The short answer is ‘sort of’. Because SFF is genre fiction, it inherits and works through tropes and motifs from past works and sub-genres (many of which were implicitly partriarchal, heteronormative and based on the values of ‘white’ societies). In order to represent alternative viewpoints, therefore, modern SFF has to work very hard to subvert those past norms. Sometimes the subversion is successful but, often, the subversion goes unnoticed by the reader and the reader considers the book poorly written or unintentionally cliched. Tricky. Want to read about the subject in more depth? Then have a look at the new Luna Press collection of essays on the topic. I’ve got an essay in there (based on my PhD), and so have the likes of Juliet McKenna, Kim Laikin-Smith, and many more: https://www.lunapresspublishing.com/single-post/2017/04/01/Ten-Strong-Voices-Join-The-Luna-Family
- The return of epic fantasy?
I’ve received a couple of fan emails asking why there isn’t more ‘epic fantasy’ around at the mo. Added to that, several conventions this year have had panel discussions on the epic fantasy sub-genre. What’s going on? The ‘epic’ sub-genre of fantasy literature was the dominant sub-genre in the 80s and 90s. It was overtaken by the urban, dark and grimdark sub-genres a good while ago. Are people yearning again, then, for that time when kings and queens were noble, when a hard-working apprentice could save the world, and when evil could be defeated by good old fashioned morality? Are people ‘sick’ of the depressing, brutal and fatalistic fantasy literature created by current social and historical forces (Brexit, Trump, political scandals, etc)? You bet they are. And who can blame them?
- The lost age of heroes?
Curiously, although dystopian YA movies did well at the cinema for a number of years (Hunger Games, Divergent, etc), the trend seems to be returning to high/superhero (‘Chosen One’) fantasy. Marvel hero stories are swamping both tv and film. At the cinema, we’ve got Avengers, Thor (third film in production), Antman, Dead Pool, Guardians of the Galaxy (second film here soon), Doctor Strange, etc. On tv we’ve got Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, etc. And let’s not forget the resurgence of the Star Wars franchise – classic high fantasy. What’s happening here? Why are stories from the 70s gaining such traction? Are people really harking back to a nobler time, when humans were ‘better’, when they may have walked with gods? You bet they are. This yearning isn’t new either. It’s a key theme of the Iliad as well. We see how far we have fallen since the ‘golden age’, and we feel grimy and ashamed. We try to envision how things once were, so that we can mimic and recreate that better past.
- Changing fashions and new generations?
Every 7-10 years of so, we have a new erotic series shocking popular culture. We had Emanuel in the 70s, Jilly Cooper in the 80s, Jackie Collins in the 90s, E L James (Fifty Shades) in the 2000s, etc. After each iteration, people get bored with the media saturation and there’s a ‘lull’ in the market. There is a welcome reprieve. Then the younger generation grows up and it all starts again. The same happens with vampire fiction – you don’t need me to list the examples. And the same has happened with zombies. Are we telling the same stories over and over again? To an extent (there is certainly a lot of tired repetition), but there is also updating and some originality going on. What we can say, then, is that there seem to be a limited number of basic stories, but they are always relevant. We are going to see the same old stories repackaged over and over forever more, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
- Takeaway message?
The takeaway message is that audiences still crave hope. They eventually return to enduring stories of hope and triumph. Yes, it’s fresh and interesting to have moments and sub-genres where the dark side wins, or where everything is morally ambiguous, but in the longer term, our positive spirit is shown to win out. Amen.
‘I was bitten by a radioactive printing press.’
‘I’d murder my own grandmother to write a Doctor Who novel.’
Here is a summary of the open and inspiring conversation that took place between Marcus Gipps (editor at Gollancz) and guest-of-honour Scott Lynch on 24 Sept 2016. The summary was put together by A J Dalton (Gollancz author), audience member.
Marcus Gipps [MG]: So, Scott, when did you start writing? And why fantasy?
Scott Lynch [SL]: It was basically laziness. I wasn’t much of a fantasy reader early on in my life – I was reading scifi instead. From the local library I was borrowing True Story Adventure Books (the US version of Fighting Fantasy style choice-stories), John Christopher’s Tripods sequence, and The Prince in Waiting, and Doctor Who novels. I was reading Doctor Who from like 8 or 9 years old, and hadn’t even seen the TV show. My idea of Doctor Who from the books bore very little relation to the TV show, actually! I read ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and they had huge influences on me. I read Frank Herbert’s Dune like ten times. I was disappointed to learn Herbert died when I was just 8.
Then this guy in a corridor at school comes up to me, puts a copy of Raymond E Feist’s The Magician in my hand, says ‘Dude, read this!’ and walks away. I was in the book shop buying the whole sequence just four days later! That’s how and when I started reading fantasy.
I wanted to be a musician, and was only held back by the issue of not having any musical talent whatsoever. Then I wanted to be a comicbook artist, and had some ability, but realised I was just dicking around while others were really dedicated and hard working. So, because of that laziness I mentioned before, writing somehow ended up being the easiest path for me. By my late teens, I was realising that writing was it.
In my twenties, I was living a ramshackle life. To get money, I started self-publishing D&D materials, because Wizards of the Coast were kind of open source with it. I learnt a lot of craft there, concerning magical systems and organising a world. Once I started writing books though, I realised that was my preference and where my energy should be – gaming can be frustrating when the other players just don’t do what you want them to do!
MG: How did you get published?
SL: I was bitten by a radioactive printing press. No, I was lucky enough to be a member of an online forum that had real writers on it (like Neal Asher and R Scott Bakker, etc). Us aspiring writers all liked to moan and say exactly how things should be in fantasy writing. One of the writers then challenged us to write something or just shut up. I was kind of forced to write a prologue and a scene from The Lies of Locke Lamora. I put up a blog called ‘Newbie writes a book’, which was all of four posts. The writer who’d challenged me said, ‘Good work. Write the rest.’ And one person on the forum was an acquisitions editor, which never happens of course. It was Simon Spanton of Gollancz. He emailed me! He asked for more. I said, ‘Give me 48hrs!’ I wrote the whole first chapter of Lies and sent it to him. He said, ‘It’s brill. Where’s the rest?’ I didn’t have the rest, of course. Eventually, Gollancz said, ‘We have faith. We’re buying it.’ By late 2005, Lies was done and I haven’t had to do respectable work since then.
MG: The well documented break between books two and three, a period you’ve been very open about, seemed to help with the success of Lies?
SL: Yeah. The break allowed word-of-mouth to spread. It’s the long-tail and networking effect. It’s nothing I consciously did. It was huge luck and the human decency of people who bought the books.
MG: And you were being very open about your clinical depression.
SL: It was kind of forced on me. A guy interviewing me said, ‘We’ve not heard from you for two or three years. Where have you been?’ It struck me nakedly – I thought, ‘Either I’m open or I dodge this question for the next three years.’ Being open was an act of self-defence. It was useful. It was therapeutic. I was going through a divorce. It takes anyone months to realise they’re not a failure. Clinical depression is often driven by a cultural requirement for self-sufficiency. The attitude is unhealthy. My grandma lived six decades in a marriage like that. She even reached the point where she slipped and broke her arm but didn’t want to ‘bother’ the doctor. It sounds ridiculous, but that is what happens and where it can get you.
Once you open up, you realise it’s not just you. The failure is not just you. Depression, when you are isolated, is a self-feeding and self-defending illness. When you share about it, you find similar symptoms in other people and it ends the silence and self-feeding isolation.
MG: Queen of the Iron Sands? What is it? Why?
SL: It’s an online serial novel I started in 2009. Back then, it was a different digital landscape. There was no crowd-funding, just the ‘donation model’. I would put up a piece in the series and ask for donations in order for me to complete the next piece. The model doesn’t really work – you get one-off big donations, a few small ones, and then a lot of no-donations. We had fun with the series though. I wanted to write a Flash Gordon serial where Ming was not useless and incompetent. It was also self-therapy – but the seven episodes show how successful it wasn’t in the longer-term. It’ll be finished before 2087, I hope. Brandon Sanderson will probably have to finish it.
MG: And the future? You have The Thorn of Emberlain coming. Was it always a seven-book series?
SL: I might make it 49 books, Marcus. That okay? No, I’m a believer in sticking to what you say in terms of the number of books. I hit on seven as a number between three and infinity. I don’t want a series splitting and becoming unmanageable. I’m big on structure. I’m a structuralist. The number of books is significant.
With The Republic of Thieves, I gave Simon Spanton at Gollancz half the book and said, ‘Let’s end on a cliff-hanger. I’ll do part two another time.’ Simon, to his infinite credit said, ‘Let’s park that and wait till you get better. And I now see he was right.’ The Wheel of Time was meant to be a trilogy! I don’t want to do ‘Hitchhiker’s book five in the trilogy’. I want to land the thing properly in seven books.
Question from A J Dalton in the audience: Who was your favourite Doctor Who? And would you ever write a Doctor Who novel?
SL: Oh, whatever answer I give is going to be like blasphemy to some. My favourite Doctor was… Sylvester (and my second was Tom Baker). Look, I was a lonely kid. I saw the novel ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ on another kid’s desk and the cover and style of it was fascinating, like an artefact from an alien world. It opened other worlds to me. It was a Sylvester book.
I wrote Doctor Who fanfic as both a kid and an adult. I would murder my own grandmother to write a Doctor Who novel. But I should finish my own book first, should I, Marcus?
MG: I’ll do you a deal. Hand in your own book first and I’ll introduce you to the head of BBC Books.
So, we’ve seen libraries and book shops close across the UK – apparently because people didn’t want hard copies anymore and e-books were cheaper. We’ve seen the undignified bun fight between Amazon and the main publishers – because book prices had been forced so low that publishers could no longer justify taking such a big cut from the pittance that authors were making. And we’ve seen an era of mega-mergers between publishers – as they sought to realise economies of scale and thereby continue to survive.
It was looking apocalyptically bad for publishing. But was the view of things described above the whole picture? Not really. The main problem has been the behaviour of the publishers – they have been victims of themselves in large part. Where other industries have survived changing markets (via innovation and changing themselves), publishing has only made an already bad situation worse. Let’s look at a few behaviours as examples…
- Publishers are more reluctant to ‘take a punt’ on authors these days. They don’t want new authors who have no established fan base. Seems sensible? It’s not. How can a genre evolve and remain relevant unless it’s through new blood? If a publisher publishes the same old names over and over, it will soon begin to see a decline. Look what’s happened to the book sales of scifi and horror. Dead. Why? Because no one would take on Necromancer’s Gambit by the young A J Dalton, a book that he was forced to self-publish, a book which proved to be the UK’s first new wave zombie book and which became the best-selling self-published title in the UK. The book was rejected by publishers as not being ‘squarely within the genre’ – the fact it was fresh and different was seen as a weakness! Bringing us to the next issue…
- Publishers over-read trends and markets. True Blood by Charlaine Harris was rejected by every publisher in the western hemisphere for two years. She was close to giving up. Twilight became successful in 2008 and then there was an insane scramble to secure the rights to True Blood. Publishers then ONLY wanted vampire fiction. They started rejecting anything that didn’t have a vampire, no matter how good the book was (and Empire of the Saviours by one A J Dalton probably got its deal back in 2010 cos it contained blood-drinking saints). What happened? Various rejected authors gave up, meaning that the ‘new blood’ the genre needed was lost, meaning that we ended up with the same situation in example no.1 above. Sure enough, the market was saturated with vampire fiction, people got sick of it and it all died off. Dead.
- Publishers are reluctant to commit to a series anymore. Say the first book in a series sells pretty well, but the second one doesn’t sell so well, are you gonna publish the third book or ‘cut’ the series (anticipating even more of a fall-off in sales)? More and more, publishers are cutting a series before it’s finished. It happened to Paul Kearney’s Sea Beggars Trilogy (which was never a trilogy!). And what about Joss Whedon’s Firely? Seems sensible? Not really. Readers have got so fed up with series being cut, that they now won’t commit to buying a series until all the books are out (or they’ve heard the next series instalment has been commissioned). This reader behaviour makes the situation worse, cos it means that sales of books 1 and 2 in the hypothetical series we started with will be even lower, meaning the publisher will be even more inclined to cut the series. Dead.
- Publishers are insisting on game-changing novels. As in example 3 above, publishers won’t commit to a series. Instead they insist that authors submit a ‘game-changing’ first novel that will all but guarantee immediate and massive sales. The number of brilliant books that get rejected because they aren’t ‘game-changing’ enough is disgraceful – and, remember, it means we lose the ‘new blood’ the genre requires. If you meet a publisher demanding a game-changer, tell them where to get off. I wrote a brilliant scifi called Lifer, but it got rejected in precisely this scenario. (By the way, it’s still available if anyone’s interested.)
- Publishers over-extend series. If a series does emerge as relatively successful, publishers then insist the series-author writes more and more titles in that series – it doesn’t matter how good the book is, it’ll sell anyway. Yes, in the short term it will, but in the longer term it’ll die a death. Look at the Joe Abercrombie Gollancz series (ending with The Red Country). Or the True Blood series, which ended up with 12 or 13 titles. At the same time, the publisher puts all its marketing resource, time and effort behind that one series, ignoring all the other authors, meaning that other stuff starts to fail, no matter how good it is.
- Publishers aren’t even offering book advances anymore! Even established authors (like myself and Tom Lloyd) are being told that no advance on their next book will be paid (that or a derisory amount will be offered). Seems sensible of the publishers? Not really. If the author isn’t paid any money to live on while they write the next book, how can they actually write the book? They’re too busy doing other work, work that pays and therefore buys food. Many authors have given up. Some authors manage to keep writing, but it takes them far longer to write a book. And by the time they deliver the book, things have moved on and the book is no longer the game-changer that is required. The book gets rejected. Dead.
And I could go on. But then I’d be writing a book rather than an article. At the end of the day, publishers have made their own bed and will have to lie in it. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be their death-bed. But maybe it will. With today’s technology, how much do we really need the old monoliths of publishing? What we need are innovative, risk-taking, marketing-savvy and IT-savvy companies. We need companies that respect their authors and invest in their authors in the longer-term. A last example. Elton John says in interview that he wouldn’t succeed as a young musician these days. You see, he didn’t become successful until his third album back in the day. But record companies today don’t offer three-album deals anymore.
So, I’ve finally worked out the schism and problem.
There are two types of zombie literature: first-world and second-world. One works and the other really doesn’t. The term ‘first-world’ means ‘set in our real world’. And ‘second-world’ means ‘set in its own made up world’. Instinctively, which do you suspect is best? Well, for my money, here’s how it is…
First-world zombie literature sees the zombie explained as plague or epidemic. It works as a metaphor for ebola or radicalisation. You might think it explores the problems of today’s world in an interesting way. But it doesn’t really, to be honest. In first-world zombie literature the same jeopardy is repeated over and over. Pretty boring. The zombies are mindless. They have no variety. There is no uber-zombie. Yes, there might be a search for ‘patient zero’ (as in the World War Z movie), but it never provides an insightful revelation about our species. I got series 1-4 of The Walking Dead for xmas. Wow, I had to work hard to get through it. Repetitive to the point of viewer-becomes-a-mindless-zombie-just-to-tolerate-it-anymore. The writers ran out of jokes in series 1, they had to think of inventive ways to kill zombies just to keep some sort of variety, blah, blah.
Now, your second-world zombie lit is another kettle of undead fish altogether. I’m not just saying this cos my book Necromancer’s Gambit kickstarted the new wave of zombie lit back in 2008 either. (Alright, I am a little bit.) The point in second-world zombie lit is that the focus is usually the necromancer. The necromancer is a magician with an ‘intelligent’ aim. They often serve a God of the Dead too, so there’s a larger philosophical framework. Larger existential questions (the meaning of life and death) are implicitly explored too. And even the zombies can be smarter – they can be thinking revenants. So there can be more malice and humour.
And there you have it. Second-world zombie lit rules. Forget your survivalist gun-lobbry first-world nonsense. You might wonder where the Resident Evil movies sit then. Well, the Red Queen serves as organising intellect and the world is soooo post-apocalypse that it’s effectively unrecognisable from our own. Resident Evil is therefore second-world, or so I’d argue. Or it’s a hybrid. A third way. I like it anyway. See you in the next world!
Who would have thunk it? According to Waterstones, sales of physical books are up, while sales of Kindles are close to non-existent. Strange (if not curious) indeed!
Just done a new article for the Fantasy Faction site, ain’t I? You can read it here: http://fantasy-faction.com/2014/the-changing-faces-of-fantasy