January 26, 2021

The Big Genre Fiction Shift to Watch in 2021—and Beyond

By Paul Goat Allen

As a genre fiction book reviewer for almost the last three decades, I’ve seen firsthand the slow but persistent evolution of all genre categories—science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, horror, etc.—and it has been a glorious growth to witness. There is no question about it: today’s genre fiction is much different than it was back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, both in terms of structure and narrative content.

Increasingly in the last few years, I’ve seen a subtle but transformative shift in all genre categories when it comes to story: the embracing—and increased representation—of marginalized audiences through more diversified characters and narrative voices.

This isn’t so much a trend as it is a sea change—genre fiction is advancing as our culture advances.

A few years ago, I asked Jacob Weisman, a brilliantly knowledgeable man and publisher of Tachyon Press, where he thought genre fiction was headed, and his response was revelatory:

“We’re really looking at a generational shift in science fiction and fantasy that is reflected in the tastes of readers. Older forms of science fiction championed space programs and exploration, and warned of thermonuclear war and monolithic repressive regimes. Older forms of fantasy were frequently European-based and heavily influenced by the epic tradition. Science fiction and fantasy that explores complex cultures and intersectionality was pioneered by writers like Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler. This kind of genre fiction dissects power dynamics in societies that can closely resemble (or radically differ from) those with which we are familiar. The new sf/f shows that influence in depicting futures and worlds with the overlapping challenges including climate change, race, class, gender, power, and privacy. But at the same time, advances in those speculative realities, whether technological or magical, show the potential for humanity to be better than it is.”

Jim Killen, longtime science fiction and fantasy book buyer for B&N, answered with a similar response: “What I’m currently seeing is a shift and expansion in the voices telling the stories. I see more people of color, more women, more people of varying backgrounds, cultural, sexual, etc. I think this is a great time to be a reader and writer in science fiction and fantasy. It’s a rich moment full of possibilities.”

As a reviewer I’m seeing this shift in all genre categories. In the last few years, I can immediately think of dozens of noteworthy titles that have featured some kind of marginalized voice.

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood is a perfect example. Published by Doubleday in 2020, this historical mystery is amazing. Set in 1945 New York City, Spotswood’s stellar debut novel puts a modernized spin on classic hard-boiled fiction with a duo of female private investigators made up of a legendary Manhattan gumshoe suffering from multiple sclerosis and her protégé, a bisexual runaway who is just beginning her career as a PI.

Gamechanger by L. X. Beckett was another noteworthy release. Published in 2019 by Tor Books—and written by a queer writer living in Toronto—this novel is a cerebral fusion of science fiction, mystery, and apocalyptic thriller that features a nonbinary character.

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby (published by Flatiron Books) was one of the most critically acclaimed mystery/thrillers released in 202o. Featuring a Black main character with an unforgettably authentic voice, I described this novel as “a nitrous oxide-injected neo-noir thriller.” Set in 2012 Virginia, the storyline revolves around a former wheelman—a getaway car driver named Beauregard “Bug” Montage—who has attempted to put his past behind him and is now married with children and owner of his own auto shop. One of the best crime fiction novels I’ve ever read—and it was in large part because of Cosby’s distinct narrative perspective of a financially strapped Black man living in the South.

I’ve seen it in indie publishing as well.

Girl of Flesh and Metal by Alicia Ellis—which was included in the ALA Core Committee’s prestigious 2021 Excellence in Children’s and Young Adult Science Fiction Notable Lists—is a page-turning YA science fiction novel that features Lena, a Black teenage girl whose arm is replaced after a car accident by a cybernetic prosthetic with its own artificial intelligence. In addition to featuring a Black teen overcoming odds, the book makes a pro-STEM suggestion in that the main character is tech savvy and her mother, who is also Black, is co-owner of one of the largest tech companies in the world.

Dharma Kelleher is another notable indie author who publishes novels with trans protagonists. Her Jinx Ballou saga (Chaser, Extreme Prejudice, and A Broken Woman) features a badass transgender bounty hunter pursuing murderers, drug dealers, and human traffickers.

These marginalized characters don’t have to be main characters to have impact. Say Hello, Kiss Goodbye by Jacquelyn Middleton is a wonderful romance that features a secondary character—the little sister of the main female character—who is wheelchair-bound after a childhood accident. The character is described with insight, mental health issues are explored with the appropriate gravitas, and the theme of gratitude is strong throughout.

The list of these kinds of titles could go one and on…

So, what does this shift mean for you, the writer? It signifies that readers and publishers alike have a voracious appetite for new voices, new stories, and new ways of looking at the world and those around us. That’s great news for writers who have previously struggled to get their work published—or noticed—because of marginalization. New points of view, new storylines, and new opportunities to connect with readers… I’d say that’s a win/win for everyone involved.

Look at the world around us—the diversity of people, the diversity of readers. Does your novel reflect any of that diversity? Something to think about…

Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.

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