We are living in the age of the remix. No genre is sacred, and no compound is too far-fetched. As debates heat up over ownership and licensing of creative works, genre readers and publishers have clearly already decided that the genres themselves are common property and fair game for dissection and recombination.
Crossed Genres is a relatively new small press dedicated specifically to publishing works that don’t fit in any familiar categories. “Genres blend readily,” explains publisher Bart Leib, “so the rigid separation of stories by genre—arbitrary boundaries drawn mainly for marketing purposes—has never appealed to us. We’ve found that authors and readers respond very positively when a publisher prioritizes storytelling above category. In October we’re publishing Sabrina Vourvoulias’s Ink, a literary novel that blends dystopian science fiction and magical realism. These supposedly disparate elements support each other and facilitate the story, even though booksellers are uncertain where to shelve it.”
JournalStone Publishing’s December release is Sean O’Brien’s Vale of Stars, which mixes hard science fiction with social and political commentary and debates over ethics and morality. “Our authors have managed to find combinations that add new spice and vigor to a classic genre,” says Christopher C. Payne, president of JournalStone. “They are blending horror, action/adventure, romance, and comedy, using science fiction as an ‘anchor’ genre. These are new ideas for a new century of science fiction.”
Where science fiction is an anchor, fantasy is often seen as more of a flavor, an adjective that can be applied to any number of nouns. “There has been an increased interest from readers for historical novels with a fantasy element, where facts and fantasy are combined in a seamless manner,” says Johanna Castillo, vice president and senior editor of Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books. She cites the forthcoming Merlin Prophecy trilogy by M.K. Hume, beginning with Clash of Kings (not to be confused with George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings) in January 2013.
A particularly popular way of blending history and fantasy is steampunk, which puts a speculative spin on Victorian-era technology and society. Over the past few years, steampunk has become so much its own genre that it’s now ripe for re-remixing. For example, the Canadian speculative fiction press Edge will be releasing Shanghai Steam: A Steampunk Wuxia Anthology, edited by Ace Jordyn, Calvin D. Jim, and Renee Bennett, from its Absolute XPress imprint in November. The stories, contributed by a diverse array of authors, will combine steampunk with the action and drama of Chinese martial arts. “It’s about time things got mixed up a little,” says Brian Hades, Edge’s publisher.
“Within steampunk, we see authors continuing to expand the boundaries from the confines of Victorian England into other lands and places,” says Lou Anders, editorial director of Prometheus’s Pyr imprint. “Mike Resnick returns to his steampunk Wild West with The Doctor and the Rough Rider [Dec.], which sees Doc Holliday meeting Teddy Roosevelt; Andrew Mayer finishes his Society of Steam trilogy [Jan. 2013], which features steampunk superheroes in an 1880s Manhattan; and Mark Hodder’s A Red Sun Also Rises [Dec.] is a mashup of steampunk and the classic planetary romance/sword and planet novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Works like this help to ensure that steampunk grows and evolves, rather than descending into a pastiche of itself, and are essential to the health of the genre.”
More recent history is also being explored by speculative authors. Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? by Hideo Furukawa, forthcoming from Viz’s Haikasoru imprint for speculative works written in Japanese and translated into English, follows several generations of military dogs and their offspring from the end of WWII through the rise of the cold war and Vietnam, with side trips featuring a Mexican wrestler and the psychic daughter of a prominent mobster. Haikasoru editor Nick Mamatas says the book “straddles the line between genre and literary fiction.”
Small Beer Press’s books often blur that line. Yet when Ursula K. Le Guin began assembling a retrospective collection of her work for Small Beer, she decided to split it into two volumes: one speculative, one “earthbound.” Both will be published under the umbrella title The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin. Small Beer publisher Gavin Grant says the hardcover editions will have the largest print runs in Small Beer’s history.
Suspense plots are popular in every genre, and it’s no surprise that contemporary fantasy, which happily absorbed the tropes of hard-boiled detective stories to create the urban fantasy juggernaut, is now being blended with other types of thrillers. In attorney Jill Archer’s series launch, Dark Light of Day, a late September title from Ace’s mass market line, a woman with the ability to control demons decides to study the demon laws that hold Armageddon at bay. Max Gladstone’s debut, Three Parts Dead, out from Tor in October, puts a fantasy spin on a legal thriller story that John Grisham fans would easily recognize. “Three Parts Dead exemplifies the emerging trend toward urban fantasy novels that inventively expand on the genre’s traditional setting,” says Tor senior editor David G. Hartwell. “This fusion of imaginative world-building and modern sensibilities is fast becoming the new standard.”
The new standard is maybe not so new; SF thrillers have been around for decades. Haikasoru is about to release the first English translation of Sakyo Komatsu’s Virus: The Day of Resurrection, originally published in Japan in 1964. The book describes a deadly virus that wipes out nearly all of humanity, and how an international team at the South Pole survives and copes with the changed world. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the 1980 film Virus, which was based on the novel.
In addition to seeing novels adapted for stage and screen, authors are now starting to explore ways of telling a single story or exploring a single setting in multiple mediums at once. “There’s something to be said about the scope of world-building and narrative inherent in the simultaneous development of story and intellectual property,” says David Pomerico, editor at Amazon’s 47North SF/F imprint. “The different projects of the Foreworld Saga—the Kickstarter-funded video game, the digital shorts and comics, and the first two novels in the Mongoliad series—show how amazing it can be when you get creative minds together to tell a story in novels, short stories, graphic novels, video games, movies, and more.” The second Foreworld book, The Mongoliad: Book Two, is due out in late September.
Authors known for work in other formats are also planning big fiction debuts. Baen Books is bringing out two: How Dark the World Becomes by Frank Chadwick, an award-winning designer of role-playing games, and Fire with Fire (which senior editor Jim Minz describes as “a thrilling tale of intrigue and first contact on a frontier planet”) by Charles E. Gannon, who has contributed several short stories to the Man-Kzin and Ring of Fire series. U.K. critic Roz Kaveney is making a splash with the near-simultaneous release of her debut fantasy novel, Rituals, from Plus One Press, and two books of poetry, What if What’s Imagined Were All True (speculative poetry) and Dialectic of the Flesh (poetry with queer and trans themes), from A Midsummer Night’s Press.
Escaping the Box
When a critic with a literary background says that a speculative work “transcends the genre,” it’s both a cliché and a sly insult, implying that moving away from genre and into some sort of supergeneric space can only be a positive thing. By contrast, writers with genre backgrounds who are looking to do something new tend to incorporate multiple genres rather than trying to do away with genre altogether. The result is not an empty plate but a feast with a wide variety of flavors in unusual and sometimes startling combinations.
47North editor Alex Carr points to Stant Litore’s Zombie Bible series—which is just what it sounds like, a set of Bible stories populated with the shambling undead—as an example of how far these genre-blending stories can go. Strangers in the Land, the third book in the series, comes out in October and draws from the book of Judges. “It blends the sacrosanct with the profane,” Carr says.
“Younger authors, in particular, are serving up mashups that embrace not only science fiction and fantasy elements but also spin into the worlds of comics, mystery, politics, and philosophy,” says Katy Wild, editorial director of Titan Books. “The emphasis in a book such as debut author Danie Ware’s Ecko Rising, due out in late September, is to tell a thrilling, compelling, and unpredictable story full of rich and vibrant characters, breaking through any perceived limits imposed by genre.”
Like steampunk, urban fantasy has made the leap from a cross-genre blend to a distinct single genre with its own set of tropes and traditions that are now seen as ripe for the taking. “We’re seeing authors and readers who like urban fantasy’s tone, accessibility, and high entertainment factor trying those elements out in other subsets of genre,” says Tor Books editor Stacy Hague-Hill. “The trend includes a lot of our upcoming titles: fantastical westerns like Rod Belcher’s The Six-Gun Tarot [Jan. 2013] and Felix Gilman’s The Rise of Ransom City [Nov.], historical fantasies like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Regency-era Without a Summer [Apr. 2013] and D.B. Jackson’s American Revolution–set Thieves’ Quarry [July 2013], and even space opera, like Michael Planck’s debut, The Kassa Gambit [Jan. 2013]. It isn’t about package and mixing genre subsets so much as about voice and style.”
Big Epics Get Bigger
Our prediction in last year’s science fiction and fantasy focus issue of PW (“Throne of Gains,” Apr. 11, 2011) proved correct: Game of Thrones, the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s immense Song of Ice and Fire series, is enjoying tremendous success—the first season just won a Hugo Award in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category—and increasing the visibility and popularity of epic fantasy among authors as well as readers. It’s even inspiring erotic fiction: according to Cleis associate publisher Brenda Knight, the concept of Mitzi Szereto’s Thrones of Desire: Erotic Tales of Swords, Mist and Fire was sparked by the Game of Thrones series. “I have been reading science fiction since I was a young adult,” says Knight. “I am delighted that George R.R. Martin makes it feel like the ’70s again.”
It’s no secret that long-running popular fantasy series often anchor speculative fiction lines, bringing in the cash that lets publishers fund artistically interesting titles that are not quite as commercially viable. Given the genre’s increase in popularity, some longtime epic fantasists are stepping up their output. Bestseller Terry Brooks is continuing his Shannara series, launched in 1977, with a book every six months through the fall of 2013. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve generally seen an increase in the pace of publication schedules,” says Tricia Narwani, editorial director of Del Rey Spectra.
Other major epic fantasy series are coming to a close. Following the death of Robert Jordan in 2007, Brandon Sanderson took over the massively bestselling Wheel of Time series, turning Jordan’s notes into a final set of three books. The last, A Memory of Light, will be published by Tor in January. “This is the culmination of what I believe to be the grandest American fantasy series yet written,” says Tom Doherty, publisher of Tor Books. Raymond E. Feist is also wrapping up his 30-year, 30-book Midkemia series with Magician’s End, out from Harper Voyager next May.
It’s not yet clear whether other epic series will come in to fill the gap, and while all the books in both Midkemia and the Wheel of Time will undoubtedly remain in print and popular for some time to come, publishers are certainly keeping an eye out for the next Jordan or Feist. “I think the holy grail for most sci-fi and fantasy editors is to find that amazing new epic fantasy,” says 47North editor Pomerico. 47North’s big epic launch for 2013 will be Mark Barnes’s debut novel, The Garden of Stones. “I was immediately blown away by the depth of the world and Barnes’s command of language,” Pomerico says.
Some science fiction writers are making ventures into the fantasy realm. Ryk E. Spoor’s Phoenix Rising (Baen Books, Nov.) is his fantasy debut, following a series of SF adventures. “Obviously, what we’re hoping for is that this will showcase Ryk’s talent for writing gripping adventure to a different genre audience,” says Baen editor Minz.
More authors are moving in the opposite direction. Edge just released Wildcatter, the first SF novel by fantasy author Dave Duncan, and YA author Julianna Baggott made her debut into the world of adult dystopian thrillers with 2011’s Pure, the first of a trilogy. “A big trend of the past several years was adult fiction authors writing YA novels,” points out Beth deGuzman, v-p and paperback editor-in-chief at Grand Central. “Julianna has bucked the trend.” Fuse, the sequel to Pure, is due out from Grand Central in February.
Some authors just can’t seem to break the genre-hopping habit. Jacqueline Carey got her start in epic fantasy and then shifted to near-future literary SF. Now she’s trying her hand at urban fantasy with the paranormal murder mystery Dark Currents (Roc, Oct.). Epic fantasist Tad Williams is also moving into urban fantasy with The Dirty Streets of Heaven (DAW, Sept.), in which an angel must hunt down a soul that’s gone astray.
These shifts and changes paint a complex portrait of an industry in flux. It’s hard to get any grasp on what might be called a zeitgeist. But speculative fiction, while it may have its genre ruts, also has a fine tradition of exploration and experimentation, and those traits will serve the genre well as 21st-century readers figure out what they want to read and authors and publishers figure out how to provide it.
Beyond the Wardrobe
What do inspirational fantasy publishers and erotic romance publishers have in common? They’re looking for niche audiences outside of bookstores and finding a lot of success with e-books and print-on-demand. “At Christian bookstores, the core demographic is white evangelical American women of childbearing to empty-nest ages,” says Jeff Gerke, publisher of Marcher Lord Press. “I love this demographic, but as a group they don’t tend to like the books about mutant aliens who will eat your brains.”
Gerke spent years working within the inspirational publishing industry. “I was frustrated because all the wonderful Christian speculative novels I’d bring to committee would just get shot down, and the ones that got through sold terribly,” he says. He finally struck out on his own, founding Marcher Lord and focusing on direct sales and digital editions. “I’ve produced print books,” he says, “and in my mind that’s the book—but my e-book sales outnumber my print sales by five to one.”
Digital sales are also strong at inspirational publisher Bethany House, especially for authors with lots of fans. “In the early 2000s we published a four-book series, the Legends of the Guardian King by Karen Hancock,” says David Long, senior editor at Bethany House. “They were widely acclaimed. We did some backlist promotion for them in e-book and Karen’s e-books have now outsold her print versions. These books are top-notch fantasy and it’s great to see them reach a broader audience.”
Gerke says that he took his business online in part because it gives him more freedom to publish and promote books without fear of being censured by watchdog groups. “It only takes one sweet old lady storming into the bookstore saying ‘I bought this book and it had X in it and I’m never shopping here again’ to send the bookstore reps to the publishers,” he explains. “But in these days of Internet sales there is no bookstore, and while censoring had great value in some respects, it also had a stultifying power.”
The downside of “no bookstore” is not being able to reach mainstream readers who might find these books of interest. In December Gerke will publish Vox Day’s A Throne of Bones, which he calls “the Christian answer to Game of Thrones,” but it’s unlikely to find a fraction of George R.R. Martin’s readership without placement in the major bookstore chains. Unfortunately, the numbers just don’t add up. “I use POD, and it’s hard to give distributors and bookstores 65% off the retail price,” Gerke says. “I’d owe them money every time they sold a book!” Bethany House does get books into Barnes & Noble, but only in the religion section. To place a book in the fantasy section would require Bethany House’s salesperson to negotiate with both the religion buyer and the fantasy buyer. So far, Long says, that hasn’t happened.
Fantasy has a very small place as a category within the inspirational market, which is dominated by women’s fiction, romance, and historical fiction. “Bethany House’s approach is that we’re looking to reach readers that core fiction just doesn’t touch,” Long says. “We think we’ll reach a male audience and a younger audience. Fantasy always covers both women and men, but it especially reaches back toward people in their 20s and teens.”
Publishing fantasy for Christian teens is tricky; conservative evangelical parents and activists are hard on anything that appears to promote witchcraft or posit a nontheistic source of mystical or miraculous power. (Recall the furor over J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.) To get around this, inspirational publishers avoid books set in the real world. “Going to a completely fantastic world where this is just the imagination frees our authors from some of those theological concerns,” Long says. “Our fantasy novels are mostly thematic, sometimes symbolic, and they draw on the wonderful tradition of Christian fantasy: C.S Lewis, George MacDonald, Edmund Spenser. For every book to have a Christ figure is a little limiting, so we find a space where we think we can tackle broader themes such as self-sacrifice for the greater good. I would never say these are only Christian themes, but they’re certainly themes Christian readers will appreciate.”