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YA and SFF: The Good Twin and the Bad Twin

So as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed today, I ran across a link to this article by Fonda Lee: The Case for YA Science Fiction.  Read the post before you continue.  I’ll wait…

Okay.  So, the gist of the post is that YA Fantasy novels have been selling like crazy.  There are several big name authors, including those mentioned in Lee’s post and many others.  I can tell you right now I’ve read most of the books put out by all of those authors in the YA Fantasy genre.  And so have millions of others.  They may not be as popular as dystopians, and they certainly don’t get as many movie deals.  But they move a lot of dead trees and digital trees.  I’ve been blogging and writing long enough to remember four or five rounds of “Will Science Fiction be the next big thing in YA?”  And the answer was always no.  There would be upticks and uptrends.  Several fantastic books would come out in a short period.  But nothing would ever really break into the big money or sales the way YA Fantasy often does.  It wouldn’t be blasted all over the blogosphere, or the writers forums, or the tip top of the best sellers lists.  Which is too bad, because science fiction has a lot of value to add to YA as a category, and it can address issues and do so in ways not available to other genres.

Lee mentions several notable YA SF novels that take on current events and other contemporary issues that are ripe for exploration: MT Anderson’s Feed is a fantastic look at the way social media has been taken over by advertisers looking to build monetizable consumer profiles, and the ending, without spoilers, takes a look at just how far they go in valuing those profiles over the actual humans behind them.  She mentions House of the Scorpion, which I didn’t care for, but which is still a very good novel on the subject of cloning.  Scott Westerfeld never gets credit for his amazing additions to the YA SF canon, with the steampunk Leviathan series and the dystopian Uglies series.

YA SF has a lot of unmined treasure to be found, and maybe it will have to focus a bit on near-future SF for awhile, to whet the appetite of YA readers.  Some of the hard SF tropes Lee discusses in her post kinda bore me, honestly.  And as a writer I feel like saying “it’s magic” is popular because it’s simpler.  There’s always a huge debate in adult SFF about whether the worldbuiding or science details really add enough to the story compared to the narrative effects of the speculative elements.  The social issues we are having as a world today are incredibly accessible fruit for a YA SF novel to harvest.  Social media, AI/big data, consumer profiles, technology in education.

I mean, I know 8-year-olds whose schools give out tablets to every student to take advantage of what tech in the classroom can offer.  My high school was getting SmartBoards in every classroom just a year after I left in the late 2000s.  But you never see any of this in YA books.  They often feel set no later than my sophomore year of high school given the technology and social issues involved.  Being a teenager will always be being a teenager, but the 80s and early 90s are waaaaaaaaaaaaayyy different than what young adults encounter in their general environment today.  Of course, to be SF you can’t just upgrade the setting to the present day.

You have to extrapolate out quite a bit further than that.  But given the environment today’s teens are living in, doing so while keeping the story interesting and relatable is so easy.  What’s the next big advance in social media?  How will smart houses/the internet of things impact the lives of young adults for better or worse?  How will the focus of education change as more and more things that you used to have to do in your head or learn by rote are made trivial by computers?  What social or political trends are emerging that might have big consequences in the lives of future teenagers?  How could an author explore those more intensely with element of science fiction than they could with a contemporary novel?

I definitely share Lee’s sense that YA “science fiction” grabs trappings to stand out from the crowd rather than being rooted inherently in the tropes of the genre.  It’s not uncommon for YA in general to play this game with various genre outfits, but sci-fi often seems the hardest hit.  That’s not a criticism of those books, but just pointing out it might give readers, writers, and publishers a false image of what SF really is and how YA can benefit from incorporating more of it.

As a reader, I’ve always dabbled in both the YA and Adult book cases.  And from that perspective, I wonder if the flavor of YA much of SF might be telling SF readers, teenaged or otherwise, that it’s just not the book(s) for them.

As a writer, I have lots of novel ideas that are YA and SF, and I’d like to explore them,and maybe even publish some of them one day.  But I do have to wonder, given the wide variety of stories building in my head, am I taking a risk with my career by writing in such a threadbare genre?  Perhaps others with similar plot ideas feel the same, and that’s why they aren’t submitting these ideas(books) to publishers?

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Magic and Science and How Twins are Different People

Something that in my experience drives many (identical) twins crazy is how many people assume they look alike physically so they must be just alike in other ways.  Interests, hobbies, sexuality, gender, religion, whatever.  Twins may look the same superficially, but underneath they are as different as any two other people.  Or any non-twin siblings if you want to be pedantic about nature and nurture.

Fantasy and Science Fiction are like the Twins of Literature.  Whenever someone tries to talk about genre lines or the difference between science and magic, the same old shit gets trotted out.  Clarke’s Law and all that.  Someone recently left a comment on this very blog saying magic is just a stand-in for science.  My friend!  Boy do we have a lot to talk about today.  While it’s certainly true that magic can serve many of the same functions as science (or technology) in a story, the two are fundamentally different in both themselves and the uses to which they are most often put.  Sure they’re both blonde, but technology like red-heads, and magic is more into undercuts.

 

First, not to keep pushing the lie that science is cold and emotionless, but a prime use of science (not technology!) in literature is to influence the world through knowledge of the world’s own inner workings.  (Technology does not require knowledge in its use, often, but rather only in its construction.)  One of the major differences is that most (but not all) magic in stories requires knowledge to use it.  You have to know how the magic works, or what the secret words are.  Whereas tech is like flipping the light switch.  A great writer once said what makes it science fiction is that you can make the gadget and pass it to the average joe across the engineering bay and he can use it just fine, but magic requires a particular person.  I can pass out a million flame-throwers to the troops, but I can’t just pass you a fireball and expect you not to get burned.  That’s one aspect to look at, although these days, magitech and enchanted objects can certainly play the role of mundane technology fairly well.

Second, magic is about taking our inner workings and thought processes and imposing them on top of the universe’s own rule.  From this angle, what makes magic distinct from technology is that a magic conflict is about the inner struggle and the themes of the narrative and how they can be used to shape the world.  Certainly tech can play this role, twin to how magic can be made to act like tech.  But it’s much less common out in the real world of literature.

 

There are two kinds of magic system:  One is the explicit explanation of how the magic works according to the word of god(the author), and the other is a system that the characters inside the world, with their incomplete knowledge impose on top of the word of god system.  So this group uses gestures to cast spells, and this group reads a spellbook, but they are both manifestations of the same basic energy.

So magic is the power to impose our will on the world whereas science/technology is powerful through its understanding of the uncaring laws of the universe.

Then, of course, are the differences in terms of how authors use them in the narrative.  Magic has a closer connection, in my opinion, to the theme aspect of literature.  It can itself be a realization of the theme of a story.  Love conquers all as in Lily Potter protecting her infant son from the dark lord at the cost of her life.  Passion reflected in the powers of the fire mage.  Elemental magic gives a great example.  Look at the various associations popular between elementalists’ characters and the element they wield.  Cold and impersonal ice mages, loving and hippy-ish earth mages.  This analogical connection is much more difficult to achieve with technology.

 

There’s a lot of debate these days about “scientific” magic versus numinous magic, and whether or not magic must have rules or a system.  But even systematically designed magic is not the same as technology, though it can be made to play similar roles, such as solving a plot puzzle.  But think:  The tricks to magic puzzles are thematic or linguistic.  The Witch-king of Angmar is said to be undefeatable by any man.  The trick to his invulnerability is the ambiguity of the words of the prophecy.  One could argue that a woman is not a man, and therefore not restricted by the prophecy.  We have no idea how the “magic” behind the protection works on a theoretical basis.  Does it somehow check for Y-chromosomes?  But that’s not the point.  The thematic significance of the semantic ambiguity is more important.  In science fiction, it’s the underlying workings that matter.  Even if we don’t explain warp drive, there’s no theme or ambiguity involved.  It gets you there in such and such time and that’s it.  Or, in an STL universe, lightspeed is the limit and there’s no trick to get around it.

You can’t use science or technology the same way as Tolkien did with that prophecy nearly as easily.  Imagine magic is hammer, and science is a sword.  Sure I can put a nail in with the sword, but it’s a bitch and a half compared to just using a hammer.  Just because I can put in that nail with that sword, it doesn’t mean that sword is really a hammer.  Just because I can have magic that appears to follow a few discoverable and consistent rules to achieve varying but predictable effects doesn’t mean it’s the same thing as real-world science.  Maybe the moon always turns Allen into a werewolf on the 1st of the month, but I’ll be codgled if you can do the same thing with science.

Whether magic or science or both are most suited to your story or the other way around depends on your goals for that individual story.  Do you need magic or fantasy elements to really drive home your theme?  Do you need technology to get to the alien colony three stars down?  Magic can evaporate all the water in a six mile radius without frying every living thing around.  Science sure as hell can’t.  Not even far-future science that we can conceive of currently.  They can both dry a cup, although we’re wondering why you’re wasting your cosmic talents when you could just use a damn paper towel.

Science can dress up as magic and fool your third-grade substitute teacher, and science can dress up as magic and fool the local yokels in 13th century Germany.  But even if you put a wedding dress on a horse, it’s still a horse, and throwing hard science trappings onto a magic system doesn’t change it’s nature.

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Fairytale Fiction

Sub-genre of the Week: Fairytale Fantasy

Last week, I discussed Near-future SF.  This week, I’m going to talk about a newly re-popularized genre of fantasy: fairytale re-tellings.

Definition:

Fairytale fiction is a sub-genre of speculative that revolves around re-tellings of fairytales in new settings, with new characters, or from the perspective of a previously non-perspective character, and also fairytale style stories.

History

Fairytale retellings have been around for as long as there have been fairytales, but in the past decade or so, they’ve come together as a commercial genre.

Common Tropes and Conventions

The same as those for fairytales: secret royal birth, HEA endings, marriage into a royal family, something dangerous in the nearby woods, etc.

Genre Crossover

Fairytale fiction is unique among fantasy genres for generally having very little crossover.  The specifics of the stories usually preclude it.  It’s certainly possible to create high or epic fantasy out of fairytales, but people usually file off the serial numbers if they do so.

Media

Robin Hood has always been popular in film, and Snow White has just recently received multiple adaptions.  No doubt there will be more in the future.

Future Forecast

Fairytale fiction will no doubt continue to be popular for the near-future.  Although the most popular stories now have four or five major retellings, there are plenty of lesser known stories still awaiting a re-imagining.

Recommendations

1.  Enchanted series by Gail Carson Levine

2.  Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

3.  Beastly by Alex Flinn

4.  Princess series by Jim C. Hines

5.  Rapunzel’s Revenge series by Shannon Hale

6.  Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

7.  Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

8.  Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey

9.  Beauty by Robin McKinley

10.  The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

Goodreads list of Fairytale Fantasy

Next week: Cyberpunk

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Near-future SF

Sub-genre of the Week: Near-future SF

Last week, I talked about Portal Fantasy.  This week, I’m going to tackle another tough to categorize genre.

Definition:

Near-future SF is a sub-genre of SF dealing with science fiction stories and concepts just the other side of contemporary.  I’ll limit it to the next fifty years for the purposes of this post.

History

There can be no true history of the genre, since what qualifies changes as time passes.  But the concept originated as a sub-genre in the 90s and grew to its present size and description in the late 2000s.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Besides the fifty-year time frame, there are few major tropes and conventions.  There’s a tendency towards exploration of the solar system, biological advances, punk themes, climate change, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, occasionally fusion reactors and green energy.

Genre Crossover

Near-future SF crosses over with dystopian fiction, Mundane SF, and social science fiction.  It may also share traits with some hard sf.

Media

Near-future SF rarely gets attention in video media, due to its often lack of flashy technology.  It does come up now and again in anime and manga.  Otherwise, it’s mostly a print genre.

Future Forecast

By definition we’re going to have more of this.  The popularity of near-future SF and its related genres has gone up quite a bit since the post-cyberpunk movement and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.

Recommendations

1.  Dagmar series by Walter John Williams

2.  Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

3.  Halting State by Charles Stross

4.  The Wind-up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

5.  Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

6.  Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

7.  Air: or Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman

8.  India 2047 series by Ian McDonald

9.  Anime: Planetes

10.  Anime: Dennou Coil

Goodreads list of Near-future SF

Check in next time for a discussion of Fairytale Fiction.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Portal Fantasy

Sub-genre of the Week:

Last week I talked about Dystopian Fiction.  This week, I’m going to look at another venerable subgenre: Portal Fantasy.

Definition:

Portal Fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy where the protagonist goes through a portal from the real world into the fantastic.

History

Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Widerland in 1865 as a favor to the daughter of a friend, after she loved his story of Alice and her adventures during a float trip up the Isis, a nickname for part of the River Thames.  Lord Dunsany published The King of Elfland’s Daughter in 1924, though it’s brilliance was only recognized after the re-publication by Ballantine Books in 1969.  And in 1950, C.S. Lewis began publishing The Chronicles of Narnia, based on an image of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood he had when he was 16.  And the genre took off from there.

Common Tropes and Conventions

All you need is a portal and a fantasy world on the other side of it.  Generally, the protagonist is also treated as a savior or Chosen One in the other world.

Genre Crossover

Portal Fantasy often crosses over with High Fantasy, as most of the worlds on the other side of the portal conform fairly solidly to High Fantasy tropes and conventions.  Some anime and manga uses Epic Fantasy worlds as their targets.

Media

Alice and Narnia have both gotten several big movies, though there are no original film stories in the genre that I know of.  Anime and manga are chock full of portal fantasy, including the ever-popular Inuyasha.  And obviously print is full of it, or I couldn’t have written this post.

Future Forecast

There’s plenty of new Portal Fantasy being published these days.  It’s always been popular, and it likely always will be.  This interesting article on Making Light contradicts me a bit here, but I think it’s a bit pessimistic.  Perhaps a new style of portal fantasy will change the game.  I think I’ll get on that.

Recommendations

1.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland series by Lewis Carroll

2.  The Fionavar Tapestry series by Guy Gavriel Kay

3.  The Chronicle of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis

4.  The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

5.  The Magicians series by Lev Grossman

6.  Amber series by Roger Zelazny

7.  The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R. Donaldson

8.  The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams

9.  Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente

10. Anime: Arata Kangatari

Goodreads list of Portal Fantasy

Check in next time for a discussion of Near-future SF.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Dystopian

Sub-genre of the Week: Dystopian

Last week, I talked about Epic Fantasy.  This week I’ll be discussing one of everyone’s favorite genres: Dystopian (Science) Fiction.  It also happens to be one of the most commonly misunderstood.  Hopefully I can clear things up a bit.

Definition:

Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that involves a societal structure argued to be a utopia by its administrators, which in fact suffers from some fatal flaw, such as authoritarianism or over-surveillance.

History

Dystopian fiction has a very distinguished history.  Samuel Butler first published Erewhon: or, Over the Range in 1872, detailing a country in which the sick are criminals while criminals are considered sick.  It could be argued to be a satirical utopia, as it comments on many aspects of Victorian society, and here we come across the first ambiguity of dystopian fiction.  However, whichever way it is categorized, it was certainly an influence on later works.

For example, it greatly influenced Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, where society is divided into five major castes, raised in creches and assigned their roles in life.  The novel is often considered a response to Huxley’s visit to Imperial Chemical Industries’ Brunner and Mond plant, and is an extension into the future of many of the principles of the Industrial Revolution, and represented many people’s fear of losing their individual identity.  A further influence on Huxley was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, written in response to the authors life in Imperial Russian in the early 20th century, which reflected on the mass collectivization of labor.

The next major dystopian novel was George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, which represented the increased uncertainty with government surveillance, the rise of communism, and gave rise to the popular icon “Big Brother”.  Other famous dystopian novels include Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

More recently, we have Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a sickeningly accurate prediction of a more modern version of the Big Brother surveillance state.

And finally, we arrive at Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games series of novels, which spawned a vast tide of YA “dystopian” novels.  The Hunger Games recalls Koushun Takami’s 1999 nove, Battle Royale, the story of a class of Japanese teenagers iset on an island for a game of survival where only one can remain.  It remains to be seen whether this new wave of dystopian fiction can match up to the old giants of the genre.  So far, I’d say it hasn’t.

Common Tropes and Conventions

A “perfect: society with one major flaw, generally the rampant suppression of a group or social freedom we take for granted today.  Otherwise, not much else has to be in common.

Genre Crossover

Dystopian strongly crosses over with apocalyptic fiction, especially in the new wave coming out in the wake of The Hunger Games.  It can also cross over with near-future SF, such as in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl.

Media

Many dystopians, from Soylent Green to The Hunger Games have graced the big screen.  They’re also common in Japanese manga and anime, such as Deadman Wonderland, where a privatized prison has become the new Disney World.

Future Forecast

The new wave of YA dystopia is still going strong, and looks to keep on going for quite awhile.  Whether adult dystopias will make the same comeback is uncertain.  But the genre looks to be in no danger of slowing down.

Recommendations

1.  1984 by George Orwell

2.  Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

3.  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

5.  The Giver Quartet series by Lois Lowry

6.  Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

7.  The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

8.  Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

9.  Movie: Soylent Green

10. Anime/Manga: Deadman Wonderland

Goodreads list of Dystopian fiction.

Check in next time for a discussion of Portal Fantasy.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Epic Fantasy

Sub-genre of the Week: Epic Fantasy

Last week, I discussed Social Science Fiction.  This week, I’m going to tackle Epic Fantasy, and perhaps disambiguate it a bit from high fantasy, which when looked at closely, can be usefully considered as separate genres.

Definition:

Epic Fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy involving a large scope, a big cast, and often morally gray characters.  It is mainly but not always a form of secondary-world fiction.

History

Epic fantasy has a long history, closely intertwined with high fantasy.  It has become increasingly popular since the 90s, beginning with the Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Large casts, wide scope, multiple perspective characters, and high stakes.  And, of course, they almost always come in series.

Genre Crossover

Epic fantasy often crosses over with high fantasy.  In fact, many of the big hits are both.  However, it is distinguished by it’s lack of black-and-white conflict and commonly wider scope, as well as a less mythic and more gritty tone.  It occasionally crosses over with portal fantasy, dark fantasy, and historical fantasy.  It shares many tropes with Sword & Sorcery, but is distinguished by the more-than-personal stakes and large cast.

Media

Epic fantasy is immensely popular in visual media, including manga, anime, and movies.  Game of Thrones is the latest in a line of popular epic fantasy appearances on the small and big screen.

Future Forecast

As with any well-established genre, epic fantasy isn’t going anywhere soon.  It will no doubt continue to be popular and receive at least a couple debuts every year.

Recommendations

1.  A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin

2.  The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson

3.  The Stormlight Archive series by Brandon Sanderson

4.  The Demon Cycle series by Peter V. Brett

5.  The Night Angel series by Brent Weeks

6.  Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher

7.  The Inheritance Trilogy series by N.K. Jemisin

8. Winds of the Fourlands series by David B. Coe

9. The Long Price Quartet series by Daniel Abraham

10. Watergivers series by Glenda Larke

Goodreads list of Epic Fantasy

Next week: Dystopian!

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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