New Worlds to Explore | Genre Spotlight

“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones


Judging by the upcoming fall publishing season, there will be plenty of speculative fiction titles to sharpen readers’ minds, but no one particular trend is leading the charge. “Genre fiction is looking for new directions and new paths with no single map to follow right now,” explains Paula Guran, a senior editor for Prime Books, a World Fantasy Award–winning indie publisher of sf/fantasy anthologies and novels. But, she points out, sf and fantasy has attracted a far more diverse readership than ever before, and publishing success can be found by exploring that diversity.

The popular and critical success of films like the Lord of the Rings franchises and television series like HBO’s Game of Thrones played a key role in spurring the recent resurgence of epic fantasy and attracting new readers to the genre. Something similar may be happening with sf, which has long been overshadowed by the urban fantasy/paranormal boom.

Poised for a Comeback?

“Looking at films such as Oblivion, Star Trek: Into Darkness, After Earth, Elysium, Ender’s Game, and Pacific Rim, as well as upcoming video game sure-to-be-sensations like Bungie’s Destiny, I’d say there’s a growing zeitgeist exploring themes of reclamation after collapse, conspiracy on the part of those in power, humanity fighting with itself as well as larger external (alien) issues,” says Lou Anders, the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ Pyr sf/fantasy imprint. Prime’s Guran agrees. “We feel that adventurous ‘space opera’ is gaining readership and that ‘hard sf’ that features indelible characters and compelling story along with the ‘hardware’ is a winning combination.”

Anders stresses that this is not a return to the optimistic space adventures of the 1960s and 1970s. “This isn’t your grandfather’s space opera, no straightforward us against the invaders here, but military sf tinged with a cynicism reflective of our own tense times.” The key takeaway theme from these novels, however, he acknowledges, seems to be hope amid the violence.

The sf invasion hits library bookshelves this fall with a number of titles starring elite military forces and individual professionals who serve to protect their world or particular galaxy. Making her fourth appearance is Commander Cassandra Kresnov, a highly trained android and Federation killer who must face down a rogue government plot to eliminate free will in Joel Shepherd’s 23 Years on Fire (Pyr: Prometheus, Sept.). In October, Ian Douglas releases the second book in his “Star Corpsman” series, Abyss Deep (Harper Voyager), in which elite units of Marines and Corpsmen gather intelligence on alien enemies—in space.

Female authors also enlist in the military sf genre with two notable debuts. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (Orbit: Hachette, Oct.), the first volume of the “Imperial Radch” series, introduces Breq, a soldier who seeks revenge against the leader who betrayed and destroyed her army. This November, fantasy author Rachel Aaron (“Eli Monpress” series) switches genres and publishes her first sf novel as Rachel Bach. In Fortune’s Pawn (Orbit: Hachette), the first entry in the “Paradox” military sf series, Devi Morris is an ambitious mercenary who signs up for security duty on a ship with a reputation for trouble. A year there might make her rich—if it doesn’t kill her first.

This month Alana Quick, the best sky surgeon (i.e., mechanic) in Helidor City, makes her series debut as a spaceship stowaway in Jacqueline Koyanagi’s digital release Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel (Masque: Prime); the print edition will publish in December. The first-time author (born in Ohio, raised in Georgia with a Japanese Southern American family) grew tired of not seeing enough of herself and the people she loves reflected in genre fiction and decided to write her own sf. Explains Guran, “[Koyanagi’s] first novel offers the adventure and excitement of space opera but features a queer female neuroatypical protagonist of color, other folks with disabilities, and diverse relationship styles.”

The Potential Crossover of SF

Harper Voyager executive editor Diana Gill foresees a positive impact from this summer’s Hollywood offerings. “If the upcoming movies based around military science fiction are popular, there very well could be a halo effect for the subgenre in general.” And she sees potential crossover to other audiences. “Many technothrillers are close to science fiction.”

One sf/horror author who keeps her fingers on the pulse of current biomedical and other scientific trends and incorporates these elements into her novels is the Hugo Award–nominated Mira Grant (aka urban fantasy writer Seanan McGuire). Her “Newsflesh” trilogy (Feed; Deadline; Blackout) revolved around a rogue virus that triggers a zombie apocalypse. Coming in October is Parasite (Orbit: Hachette), the first book in Grant’s new “Parasitology” series. SymboGen Corporation has ended sickness and disease with its genetically engineered tapeworms, and now almost every human lives with an “Intestinal Bodyguard” inside them. However, the parasites want a life of their own—in any way possible. Given that what was once the stuff of sf (e.g., cloning, in vitro fertilization) is now technology applied on an almost routine basis, Grant’s intriguing premise lands her novel in the realm of a disturbingly possible reality.

Also set in a plausible near future (the year is 2025) is Frank Schätzing’s Limit (Jo Fletcher: Quercus, Nov.), which hints at espionage and murder at the first lunar hotel. The popular German author (The Swarm) is making his U.S. debut with this sf thriller.

Future Visions

Speculating on how the world might change in the far future remains a key element of sf, although the idea of a positive transformation (as reflected in the old 1960s Star Trek television series) has been replaced by apocalyptic and dystopian visions. Of the 117 librarians who responded to a recent LJ snapshot survey, 58 percent reported that dystopian fiction remains the top circulating sf subgenre in their library.

In October, Wolfgang Jeschke, the grand master of German sf, arrives in this country with The Cusanus Game (Tor), a novel of future disaster in Europe that Tor assistant director of publicity Alexis Saarela likens to the works of Stanislaw Lem and Philip K. Dick. “Wolfgang Jeschke is a huge best seller in Germany, and this U.S. debut will put him on the map of serious science fiction and also literary readers,” says Saarela. “It is a combination thriller, historical novel, and riveting, detailed science fiction, with time travel, mutating human DNA, atomic disaster, and more.”

Another October release, Nick Cole’s The Wasteland Saga (Harper Voyager) collects for the first time in a print edition the author’s self-published postapocalyptic ebooks—The Old Man and the Wasteland; The Savage Boy; and The Road Is a River. Set in a Southwestern landscape 40 years after America was ravaged by nuclear Armageddon, the trilogy follows three protagonists as they struggle to survive and endure. “Harper Voyager loved the different look at the apocalypse, and the literary allusions,” says Harper Voyager editor Gill.

Pierce Brown’s much-anticipated debut, Red Rising (Del Rey: Random, Feb. 2014), transports the dystopian theme to Mars. His 16-year-old hero, Darrow, is a miner and a Red, a member of the lowest caste in a color-coded society. When he discovers how the elite Gold class has exploited his people, Darrow joins a resistance group and infiltrates an elite academy. While comparisons to The Hunger Games come to mind, this is not a young adult novel.

Red Rising is one of those unique books that transcends genre and can be enjoyed by anyone who loves a good story and characters that stay with you long after the last page,” says David Moench, Random’s associate director of publicity. “The young author, Pierce Brown [Brown graduated from college in 2012], has a very mature writing style that blew us all away when we received the book on submission. We knew we had to publish it in a big way.” The publisher is promoting the novel in a big way, too. The author, who made appearances at the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference in Chicago and San Diego Comic-Con, will also be coming to New York Comic Con this October.

Epic Fantasy Goes Dark

As LJ’s recent snapshot survey reveals, epic fantasy remains popular with readers; 37 percent of the responding librarians report that it is the top circulating subgenre in their collections. However, distinguishing between heroes and villains is not always as easy as it used to be. Unlike earlier fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings in which good and evil were clearly delineated, today’s writers, says Ace/Roc editor in chief Ginjer Buchanan, are weaving stories that are more of a “dark nature, rather than about the hero’s quest.”

This “quest” takes on a decidedly different meaning when what the hero is questing for is power and that power can only be gained through destroying all that stands in the way. Today’s fantasy readers are “more open to the morally ambiguous protagonist,” notes Buchanan. A trend that is also notable in today’s popular culture: think of Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad).

One such dark fantasy that the Penguin Group imprints are publishing this fall is Luke Scull’s series launch, The Grim Company (Roc, Sept.). With the Gods dead and warring forces plaguing the lands, the world is desperately in need of a savior. What it gets is a ragtag band of antiheroes: the Grim Company. E.C. Ambrose introduces the bloody history of 14th-century barber-surgeons in Elisha Barber (DAW, Jul.), the first volume of a projected five-book series that blends the gritty and gruesome details of battlefield surgery with an alternate Britain filled with magic.

This October, Orbit is releasing David Dalglish’s A Dance of Cloaks, a self-published debut novel that became an Amazon best seller. In this dark fantasy of retribution, an assassin takes on his father’s wrath when he protects the target he was ordered to kill. The Hachette imprint will publish the other two volumes in the “Shadow Lands” trilogy (A Dance of Blades; A Dance of Mirrors) in November and December, respectively.

From Angry Robot comes Seven Forges by James A. Moore (Sept.). When Capt. Merros Dulver finds a path beyond the mountain range known as the Seven Forges, what he brings home are not the rumored riches but a long-lost race that worships the gods of war.

Series Lineup

Series remain dominant in fantasy publishing. Betsy Wollheim, copublisher at DAW Books, notes that series novels tend to do better than stand-alones. “Readership is immense [for series], and readers become attached to the characters and the story,” she says. Sometimes it is an economic decision on the part of publishers to make the push for a series versus a stand-alone, especially when the sales and popularity of a title take on a life of their own. After DAW founder (and Betsy’s father) Donald Wollheim published Frank Herbert’s Dune as a stand-alone, the success of the book and the fans it generated convinced the publisher to ask Herbert to create more stories in the Dune world.

Harper Voyager’s Gill attributes much of the appeal of sf/fantasy series to the worlds created within the books. “Readers love to revisit their favorites—much like someone may go to Myrtle Beach or Aspen for their annual vacation. Because they love it so much, readers want to go back to Pern and Westeros and Midkemia and the Hollows. Characters they know and love are like friends.”

Richard Kadrey, who had never written a series before his Sandman Slim books, released the latest installment, Kill City Blues, this past July. However, he is also publishing Dead Set (Harper Voyager, Oct.), a stand-alone about a young girl caught between the living and the dead. “Writing one story and not having to set the world and plot up for many visits lends itself to a different sort of story,” explains Gill.

Another popular trend: spin-offs of existing popular series. Michael J. Sullivan’s The Crown Tower (Orbit: Hachette, Aug.) is a prequel to Sullivan’s “Riyria Revelations” novels and tells the story of how mercenaries Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn first began working together.

Waiting for George

Does this mean that there is no room left for first-time authors? Not at all, says Jo Fletcher, a storied British editor who has worked with such notable sf/fantasy/horror writers as Sir Terry Pratchett, the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Charlaine Harris, Joe Hill, Neil Gaiman, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

“The biggest-selling writers never write as quickly as their readers want them to (I find myself humming, ‘Write, George, write like the wind’ at quite inappropriate moments) and that means that there’s room for new writers doing something similar.” Fletcher heads her own eponymous imprint under the Quercus Publishing umbrella, which will be starting a U.S. division in September.

On Jo Fletcher Books’ inaugural U.S. list is Mage’s Blood by David Hair (Sept.), the first volume in the “Moontide Quartet.” This is a first adult title for Hair, who is a popular YA author. Fletcher is certain that die-hard fans waiting for The Winds of Winter, George R.R. Martin’s next installment in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, will find a similar voice in Hair. Librarian Jane Baird’s starred review (LJ 7/13) supports Fletcher’s assertion, praising the novel’s full-scale battle scenes, fierce magical duels, and memorable characters and recommending it for Martin and Robert Jordan readers.

In the meantime, Martin fans will have to be satisfied with an anthology that Martin is coediting with Gardner Dozois. Dangerous Women (Tor, Dec.) collects 21 original stories set in the worlds of fantasy’s most popular series. Selections include a new Jim Butcher “Dresden Files” tale, Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” story, and a novella by Martin about the civil war that broke apart Westeros two centuries before the events of Game of Thrones.

Urban fantasy continues to draw readers into the world of modern magic, technology, and mysterious ways. Best-selling fantasy author Steven Brust (“Taltos” series) teams up with Skylar White (And Falling, Fly; In Dreams Begin) to launch an urban fantasy series. The first volume, The Incrementalists (Tor, Sept.), has already received a rave blurb from best-selling author John Scalzi: “Secret societies, immortality, murder mysteries, and Las Vegas all in one book? Shut up and take my money.” [For more on what’s happening in urban fantasy, see the Q&A with Hydra associate editor Sarah Peed.—Ed.]

Blurring Horror’s Boundaries

As sf and fantasy explore the dark fears that were once the primary domain of horror, the lines that define this genre have become less concrete. JournalStone Publishing is seeing far fewer outright horror submissions and is fielding more cross-genre queries, such as mystery and paranormal stories with horror elements.

“It really gets difficult labeling what a book is,” says JournalStone’s president Christopher C. Payne. “I look up the [BISAC subject headings] for these books, and it is totally confusing how to label some of them or even market them. Which angle do you go after? Which audience do you appeal to or do you try to angle at both/all?”

In September comes The Demon’s Wife from Rick Hautal, a Horror Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award winner who died in March, a few weeks after signing with JournalStone. “With its elements of urban fantasy and romance, this novel was set to redefine Rick’s career and was a project he was most proud of, as it deviated drastically from his previous works of horror into urban fantasy,” says Payne.

Flip Books and Zombies

Inspired by Ace Books’ classic line of flip books, Doubles, JournalStone this past June launched its own flip book series of paired novellas called JournalStone DoubleDowns. Pairing a more established author with a first-time author, the press has six duos currently signed. Coming in September is Smog/Baggage of Eternal Night by four-time Bram Stoker Award winner Lisa Morton and newcomer Eric J. Guignard, respectively. “The premise is two front covers, two authors, two books, all in one publication,” explains Payne. “You take the book and flip it over, and there is your second book. Two for the price of one.”

Zombies remain a popular horror staple; 30 percent of the LJ survey respondents report it as the highest-circulating subgenre. In The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess (ChiZine, Oct.), life on Earth is no longer worth living as the space disposal of zombies has resulted in a mass of immortal dead blocking the sun and causing environmental and psychological havoc around the world. New York Times best-selling military sf author John Ringo launches a new zombie series with Under a Graveyard Sky (Baen, Sept). When an airborne zombie plague is released, a small group of surviving marines and civilians seek refuge and fight to stay afloat—literally, on the Atlantic.

Long considered a low-brow genre, horror titles are attracting talented new writers like Joe Hill, son of horror master Stephen King, and Benjamin Percy, whose apocalyptic werewolf novel Red Moon received critical acclaim this spring. Prime Books editor Paula Guran points out that “literary fiction these days often draws on the dark and supernatural, occasionally the magical, and sometimes our postapocalyptic fears.” As the editor of the 2013 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror Fiction (Aug.) Guran highlights some of the best new dark fiction in 35 tales from established and debut authors.

The Digital Future is Here

Digital publishing has grown by leaps and bounds across all genres with publishers, large and small, launching ebook imprints. Announced last fall, Random House Publishing Group’s Hydra digital-only sf/fantasy/horror imprint hits the ground running with three releases. William Todd Rose’s reinvention of the zombie tale, Apocalyptic Organ Grinder (Jun.), Michael M. Hughes’s horror debut, Blackwater Lights (Jul.), and Mark Onspaugh’s debut dark fantasy, The Faceless One (Oct.). [See Q&A with Hydra associate editor Sarah Peed.]

This November InterMix, the digital-first genre fiction imprint of Penguin Group (USA), will finally bring sf and fantasy into the “mix” with the release of New York Times best-selling author Craig Shaw Gardner’s Temporary Monsters, the first entry in a new urban fantasy trilogy. When Lenny Hodges signs with Territemps!, little does he know his first assignment will be to save the world.

“Ebooks seem to be emerging as a strong platform for the types of original fiction that once were considered most suitably introduced to the public through mass-market paperbacks,” says Prime Books’ Guran. Last month, Prime launched Masque Books that will offer three new digital titles a month, with a focus on general sf/fantasy and sf/fantasy romance. “Masque allows us to offer readers a wider range of entertaining fiction and to take risks, try new ideas, and be responsive to what readers want,” comments Guran.

Besides Jacqueline Koyanagi’s aforementioned Ascension, Masque’s August releases include Chris Howard’s sea-based fantasy Salvage and E. Catherine Tobler’s Silver & Steam, the second volume in the “Rings of Anubis” steampunk series (after July’s Gold & Glass).

Promoting Print via eBooks

Pyr has experimented with e-original publishing largely as a  a promotional vehicle for its traditionally published books. “We’ve had good success with both e-shorts and free ebooks in the past and are always looking for new ways to allow readers to connect with authors,” explains Pyr’s Anders. Meanwhile parent company Prometheus Books recently partnered with Random House Distribution Services to make its books available on a wider platform of services.

The imprint  has over 140 titles in ebook format, and the partnership with Random gives Pyr access to previously unavailable venues like iBooks. “We are very excited about the potential of our books to reach new readers in these new platforms,” says Anders, adding that Pyr has long believed that the quality of an ebook shouldn’t “dip over” that of its print counterpart. Coming in December is the simultaneous ebook and print release of The Doctor and the Dinosaur, the fourth and final volume in Mike Resnick’s hilarious “Weird West” steampunk series, which will include artist Andrew Bosley’s illustrations.

Ace/Roc editor in chief Buchanan also likes publishing digital novellas to “support print.” Her two sf/fantasy lines have had good success with their “E-Specials,” original novellas that can be stories in between or prequels of current series or that allow a supporting character to step to the front of the story.

Noting the rising costs of paper and shipping print books, DAW publisher Wollheim appreciates that ebooks have lowered costs with regard to production. She also enjoys editing digitally; it is easier for an editor to convey problems with passages or clarifying areas. Digital margin notes, she explains, can be a lot more expansive than those in print manuscripts. “Ebooks are saving publishing,” says Wollheim.

A Place for Backlist

Since Open Road Integrated Media, cofounded in 2009 by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, launched its sf/fantasy ebook program in 2012, the digital publisher has signed up the backlists of more than 25 authors, including Octavia Butler, Timothy Zahn, Elizabeth Hand, Theodore Sturgeon, Jonathan Carroll, and more.

“Open Road’s modus operandi is to publish backlist titles as if they were new,” explains Betsy Mitchell, the company’s strategic advisor for sf and fantasy and a former Del Rey vice president/editor in chief. Open Road uses milestones such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Geek Pride Day, and the annual Hugo and Nebula Awards to market continuously its authors and its books. While Mitchell is working on a few e-original titles that have yet to be announced, she is also excited about the upcoming ebook releases of backlist titles by Kate Elliott, James Morrow, and Liz Williams.

In December, just before the first anniversary of the Newtown, CT, shootings, Open Road will publish the ebook of Elizabeth Hand’s 2001 World Fantasy Award–nominated Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. “One of the teachers killed in that event—Anne Marie Murphy—was a family friend of the Hands,” explains Mitchell. The author will donate her royalties from the ebook sales to Autism Speaks, an organization supported by Murphy’s family.

Breaking New Paths

Despite the current upheavals in publishing, there are always a few brave souls willing to start new ventures. To celebrate its tenth anniversary, Raw Dog Screaming Press, which specializes in edgy, experimental fiction from the fringe, is launching this month an sf imprint, Dog Star Books.

“We wanted to branch out, and since we’ve always been about crossing genres, science fiction seemed like the obvious way to go,” says editor John Edward Lawson. Helmed by lead editor and author Heidi Ruby Miller, who has extensive knowledge of the scene, the imprint’s inaugural list features Matt Bett’s post–Civil War steampunk/zombie adventure, Odd Men Out. (Aug.).

Prime Books’ Guran agrees that publishers have to be experimental and adventurous today. “Whether publishers are small independents like us or the biggest New York houses, we are all confronted with an ongoing revolution. Just like genre itself, we have to try new directions and new paths in order to make new maps to follow.”

Kristi Chadwick is Director, Emily Williston Memorial Library, Easthampton, MA. A self-professed “genre junkie,” Chadwick is an LJ reviewer and can be found talking ebooks and collection development on Twitter (@booksnyarn)

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