SF/Fantasy/Dystopia | Day of Dialog 2017

The panel (top photo, l.-r.): S.A. Chakraborty, L. Penelope, Annalee Newitz, moderator Kristi Chadwick, Holly Goddard Jones, and Jordanna Max Brodsky.  Photos by William Neumann

Moderated by LJ’s sf/fantasy co-columnist Kristi Chadwick, the second panel of the day, simply titled “SF/Fantasy/Dystopia,” was an all-female affair, featuring five rising stars of speculative fiction who wowed the audience with their insights on writing in this genre. “I went into fiction to tell a truth that I couldn’t in nonfiction,” said science journalist Annalee Newitz. Her debut novel Autonomous (Tor: Macmillan, Sept.) is set 150 years in the future and features a pharmaceutical pirate who reverse-engineers drugs too expensive for the poor until something goes wrong and the company sends a military agent and a robot after her. Newitz was inspired by the case of pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli, who notoriously jacked up the price of an HIV drug from $13 a pill to $750. She also wanted to use fiction to explore the current debate in tech journalism over the future of artificial intelligence. Are we creating happy slaves to do the work we don’t want to do? What does it mean to be a robot with human-equivalent consciousness in a world where people have set you to be contained and enslaved?

Holly Goddard Jones, author of The Salt Lines (Putnam, Sept.) didn’t set out to write a literary dystopian thriller about a version of America transformed by deadly ticks. But after finishing her last book, she read Scott Smith’s The Ruins and was impressed by the small scale of the monster, a vine. At the same time her hiking experiences with her husband involved checking each other out for ticks. “I thought a tick would make a really great small-scale monster.” She had intended to write a horror short story, but it got bigger and bigger and the dystopian elements started to take on weight symbolically. “It felt like a big departure.”

Jordanna Max Brodsky’s urban fantasy “Olympus Bound” series (The Immortals; Winter of the Gods, Orbit) features a Greek deity, Artemis, who punishes men who abuse women in modern-day Manhattan. Brodsky was attracted to the paradox of Artemis as a kick-ass heroine. “Like Wonder Woman, she can shoot arrows. She’s as strong and swift as any man. And she protects the innocent. But she can be cruel and merciless.” And she’s a 3000-year-old virgin, who in Brodksy’s story is increasingly finding it difficult to remain chaste. “She is an extreme example, but through her we ask ourselves how do we love? How do we give ourselves physically and emotionally, and not lose our own strength?”

Mythological and supernatural beings are also the protagonists of S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass (Harper Voyager, Nov.) and L. Penelope’s “The Eternal Flame” paranormal romance series (Angelborn; Angelfall), a Black Caucus of the ALA Self-Publishing Award Winner. Chakraborty, whose heroine is a con artist in 18th-century Cairo who accidentally summons a mysterious djinn during one of her cons, had wanted to write about the djinns of traditional folklore, not the wish-granting Disney versions. Penelope’s hero Caleb is an angelborn, a man who had died without a soul and who had been sentenced to the Wasteland for eternity. “I wanted to take religion out of angels and to see what they could be,” said Penelope, who had grown up religious but lost her faith after deciding to read the Bible from cover to cover.

What is the attraction of writing in the sf/fantasy genres for these authors? For Goddard, dystopian/speculative fiction offers the tantalizing possibility of a do-over. “Everything is laid to waste, and you can start anew. And that’s exciting to imagine.” Another appealing factor is the possibility of pulling together disparate alliances, of having characters whose paths might not have crossed otherwise join in a common cause.

As for the old literary vs. genre writing debate, most of the panelists agreed that it is not necessary to distinguish between the two. Newitz noted that this crossover between pop culture and literature has been going on for a long time in the United States. Chakraborty concurred, saying that historically, most stories told had at least a dash of the fantastic. “Read what you want, life’s too short,” she added. But Penelope reminded the audience that genre categories and subcategories are useful for helping readers find what they want. “Genre is necessary in finding an audience.”

The session ended with Brodsky proposing a new term, “God-Punk,” as a subgenre for herself, Chakraborty, and Penelope, to great applause.


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Wilda Williams About Wilda Williams

Wilda "Willy" Williams (wwilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is LJ's Fiction Editor. She specializes in popular fiction and edits the Mystery, Science Fiction, Christian Fiction, and Word on Street Lit columns.

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