Speculative fiction has always dealt in humanity’s hopes and fears. It holds up a mirror to the present, visualizes a theoretical future world—or imagines an alternate one—and tells the story of how society might get from one to the other.
Some observers say that the dystopia described in decades of science fiction writing is already here—climate disasters, geopolitical strife, and the erosion of privacy, for starters. Others see positive developments, such as increased representation for marginalized people and a burgeoning activist movement. In this feature, PW speaks with editors about new SFF that focuses on the political, environmental, and social issues of the day.
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy
At a moment in history that can best be described as extraordinary, some authors of speculative fiction feel they’re struggling to keep one step ahead of reality. Wes Miller, senior editor at Grand Central, cites the example of Marc-Uwe Kling and his dystopian satire, Qualityland (Jan. 2020), which Miller describes as “a dark mirror-image of today’s tech companies and politics.” It first published in Germany in 2017 to strong sales, Miller says, and the author asked to rush it to U.S. publication “because he feared that the world would catch up and the story would no longer be science fiction.” (For more SFF in translation, see “The Future by Any Other Name.”)
A dystopian premise need not mean a wholesale, far-future reconfiguration of the status quo, à la Brave New World or The Hunger Games. Some authors identify a single lever and see what happens when they push it. Rage by Jonathan Maberry (St. Martin’s, Nov.), which launches a spin-off of his Joe Ledger series, pivots on a bioweapon that unleashes human fury, which threatens the potential reunification of Korea.
“We went through a lot of postapocalyptic stuff,” says Michael Homler, senior editor at St. Martin’s Press. “But now, the submissions are more topical, more rooted in the real world.”
It’s this familiarity that creates such a creeping sense of unease. “The most disturbing projects aren’t the ones that make great leaps into unrecognizable end times,” says Lizzie Davis, associate editor at Coffee House Press, “but those that simply draw our current circumstances to their logical conclusions.” In Rodrigo Márquez Tizano’s Jakarta, the people of a plague-ridden city are distracted by sports and gambling, even as their fellow citizens disappear mysteriously.
As Megan Angelo was writing Followers (Graydon House, Jan. 2020), a social media–driven near future in which government-appointed celebrities live their entire lives on camera and social media currency has become real currency, news stories, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, unfolded that were reminiscent of themes in the book.
“Privacy is at the forefront of people’s minds,” says Brittany Lavery, associate editor at Graydon House. “The book imagines the end point of the trajectory of social media in a way that authors who imagined the early stages of the internet didn’t see coming. Writers like William Gibson took such a gritty approach, and what did we get instead? Cat videos and privacy concerns.”
Laundry List of Anxieties
Privacy concerns, as well as climate change, income inequality, social media, AI, and authoritarianism, dominate not just the headlines but the catalogues. 47North is among the publishers with timely titles on deck. “Some writers have expressed that they’re experiencing writers’ block,” says Adrienne Procaccini, senior editor at 47North. “What can they write that’s more outlandish than what’s going on now?”
Martin L. Shoemaker’s The Last Dance (47North, Nov.), for instance, nods to increasing concerns about the wealth gap and the dominance of the 1% in a story featuring a blue-collar spaceship crew. Similarly, Marie Rukowski’s The Midnight Lie (FSG, Mar. 2020, ages 14–up) takes place in a fantasy world where the slightest luxury is reserved for the elite, and the rest struggle to survive on very little. “Good art can come out of bad times,” says Joy Peskin, v-p and editorial director at FSG Books for Young Readers. “During Trump’s presidency, writers are responding by putting their concerns into writing.”
A number of books take aim at the current economic structure and the forces of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. “People with power and marginalized people have to think about the ways in which our towering structure has helped us and hurt us,” says Carl Engle-Laird, editor at Tor.com.
Titles grappling with these issues include Nino Cipri’s Finna (Tor.com, Feb. 2020), a lighthearted look at the choices made under capitalism. K.M. Szpara’s Docile (Tor.com, Mar. 2020) is a response to the #MeToo movement: “There’s no consent under capitalism,” the tagline warns. The protagonist’s family is crushed under educational and medical debt, and he ends up beholden to an abusive older man.
In Katie M. Flynn’s The Companions (Scout, Mar. 2020), the consciousness of the dead can be uploaded into machines. The wealthy deceased can remain in the custody of their families, while the less fortunate are rented out to strangers as the intellectual property of the corporation that owns them. “It’s about what it means to be human,” says Alison Callahan, v-p and executive editor at Scout Press, “and a warning about how technology changes us.”
Other titles are concerned with the rise of religious fundamentalism. Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Blue Eye (Harper Voyager, Oct.), book three in the Khorasan Archives, features strong women battling the patriarchy in a Talibanesque society. In Salvation Lost (Del Rey, Oct.), second in a space opera trilogy, Peter F. Hamilton describes humanity’s clash with religious fundamentalist aliens. “I love the insane message of hope and grit,” says Anne Groell, executive editor at Del Rey. “Humanity won’t go down without a fight. When we’re pushed to the wall, we’ll do the right thing.”
Elsewhere, echoes of “build the wall” reverberate through books that deal with migration, clashes among strangers, and othering. Anne Charnock’s Bridge 108 (47North, Feb. 2020) follows migrants who leave a Europe devastated by drought and fires, and the traffickers looking to profit from their displacement. In The Resisters (Knopf, Feb. 2020), America is split between the largely white haves, who live on dry land, and have-nots, who are largely people of color and are forced to negotiate the swamps of a nation half underwater.
Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Last Day (Dutton, Feb. 2020) imagines a future when a solar disaster has left most of Earth uninhabitable, and formerly democratic governments have shifted toward populist authoritarianism. “This raises some familiar questions,” says Lindsey Rose, executive editor at Dutton. “Who are we going to keep in and who are we going to keep out? And what do we do with all of the people who just don’t fit?”
At a time when people are looking for answers, speculative fiction, by its nature, poses even more questions. Steven James’s Synapse (Thomas Nelson, Oct.), a “thrilling story of greed and corruption,” per PW’s starred review, is a Christian exploration of artificial intelligence that represents the ultimate in xenophobia and othering—who is, and who isn’t, considered human.
“These questions about whether AIs can believe, as well as think, raise interesting ideas,” says Amanda Bostic, publisher at Thomas Nelson and Zondervan fiction. “What happens when they die—what’s the afterlife for them?”
Some authors are taking a keen look at propaganda, fake news, and the larger cultural question: What is truth? In Max Barry’s Providence (Putnam, Mar. 2020), four astronauts, prisoners of their ship’s AI, are required to send self-aggrandizing social media reports on their dubious victories back to Earth.
“Max is a speculative fiction author, but also a bit of a satirist,” says Mark Tavani, v-p and executive editor at Putnam. “Satire allows us to be open to the fact that we can prepare for today’s threat, only to find out that today’s solution becomes tomorrow’s problem.” In the book, he says, “Humanity prevails, but victory itself is questionable.”
Beyond L, G, B
Others are going unabashedly for the win, reveling in rebellion and in overturning the forces of oppression. In io9 cofounder Annalee Newitz’s just-released The Future of Another Timeline (Tor), time-traveling misogynists edit history to remove advances in women’s rights and try to lock down the timeline to block anyone from reversing what they’ve done. PW’s starred review called the novel “mind-rattling” and “smart and profound on every level.” It poses a question relevant to both time travel fiction and politics: Who gets to shape the present and the future?
In Newitz’s Future, a group of cisgender women and gender nonbinary people band together to stop the rolling back of history. As nonbinary, trans, and asexual people become increasingly prominent in the public conversation, their fictional counterparts are gaining increased visibility in SFF, and authors are reconsidering who gets to be a hero in a genre strongly invested in heroism.
“I want books that expand this definition,” says Jordan Brown, executive editor at Walden Pond Press and Balzer + Bray. In Justina Ireland’s Deathless Divide (HC/Balzer + Bray, Feb., ages 14–up), a sequel to 2018’s Dread Nation, an asexual heroine who is trained to fight the undead takes center stage.
Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune (Tor, Mar. 2020) focuses on female ambition and female rage, and is narrated by a gender nonbinary cleric who hears the story from a handmaiden. Come Tumbling Down (Tor.com, Jan. 2020), fifth in the Wayward Children series by multiple Hugo Award–winner Seanan McGuire, includes a trans main character, Kade. May Peterson’s recently released Lord of the Last Heartbeat (Carina), which features a gender nonbinary character, contends with issues of identity and labeling.
Editors, too, are wrestling with those issues as they seek to broaden their spectrum of acquisitions, and their readers’ horizons. “As a cis gay man, I sometimes think I’m more woke than I really am,” says John Morgan, executive editor at Imprint. He acquired A.M. Strickland’s dark YA fantasy Beyond the Black Door (Oct., ages 14–up), which prominently features an asexual and biromantic character. “I had to educate myself on asexuality. But there’s a real universality to the feeling this character has and the way many queer people feel, and the way I felt as a young person trying to find myself in books: the feeling of being ‘outside’ in one way or another.”
K.B. Wagers’s A Pale Light in the Black (Harper Voyager, Mar. 2020) includes an asexual character, and that representation, says David Pomerico, editorial director at Harper Voyager, is particularly important in the book’s genre, military SF. “This can reach a whole new audience of older, white, male readers—in a way that’s not preachy.”
Michael Braff, senior editor at Skybound Books, says that when he bought Linden Lewis’s The First Sister (mid-2020), one of the most compelling elements was the nonbinary protagonist. “Queer stories are coming in more frequently, and our concern now is walking the line between appropriate representation and tokenism.”
Though most editors PW spoke with disavowed the idea of a “message” book, or of authors trying to rally their readers to action, many saw oblique wake-up messages buried within.
“A whole lot of people have just woken up to the fact that we’re in crisis right now,” says Ruoxi Chen, assistant editor at Tor.com. She edited Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted (Feb. 2020), which is set in a future American Southwest the publisher describes as “full of bandits, fascists, and queer librarian spies on horseback trying to do the right thing.” In the book, a privileged young woman falls in love with someone she wasn’t supposed to and is thrown into a world where she finds the revolution has been happening the whole time. The dynamic is reminiscent, Chen says, of the progressive left’s shock at Trump’s election.
Ibrahim Ahmad, editorial director at Akashic Books, says that authors not only have an opportunity but the responsibility to embed a call to action in their fiction. “The role of the artist is to speak truth to power,” he says. “The artist has no choice but to be a political actor.”
When editing Booker Prize–winning author Ben Okri’s The Freedom Artist (Feb. 2020), in which a young woman is abducted while searching for the truth behind the mysterious “Hierarchy” that controls people’s lives, he saw “an urgent call to wake up and to recognize the visible manifestations of repression that appear today, and also those that fly under the radar.”
Some authors are presenting the future as a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Berkley just released A Song for a New Day, the “excellent debut novel,” PW’s starred review said, by Sarah Pinsker, a Nebula winner for the 2015 novelette Our Lady of the Open Road. It takes place in a very near future in which Americans are isolated by threats of terrorism and disease; still, the novel’s overall theme is optimistic: “Pinsker shows how people whose personalities and backgrounds seem incompatible can be united by art, and how the need to feel safe can be less important than the need to create together and share joy.”
Jennifer Besser, senior v-p and publishing director at Roaring Brook Press, FSG Books for Young Readers, and First Second Books, sees positivity as a pervasive trait in young adult novels; she and other editors say authors are mindful of their young and passionate audience.
“In YA, we do turn toward hope,” Besser says. She acquired Marie Lu’s Rebel (Roaring Brook, Oct., ages 12–17), fourth in the author’s Legend series, which has climate anxiety overtones—much of North America lies underwater—and addresses issues of privilege and surveillance. But it’s also, PW’s review said, a tale of “intrigue, alliances, and love.”
“Where’s the optimism that can be found in dystopia?” Besser asks. “It’s not just about hoping for a better future, but about what work has to be done to get us there.”
Liz Scheier is a writer, editor, and product developer living in Washington, D.C.
Corrections: This article has been updated with the correct imprint for K.M. Szpara’s Docile, which is Tor.com, not Tor. The article also previously misstated the romantic orientation of a character in A.M. Strickland’s dark YA fantasy Beyond the Black Door.
Below, more on the subject of science fiction and fantasy.
Continental Divide: Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019–2020
Authors look to Africa and its diaspora and find the fantastical and futuristic.
The Future by Any Other Name: Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019–2020
New SFF works in translation introduce English-speaking readers to the anxieties authors and fans are facing across the globe.
Reality Bites: Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019–2020
When real life becomes too terrifying to contemplate, readers can turn to the books rounded up here for a fictional fright.
Gods and Monsters: Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019–2020
By spinning familiar stories in fresh ways, authors can explore the contemporary resonance of myths and legends.
The Golden Age of Science Fiction Is Now: Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019–2020
The Tor Essentials line, launching in February 2020, highlights a new generation of modern SF classics.
Expectation and Rules: PW Talks with Carmen Maria Machado
The guest editor of ‘The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019’ explains why “literary science fiction” isn’t an oxymoron.
We Can Do More Together: PW Talks with Rivers Solomon
The author of ‘The Deep’ ponders mythmaking, colonialism, and whether whales blink.
Different Isn’t a Threat: PW Talks with Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor’s first graphic novel, ‘LaGuardia,’ stems from an incident at the real-life airport of the same name.