Everything Old Is New Again | Sf/Fantasy Preview 2019

Mass–media driven appeal spurs even more need for representation and an accelerated pace; current politics drives dystopias and dreams alike.

In the popular imagination, fantasy and sf embody the opening crawl of Star Wars. Fantasy is the "long time ago" and sf the "galaxy far, far away." Both genres seem to be returning to those roots, with surges in epic fantasy and space opera.

The current flowering of those roots is fueled by a change in the focus of the genre from a smaller audience of long standing to a broadly focused readership drawn by mass media megahits like Good Omens, American Gods, and The Expanse. Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, editor-in-chief of Tor Books, identified a megatrend: The SFF audience is "changing from an audience of megabuffs (20-30 SFF purchases per year) to younger…readers buying 10-20 books per year, of which two to four may be SFF."

It’s an audience that is representative of the increasingly diverse population and expects to see people like themselves in the fiction they consume. This is reflected in the rise of #ownvoices writers and characters, which has moved from a trend to a fundamental expectation.

Meanwhile, the genre, as always, reflects the current moment and readers’ and authors’ hopes and fears. Even when the story is about aliens, orcs, or far-flung empires, it is ultimately about the human condition here and now.

At Tor, publisher/vp Devi Pillai is seeing "more science fiction than before. Historically, we’ve always had more fantasy than sf. I love that most of our new science fiction is the accessible kind, with a strong focus on character and plot."

Pointing to the "constant successes in recent years of everything from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones," Pillai sees fantasy moving quickly into the mainstream and science fiction not far behind. "We’re going to see more and more things that translate to the mainstream audience—and that audience is happy to watch movies with dragons," she adds.

Big Reads, Binge Reads

In addition to hit series, streaming TV has given readers a taste for binging content instead of doling it out, in book series as well as TV. In response, publishers are getting all the installments of big series out to readers as quickly as possible—helping to keep interest high and readers glued to the story from beginning to end.

Alexis Nixon, assistant director of publicity at Penguin’s Ace/Roc/DAW imprints, says, "When readers love a series, they don’t want to wait to find out what happens next. But not all authors can write at a rapid-fire pace." So when the publisher discovered that Joel Dane, author of Cry Pilot, the stellar military sf novel set on a devastated Earth, could deliver the books quickly, they decided to accelerate the publishing schedule. Ace is publishing the three books in the series five-six months apart.

Pillai says Tor is following a "Netflix binge model," releasing titles faster so that fans "can get their hands on a series within a year versus five." Two examples are Duncan Hamilton’s "Dragonslayer" series, with three books in one year, and Jenn Lyons’s "Chorus of Dragons" series, which began in February with The Ruin of Kings and continued with book two, The Name of All Things, in October. Pillai adds that Tor hopes to release a new title in Lyons’ five-book series every ten months. Also from Tor, Sarah Kozloff’s "Nine Realms" series will be published in four consecutive months, beginning with A Queen in Hiding (LJ 1/20) in January.

Also moving to get series out quickly is the relatively new indie publisher Forest Path Books, releasing the first four novels in J. Tullos Hennig’s "The Books of the Wode" series, a queer reimagining of the Robin Hood legend, with Greenwode (Sept.), Shirewode (Oct.), Winterwode (Nov.) and Summerwode (Dec.).

But that’s not to say that audiences aren’t willing to wait for their favorites. There is still a huge demand for big new books in ongoing series, and from longtime best-selling authors. Plenty of blockbusters are expected in the coming months, most notably a formative work by the late Robert Jordan (Tor, Oct. 19), showcasing the epic themes more fully explored in his landmark "Wheel of Time" series.

Other highly anticipated books on the horizon are John Scalzi’s third "Interdependency" novel, The Last Emperox (Tor, Apr. 2020); A Blight of Blackwings (Del Rey, Feb. 2020), the second volume in urban fantasy stalwart Kevin Hearne’s epic fantasy series, "Seven Kennings"; Jenna Glass’s The Queen of the Unwanted (Del Rey, Mar. 2020), the follow-up to her high fantasy feminist story, The Women’s War; The Empire of Gold (Harper Voyager, Feb. 2020), the closing book in S.A. Chakraborty’s "Daevabad Trilogy"; and the first full-length novel in Martha Wells’s award-winning "Murderbot" series, Network Effect (Tor.com, May 2020).

Format Wars

Sf/fantasy as a genre has been searching for a successful method of bringing new authors to new readers since the collapse of the mass-market paperback channel, as mentioned by both Nielsen-Hayden and David Pomerico, executive editor of Harper Voyager, during a panel discussion at WorldCon 2019.

Although Harper Voyager is still finding mass market original success in military sf, a trend the publisher hopes to continue with the publication of Warlord (Jan. 2020) by Mel Odom, for the most part publishers are still looking for another avenue to fill the needs of avid readers at an affordable price point. Price remains an issue with both trade paperbacks and ebooks.

Ebooks fill other needed roles, however. One thing publishers use ebooks and e-originals for is "a method to reintroduce readers to familiar universes through novellas that bridge the gaps in longer series," says Penguin’s Nixon. She cites Julie E. Czerneda’s e-novella The Only Thing To Fear as a reintroduction to the world of alien shapeshifter Esen-alit-Quar, ahead of the recent release of Search Image, the first entry in a new chapter of the "Web Shifter" saga. Czerneda’s upcoming A Dragon for William (DAW, Dec.) similarly explores a new story in her Aurora Award–winning "Marrowdell" universe.

The same trend of using shorter works to extend familiar brands into new territory is also partially fueling the novellas that independent sf/fantasy press Tachyon is producing in 2020. The Immortal Conquistador (Mar. 2020) by Carrie Vaughn is a spinoff from her popular "Kitty Norville" series. Tachyon is also bringing out Sea Change (Apr. 2020) by Nancy Kress, a biothriller about GMOs in a postapocalyptic America; and The Four Profound Weaves (Jun. 2020), a debut "Birdverse" book from bigender author R.B. Lemberg.

Hopepunk vs. Dystopia

Sf/fantasy has always presented the current time and place through the lens of places that never were and times that might yet be. Books like William Gibson’s forthcoming Agency (Jan. 2020, Berkley) are heavily and explicitly influenced by the outcome of the last election and the events that ensued. However, as Nixon says, "Though there is certainly an increased urgency in examining political systems given current events, we have always seen genre novels that deal with complex assessments of power structures."

Some authors have turned toward dystopias to put our present into a future context, while others explore a recent subgenre under the "hopepunk" umbrella. Author Marshall Ryan Maresca, in Shield of the People (DAW, Oct.), the second book in his "Maradaine Elite" subseries, emphasizes the ability of good people to make a difference, telling a story in an optimistic tone with a defiant narrative.

"These days, truth really does seem stranger than fiction, which has the curious effect of making some near-future novels feel more real than the day’s headlines," says Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) senior editor Alexander Littlefield. "The best of these books also reflect the growing awareness that, today, conflicts within civilizations seem more frequent and potentially dangerous, than conflicts between them." Littlefield compares P.W. Singer and August Cole’s fact-based technothriller Ghost Fleet, written and published during the Obama era, with the duo’s upcoming Burn-In, due out in May 2020 from HMH. In Ghost Fleet, "Singer and Cole focused on the great power contest between the U.S. and China, and the ways in which technology will shape the course and outcome of another world war.

"With Burn-In, written under the shadow of Trump," Littlefield continues, "they have shifted their focus to America’s home front, examining the ways that technology—especially automation and AI—have upended the social contract and sown political chaos that, in their vision, we are still very much reaping decades from now." Littlefield considers the 2020 title "a hopeful book, one that does a better job than any work I’ve read—fiction or nonfiction—of considering the unique strengths of the human-machine partnership, while also mapping its outer limits."

Another title that provides a more hopeful look at a dystopian future is S.A. Jones’s The Fortress, about a man who submits himself to a women-led society as a form of rehabilitation after his wife confronts him about his toxic masculinity; it’s coming out in March 2020 as part of newcomer Erewhon Press’s inaugural list. Says Erewhon president and publisher Liz Gorinsky [See Gorinsky Q&A], "It has so much to add to ongoing conversations about #metoo, consent, masculinity, and violence, but…reading a deep interior portrait of an individual man grappling with and trying to overthrow some of his toxic tendencies does give me some hope for society at large."

Diversity, Representation, and #ownvoices

Like the rest of publishing—and indeed, the rest of the United States—SFF is engaged in an impassioned dialog about its history of bias, its lingering legacy in the present, and how to do better in future. One recent result was the renaming of the "John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer" to the "Astounding Award for Best New Writer." This change moves away from a name that celebrated a racist, sexist editor to acknowledging the role that the magazine he (and others) led played, and still does, in providing an outlet for up and coming writers. The move echoes a similar decision to drop the bust of H.P. Lovecraft from the World Fantasy Award in 2015, as well as the American Library Association’s own choice to rename the Melvil Dewey Medal.

Awards, of course, are far from the only place that racial injustice issues play out. Pomerico says he is on the lookout for commercial stories from people who do not look like him. "I want to go for the story I’m less familiar with," he says.

That approach is apparent in recent and upcoming books from Harper Voyager like Chilling Effect (Sept.) by Valerie Valdes, a space opera with a Latina and Cubana heroine and author, and K.B. Wagers’s A Pale Light in the Black (Mar. 2020), the opener in an epic space opera series with a female captain.

Ellen Wright, Orbit Books’ senior publicist, highlights some recent and upcoming Orbit titles by "authors in historically marginalized groups, whose backgrounds have influenced their works." In November, Kacen Callender’s Queen of the Conquered (LJ 10/2019) and Tasha Suri’s Realm of Ash (LJ 10/2019) will be released; July saw the e-original publication of K.S. Villoso’s The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, coming out in paper in Feb. 2020 (see review on p. 71); and March 2020 is the release date for N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. Says Wright, "The City We Became is particularly noteworthy as N.K. Jemisin’s first novel after her award-winning ‘Broken Earth’ trilogy, and is itself an expansion of a Hugo-nominated short story, ‘The City Born Great.’"

Over at Ace/Roc/DAW, the next entry in Peter Tieryas’s alternate history series, "United States of Japan," Cyber Shogun Revolution (Mar. 2020), continues the adventures of an Asian-American hero in a world where the Axis Powers won World War II, while Karen Lord brings Caribbean storytelling and myth into fantasy thrillers with her June release, Unraveling.

Titan Books’ fiction managing editor George Sandison says, "We’re proud to publish writers such as Agnes Gomillion, but we’re also always on the lookout for ways to increase the diversity of our list." Sandison also lauds the work of short fiction markets such as FIYAH, which focuses on sf/fantasy by and about black people of the African Diaspora, and Omenana, spotlighting writers from across Africa and the African Diaspora.

John Joseph Adams, who heads an eponymous sf/fantasy imprint at HMH, believes that diversity and inclusion "need to be reflected in the science fiction and fantasy that we publish…. I’m proud to be the publisher of Ashok K. Banker’s new series, which opened with Upon a Burning Throne (Apr.). It is the first volume in the ‘Burnt Empire Saga’ and is a gorgeous, broad-canvas epic fantasy...by an Indian author telling a story based on his culture’s mythology." The second book in the trilogy, A Dark Queen Rises, comes out late in 2020. In November 2020, the imprint will publish The Conductors by debut author Nicole Glover, which Adams says is "a historical fantasy featuring Hetty Rhodes, a magic user and former conductor on the Underground Railroad who now solves crimes in post–Civil War Philadelphia that the white authorities ignore."

Meanwhile, Tachyon publicist Jim DeMaiolo calls the forthcoming anthology The New Voices of Science Fiction (Nov.; LJ 10/19), "a great reader introduction to many exciting, up-and-coming, and previously underrepresented authors."

It is important to note that, while all of the publishers are increasing the number of diverse voices represented on their lists and promoting the works of those authors, the editors themselves are not nearly as representative. In an interview, Patrick Nielsen Hayden spoke specifically to this issue, saying that "all big publishers are wrestling with diversity issues and recruiting. Macmillan has a diversity commitment but [is] still trying to figure things out."

New Discoveries

There are always brave new worlds to explore and new authors to explore them with. At Baen Books, space opera is a staple, according to Corinda Carfora. The publisher is expecting a strong debut for a new Western-post-apocalypse series with Gunpowder & Embers (Jan. 2020) by John Ringo, Kacey Ezell, and Christopher L. Smith.

Kensington’s communications and marketing manager Jane Nutter is looking forward to How To Love Your Elf (Feb. 2020) by Kerrelyn Sparks, the series opener for the "Embraced by Magic" series, which blends high fantasy and romance with humor—think Game of Thrones meets The Princess Bride.

Sparks isn’t the only bestselling author beginning a new sf/fantasy direction. YA mega best seller Veronica Roth will be releasing her first adult, mainstream fantasy at HMH’s John Joseph Adams imprint with Chosen Ones (Apr. 2020). It’s expected to appeal to her current readers and bring in a flotilla of new ones.

There are also plenty of fascinating debuts on the event horizon. From DAW, Juliette Wade’s first novel, Mazes of Power (Feb. 2020), is a complex sociological sf thriller that pits brother against brother in a battle for political power, while over at Kensington, Colleen Winter’s first novel, The Gatherer (Nov.; LJ 11/19), offers her take on the sf thriller with a story that uses climate change to explore a world that is going wrong because it’s done everything right.

Meanwhile, Tor.com offers debut novels from two authors discovered via their short stories. Both K.M. Szpara’s Docile (Mar. 2020) and Nino Cipri’s Finna (Feb. 2020) explore different ways that capitalist society traps those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, and the different solutions available for—temporarily, at least—escaping their fate.

Blackstone Publishing offers Justin Travis Call’s debut fantasy Master of Sorrows (Feb. 2020), the first book in his "Silent Gods" series, in which, reminiscent of Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker, the Dark Lord’s origin story takes center stage.

Not So Long from Now in a Galaxy Very Near...

While publishers are pushing toward a more rapid publication cycle, series are still the backbone of sf/fantasy. The lists abound with new space operas and big epic fantasies.

Publishers are using those popular series to break new ground, featuring authors from an ever-wider range of diverse backgrounds, telling stories that are new and fresh. That those stories and voices bring in new readers while presenting existing genre fans with stories that are fresh and new guarantees that this genre will continue to expand its horizons, and readership, in the future. 

 

2020 Releases

Below are the forthcoming titles mentioned in this article.

AUTHOR TITLE PUBLISHER RELEASE

Call, Justin Travis

Master of Sorrows

Blackstone

Feb.

Chakraborty, S.A.

The Empire of Gold

Harper Voyager

Feb.

Cipri, Nino

Finna

Tor.com

Feb.

Dane, Joel

Burn Cycle, Kill Orbit

Ace

Feb., Jul.

Gibson, William

Agency

Ace

Jan.

Glass, Jenna

The Queen of the Unwanted

Del Rey

Mar.

Glover, Nicole

The Conductors

HMH/JJA

Nov.

Hamilton, Duncan M.

Servant of the Crown

Tor

Mar.

Hearne, Kevin

A Blight of Blackwings

Del Rey

Feb.

Jemisin, N.K.

The City We Became

Orbit

Mar.

Jones, S.A.

The Fortress

Erewhon

Mar.

Kozloff, Sarah

The Queen of Raiders

Tor

Feb.

Kress, Nancy

Sea Change

Tachyon

Apr.

Lemberg, R.B.

The Four Profound Weaves

Tachyon

Jun.

Odom, Mel

Warlord

Harper Voyager

Jan.

Ringo, John & others

Gunpowder Embers

Baen

Jan.

Roth, Veronica

Chosen Ones

HMH/JJA

Apr.

Scalzi, John

The Last Emperox

Tor

Apr.

Singer, P.W. & August Cole

Burn-In

HMH

May

Sparks, Kerrelyn

How To Love Your Elf

Kensington

Feb.

Szpara, K.M.

Docile

Tor.com

Mar.

Tieryas, Peter

Cyber Shogun Revolution

Ace

Mar.

Vaughn, Carrie

The Immortal Conquistador

Tachyon

Mar.

Villoso, K.S.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Orbit

Feb.

Wade, Juliette

Mazes of Power

DAW

Feb.

Wagers, K.B.

A Pale Light in the Black

Harper Voyager

Mar.

Wells, Martha

Network Effect

Tor.com

May

 


Marlene Harris is the founder of and primary reviewer for the book review blog Reading Reality. She has been an LJ reviewer since 2011 and has written several articles for Library Journal

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