.

In general, there is a strong tendency towards melding science fiction and fantasy – what was once called science fantasy – right now, both in science fiction works with quasi-magic technology (the Hexarchate series and the Locked Tomb trilogy are probably the best examples), fantasy stories which treat magic like an exact science (Brandon Sanderson and the trend towards magic systems he kicked off), the “mages in space” trend, which is mainly a thing in indie SFF, and unclassifiable works like N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. LitRPG and game lit, which are mainly trends in indie SFF, with their highly systematised approach to fantasy and sometimes SF worlds would also fit here.

As mentioned above, robots and AIs are having a moment right now and a lot of stories are told from their POV, dealing with questions of identity and who counts as a person. There is a trend towards retellings, mainly of fairytales and Lovecraftian fiction, which I already addressed above as well. The horror genre is recovering from its collapse in the 1990s and cosmic horror, folk horror, remimagined slasher horror and horror from marginalised perspectives are all growing. In general, we are seeing a lot more diversity both with regard to settings, protagonists and authors. And yes, as the Rite Gud podcast alludes, it’s still a very American view of diversity, but it’s a step forward and we are seeing more and more authors from beyond the anglosphere finding success. The perception that there seem to be more stories about LGBTQ protagonists than there used to be is also linked to this. Because until fairly recently, publishers didn’t consider stories about LGBTQ characters a viable market, so they were relegated to small specialist presses and much less visible.

Sword and sorcery seems to be making a modest comeback (ETA: Since dubbed New Edge Sword and Sorcery by Howard Andrew Jones, a term I shall shamelessly steal), though mainly limited to small presses and magazines right now. Urban fantasy is still hanging on after its massive boom (largely ignored or mocked by the SFF community) in the 2000s, though except for big names like Jim Butcher, Seanan McGuire or Patricia Briggs, it has largely moved to the indie realm. There also are popular indie only trends such as harem, reverse harem and progression fantasy, many of which have their roots in manga, anime, wuxia and other Asian SFF. The success of The Handmaid’s Tale TV series and the election of Donald Trump have kicked off a mini-trend of feminist dystopias, most of which seem to come from outside the genre. Climate fiction steadfastly refuses to be a thing, unless written by Kim Stanley Robinson, and what examples there are usually come from mainstream literary writers.

Finally, new movements that get a lot of attention and even come with manifestos are often not what ends up becoming a major trend. In the early 2000s, it seemed as if the future belonged to New Weird and mundane science fiction, but both trends fizzled out quickly. What we got instead was urban fantasy, grimdark and new wave space opera. Cause making predictions regarding trends in SFF can often be just as hit and miss as science fiction’s attempts to predict the future.

ETA: The Rite Gud podcast has certainly stirred up a hornets’ nest (which I suspect is exactly what they wanted), so here are some more responses:

Simon McNeil weighs in on the “squeecore” debate from the POV of someone who agrees with many of the points made on the Rite Gud podcast.

John Scalzi weighs in on the “squeecore” debate from the POV of someone co-opted into the movement and rather baffled by that.

Camestros Felapton points out this excellent 2021 Twitter thread by Elizabeth Sandifer, in which she also attempts to define a certain style of SFF that is popular now, only that she calls it “Tor Wave”, a name I don’t necessarily think is much better than “squeecore”.

Elizabeth Sandifer herself also points out this other great Twitter thread from 2021 about different approaches and aesthetics in LGBTQ SFF and how these tied into the debate surrounding Isabel Fall’s “Helicopter Story”. This is also relevant to the “squeecore” debate, because it seems to be a similar clash of aesthetics and approaches here (and the Rite Gud podcast are big fans of that story), though I hope it won’t get that ugly.

Elizabeth Sandifer also shares four short essay about current SFF trends she has identified.

ETA 2: Camestros Felapton also points out this Twitter thread by Fangirl Jeanne who notes that no one complained when white cishet men were making snarky and not particularly original stories (though to be fair, the Rite Gud podcast does call out John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig), but once young women, people of colour and LGBTQ people started retelling and remixing various influences with characters like themselves at the centre, it suddenly became a problem.

This is an important point. For example, I may occasionally complain about the stream of fairy tale retellings, because many of them are not that original to someone who had the gory, unadulterated Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales read to them as a kid and was then exposed to umpteen retellings from Disney’s (yes, they are retellings) via Czech and East German fairy tale films of the 1960s and 1970s, which occasionally managed to be remarkably subversive (Stasi censors didn’t pay too much attention to children’s films) to Angela Carter’s feminist takes on classic fairy tales. However, even though many of today’s fairy tale retellings are not for me, I don’t begrudge a young person of colour, an LGBTQ teen or a disabled teen the chance to see someone like themselves being Cinderella, going to the ball and marrying the prince (or the princess).

ETA3: Inspired by “squeecore”, Natalie Luhrs posted the not entirely serious manifesto for her own SFF movement called CyberGolden New PunkCore Squee Wave, CGNPCSW for short. I think this is one movement we can all get behind.

ETA4: The always excellent Doris V. Sutherland weighs in on the “squeecore” debate as well.

ETA5: Camestros Felapton has a follow-up post to his first post, where he summarises some arguments and talking points of this wide-ranging discussion, which conflates several disparate issues.

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27 Responses to Science Fiction Is Never Evenly Distributed

  1. Mark Sabalauskas says:

    Both Camestros and you are asking interesting questions about what it would mean for there to be an a dominant mode, and what would constitute evidence of that. So I guess the slipshod dyspeptic mush of a podcast was a useful writing prompt. Which is a lot more than you’d expect to result from people nattering on about how the “dominant movement” they conjure up is the result of “many” people basing their career decisions on the basis of wanting to become billionaires by writing, of all things.

    To your point about hopepunk being a trend, I’d like to to think it’s a viable subgenre, but it certainly sometimes still gets “is this a thing, and if so is it a good thing at convention panels”, which certainly doesn’t feel a “dominant mode”. And while Alex doesn’t desire ownership of “hopepunk” their novels are early strong relevant examples, and they don’t really fit the claimed paradigm with the central character of Conspiracy being a bitter difficulty old man who nearly burns everything around them down. And while Choir of Lies has a young naïve protagonist, they are explicitly contrasted with middle aged woman (with responsibilities and expertise) who engages with them, but is also very reasonably frustrated by their immaturity.

    And youthful inexperience hardly defines the most loved and talked about novels outside of hopepunk either–we don’t love Murderbot, Time War, or Lady Astronaut because they feature paint by the numbers YA protags undergoing similar journeys.

    • Cora says:

      I strongly suspect that the podcasters just wanted to kick the hornets’ nest and cause some outrage, but discussing current trends and modes in speculative fiction is valuable IMO.

      As for hopepunk, it may eventually become a subgenre like cyberpunk and steampunk did. In fact, I hope that it does. Though right now I’d say that it’s one of several trends.

  2. kathodus says:

    Thanks for this well thought out, informative, and even-handed post.

    It’s good to see informative conversations arise from that bizarre podcast. Some of their claims, if they weren’t trying so hard to turn their pet peeves into some sort of movement/institution, I agree with. As in, some of the things that annoy them annoy me, too. But they do a lot of twisting and stretching and mischaracterization to support their central thesis.

    • Cora says:

      The podcast just wanted to engage in some shitstirring, but IMO the conversation is valuable and they did correctly identify some trends.

      Glad you liked the post BTW.

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  4. Carrie V. says:

    “Urban fantasy is still hanging on after its massive boom (largely ignored or mocked by the SFF community)”

    Lots of thoughts and good meaty discussion… but I’m commenting to thank you for this observation in particular. At the time, it was disheartening to have my work (and the work of many friends) so roundly dismissed by people I considered my peers, and I just really appreciate having that moment recognized. Thanks.

    • Cora says:

      You’re very welcome and I’m glad you liked my post. I loved your Kitty Norville series and have enjoyed many of your books and stories since.

      In the 2000s, I was quite disenchanted with then popular trends like New British Space Opera, singularity fiction, mundane SF and so on and drifted away from SFF for a few years. Then I discovered urban fantasy, which brought me back into the genre. And I was always shocked, though not necessarily surprised, that the SFF community either completely ignored some of the most popular SFF books of the time or dismissed them without reading them. Especially since what we now call urban fantasy is not some interloper from outside the genre, but has been part of SFF for decades. Kitty Norville is a spiritual descendant of H. Warner Munn’s Werewolf Clan stories, which appeared in Weird Tales in the 1920s, and therefore as much part of the genre as the New British Space Opera, singularity fiction, New Weird, mundane SF and other trends of the 2000s.

      • Carrie V. says:

        Thanks for reading my stuff, glad you like it!

        Kitty actually started with a short story in Weird Tales, it just so happens! Many of the UF authors from that boom have deep roots in SF&F, it’s just no one in the wider community bothered asking us about it…

        • Cora says:

          I didn’t know that Kitty’s origin was a short story in Weird Tales, but that’s very fitting indeed. And yes, I do remember seeing quite a few names from the 2000s urban fantasy boom in SFF before the boom, but apparently the wider community completely failed to notice.

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