Seize the Future | Spotlight on SF/Fantasy 2018

As ever, sf and fantasy reflect the present through the lens of alternate pasts and possible tomorrows. This year that means dystopias, "cli-fi," resistance, and optimism. In a Q&A with editor John Joseph Adams, we discuss the lengths to which writers and publishers go for the best sf.

As ever, sf and fantasy reflect the present through the lens of alternate pasts and possible tomorrows

Science fiction (sf), fantasy, horror; the genres that comprise speculative fiction deal with the impossible, the future, the never-was past. But they also almost always explore very current preoccupations, hopes, and anxieties in the society of the present. Over the coming year, publishers plan to put out more dystopian adult fiction—some hopeful, some otherwise—and more stories of resistance, in reaction to the current political climate and the emotions it evokes in the reading public. They also plan to release more translated works than before, as globally interconnected systems, from climate to economics to communications, make the world smaller than ever. And #ownvoices continues to have an impact; publishers are taking steps to diversify both their offerings and the people behind the decisions.

Meanwhile, media are influencing fantasy and sf publishing in more ways than just the news. Binge-watching culture has spilled into reading as well, and publishers in this series-driven genre are finding ways to reward a binge-reading mind-set by publishing series installments closer together than done previously. Adaptations of existing sf and fantasy titles for both the small and big screens are proliferating and still drive sales, and the creative inspiration goes both ways, with many houses highlighting books that are inspired by or in the style of popular TV shows or movies.


Sf tends to deal with contemporary issues by extrapolating them into possible futures, so editors are seeing trends that reflect today’s political reality. Titan Books editor Gary Budden is seeing a lot more climate-change fiction. “I can’t say that optimism seems to be a theme, more a hard look at the inevitable consequences of climate change and what it will mean for humankind as we go forward,” he says. “The twin impacts of Trump and Brexit have been felt in fiction, and I have seen a number of novels starting to [address] directly and indirectly these topics through the lens of speculative fiction. People seem hungry for dystopia.”

Along those lines, Atlantic Books has a new dystopian title coming from Chris Beckett. America City (Mar.) is a look at a future devastated by climate change and the politicians trying to hold the country together.

Titan editor Sam Matthews concurs. “Protagonists are set up against either a totalitarian system, or a world all but run by machines and AI, in which humans have given up their free will for convenience’s sake.” Matthews adds that “Daniel Godfrey’s excellent The Synapse Sequence was slightly ahead of the trend here, but we’ll also see [Patrick Edwards’s] Ruin’s Wake and [M.T. Hill’s] Zero Bomb coming out in March, which address some of these ideas.” Noting that the titles “might all sound rather gloomy,” he sees “hope in the rebellion at the heart of these books—and tension, too.”

Rene Sears, editorial director at Pyr, feels that there’s room for hopeful looks at the future as well as dystopia. “One of the things I think we’re seeing are stories in which protagonists engage with their governments, whether in stories like Myke Cole’s “Sacred Throne” series, in which they do so by grim resistance, or in Tracy Townsend’s The Fall, in which the protagonists are more invested in subverting the status quo.”

Harper Voyager executive editor David Pomerico is seeing more of the hopeful and somewhat escapist titles than dystopian at his house. “While a modern sensibility will generally bring an edge of darkness, novels like [Jessie ­Mihalik’s] Polaris Rising, [Elle Katharine White’s] Dragonshadow, and Becky Chambers’s “Wayfarer” series are showing just how much people want to read for pleasure—to connect with people—as they want to reflect on what’s happening in their day-to-day lives.”

Uncanny Magazine editor Lynne M. Thomas, who is also a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-­Champaign, agrees that the magazine is seeing more dystopian submissions of short fiction, but most of them are falling on a more hopeful side. “There is quite a wave of stories clearly written in response to the current political environment and filled with resistance and #MeToo themes. Most are fairly hopeful and still posit that things will improve if we fight.”

Fireside Press publisher and art director Pablo Defendini notices something similar in submissions to his company’s flash-fiction magazine. “I’m seeing a real hunger for positive stories,” he says, “stories that focus on the hopeful; depict and encourage progressive, positive outcomes; and, as author Andrea Phillips puts it, contain ‘a core of kindness.’ ” He thinks it goes beyond the “hopepunk” movement: “It’s not
an aesthetic so much as the preamble to a paradigm shift in how we tell stories. Think about all the tired tropes that rely on solving problems with sensationalized violence, or inter-character tension that relies on toxic relationships, and you’ll get a sense of what people are hoping to avoid,” he adds, citing authors such as Becky Chambers, who are “on the leading edge of this kind of narrative work.”


Many presses are getting more translated works from China, Russia, and other global spots that Western readers may not have read. Harper Voyager’s Pomerico is proud to publish Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. “Translated from Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey, this is a revised edition of a book originally self-published in English in 2007. Set in a magical school in the Russian countryside, it’s a brilliant exploration of time, language, and the metaphysical changes a young woman endures. We’re so excited that we have a second book with the Dyachenkos scheduled for early in 2020 as well.” Publisher Flame Tree is acquiring more books from China, with hard sf the dominant subgenre; two such books are coming in 2019.

In addition to voices from a wider range of countries, those that represent a wider range of cultures and ethnicities within our country continue to play an important role. Budden says he’s pleased by Titan’s acquisition of The Record Keeper, the debut novel from African American writer Agnes Gomillion, a dystopian tale set in the aftermath of a third world war in a world once again racially segregated. Budden likens it to the tradition of writers such as Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and Nnedi Okorafor and adds that he’s “delighted for Titan to be publishing a wider array of voices.”

Matthews adds, “Every Sherlock Holmes fan should read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse’s ‘Mycroft Holmes’ series—the most recent release is Mycroft and Sherlock…and we will release the third book next year. In these books, Mycroft’s friend Cyrus Douglas tackles the many issues associated with being a man of African and Trinidadian descent in Victorian London—adding an important dimension to the genre.” Matthews believes that one of Titan’s strengths as a publisher is in Sherlock Holmes- and Lovecraft-inspired fiction, and he’d like to see more writers challenge the status quo and explore how these stories can be more inclusive, bringing in a thoughtful twist for modern readers.

Daw recently opened a new digital submissions system to the public, in the hopes that the imprint will see more works of sf and fantasy from authors of color, Native people, people with disabilities, neurodiverse people, LGBTQIA+ people, and those from other underrepresented or marginalized communities. Assistant director of publicity Alexis Nixon says that before the new system went into effect, Daw was promoting the work of a diverse range of authors. “Librarians should be on the lookout for the omnibus of Okorafor’s ‘Binti’ trilogy, which publishes in February and features a brand-new Binti story,” Nixon says. “This tale of a young Himba woman with incredible mathematical aptitude is not to be missed. We’re also excited to present Karen Lord’s latest novel, Unraveling, in June, which merges the traditions of Caribbean storytelling with a compelling murder mystery.”

Anne Sowards, Ace executive editor, is excited about ­ Mecha Samurai Empire by Asian American author Peter Tieryas, which is “alternate history/action science fiction in a world where after Japan and Germany won World War II, California is part of the United States of Japan.” She adds that “Malaysian-born author Zen Cho will be returning to her delightful Regency-era fantasy series (following Sorcerer to the Crown) with The True Queen, which features a young woman from a fantastical version of Malaysia.”

Flame Tree’s Nick Wells points to the challenges in publishing more #ownvoices material. “The authors and the online audience are ahead of the bookstore audience, which is more traditional. Publishers also are still predominantly staffed by more traditional folk, so the commissioning challenge is to find the readers who don’t go to readers groups, the writers who don’t go to creative writing classes. We have competitions planned for nontraditional communities, placed through community groups and sports halls, as we try to reach beyond the standard markets for both readers and writers.” He adds that podcasts, conventions, and fandom in general are pushing the still predominantly straight, white publishing world toward greater inclusion and pointed to the most recent Hugo awards, of which fan voters chose many works by women of color, as evidence that such titles are popular with the majority of sf readers.

Harper Voyager’s Pomerico believes most publishers care about representation and diversity and that readers are “keenly aware of who is telling the story.” He adds, “To have a practicing Muslim exploring ideas of faith and society in fantasy like S.A Chakraborty does in The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper showcases a world a lot of Western readers might not be aware of. Rati Mehrotra creating female assassins based on her own South Asian culture does the same. And an area that I think often gets underrepresented is that of people with disabilities telling their own stories, but luckily we are publishing T. Frohock, whose Where Oblivion Lives focuses so much on music and the power of sound—key elements in her own life as a deaf woman.”


Daw’s Nixon notes that the theme of 2019’s World Fantasy Convention is fantasy noir, and Daw’s spring list leans heavily into the rise of this subgenre. In March, the imprint will introduce Dan Stout’s Titanshade, a debut novel that blends fast-paced, adventurous fantasy with a magical murder mystery, set against the backdrop of an oil boomtown with a distinctly Seventies flair. Nixon is also excited for the continuation of Stephen Blackmoore’s “Eric Carter” series in April with Fire Season, which blends the best of fantasy noir with Aztec mythology and necromancy.

Fairy-tale retellings have been big since Gregory ­Maguire’s Wicked if not before, but Sowards says they’re still going strong. “We’re still seeing interest in fantasy inspired by fairy tales, so we’re excited for the upcoming release of Leife Shallcross’sThe Beast’s Heart. It’s a reimagined version of Beauty and the Beast, in which the story is told by the Beast himself, and it takes place in a lush, magical version of 17th-century France,” she says.

On the sf side, artificial intelligence (AI) is trending, perhaps owing to scientific advances in the news, commercial adoption of AI-driven applications such as Siri and Alexa, and the popularity of TV’sWestworld. Lance Erlick’s “Android Chronicles” (continuing with Unbound) is one such work, in which Synthia Cross, the most advanced android ever created, rebels against her creator when she discovers his vengeful and deadly ulterior motives in designing her. Like Westworld, the “Android Chronicles” uses androids as counterpoints and complements to humanity in order to examine—and ultimately redefine—our preconceived notions about what it means to be human. Pyr editorial director Rene Sears is excited about David Walton’s Three Laws Lethal, an sf thriller that addresses issues of artificial consciousness in addition to some of the ethical concerns inherent in self-driving cars and the algorithms that have to make life-or-death choices.

If AI leads to questions of what it means to be human, automation raises anxieties about whether humans can be replaced. Titan’s Budden is excited to be publishing the stand-alone sf novel The Zero Bomb, “dealing with the contemporary anxieties of increased automation and a post-work society. It’s a brilliant thriller written in gorgeous prose.”


When it comes to media’s influence on the field, publishers are seeing fewer direct licensed tie-ins and more indirect influences of popular media. According to Titan’s Matthews, “Successful shows have a big influence on writers and editors, whether we know it or not. We’re seeing glimmers of Black Mirror and Stranger Things in many books coming in now, just as there was a rise in Game of Thrones –style fantasy a couple of years ago. It’s great to be able to tell the audience of a popular show that they’ll enjoy a book we’re publishing and to find authors who enjoy the same worlds we do—but when I’m reading submissions, the strength of the writing and worldbuilding is key, regardless of trends.”

Daw’s Nixon agrees. “With the continued popularity of superhero films, we’re proud to be publishing Sarah Kuhn’s ‘Heroine Complex’ novels, which we recently expanded to a six-book series. With the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, we’d love to see even more Asian American representation on the big screen, and superheroes Aveda Jupiter and Evie and Bea Tanaka are the perfect candidates. We also can’t wait to hear more about the HBO adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s World Fantasy Award–­winning novel, Who Fears Death. We hope that the success of film and television with diverse protagonists and story lines fuels authors from marginalized communities to send us their stories.”

Harper Voyager’s Pomerico points out that “[t]he market has evolved a lot over the last few years, and the development of intellectual properties (IP) has, in a way, made it harder to do media adaptations, because for a lot of people, why read the book when you can interact with the content in a different, often quicker, medium? That said, I think publishers are being very creative in the ways they’re adapting IP for readers, looking to not simply cash in on the hottest topic but create stories that will stand the test of time.”

One example of such tie-ins is Titan’s Harley Quinn: Mad Love, the second release in its line of DC Comics novels. Matthews believes “Pat Cadigan and Harley Quinn’s creator, Paul Dini, have together shaped a darkly comic and thrilling novel about this favorite of Batman characters—we meet Harley Quinn before she began her love affair with The Joker, when she’s a strong, flawed woman, and find out how obsession and love can change every­thing. Plus, the books themselves are beautiful hardbacks—I’m in love with the cover art already.”


From Daw comes the fourth series set in the interconnected Maradaine universe with Marshall Ryan Maresca’s The Way of the Shield, exploring the story of the Tarian Order, warriors who stand for order, justice, and the common people. Next spring Daw will also launch the debut novel from Hugo winner Suzanne Palmer. Finder is an sf caper that mixes witty humor with high-stakes adventure as repo man Fergus Ferguson finds himself in over his head when a mission to steal back a spacecraft goes awry.

Ace highlights W.L. Goodwater’s Breach, which introduces a new fantasy series set in an alternate version of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall is made of magic, and it’s beginning to fail. Harper Voyager is launching two new series from veteran authors. A swashbuckling space pirate adventure, Bennett R. Coles’s Winds of Marque, takes readers across the stars, while T. Frohock builds off the “Los Nefilim” world she began with a series of novellas. Where Oblivion Lives showcases a group of Spanish angels on the verge of World War II trying to prevent mankind and angels from destroying themselves. (Also flashing back to the first half of the 20th century, “I’m also very excited to be publishing Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives in the United States, a mind-bending story of time travel set in the aftermath of the First World War,” says Budden.)

The first book in a two-book series from debut author Eyal Kless, The Lost Puzzler, has a small group with differing agendas tracking down a young boy whose mind could be the key to unlocking the technology left behind in a post­apocalyptic wasteland. Kless, a concert violinist, brings an unusual Israeli perspective to the genre.

From Lyrical Press a new series by Pat Esden has Selena James, executive editor for Kensington Publishing, excited. “Esden’s writing is atmospheric and crisp, and when she decided to write about witches for her “Northern Circle Coven” series (launching with His Dark Magic), I knew she would create intriguing characters and a riveting story line. I admire her strong characters’ sense of adventure, imaginative problem-solving, and the passion they show for each other and their mission. A plus is Pat’s distinctive mixing of cultures and science and the arts, in the lives and interests of characters to make them complex and compelling.”


For readers who don’t want to begin a series until it’s completed, Harper Voyager has concluding volumes coming in Rachel Dunne’s “Bound Gods” trilogy (The Shattered Sun) and Jack Heckel’s “Mysterium” series ( The Darkest Lord), as well as Mahimata, the second book in Rati Mehrotra’s “Asiana” duology, and the fourth and final book in Auston Habershaw’s epic fantasy, “Saga of the Redeemed.”

There are plenty of stand-alones forthcoming as well. On the fantasy side, in Sarah Beth Durst’s The Deepest Blue, women with magic are given a choice: renounce their families or risk their lives surviving dangerous nature spirits in order to become heirs to the queen. And for a mix of sf and horror, debut author Caitlin Starling sends a single cave diver deep into the dark in The Luminous Dead.

From Ace, coming in early 2019 is a stand-alone debut from Angus Macallan, Gates of Stone. Sowards calls it a Game of Thrones–like epic fantasy set in a country reminiscent of 18th-century Indonesia, “featuring characters you’ll love and characters you’ll love to hate.”

Martin Biro, an editor at Kensington, says there is room in the market for stand-alone sf. “As much as readers love series and dense mythologies, stand-alone novels are often the best type of ‘gateway drug’ in terms of getting readers to take a chance on a new genre or author. We always try to make sure that every book in a series is still accessible if a reader hasn’t kept up with every book in [a series].”


Tor editor Diana M. Pho has noticed the rise of serial titles released close together. “In a time when Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and other streaming services have become the norm, readers are used to entertainment being instantly [attainable] as soon as they get a taste. Serial titles are becoming more important than ever to help break out debut authors, though accessibility at any point in a series is also important to draw in new readers who may feel overwhelmed starting from the beginning.” Pho highlights K.A. Doore’s upcoming The Perfect Assassin, a stand-alone adventure with two follow-up installments that will be out in rapid succession. “Readers who love Amastan from Perfect Assassin won’t have to wait much longer to see him in The Impossible Contract, while also seeing his female cousin take the lead,” says Pho. For a longer running series such as George R.R. Martin’s “Wild Cards,” recent books Mississippi Roll and Low Chicago are designed to enable newcomers to jump right into the universe.

Tor editor Jen Gunnels says, “The fantasy series I’ve been buying are generally either complete or nearly so, which is allowing us to put the books out more quickly than the usual one per year. That certainly taps into the binge mentality for fantasy readers.” Tor executive editor Diana Gill says, “Serial titles and series bingeing are an integral part of entertainment and pop culture now, and this is just as true in books as on the screen. Where possible, we are publishing titles more closely together, whether on an accelerated schedule or by holding titles so we can publish back to back.” Gill’s example is S.L. Huang’s “Cas Russell” titles featuring a math-genius mercenary, which she says is “compulsively fun entertainment.” Tor’s strategy is to publish the first three books just nine months apart. Zero Sum Game dropped in October, with the second book, Null Set, hitting shelves in July 2019, and book three coming the following March.

Another series with this strategy from Tor is “The Ruin of Kings” by Jenn Lyons, acquired as a five-book series. Tor VP and publisher Devi Pillai says the company will publish the volumes nine months apart, with the entire series out in three years, “partially to address the current binge culture but also to address the kind of frustration readers have complained about in regard to big epics with years in between installments.” Pillai touts Lyons as a “fantastic new talent in epic fantasy—one whose addictive voice, double time line, and nuanced plotting bring back memories of the classics of the genre, while ultimately doing something new and fresh.”

Other publishers are using a similar close serial publishing approach. James Abbate, editorial assistant at Kensington, says the publisher aims to release three books within 18 months, pointing to the ebook format that makes this easier. Alice Henderson’s “Skyfire Saga” began in April with Shattered Roads and will continue with Shattered Lands in December.


The rise of ebooks remains a major issue in the industry. Many publishers are pushing e-originals, experimenting with pricing structures, and touting ebooks as a way to get a series into readers’ hands faster than print can. These strategies create some challenges for libraries, but most publishers are still excited to see what can be done with the newer format.

Daw’s Nixon says the publisher is using e-originals as a way to give readers a “reintroduction to a familiar world or a new perspective on events. In September, we released Julie E. Czerneda’s The Only Thing To Fear, an original e-novella set in the ‘Web Shifters’ universe. It’s been 15 years since Esen’s last adventure in Hidden in Sight, so this e-novella gives readers a chance to get reacquainted with our favorite little blob, as well as familiarize themselves with the universe of Czerneda’s latest novel, Search Image.” Daw is also publishing a new “Heroine Complex” universe e-novella from Sarah Kuhn. Coming in July, the book will shift the focus to superhero trainer Lucy Valdez as she sorts out her love life and protects San Francisco from a new threat.

Flame Tree’s Wells points out that ebooks can help publishers work around the limited space in physical bookstores and gives them an advantage in getting quicker follow-ups in a series. He explains that “[Barnes & Noble requires] nine months ahead of publication, but our authors and audiences look for a quicker follow-up, certainly six months.” For Rebel Base, an imprint of Kensington, communications associate James Akinaka says “e-originals aren’t just a growing part of our model—they are the model. Using our digital-first framework, Rebel Base [has been] launching ten sci-fi/fantasy series throughout 2018, with more on the way in 2019. One of our main objectives behind this digital-first model was to be able to connect with readers on a more frequent basis, since releasing our series as e-originals allows us to expedite the release schedules for each series. As an sf/f reader myself, I can say that once we pick up a new series, we’re voracious in wanting future installments, and Rebel Base can meet that demand exclusively through the e-original format. For those readers who are married to print books, all of our Rebel Base titles are also available as print-on-demand editions.”

Uncanny editor Thomas says that while she is an avid reader of library ­ebooks, one new shift that has given her pause is the four-month embargo by Tor Books on library editions for new releases. “I don’t think that will actually shift the economics to purchasing ebooks rather than borrowing them,” she says, “I just think that it will make it harder to turn casual readers (and libraries) into hard-core purchasers of backlist titles, which has been a demonstrated outcome of library ebook lending in most other genres.” Fireside’s Defendini has similar thoughts about the issues around ebooks,”We’re seeing a leveling off of the ebook vs. print split, but since ebook prices are artificially kept up by the Big Five publishers, we’re not seeing how the ebook market would develop if left to its own devices and thus don’t have a good handle on how the book market in general will evolve beyond print. It’s the ultimate self-own on the part of big publishers. On the other hand, the area of growth these days is in audiobooks!”

Futures Fantastic

Below are the forthcoming titles mentioned in this article.

Emily Wagner is a former YA librarian. Currently she helps run sf conventions, works in a cemetery, and lives with her wife and four cats. Keep up with her on Twitter and instagram at emilytheslayer

This article was originally published in Library Journal's November 1, 2018, issue. See also the Q&A with Editor John Joseph Adams.

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