What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.
Science fiction is going through an era of rapid change and expansion. Just as fantasy television, superhero movies, comics, cosplay, and other traditionally marginalized fan pursuits have moved into the mainstream, science fiction media has become much more visible over the last decade, reaching a wider audience, and changing to accommodate that audience.
In America in particular, what was once a nerdy subgenre, dominated by pulp writers and amateur scientists and philosophers, has become vibrant and wildly divergent, running the gamut from old-school sprawling space opera to heady alternate-history philosophy to pop adventure-novel bestsellers to a growing wave of Afrofuturism. What’s next?
Polygon recently sat down with a group of gatekeepers and tastemakers in science fiction literature to talk about the biggest changes they’ve seen in the books field over the last decade, and what science fiction novels they most recommend for hungry readers right now.
[Ed. note: All quotes have been edited for concision and clarity.]
Ali Fisher, senior editor, Tor Books: One of the coolest changes, as far as I’m concerned, is that there’s been a pretty significant shift to ensemble casts vs. chosen individuals. Even when the casts in older works are big, for instance in something like Dune, you still have your significant primary individuals. Whereas I think some of the more interesting science fiction literature right now is happening with groups of characters working together to make change happen, in stories like the Expanse series, or Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline. As opposed to more escapist spacefaring, space-opera stuff, seeing people who are actually protecting and preserving the home we have is really invigorating, motivating, and inspiring.
Miriam Weinberg, senior editor, Tor Books: We’re all thinking more and more about what connectivity and community mean. In a pandemic, that’s even more relevant than ever, having the type of communication that technology can provide. For a while, there was a strong trend of alternate history and the rise of steampunk, because people were trying to figure out how they could recapture the fun of technology without the problems, where we’re all sitting in our beds at 11 p.m., checking email one last time before we close our eyes. And that died out quickly, partly because the ideas moved backward, not forward.
Sheila Williams, editor, Asimov’s Science Fiction: We’re seeing a lot being written right now about concepts that are in the news at the moment, like genetic manipulation or climate change. But we’re also seeing a lot of stories about authoritarian governments, and economic inequity. Those kinds of stories have been around for decades, but there’s a certain urgency at the moment.
Neil Clarke, editor, Clarkesworld: The markets today are making the effort to be more open to international works. The simple fact is that the internet changed everything in terms of submissions. Once magazines started taking online submissions, that removed a lot of the financial obstacles of international submissions. I’m finding interesting stories coming in from places that might not have always been part of the mainstream community, places [America] might have been sending science fiction for decades, but not hearing much from.
There are a lot of interesting things happening in China. The world’s largest science fiction magazine, in terms of total readership, is China’s Science Fiction World. Last year, we had a grant from South Korea to translate some of their science fiction. I’ve been talking to more people in South America. We’ve had a few Brazilian stories. We’re seeing an increase in stories coming out of India. With the wider variety of people being represented, you’ve got a much broader range of stories now, with different perspectives. I think everyone out there is more likely to encounter stories that feel like, “Hey, these are people like me.” I think that makes science fiction a little bit more welcoming. It broadens the appeal.
Sheila Williams: I am publishing stories from authors who are writing in Chinese and then translating to English, authors who are writing in Czech and then translating to English — stories out of a lot of different cultures. I have a black American author who is living in Mexico and writing fiction coming out of that experience. It’s wonderful to have a variety of points of view. In a magazine, you want each story to be different from the story that came before it, so I think all the new sources really create a exciting environment.
Greta Johnsen, host of WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast: I think the big difference, and the most positive one, is that we’re seeing changes in who’s allowed to tell stories. For a long time, science fiction was almost exclusively a white, male, cis area. These days, it’s much easier for women to enter the field, and for marginalized or underrepresented groups. We’re getting these elaborate parables for racism, in books like Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone or Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds, and they’re helping new audiences understand prejudice and privilege.
Miriam Weinberg: Two of my favorite authors right now are Charlie Jane Anders and Sarah Gailey, a trans author and a non-binary one. There’s so much more space now in the science fiction market for people who have been overlooked or directly marginalized by society, telling how it feels and explaining what can change, and how, because sometimes when you’re looking on from the side of the road, you can see the cracks better than someone who’s standing in the middle of it.
Lee Harris, executive editor, Tor.com: The drive for inclusivity is getting a lot more interesting works out there. A lot of #OwnVoices works that we didn’t see even as little as five or 10 years ago. We’re seeing much more interesting cultures being created and reflected, and people not necessarily just leaning on the old pseudo-medieval-kingdom fantasies you perhaps grew up with. Certainly the fact that the field isn’t just driven by people that look like me anymore — that’s wonderful.
Bradley Englert, senior editor, Orbit Books: Another thing that’s changed is the rise of social media, where writers and readers can really make themselves heard, and start organic movements and conversations toward the kind of books they want to see. As publishers started to publish diverse stories, they realized, “Oh, these are connecting with the market. We’re pushing them, and there’s a corresponding pull from the market, from readers who are finally starting to feel they’re included in the genre.”
Social media is definitely changing the conversation in a lot of ways. This is a very publishing-specific thing, but there’s an agent who runs a hashtag on Twitter every few months, #DVpit, where new diverse writers can pitch their books in basically one or two sentences on Twitter, and then agents will jump in and look, and reach out to those writers to potentially represent them. Previously, writers would have to send physical manuscripts to agents, and once email happened, everyone just had huge, overstuffed email inboxes. But this is one way to curate a very specific group of writers, and help include a really wide range of voices.
Sheila Williams: I’m also seeing a lot of experimentation, where a lot of cis, white authors are exploring gay relationships and other cultures. Authors are always trying to stretch and do something from a different perspective than their own, say from a different age, or a different gender, but there’s more interesting material from that perspective now than there used to be. It’s a really creative time.
Miriam Weinberg: There’s a lot more space now for stories about people, in the way that science fiction used to mostly be stories about ideas. And that’s because the markets are thinking more about the reader than the writer, and about how to involve people on an emotional level, just as much as we want to engage them on an intellectual level. I think that makes science fiction feel richer and more urgent than just proposing a grand idea, and expecting people to want to discuss it already.
Neil Clarke: In terms of what I’m seeing in submissions, and in reading contenders for the Best Science Fiction of the Year series, I’m not seeing one single topic that feels like the hot thing of the moment. If I was judging by submissions right now, everybody’s probably running pandemic stories. [Laughs]
Sheila Williams: I haven’t seen a huge amount of pandemic fiction from professional authors, but there are a lot of submissions from people who are just coping in their everyday life right now, with being shut in and isolated. They’re turning to writing more, and they’re writing about that situation. I’m interested in those stories from, say, the isolation point of view, but I think we’re too close to this pandemic to write stories specifically about it. I haven’t seen a big uptick. Not yet. It will happen! Authors need time to think about things, to figure out where they’re going to go with it, what’s going to be their take on it. In science fiction, response to a crisis doesn’t usually show up right as the crisis is happening. It’s usually something you see later on, after a period of reflection.
Greta Johnsen: I think we’re seeing even more underdog fiction than usual right now, in part because so much of it is coming from marginalized voices. And we’re seeing a lot more content about getting to Mars, because people feel like it might happen in our lifetime, and they wonder what that’ll look like. Readers are really hungry for the promise of positive futures right now.
Ali Fisher: It’s interesting to see more personal writing in the field, like Tochi Onyebuchi’s dystopian book Riot Baby, where authors are extrapolating from specific experiences. Or something like Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit, which is a galactic empire story, very far-future, about the potentially devastating collective consequences of etiquette in politics. That book shows etiquette playing out on a really grand scale, which I see as a translation of something a lot of people are feeling right now about intimate actions being important as political actions. How we affect things not just with a vote and a public voice, but with our families and friends. All that stuff builds the fabric of our society, and can change it. Now we’re seeing that reflected in science fiction, where it rings more clearly.
Bradley Englert: We’re less interested in the classics of the genre — not that there’s anything wrong with the classics, there’s plenty of interesting content to be mined from them. The Dune movie looks great. But rather than looking at where the past was, we’re much more interested in what stories writers want to tell right now. We’re seeing more types of stories than before. Readers are looking for unique, forward-thinking takes. Writers find influence from everywhere, and often those influences can bleed into their work, but what’s exciting is seeing the story a writer can tell with their own unique voice, while not even consciously thinking of where all of the concepts they’re playing with might have come from. There’s a collective consciousness that SF has developed, and we’re all playing in that field
Lee Harris: Another thing we’re seeing is a lot of stories being written at the length they were meant to be written. It used to be that if you had a novella, the temptation was either to cut it down and sell it as a short story, or pad it unnecessarily, to sell it as a novel. Whereas these days, there is a large push for “stories at their right length.” So if you write something that’s 35,000 words that is perfect and complete and doesn’t need any more or any less, there are now markets for that.
That was certainly one of the things that attracted me to working with Tor.com, because I love books of novella-length, and it was setting up an imprint that championed that format. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen books just creeping up in length, until you have books now that if you hollowed them out, you could possibly have a family of four living in there. Now we’re seeing novellas being bought and sold and read in the mainstream, like Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, and This Is How You Lose the Time War with Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Five, six, seven years ago, it was difficult to find anything new of that length in a bookstore, even though some of some of our favorite books are novellas: A Christmas Carol is a novella, by our current definitions. Of Mice and Men is novella-length. A lot of the classics were. But we’ve seen, gradually over time, the accepted length of a book increasing. And we set up an imprint to try to counter that.
Ali Fisher: One of the best things about science fiction is that we get to take the world as we see it, then expand on it. We either tell the cautionary tale, or the exciting, thrilling tale of what could happen, should we follow a certain path. The submissions I’m seeing in my inbox right now are more hopeful about those possible paths. I’m not sure if that’s election-based, or if the last couple of years have just inspired people to push more toward hopeful directions. I’m seeing books with more positive endings, but tackling darker themes, characters with trauma in their pasts coming into situations or worlds that are more positive for them.
What I’m not seeing is Trump stand-ins, “Dictators have taken over the world,” any of that. It’s more systemized, bureaucratic oppression that people are rising up against in a really strong way, through collective action. So much of what I’m seeing out there right now is dealing with broken systems.
To conclude each interview, we asked participants to recommend just one or two books — particularly positive ones for people who could use an emotional boost right now.
Neil Clarke: It’s tough to narrow this down! One of the authors we’ve published a lot in translation is Stanley Chan, but his real name is Chen Qiufan. He had a novel out last year, and we’ve published a lot of his short stories. He has a really good grasp on technology and the issues around it, and he digs into these cool science fiction concepts — he’s just very imaginative, and the stories are engaging.
And I have a collection of short stories coming out from a small press I started, from another Chinese author, Xia Jia. I just love her characters. They feel very real to me. She wrote one of my favorite stories, essentially a family story, in an anthology about cyborgs I did several years ago. It was about a relationship with a grandfather figure.
Rich Larson is an extremely prolific short-fiction author. He has a novel as well, but he’s just been consistently producing some of the most imaginative, fun stories I’ve been reading over the years. And A.T. Greenblatt has been producing some of the most emotional stories, where the science fiction components tie together really nicely.
Ali Fisher: The recent uptick in young superhero stories gives me the sense of optimism and hope we were talking about. I’m thinking of Lauren Shippen’s Bright Sessions novels, based on her audio drama podcast, featuring folks with secret supernatural abilities who all see the same therapist. Or TJ Klune’s The Extraordinaries, in which a group of big-hearted teenagers get caught up in the world of their local superheroes. Or the pile of My Hero Academia manga, about a Chosen One who earned his power and then becomes stronger the more he learns to team up with his classmates and mentors. I feel like this new age of superheroes is less interested in fortresses of solitude, and more interested in building a team — a community — around their power, and working as a group to understand that power and use it well.
Miriam Weinberg: These days I alternate between comfort re-reads like mysteries and childhood favorites, and rather dark catharsis reading. Think: Tender is the Flesh, These Women, The Only Good Indians. I feel too tender for hope yet myself, but I’m working my way through an exceedingly fun YA anthology, Vampires Never Get Old, and I am trying to stay forever within the pages of Kate Racculia’s Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, which is a little bit Scarlett Thomas, a little bit The Westing Game, and a little bit Erin Morgenstern, while being extremely itself. It’s SO DELIGHTFUL! For science fiction, I’m loving The Space Between Worlds, a debut by Micaiah Johnson, which is possibly the best multiverse adventure I’ve read yet. It feels like it’s fixing my still-present rage about Amy Pond’s abandonment episode in series six Doctor Who.
Lee Harris: M.R. Carey’s The Book of Koli series is just fabulous. They’re science fiction in that they are set in the future, and the technology they describe is not quite what we have at the moment, but you don’t have to look at it too hard to think it’s coming. And honestly, anything by Claire North. The Gameshouse series especially.
Sheila Williams: Suzanne Palmer is so much fun. She can be both funny and very sad. Suzanne’s very thoughtful about the far future. She has great plotting and really fun characters. She definitely can be dark and deep, but she’s also a lot of fun if you just want to relax, read a book, and enjoy a fun story. Cadwell Turnbull is a very interesting new author. He grew up in the American Virgin Islands, and he’s just a really wonderful writer. He brings another viewpoint into the field. He writes about AI in family therapy, and botany, looking at climate change, so he’s getting a lot of really interesting ideas into his work. But he also has that background of growing up in the Caribbean, so that’s part of his viewpoint. He has a very fresh voice.
Greta Johnsen: For people who are feeling down right now, I always recommend David Mitchell. Everything by him, really. I’m wild about him — he’s built an entire literary universe around his philosophies, and you have to really read everything to understand what he’s getting at. I’d start from the beginning, with his first book, Ghostwritten, or with Cloud Atlas. But reading the David Mitchell Universe wiki can really help you unpack what’s going on in his work. None of his books rely on chronology. Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays is also fantastic — it’s a love story about using time travel to fix mistakes made in the past, which makes it really nice to read right now.
Bradley Englert: I always recommend James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes [the first volume in the Expanse series] because it’s such an awesome book, and that series is incredible for people who want to be drawn into a massive world. If you like fun, fast-paced reads, Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. And then — maybe this isn’t an all-the-way-positive read, or a feel-good read — but Goldilocks, by Laura Lam, is basically The Handmaid’s Tale by way of The Martian, but more hopeful. It’s a story where five women take charge of their destiny by stealing a spaceship from NASA and planning their own space excursion. It’s super fast-paced, really interesting, and there are lots of hopeful notes throughout it. So even though that initial pitch is maybe not the most positive reading experience, it’s a great book, and I think it will surprise a lot of people.