My genre is growing up


Someone I know is writing an article about aspects of science fiction, and has been looking at the evolution of the genre in addition to parallel readings of various kinds.

So a lot of our conversations have been about science fiction and how it’s changed. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading science fiction as usual, for my own enjoyment.

It was while I was reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-anticipated Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen that I began to think about how SF has changed in my non-academic, and non-researched perspective.

So these are impressions, and as always, I welcome suggestions of things I might have missed, both book-wise and branch-wise.


What I mean by ‘branch’ is how many varieties of books now come under the heading of science fiction. But my initial thought began with Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.

My longer review is here at Goodreads,  but my overall impression while reading was the sense that my favorite genre has grown up, when a book that is mainly about old people coming to terms with the past, and planning their futures, can be written in the context of science fiction.

It’s still got lots of fun world-building. It has intriguing characters of all ages, new and familiar from the series.

But overriding everything is the perspective of age looking back on the traumatic events of the past. So much of Cordelia’s emotional reactions resonated with me, though of course I’ve never been in a position of power, and my traumas have been localized—usually personalized—instead of global. But Bujold has always been able to convince me to live the book as I read it, even reread it, and come away comparing her characters’ experiences with what I’ve seen in the world.

When I finished it, it occurred to me to look at the variety of SF novels I’ve been reading.

Since this blog is meant to be a Saturday-morning-over-coffee quick read rather than a stern-browed study with many pages of citation and detail, I thought I’d confine myself to those recent reads that seem to hang from different branches of the SF tree.



Like Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, which I’m in the middle of right now.

It centers around a girl who can talk to animals, and a guy whose sense of wonder is bound up with scientific invention and exploration. These two find their lives intertwined for varying reasons, beginning with fairly horrific childhoods.

It’s cleverly written, with distinctive characters, and a humane charm that makes some of the darker aspects slide down easy. It’s so different from everything else, while sharing some of the same sfnal tropes, I think the simplest way to describe it is to compare the reading experience with watching a Wes Anderson film.

My feeling as I got into this book was again how much the genre has evolved since I was a kid. Back then it always seemed to me there had to be a white male at center, who solved problems with his fists, scientists were either evil or eggheads, women sidelined, humanity the epitome of evolution. And no fantasy cooties were permitted in the Serious Science. (Though there was some la-la-laing about psi and FTL, as I recall.)

I did encounter science fiction that explored ideas–Blish and Sturgeon had plenty on the library shelves–but even so their stories made it clear that what men thought mattered. Heinlein seemed to be the epitome of everything I was coming to see as a straitjacket on the genre, so by 1970 I’d stopped reading SF altogether, coming back to it in the eighties, but Cyberpunk kind of derailed me (seemed more of the same old) so I stayed with fantasy for a while longer.

Well, there has been lots of good sf to discover since, of course. I’ve caught up with some I missed, but even so, going forward I’m finding that science fiction is including a lot of books that seem to be written for me. That’s a different feel from reading books really meant for other men to read, but I could read them too, if I wanted.

So, back to those books. The two mentioned above have had tons of buzz.

Book One of the series

Book One of the series

I’ve read some that I enjoyed just as much that haven’t lucked out with the mega-marketing, but stand out in my mind for what they are doing within the sfnal umbrella, as well as being absorbingly good stories. Like the reissue of Kristine Smith’s crackling-paced Jani Kilian series.

The most recent one is Rules of Conflict

This tautly written, tensely vivid series is best described as science fictional thrillers, with high political stakes as well as personal. In this second book, Jani Kilian faces court martial—at the same time that relations between humans and the alien idomeni are hotting up . . . and Jani’s genetically-modified body is breaking down.

But she has to find a killer before the killer finds her.

Another newly published science fiction novel that involves aliens is Nancy Jane Moore’s first contact story, The Weave.


This novel doesn’t go in new directions so much as take a new and refreshing look at some of the older tropes. Like first contact.

As in Smith’s novels, Moore’s main character, a woman, is also military, but that’s the diverging point. Caty Sanjuro has always wanted to go to the stars and find alien life. After some rough experiences in the marines, she quits the military to study xenology—a subject barely given credence seeing as how no alien life has yet been discovered by humanity just beginning to reach past our solar system.

When aliens are discovered in a mineral rich system, Sanjuro finds herself picked for the expedition to meet them. Moore does a great job evoking the sense of wonder that brought me to read science fiction in the first place, in the way she describes the encounter of the two races on the aliens’ turf. Which—of course—the big corporations hard on the heels of the military/scientific expedition are hell-bent on exploiting.


Another far space story is by Jacey Bedford, Crossways: a PsiTech Novel

This is closer to space opera, which again is not a new thing, but I think that Bedford, like Moore, is taking the old tropes and doing fun things with them.

This type of space opera is the kind I like best, which includes psionics, in this case rigidly controlled, with all the downsides that means.

What happens when the strictly controlled psis want independence from the choke-hold of megacorporations?

Bedford works in a lot of high-octane action and high stakes as well as complicated interpersonal dynamics. And in this, as in all of the above, the book is full of interesting women—good, evil, colorful, all ages.

desert rains

Finally, for a completely different feel, Desert Rains, by Jana S. Brown, which is also a far-flung-space novel, but branches from there: it takes place on a planet where life is pretty much like the pioneer days, as the main characters struggle to make their ranch a going concern.

When a guy from a wealthier cultural center comes to work as a ranch hand, there are all kinds of repercussions.

The feel here is kind of like a grownup Little House on the Prairie mixed with sfnal elements, and complicated characters.

The single element all these share (besides being science fiction) is that they happen to be written by women.

Any other examples to offer?



My genre is growing up — 40 Comments

  1. The books you mentioned sound like a lot of fun. I enjoyed sci fi as a tween and teen, but yes–even the future envisioned was all male dominated. I’m glad to see women writing sci fi.

  2. Nice collection of novels you’ve highlighted here.

    I think the people who read novels for pleasure now are maybe more discerning/demanding than people who read for pleasure back fifty year ago. Or rather, of course there were discerning and demanding readers back then too, but there were (maybe–I’m just hypothesizing) a whole lot of very casual readers who nowadays would use video games, hanging out online, or movies to fill the slot that novel reading filled in the past. But I could be very wrong about this.

    • I have no stats to back up anything, but the impression I get is that people are still reading who would have read back then. Yes, there were a lot fewer books published, but there was a world of magazines and newspapers that has diminished in favor of books. My suspicion is that the video game player of now channel surfed sports back then, or went to watch local sports events.

  3. Thank you for exploring these ideas. I like the thought that SF has grown and evolved and is now more inclusive of additional ideas set within the framework of the genre.

    I adore SF, but I generally read books that others either haven’t heard of or don’t enjoy like I do.

    Thanks for the recs. I’m going to give these books a read.

    • I think there is a wider variety now, offering reads more like what we want. The trick is to find them because most of them don’t get any media attention. Word of mouth is so important!

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  5. To say that SF is growing up implies that it’s somehow immature. By any definition of “immature,” that isn’t true. I’ve been reading SF for over 40 years, so maybe I have a broader overview. What I see that might be considered immature is a continuing fascination with aliens and space travel, and very little attention to the vast changes that are going on right here on earth. The so-called “cli-fi” subgenre is beginning to address that, and even in the “immature” past, we had books like John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up. Two trends that I consider a dilution of SF, and even regressive, are the number of pure fantasy novels which label themselves SF, and the uneasy addition of SF elements to books in other genres. Desert Rains is an obvious example of this. The book is categorized on Amazon as romance, and one reviewer even commented that the SF elements remain in the background. Perhaps the book is well-written. That isn’t the issue. Desert Rains is one of an increasing number of novels in genres that are attempting to side step overworked tropes and do it by dragging in elements of SF. Most of these authors, from what I’ve seen, have little, if any, acquaintance with SF, and it shows. I don’t consider that a sign of maturity.

    • Thanks for this view. From my perspective the mixing of genre elements is an improvement over sticking to the predictable plots of days of yore. But then, I really like these as they can take me by surprise.

      Granted I’m not as well-read in science fiction as you are, and might have a different take if I were. Brunner’s work is actually one of the ones that burned me out on sf back in the early seventies, but I was surrounded by bleak literature with mostly male POV, and it read to my 21 year old self like a jumbled reiteration of The Silent Spring‘s message.

      But you are very right that growing up is the wrong term for Brunner and other similar works. I should have stuck to my tree metaphor, and branching out!

      • To make my point clear, which maybe I didn’t: It isn’t the crossing or “mixing” of genres that I object to. It’s the use of a few SF elements that are really irrelevant to the story, just to be able to stick it in an additional category for search purposes, or to give over-used and worn-out tropes the illusion of newness. I read part of Desert Rains’ sample, and the plot appeared to be the same old western romance that could just as well have been located in Wyoming or New Mexico. A few sideways nods to SF don’t change that.

        • Ah. I read the whole book, and I liked the way she integrated the sf, though admittedly the emphasis is on the ranch and the characters, especially the romance. But there was sfnal elements woven through as the brother and sister struggle to impose terran ranch goals on a non-earth environment. That non-earth environment is always present.

        • Hi there,

          I’m kinda jumping in to an ongoing conversation, but I find it fascinating. I’m the one who wrote Desert Rains, and adding the SF elements weren’t about adding it to a category or worrying over the tropes. The whole thing from first idea to completion was a story where being able to go from planet to planet and use of biotechnology for better crops and living were very important. The SF aspects actually make the whole thing a MUCH harder sell as you get purists on either side who want a book to be more romance, or more SF but balk at the idea of being both. I received a lot of feedback from editors that they could totally sell the work if only I’d rewrite it and take all that SF stuff out, but that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.

          I’m a broadly read SF/F nerd from Asimov forward and also a fan of shows like Firefly and Dr. Who where there is abundant genre crossing to bring the fantastical into the everyday or historical. The choices of how much SF to add to the story and how prominent it should be were interesting because I had to decide where to put the focus. In the long run, I put it into the stories of the individual characters, over the close study of the abundant tech.

          SFF has long had the arguments of what fits in which category and when can something call itself Science Fiction or Fantasy versus Magic Realism or Technical elements. One of the things I love about the genre now is how it is branching out, as the whole article points out, and being used in other primary genres, and pulling those genres into itself. It’s a brilliant time to be a reader, and a pretty fun time to be an author too. 🙂

          • Thanks, Sherwood and Jana! These issues of genre pigeonholing and resistance to mixing genres have been part of my writing life, too, and I welcome the newer openness to the “branches.”

            • I liken it to the peanut butter and chocolate commercials. Peanut butter (SF) is great on its own. Chocolate (Other Genre) is great on its own. Peanut butter and chocolate together are pretty great too. I love the ‘pure’ genres, but I love seeing what happens when you dabble. And sometimes the cross over is chocolate and celery and just doesn’t work, but often you get something which is different and yummy in its own way. Self publishing and small presses are allowing some of these combinations a platform in a way which hasn’t ever been available before and both as a reader and a writer I’m really enjoying the chance to experience it all!

  6. If you haven’t tried her work, I’d strongly recommend Elizabeth Bear. Her books gave me that sensation, that they had been written for me or people like me, or at least with a strong realization that we existed. I am particularly fond of her fantasy, but the Jenny Casey books (Hammered, Scardown, Worldwired) also provided the feeling that I existed in the universe, and so did Undertow and the amazing trilogy Dust, Chill, and Grail.

    There are very grim bits, but, as you say, a humane aspect that makes it possible to cope with them, as a reader anyway; the characters might not be so lucky. And there is humor. Bear’s approach is sometimes quite sideways and twisty and things are implied rather than made clear, but I don’t mind that.


    • I have them all. Some don’t quite come together for me for varying reasons, though I haven’t read the Mongolian trilogy yet, and the co-written one with Sarah Monette is way too violent for me. My favorite is the Promethean Age cycle.

      • That’s my favorite too; I particularly love the two Man of Stratford books. I’ve also had to avoid the collaborations, which is sad, because I love Sarah Monette’s work as well. I think the Mongolian trilogy is excellent, though I’m not as interested in warfare as I have sometimes been and wish the focus had been elsewhere, in my more selfish moments.


        • Still, that said about the Mongolian trilogy, it has a high percentage of non-warlike detail and a lot of very personal moments, for lack of a better phrase. It’s much more domestic than many war stories.


            • That’s a good idea. It’s very complex, and, having devoured the third book at a distracting time, I know I need to read it again when I can pay better attention.


          • I also loved the Goblin Emperor. Other SF I’ve enjoyed recently: Michelle Diener’s Class 5 series (start with Dark Horse) and Jean Johnson’s First Salik War series (The Terrans, The V’Dan ).

          • Yes, yes, so do I. I also love the Doctrine of Labyrinths, but it has some very grim and gory bits. I still love those books and reread them; something about Mildmay’s voice, and Mehitabel’s, I think.


  7. I think you’re right. There’s also Nnedi Okorafor’s fabulous, clever and witty novel Lagoon, in which Lagos contends with aliens; Justina Robson’s Glorious Angels, mixing sf and feminism and the challenges of combining domesticity with power; Aliette de Bodard’s House of Shattered Wings, with its critique of colonialism, Joyce Chng’s (aka J Damask) wonderful Singapore-set Jan Xu urban fantasies, and Roz Kaveney’s time-stretching, multi-cultural, gender-expectation-challenging series Rhapsody of Blood.
    These books don’t always get the public attention and promotion they deserve, but they are there, and they are increasing in number

  8. Thank you muchly for the shout out. 🙂 I’m so pleased you enjoy the book. I do love seeing all the ways in which SF/F are spreading out and being explored. I love finding myself in such wonderful company. And, hey, more books for the TBR list! Yay!

    • And that’s why I write these. Word of mouth is all the publicity many of us get, so I feel if I enjoyed something, I’ve an obligation to share it, and try to articulate why.

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