Authors of speculative fiction specialize in imagining alternate worlds. Increasingly, those writers are challenging the rules not only of reality, but of the genre itself.
“For a long time, Tolkien-inspired epic fantasy has been the mainstay of what people think of when they think of the fantasy genre,” says Priyanka Krishnan, associate editor at Harper Voyager. Now, she says, “there’s a unique opportunity to draw upon a way wider range of mythology, history, and traditions,” and she hopes the genre will continue to diversify as publishing professionals “realize that these books do sell and people do want these narratives.”
Krishnan, who edited The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty (Nov.), an epic fantasy that mines Islamic history and mythology, is among those who stress the importance of reading books that step outside of genre conventions.
“When we expand our reading to include cultures that we’re less familiar with, the shorthand that comes with the expected disappears,” says Lee Harris, senior editor at Tor imprint
Tor.com. “It makes the reading experience fresher, more exciting, more enticing.” To that end, he says, Tor.com recently put out an open call for fantasy novellas “that are not modeled on European cultures.” The imprint will accept submissions during a three-month window that opens October 12.
Any books published as a result of the call will join a list that includes Binti: The Night Masquerade (Jan. 2018) by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor. The book concludes the trilogy she began in 2015 with the Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella Binti, in which the title character, a far-future descendent of the present-day Himba people of Namibia, defies her parents’ wishes and leaves home to attend an intergalactic university. The closing volume in the trilogy sees Binti return to her village amid the threat of tribal annihilation.
A divergent timeline offers another way of subverting the dominant narrative, by viewing the real world through a fun-house mirror. Vandana Singh reimagines her native India’s past in her forthcoming collection Ambiguity Machines (Small Beer, Feb. 2018), which PW’s starred review praised for its “delicate touch and passionately humanist sensibilities.”
“Hearing stories as a child about resistance to British rule,” Singh says, “I sometimes used to wonder how things might have been, had the British not been able to colonize India for so long.”
In the world of her story “A Handful of Rice,” for example, the British Raj never took hold. The ruling monarch of India masters the art of prana vidya, an advanced yoga practice that aims to harness the body’s inner energies. He bans all others from studying it, allowing him to defeat his rivals while retaining eternal youth. The power structure of this alternate India, freed from the yoke of Western colonialism, rests on an ancient, homegrown meditation practice, rather than on technological superiority.
By making that single modification—a never-colonized India—Singh completely upends the world, leading to a different perspective on realities the reader may take for granted. In The Power (Little, Brown, Oct.), which PW’s review called “a stirring and mind-bending vision,” Naomi Alderman grants women in the near future the ability to maim and kill with bursts of electricity, destabilizing gender relationships and giving women new leverage. The conceit has already struck a chord in the U.K., where in 2017 Alderman was awarded the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the first for a work of science fiction.
City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp (HMH/Adams, Apr. 2018) reaches into the recent past to imagine a post-Katrina New Orleans in which Egyptian gods, voodoo saints, vampires, and other characters from various mythologies mingle in a hybrid pantheon. Main character Jude is a street magician, born with a supernatural ability to locate lost things. When the hurricane struck, the sheer volume of lost lives and lost possessions overwhelmed his gift. Six years after the flood, Jude embarks on a quest to discover who murdered the god of Fortune, the patron saint of the recovering city.
John Joseph Adams, who edited the book and heads his eponymous imprint, says the book shows that, even in the modern world, myth can play the role it did for centuries: to make nature’s senseless destruction intelligible.
“Even though we now understand scientifically how a hurricane happens, it’s this massive, massive event that is beyond our control,” he says. “Just because we have science, that doesn’t put a damper on the value of contextualizing our world and life through myth.”
Philip Pullman, with the His Dark Materials trilogy, drew on Western mythology—the series title comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost—to tell a story that spans parallel universes, including our own. The trilogy concluded with 2000’s The Amber Spyglass, and now Pullman is launching a companion series with La Belle Sauvage (Knopf, Oct.; ages 14–up). This first volume in the Book of Dust trilogy is set 10 years before His Dark Materials begins, and delves into as-yet-untold parts of series heroine Lyra’s story.
As a literary device, time travel can offer a fresh perspective not just for a character, but for the reader, providing commentary on the present.
Kari Maaren’s debut, Weave a Circle Round (Tor, Dec.), takes 14-year-old Freddy on a journey into the past and future with a pair of immortals, leading her to a profound destiny. PW’s starred review called the book “an ambitious, intricate, joyful coming-of-age tale.”
In The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch (Putnam, Feb. 2018), time travel has existed secretly for years, with select members of the military granted access to the dangerous technology. The story begins in 1997, when obsessive NCIS agent Shannon Moss is struggling to solve a brutal murder. She visits various alternate futures looking for clues. In some timelines, she sees a world with vastly superior technology and medicine to our own; in others, she finds a heightened frequency of terrorist attacks and a United States entrenched in wars never fought in our reality.
Time Shards by Dana Fredsti and David Fitzgerald (Titan, Jan. 2018), first in a proposed series, takes time travel to a chaotic extreme. In the 23rd century, a cataclysm referred to as “the Event” smashes centuries of history into a mess of overlapping past, present, and future. San Diego native Amber Richardson ends up in an alternate 21st-century U.K. surrounded by Ice Age wilderness. While living in this alternate present, Amber works with other time refugees to repair their fractured world.
In her quest, Amber meets characters from all corners of history: a first-century Celt, lost Victorians, and a World War II British commando. As the authors researched these different periods, they found an emotional through line. “There was no simpler time when things were great,” Fitzgerald says. “People have felt just like we feel throughout history. Things seem so dire now, but, in the big picture, people have been going through this all along.”
That may be the closest thing to a happy ending that speculative fiction can offer in 2017: a sense of camaraderie across time and space, with humanity unified by a timeless struggle to survive natural disasters and our own worst impulses.