Catching Up With the Next Generation of Sci-Fi Writers

‘In a community that attracts atheists, Wiccans,
CIA agents, physicists, semioticians, libertines,
libertarians, and unrepentant Trotskyites, one
might anticipate a few political debates’

Ever wonder where new science fiction writers come from? Typically, the best ones emerge from its readership. This would include video gamers and other genre media fans whose love for a broad spectrum of imaginative literature is both critical and obsessive. SF fandom (the initials here meaning “speculative fiction” to capture all flavors of fantasy and science fiction in one easy acronym) incubates its own future.

Fandom as a familial collective of readers and writers has existed since at least the 1920s, when lurid pulp fiction magazines encouraged Lovecraft’s quirky circle of acolytes to pen and critique their own tales of cosmic horror, scientific fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery epics. This path of transition from fan to pro is now made explicit for the curious by events like last month’s Nebula Conference, a four-day convention featuring panel discussions and an awards ceremony celebrating the most significant writing released during the previous year. This time held at the Pittsburgh Marriott hotel downtown, the Nebula Awards, given annually since 1965, are the Oscars of genre fiction, voted on by fellow writers, editors, publishers, and book agents.

It is worth noting that out of the five awards given for short story, novelette, novella, novel, and young adult novel, four went to women writers, one to a man, and three to people of color — a big change from 1965, when all the winners were white and male. All Systems Red (Tor), by Texas native Martha Wells, won Best Novella with an ironic glimpse into the mind of a very fed-up and angry security android. Kelly Robson won Best Novelette for “A Human Stain” (Tor), which she describes as “Lesbian Gothic Horror.” From the podium, Sam J. Miller, winner of the Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy for The Art of Starving (HarperCollins) noted that when he’d worried aloud if there was too much cursing and gay sex in his YA novel about bullying, anorexia, and ESP, his husband assured him the book contained “exactly the right amount of cursing and gay sex.”

Rebecca Roanhorse wrote her Nebula-winning short story for last year’s special Indigenous Issue of Apex Magazine. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (™)” concerns the Native American employee of a cultural theme park, where indigenous hosts are expected to behave like “movie Indians” to entertain visitors. The protagonist has a very modern problem: He can’t fully inhabit his designated role because he is “not the right kind of Indian.” A Santa Fe native who identifies as Ohkay Owingeh and black, Roanhorse’s debut novel, Trail of Lightning, is out this month on Saga Press. It describes a post-apocalyptic world in which the Navajo Nation survives intact, and isolates itself with its gods and traditions on their people’s ancestral lands.

“I wanted Navajo culture to feel centered, and not reactive to colonialism,” says Roanhorse. “I wanted it to feel sovereign. The fact that Navajo culture is alive and vibrant, and that there are a lot of fluent speakers of the language among my extended family and friends certainly aided that.” In the Best Novel category, The Stone Sky (Orbit) won for N.K. Jemisin, seen by many as a worthy heir to the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Kate Wilhelm, two legendary SF writers who passed away this year.

The principal Nebula award categories include three forms of short fiction, which first see publication in magazine form. Neil Clarke, who recently celebrated his tenth anniversary as the founder/editor of Clarkesworld, vividly remembers being at the pivot point of history when short story magazines almost disappeared. “Online fiction wasn’t that well-respected,” says Clarke. “The major print magazines were all in decline, so there was a lot of concern in the field that short fiction was dying.

“The big change that happened for the whole profession was when e-books took off,” says Clarke. “The remaining print magazines started digital editions. And suddenly we were not a ‘Semiprozine’ anymore.” Clarke launched podcasts, hired guest editors, compiled yearly “Best of” anthologies, and expanded the overall functionality of the magazine’s online and print-on-demand presence. Most significantly, he began working with author/translator Ken Liu to introduce untranslated writers of Chinese SF to American fandom. In 2015 he was offered a partnership with the Chinese company Storycom, and last year they released a bilingual SF anthology in China. Many of this year’s nominees have had stories published in Clarkesworld.

Once indie fiction magazines were viable again, some magazine editors took the next evolutionary step to become publishers. Jacob Weisman discontinued his magazine in the mid-Nineties to form Tachyon Publications, which now publishes SFWA’s newly anointed “Grand Master” Peter S. Beagle, and released Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia in 2016. This month, Tachyon published The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts, a former marine biologist who boldly inserts high-concept speculations about time and the future of humanity into a rigorously scientific space opera. In August, the giddily picaresque The People’s Republic of Everything is due from Nick Mamatas, or — as China Miéville, himself a New York Times bestselling novelist, prefers to describe him — “The People’s Commissar of Awesome.”

With online publications expanding the number of possible outlets for less established authors, we are seeing previously marginalized groups writing about protagonists who are not white, male, binary, or cisgender. In the eighteen years since Sheree R. Thomas compiled Dark Matter, a century-spanning collection of African-American SF, people of color have been interrogating the imperialist and sometimes racist tropes embedded in genre fiction since Tarzan, She, and “The Call of Cthulhu” first saw print. Much as when feminist SF began gaining attention in the 1970s, the critical perspectives of black writers annoyed certain sectors of fandom who resented being asked to question white privilege in their books or in themselves. In 2009, pushback took the form of the online #racefail flame-wars. When writers of color observed that white authors seemed to find it easier to sell books featuring nominally non-white protagonists while many non-white authors did not, issues of gatekeeping, misappropriation, and cynical exploitation were raised.

Queer writers are also on the front lines of inclusion debates. Although gay and lesbian writers have long been present in the ranks of SFWA, they did not always feel comfortable being out or featuring gay characters in their books. Accordingly, when openly trans, gay, or queer people began winning major awards for narratives that boldly explored queer futures or speculative aspects of any non-cisgender reality, some fans argued that these stories didn’t represent or appeal to a majority of SF readers. It’s as if they’d forgotten that SF is supposed to be ahead of its time. If reactionary elements in the field successfully campaign against fresh ideas and new voices, they will be killing one of the reasons SF exists.

Yet fandom has survived plenty of ideological disputes and stylistic rivalries over the years. Traditional SF writers were sometimes alarmed by the anarchic young beatnik/hippies of the British and American New Wave; in 1971, publisher Donald A. Wollheim of DAW Books griped that “the readers and writers that used to dream of galactic futures now get their kicks out of experimental styles of writing, the free discussion of sex [and] the overthrow of all standards and morals. . . .” Escapist readers of Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian adventures accused authors of subtle, heady SF of being intellectual elitists. More traditional authors like Orson Scott Card might sneer at needing to compete with the more trendy criminal dystopias of snarky, self-righteous cyberpunks. Perhaps we should expect the “literature of ideas” to provoke as much as it educates.

Surely in a community that attracts atheists, Wiccans, CIA agents, physicists, semioticians, libertines, libertarians, and unrepentant Trotskyites, one might anticipate a few political debates. More recent controversies have centered on fears that “political correctness” is taking the field too far away from the kinds of themes and characters that ruled SF in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Evidently, gay, non-white, and feminist themes and writers were getting too much attention in the 21st century, leaving straight, white protagonists with conservative plot lines unfairly ignored. But gathering to learn and play at regional and national conventions is one way these schisms in the larger SF community are addressed and eventually healed.

At Nebula Con, we discussed these questions of diversity in SF on panels like “How to Decolonize Your Fiction” and “Collaborations: More Than the Sum of Their Parts.” For the former, book agent DongWon Song asked a roundtable of non-white authors if it’s possible to write fiction free of the influence of Western imperialism and white supremacy. Bill Campbell, a middle-class, half-Jamaican author and publisher, described how after a white agent accidentally told him his work “wasn’t ghetto enough,” he reacted by self-publishing the satiric Koontown Killing Kaper, a gumshoe fantasy in which vampire crack babies are accused of murdering local rappers. Frustrated by the overly narrow expectations of existing publishers, he started Rosarium Publishing in 2013 as a home for multicultural SF, comics, nonfiction, and crime fiction that doesn’t pander to the “white gaze” and disregards stereotypical assumptions.

Roanhorse similarly rejects stereotypical beliefs about Native American life. She described Trail of Lightning as her attempt to imagine a revitalized Navajo Nation, happily decolonizing itself after the world has suffered a series of apocalyptic events. Singaporean Chinese author JY Yang, a Nebula nominee for their novella The Black Tides of Heaven (Tor), brought up the Anglo/Singaporean double-consciousness that pervades the identity politics of Singaporean youth, and how this impacts their fiction. Underscoring how complex ethnic identities have become in the modern world, Yang was joined on this panel by a writer who finds her “Chineseness” similarly hybridized.

As a young Canadian American of Asian descent, Fonda Lee admits that her work and sensibility often transcend issues of racial identity. “I’m Westernized as all hell,” quipped Lee. “I’m one of those people who was totally accused of being a ‘banana’ when I was a kid.” Lee’s gangster fantasy Jade City (Orbit) was nominated for Best Novel, while the hard SF of her Exo (Scholastic Press) was nominated for the Andre Norton Award for best young adult novel. “My solution to [the issue of authenticity] is just to give less fucks,” says Lee. “My book about a prizefighter boxing in space is just as ‘authentic’ as my book about jade-powered warriors in a fantasy Asian world.” Panelists like Lee, Roanhorse, and Campbell touched upon some of the issues facing nonwhite authors of SF in 2018: frictionless integration, constant repositioning, self-publishing, or outright rebellion.

The Collaborations panel was equally provocative but for different reasons. It spoke in part to the problem of writers reaching audiences without the traditional obstacles of gate-keeping editors, slow publishing schedules, and slower royalty payments. What if writers could serve and expand their readership by writing and delivering new books faster, with the immediate financial reward of being paid “per pages read” every month? This is the digital publishing model pioneered by Michael Anderle of LMBPN Press, who in just under two and a half years built himself a million-dollar e-book empire using Amazon Unlimited, Audible, and social media to sell his and other authors’ books direct to high-volume consumers of military and action-adventure SF. Such novels can be printed on demand, but most consumers simply pay less than $5 to download a title directly to Kindle. Anderle’s interactive team of line editors, beta readers, cover artists, and co-writers aim to combine quality with speed of production. He currently shares his business model with hundreds of other authors, each with their own writing formula and audience.

Jonathan P. Brazee, a Nebula finalist for his story “Weaponized Math,” is one such author. At LMBPN the practical formula for collaboration is to match writers who can strengthen each other’s narrative weak spots. Anderle discovered that Brazee (a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served thirty years in the Marines as a commander of infantry and recon units) could write better, more realistic battle scenes than he did. So Anderle began turning those sections over to Brazee. To guarantee plot and character continuity from book to book, Anderle also recruited fans steeped in his canon to serve as beta readers.

“We like a certain velocity in our production, and hiccups don’t serve us well,” says Brazee. “So finding a collaborator who has your same work ethic is very important. You need to be freakishly driven. I was writing 100,000 words a month, and publishing all 100,000 words. I have an editor on salary. I have a PA who is also a graphic artist, two developmental editors, two line editors, and multiple proofreaders, all to support this high velocity of production. Because from when I typed ‘The End’ to when we published was usually no longer than seven days.”

Anderle, who reads and writes series novels for fun, strives to create characters and scenarios so entertaining that not only do readers keep consuming them but also post online story ideas and useful criticisms that make their way into future story arcs. His goal is to have twenty e-books per year, each earning an average of $7 a day in download royalties. And much to the collective glee of hundreds of fellow writers now learning his methods, he appears to be doing it. Well aware that his hack of the Amazon publishing system can seem like a pyramid scheme, Anderle shrugs. “I just want to have fans that want to reread my books, and make money,” he says. “And that’s it. So I’ve got this Facebook group, and if any of you want to join, great.

“What’s now working wasn’t working when I started, so now it doesn’t matter that I’ve been in this for two and a half years,” he says. “You have to be willing to change. And you need to have some kind of ‘radio station’ that tells you the news that ‘Oh, my goodness, what we learned six months ago is not working anymore, because Amazon or Apple or somebody changed it on us.’ ”

Published in: Village Voice, June 1, 2018