The new future of sci-fi
There use to be just sci-fi; then along came New Wave, New Weird, Cyberpunk and countless other genres; now new writing is stepping beyond even these
In science fiction and fantasy, movements come and go. Now, though, there appears to be a new movement arising – a movement without a name.
Science fiction and fantasy have always been genres prone to movements and manifestos. They are slippery genres to classify, and each successive generation has had its own stab at pinning them down and redefining them. Cyberpunk, New Wave, Steampunk, New Weird . . . all these have had a lasting effect on the genre; but these days, issuing a manifesto smacks of adolescent hubris, and literary movements are often more confining than liberating for those identified with them. Now, however, a new generation of writers seems to be coming to the fore – a generation without a manifesto or a unifying purpose.
The key characteristics of this non-movement are that it consists of a loose grouping of new, thirty and fortysomething authors all coming to prominence at the same time, and all writing non-traditional, genre-blending fiction, united by a willingness to transgress traditional genre boundaries, and an individualism that balks at being conscripted into anybody else’s idea of what genre writing should or should not be .
Rather than content themselves with writing space opera or sword-and-sandal quest sagas, these new writers take the ingredients of the past and recombine them with the tropes of pulp adventure, alternate history and mythology, in order to tell new stories – stories unfettered by narrow genre definitions; stories with global sensibilities, which aspire to the standards of mainstream literature in terms of character, structure and style.
The new breed
For the most part, these writers aren’t defined by nationality or gender. They come from all over the place, and, unlike many previous movements in science fiction, aren’t predominately male.
Originally hailing from New Zealand, Adam Christopher has been getting a lot of attention for his gritty superhero novels, Empire State and Seven Wonders. In her Obsidian and Blood trilogy, Parisian author Aliette de Bodard has produced a series of baroque murder mysteries set in an alternate world dominated by Aztec culture. In Moxyland and Zoo City, Lauren Beukes uses her distinctive brand of hard boiled urban fantasy to hold up a mirror to the political and social realities of her native South Africa. American Chuck Wendig writes gothic road trips featuring magical heroines. And Israeli-born Lavie Tidhar has been making waves with his satirical detective novel Osama, in which Bin Laden exists as the hero of a series of pulp adventure stories.
In the UK, British-born Lou Morgan writes about vengeful, hard-drinking angels in Brighton. Emma Newman ’s latest novel, Between Two Thorns, is a fantasy epic set in modern-day Bath. Kim Lakin-Smith’s gothic dustbowl novel Cyber Circus, imagines a troupe of grotesque circus performers eking out a living on an inhospitable desert world; Tim Maughan ’s Paintwork examines a consumerist future through the prism of today’s youth street culture.
All these writers seem to share a sensibility and an urge to write new stories unconfined by the past; and unconfined by any suggestion of a manifesto or unifying principle. They are not organised, or working together.
In fact, it's difficult to even define the limits of the group: there are a few other writers who could be included. The edges of the group are fuzzy, as you’d expect from a loose collection of writers ploughing their own furrows without needing to, or indeed wanting to, be part of a larger literary movement.
What they all have in common is that their stories are hard to categorise. It’s not easy to point at any one of the books mentioned above and say definitively that “this is science fiction” or “this is fantasy”. The works are so much more than either of those terms imply, and resist being neatly labelled; and yet, all sit comfortably beneath the umbrella of genre.
Unlike previous movements in genre fiction, this nameless assemblage doesn't appear to be reacting against anything. In fact, their work displays a genuine love for what has gone before, and an appreciation of the roots and peculiarities of genre fiction.
Recently, it’s become fashionable to agonise about the Death of Science Fiction, and hardly a week passes without some commentator declaring its demise. But rather than bemoaning the moribund state of fantastic fiction, or trying to distance themselves from the old guard, these new authors are instead building on the achievements of the past, and warping them into new and unexpected shapes - producing unique, individual works which can only breathe fresh strength and vitality into science fiction and fantasy.
Gareth L Powell is an English writer whose novels include The Recollection and Silversands, and the recently published Ack-Ack Macaque