Monday, April 5, 2021

CoNZealand Fringe Transcript: Dragons on a Spaceship: The Resurgence of Science-Fantasy and Genre-bending fiction

During CoNZealand, a group of fans put together a set of panels, which took place outside convention hours, which would be available for free via Youtube and offer a taster of the Worldcon experience to those unable to participate in CoNZealand's programming hours, or hadn't bought a membership but were interested in the kind of content provided. The result was a set of 15 panels over 6 days, archived and available for all at

As a fringe event in the tradition of Edinburgh Fringe and other international collateral events, CoNZealand Fringe was conducted entirely outside core programming hours and spaces, and panels were not official CoNZealand programming. CoNZealand Fringe is not endorsed by CoNZealand.

Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together is pleased to host the transcripts of CoNZealand Fringe panels for fans who are unable to watch the videos or prefer a written format. This is the transcript for Dragons on a Spaceship: The Resurgence of Science-Fantasy and Genre-bending fiction, which ran on Thursday 30 July 2020 at 6pm BST/1pm EDT/10am PDT/5am NZST (next day) and is available here. Other panel transcripts are available via our transcript hub.

Dragons on a Spaceship: The Resurgence of Science-Fantasy and Genre-bending fiction

Panel Description: We’re in the Mercury Age of speculative fiction: we like our fiction freeform and boundless and pushing genre conventions every turn. From NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy to Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, by way of The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood, and Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee, so much recent fiction blends traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes. What do we love about blending elements from different genres? How does it allow us to explore the structures of genre? And how can I get some motherforking dragons on this motherforking spaceship?

Host: Bree @ Breereadsbooks

Moderator: Bogi Takács (E/em/eir or they)

Panelists: Gareth Powell (he/him), Jeannette Ng (she/they) DongWon Song (they/them), Suyi Davies Okungbowa

BREE: OK, hello to everybody who's here on YouTube and thank you for coming on the Dragons on a Spaceship panel. I'm excited to invite you all to the CoNZealand Fringe. It's being hosted here on YouTube and I know everyone here on the booktube community is very excited to have you. At this point I'll pass it over to Bogi.

BOGI: Hello everyone! I think we're just going to begin with a round of introductions where everyone can just say a few words about themselves and also maybe a sentence or two about why we think science fantasy is an especially interesting topic right now. Then we will begin with our general topics from there. So let's try to do it clockwise, so Jeannette I think you're starting.

JEANNETTE: Hello, I'm Jeannette Ng. I wrote a book called Under the Pendulum Sun

BOGI: It's very good!

JEANNETTE: … about a mission in Fairyland. It's… Right! And I'm up for a Hugo this year for saying Campbell was a fascist apparently, so [crosstalk].

DONGWON: Am I going next? Hi! I'm DongWon Song. I'm a literary agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. I represent science fiction and fantasy primarily for adult, YA, middle grade audiences, plus some graphic novels and things like that, a little bit of non fiction. But, I think this is a totally fascinating topic. I think science fantasy is kind of blowing up across the industry and we can, I'm sure we will get into why and sort where that’s sort of coming from, and how genre works.

SUYI: Hi! I'm Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Suyi. I'm an author, a Nigerian author of all the speculative fictions, particularly where they cross and overlap. I'm the author of David Mogo Godhunter which is this book! [Points to book behind him]

BOGI: Yay!

SUYI: … Which is about a god-pocalypse in Lagos, which is exactly what it means. [laughs] And, yeah, that's a good example, for instance, of how I think about how genres cross over each other. When we think of apocalypse we think of sort of nuclear or technological stuff but in this case, it's a fantastic apocalypse, you see. So yeah… Currently I live in Tucson, Arizona, and I work with the University of Arizona where I teach writing and I'm also completing my MFA in creative writing.

BOGI: Cool! I am nodding so hard at everybody's introductions that my headphones are falling off! [laughs] Sorry about that. So, a few words about me as well. I'm Bogi Takács and I'm going to be moderating the panel. And I am a really big fan of science fantasy. I write primarily short stories and I have a collection titled The Trans Space Octopus Congregation, which, I think as the title shows, it has a little bit of everything. And I hope that we will get to discuss how those things all fit together. And I would actually begin with one of the related topics, I want to discuss both structural trends in the industry about science fantasy, but I also want to do a round of recommendations and reading ideas. So I want to make sure the panel kind of has a balance of both. But let's start with more of the structural thing. So the panel description also notes that there has been a big resurgence of science fantasy lately. And I have also noted... I have a column at tordotcom which is about QUILTBAG books in SFF before 2010. And I've really noticed that a lot of the books I've been reviewing for it have been science fantasy books, and really big wide scope science fantasy books. So it made me wonder if there's a connection between an increase in like the genre becoming more inclusive toward people's identities also results in more inclusivity related to topics and themes. So what do you think about that?

DONGWON: I mean, I definitely think that more marginalised perspectives are pulling in different metaphors, and I think, the experience of colonised peoples or queer folks or disabled folks. I think that does tend to lead towards a little bit more magical thinking. I'm not quite sure I know how to exactly articulate what those connections are. But, you know, I do think that it’s drawing in different cultural perspectives, and different ideas about how the world operates and you know what are the core metaphors that we're engaging with. And I think blending across those cultural lines is [inaudible, glitch] across genre lines for me. It feels like we're all trying to bring in different ideas, different ways of telling stories, different imagery that really leads to just grabbing from all over the genre landscape, in a way, that for me is incredibly exciting, and I think it is a really vital time in science fiction and fantasy and the genre over all.

JEANNETTE: I think you’ve kind of got the thing where we’re seeing a new generation of authors who – we’re not just inspired by a certain legacy and certain vision of what science fiction is about, if you want to play the whole, where do our current ideas of science fiction come from, where does “hard” science fiction come from as an idea, you have to go back to the magazines, you go back to Campbell, you go back to the people who were really fetishistically into very specific sorts of science – they would commission stories, or want stories that specifically have these long rambling descriptions of “science” in the middle of it, specifically writers would cater to that – they would take a story and crib a bit out of some kind of physics textbook and throw it in. And it’s not even necessarily right, it’s just that they know that’s what these magazine editors wanted, because they had this idea of “science”. And when they say science, they don’t mean all science – they don’t mean geology, they don’t mean the social sciences, they don’t mean anthropology, they always mean physics. It’s barely even biology, or even ecology: it’s always physics. And you know, a sprinkling of engineering if you’re lucky. 

ALL: [laugh]

JEANNETTE: So I get really uncomfortable with the idea of hard science fiction, because it has that very straight-line route from the thinking of these people, what they think science fiction should be, to the now. And we’re looking at now, what is science fiction. If you ground science fiction in a different science, why is it not science fiction? Like Broken Earth gets called “geological sci-fi”, and it has quite put all of the crunchy details, in the way that it isn’t – the way fantasy can make you think it’s very fuzzy, or that it doesn’t care about rules or whatever. But it does. [Sighs] And to me, when you’re grounding science fiction in a “different” –  like a non-physics – or even if it is physics, what I want is something that will give those people who do know about that subject joy, references they understand, and that’s kind of exciting. Losing the point. I think we’re having writers who don’t fetishise that, who didn’t grow up reading that and basically only that, and people who grew up watching, I don’t know, anime –  Fullmetal Alchemist, and have a very different approach to where the lines of science fiction and fantasy are. I think that’s really cool. And certainly, I mean, video games have a very different an approach to “science” and fantasy, and that adds up and brings... [audio freezes]... new perspectives, I think that’s really cool. A torrent of words there.

BOGI: Yes! Suyi, I see you’re also nodding?

SUYI: Yeah, I was going to say that – I was thinking about, when Jeannette was talking, I kept thinking about how -

[GARETH appears]

SUYI: - especially fantasy that comes from the African continent – sorry, not fantasy, science fiction that comes from the African continent, because science fiction, as Jeannette said, has been strongly associated with hard science, physics, engineering, stuff like that – and the thing is, coming from a place that has had such a… what’s the word… that hasn’t really had the same interpretations of these things with other parts of the world, especially the dominant parts of the world, the interpretations of these things, like engineering is a good example – they’re not always the same. And then there’s also the fact that intertwining some of the cultures from the continent, you have a lot of mystical elements, that are also interpreted as their own sort of science. And so science fiction as a result becomes this very – thing that the technology and the mystical co-exist, side by side, as opposed to two disparate things. So fantasy and science fiction can almost always, will almost always be the same thing. And I’m saying this because I spoke on the panel about Afrofuturism yesterday, and this is literally what I said – “futurism” isn’t always “scientific” futurism, it is the merger of both what the larger world thinks of as scientific, but also what these indigenous cultures think of as mystical to themselves, and then there’s this mixture of both. Even in a story that’s very mainstream, like Black Panther, there’s still the mystical, ever-present. Despite the fact that there’s vibranium and all this technology, there’s still the mystical, ever-present. And it’s actually likelier to be like that than one or the other. And that’s something I always keep front-and-centre when I’m writing, when I’m thinking of how stories form from these parts of the world.

DONGWON: I mean separating the two feels like such a western idea, right, it’s rooted in the enlightenment, right? [Crosstalk]

BOGI: Just a moment, I wanted to make sure that Gareth has the chance of an introduction as well, because he’s just managed to connect, so I wanted to make sure he also gets to introduce himself.

GARETH: Hi, I’m Gareth L. Powell, I’m a novelist. [Shrugs]

SUYI: (Laughs) Hi Gareth.

GARETH: Sorry I’m late, I had browser issues.

SUYI: It’s okay.

BOGI: Okay, so we can get back to what we were discussing. And what both Suyi and DongWon were saying reminded me of something that Akwaeke Emezi was saying, about their work and how it has a different ontology than most other – not just speculative or non-speculative fiction, but fiction published in the western world in general, and that just really resonated with me. So I thought we could follow this line of thought, along how the assumptions about how the world works, and what can be the domain of science, what can be investigated in a scientific fashion, relates to both science fantasy and its current resurgence. Yes, so I think back to DongWon.

DONGWON: I do want to insert an idea, and I’m sorry that this is going a little bit off the question you asked, but I want to disrupt the concept of this panel slightly, because I do think science fantasy has also – I mean we were talking about how science fantasy is a really useful tool for marginalised voices and global voices, but that said, science fantasy is deeply in the roots in what we think of as science fiction and fantasy here in America. If we’re looking at Roger Zelazny, if we’re looking at – I had a list of names in my head that has completely just vanished – even Terry Brooks –  there are these major voices in the genres [crosstalk] say again?

JEANNETTE: The Ship Who Sang? 

DONGWON: Yeah, exactly

JEANNETTE: The Anne McCaffrey stuff, even Dragonriders is quite science fantasy at the root of it [crosstalk] – 

DONGWON: Yeah, I was going to say, those are dragon with laser guns, right? Or even, one of the biggest science fiction products that we consume culturally, Star Wars, is complete science fantasy, right? So, I think the beating heart of the genre has always blended those elements, and I would actually say that “hard”, strict, science-based fiction has always been in the minority. Especially if we’re talking sales-wise, it has been a very specific smaller subset of the audience, that may have been dominant in certain cultural conversations, but for me I think it is a little bit of a misframing if we treat hard science fiction as the dominant voice in science fiction.

JEANNETTE: Even if you look at something like comic books, have always been a very everything in one pot approach about it, good or badly. On the other hand, I’m kind of thinking - I was reading a bunch of writing advice from stuff like, Save the Cat, very popular stuff, and they have – not very fond of it, obviously – and they say stuff like “you should only have one magical thing in your setting”, you only want your audience to suspend their disbelief over one thing, which seems economical at first, but it breaks down when you think about say, Star Wars, which definitely has both the Force and spaceships and loads of weird aliens. And this a writing book that with a completely straight face tells you Spider-man – the Tobey Maguire one, by the way, you can tell how old this book is – is terrible because by the moment Green Goblin turns up the audience stops caring, because how could you possibly care about two super-beings at the same time. And you could say well that’s just one rando guy, but I have been recced this book, and books like this, so many times, whenever people talk about writing advice, and in writing circles – if you’re asking questions of why science fantasy took a while to “get going” in some circles, there are still people who believe, they may not be very successful, but they certainly believe that that’s what makes a “good story”. [Crosstalk]

DONGWON: Just to pick up on that real quick and then I’ll shut up for a second, but picking up on what you were saying Jeannette, this idea of “grounded” science fiction and “grounded” fantasy is incredibly important in Hollywood. When you talk to anybody about what they’re looking for it’s always grounded, grounded, grounded, and what they mean by that is exactly what you’re describing, which is – one different science fictional element. They’re looking for Black Mirror kind of concepts where it’s like, here’s the one thing – what if you had one robot, what if you had one weird social network thing, right. And that is the core of what mainstream Hollywood is looking for when they’re looking for genre fiction. You know, that Old Guard thing, that warrior nun thing. Right, it remains really dominant, I think it’s important for us to keep in mind as we’re talking about these big broad things that, the core of what people say they’re looking for tends to be really limited in that way.

BOGI: Gareth, do you also have any thoughts?

GARETH: I would say that if you go back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which a lot of people pinpoint as the kick-off as the genre, then that is clearly fantasy. Because although it is based on some scientific ideas at the time, there was no way of bringing the dead back to life with lightning. So it does have a healthy dose of – it’s got speculation, it’s based on the Victorian sciences, but there’s also a fantastical element in it, and I think - when I’m talking about science fiction I’m not talking about a treatise, I’m talking about – people call it the literature of ideas, I prefer to think of it as the literature of analogies. We use the future and we use these different settings as analogies for today. And so, it’s parables, I think. And to use it simply to explore exotic science is fine and interesting, but after a while you run out of science, and you run out of people interested in just how arcane your science is. So it’s much more interesting to me to use it as a distorting mirror in order to comment on who we are and where we are, and where we’re going. 

BOGI: Now that I think that we have had multiple mentions of big classic works that are science fantasy. It made me think that we don’t really have a lineage for science fantasy as much as we would have for hard SF, and I was wondering what would you say are the foundational texts, or important texts historically, or even lesser-known but to you personally very important works of science fantasy. 

SUYI: Can I go?

BOGI: Mhmm! Yes!

SUYI: This is very timely because I just wrote a piece for Tor that is probably going to come out soon, and it spotlighted this superhero called Captain Africa. And I was basically drawing a lineage of Captain Africa from the 1970s, just early post-colonial times for West Africa, and the concept is that, it’s this superhero who has – half of his abilities are super-speed, super flight, right, which are borrowed from the Marvel and other comics that came in from the UK and the US and were sort of repurposed for the newly-liberated African market, and then the other half was mystical abilities that were drawn from the indigenous cultures. And this story was written by, Captain Africa was written by a Ghanaian living in Nigeria at the time, called Andy Akman, and it was literally the first Own Voices comic from the African continent, the very first. Because every other superhero at the time was written either by - there was always some foreign influence, either writing and bringing the comics in, or setting up shop on the continent and producing these comics. But Captain Africa was actually the very first African Own Voices superhero, and was sent, proliferated outside the continent. There was even a sort of profile in – the New Yorker? The New York Times? –  about the superhero. But that’s, Captain Africa was what I grew up with. Because after a while it used to get published in newspapers, you had small strips at the end of every newspaper, so when my parents would buy the paper I’d run and like, “give me the back page!” And I’d read that. And it was this really good thing for me because then we couldn’t even get a lot of access to Marvel and the other comics, so that was literally what I grew up on. And that was one of my foundations, because then I could afford to think about super-speed and super-flight in just, not a scientific way. But I could see how it could tie, how super-speed and super-flight and invulnerability could tie into the stories I grew up with of my own communities. And it didn’t feel like a foreign concept. It did start to feel like a foreign concept when I started to get more into the other stuff, where they’re like, oh, gamma rays! I’m like, what, what are those? So I guess for me that’s a good example of how it was more of an inside-out as opposed to the outside-in. But I guess it’s not always the same for a lot of people, and most of the time they have to break down and find the centre of what they think is, their interpretation of these speculative stuff. Anyway, carry on. 

BOGI: I see Jeannette, you are nodding very much, so I’m wondering if you have next something.

JEANNETTE: I was slightly wanting to contest the idea of Mary Shelley being the origin of science fiction, because I always want to root for Mary Cavendish’s The Blazing World. Which is – it’s a piece of utopian fiction, “utopian”, the Duchess of Newcastle, she was a member of this very - she was a “quasi”-member of a posh scientists’ society for posh people and they would do experiments, and the thing is – she, as a woman, despite being very rich and very powerful in all these ways, she wasn’t allowed to be fully part of it. And she would write poetry about science. And it always kind of fascinated me because she would justify it by saying “writing poetry is like spinning of the mind, so that’s why I should be writing poetry, because it’s like spinning, and spinning is woman’s work, and therefore I could be doing this.” And her husband was one of those amateur scientists in the seventeenth century that every now and again does something mildly important and speculates about atoms or something, and she we would write poems about atoms. And she wrote The Blazing World, and it’s this bizarre – it’s kind of a fantasy, where she would get to be empress of this kingdom of animal people who will do science and theology and they’ll sit around and debate science and fantasy with her all day long,  it’s ridiculous. It’s awful. And it’s very imperial, I have to say that as well. But what interests me in her is how she didn’t see theology and science as separate. She didn’t see the idea that – writing poetry about science isn’t this weird idea to her, that these ideas should co-exist. And the idea that science should be “sterile” or not beautiful, is something that, I don’t think that – even in the enlightenment era, back when science and magic parted ways, this idea that science is beautiful, that you should definitely do dances in the geometric patterns of the stars, and the music of the spheres type stuff, I’m into that. I like to play with that in my stuff. Because nowadays when you talk about it it sounds like magic! Music of the spheres, the planets sing to you, you should do dances in the patterns of the spheres?! It all sounds super mystical and weird. And spoiler, that’s what I’m researching for my next book.

BOGI: Cool – OK DongWon?

DONGWON: Yeah, I mean, science and mystical thinking have been so deeply intertwined in western culture, I was talking about the enlightenment but also hermeticism stayed very alive and well, Isaac Newton was spending most of his time trying to derive alchemical formulas from hermetic texts. There was mystical thinking and scientific thinking, in mystical practice throughout all of history – so trying to separate the two is a major challenge. But kind of going back to the original question, Bogi –


DONGWON: – I think there are really foundational texts like Dune and things like that, but for me – it’s in the panel description but Fifth Season is such a watershed moment I think in the genre. And I love that N.K. Jemisin did this thing where she just sort of grabbed fantasy and science at the same – I mean it’s a book about magic schools and wizards with powerful crystals, it’s literally a book about crystal magic, right? And so when I stepped back and realised how much she was playing with the core fantasy components and then expanding that into this very scientific thinking, and then this very science-fictional thinking – it was sort of this thing where she just grabbed all parts of the genre and said, no, you have to pay attention to me now, and you have to pay attention to this new way of thinking, and none of you are exempt from this critique, that that book makes. And I think that is now a foundational text for a new era of science fiction and fantasy, that I could not be more excited about. I often say that there was an era of fantasy where your referent point was Tolkein, and now it’s Jemisin. But I think that’s true of science fiction as well. And I’m not sure everyone is going to agree with me on this, but I do think that she has really thrown a gauntlet, intentionally or not, that everybody needs to address in their work going forward to be relevant. 

BOGI: Gareth?

GARETH: I think the book that sprang to mind for me was Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which very much has all of the trappings of a fantasy, but then you start to realise that the towers and the castles dotted round the landscape are actually old spaceships, and the magic is actually old technology being repurposed. I think it was very much the same for Michael Moorcock’s Dances at the End of Time. In the fact that their technology has advanced to the point where it is magic, and they don’t understand how it works, they just use it to get what they want, and they can summon anything – 

JEANNETTE: A Canticle for Leibowitz also plays around with some of that?


JEANNETTE: With the future doom-monks tech. And obviously the conceit of 40k as well.

GARETH: Yeah. That’s what sprang to mind for me anyway. 

BOGI: Yeah. My original idea was that, OK we would do a round of classics and then we would do a round of contemporary things, but contemporary things have already come up, so I was just wondering – 

DONGWON: Sorry about that.

BOGI: No, that’s totally fine, and that’s awesome because I think it really illustrates the panel’s point that science fantasy is really thriving right now. So I would say, what other works can you think of that are very contemporary, and also experimental or new in this particular stance, that go where science fantasy hasn’t gone before. Like, here we had Fifth Season, but what else can we think of. And not just in novels, but also in short fiction, or even poetry, or whatever you can think of.

GARETH: I think for me, Aliette de Bodard’s recent novellas have been fantastic. They’re set in a world where spaceships are born biologically, and are therefore related to other members of a human family, and I think that’s a fantastic conceit. And the novels themselves - novellas, sorry - sort of explore everything through ritual rather than through science, so it’s – yeah. [Crosstalk]

JEANNETTE: I also love [inaudible] to be able to talk to all of your ancestors

BOGI: Yes, Suyi?

SUYI: I’m thinking about two people in particular, Nalo Hopkinson who has been here for a while, but a lot of what Nalo writes is sort of neither or the other. And Nicky Drayden is kind of similar now, because a lot of her work as well it’s very similar in that way to Nalo, where it could be science fiction, it could be fantasy, depending on how you look at it. But one particular text that I think is definitely fantasy, but the way the magical systems are designed – which is another thing, especially for fantasy, when you start to think about how intricately some of the magical systems are designed, they start to become scientific. I think it’s called Foundryside, that’s the name of the novel, where the magical system is almost like writing code. It’s like writing code and asking the magical – giving instructions to an object, which is what code is.

DONGWON: It’s by Robert Jackson Bennett, by the way. 

SUYI: Yeah, Robert Jackson Bennett, that’s the author’s name. And it’s a series, so there’s a second book out or something. But yeah, that’s a good example of how you can draw on, even without drawing on certain technology, or the engineering or the geology, you can draw on the concept even of something scientific into the fantasy, or vice versa. Yeah, those are my examples.

JEANNETTE: I really enjoyed Gideon the Ninth for – space gothic I suppose you could call it, more specifically. Where you have the giant mouldering cathedral buildings and the arches, and you have this rather repressed bratty teenager just taking you through it, with her swagger. It’s fantastic. And very much a world that has that kind of strange – there’s something very much where the emptiness and hugeness of space really add to the grandeur and the sublime sense of horror of gothic. It mixes very well in a way that almost feels seamless to me. Because the gothic horror thing of, you don’t matter, these giant buildings are so big, they’re so old, you’re so small, you’re going to go crazy looking at them – it’s like yeah, that’s a lot like how people look at space sometimes. That kind of fits in a way that feels very intuitive. I think the comments are also erupting with suggestions. [crosstalk]

DONGWON: Yeah, there’s so many suggestions in the comments.

BOGI: I can read some of them. I think we have awesome suggestions in the comments, like there’s Kai Ashante Wilson who has really great novellas and alsof short stories that I think are absolutely – that have that kind of organic sensibility that I think at least two or three of you have mentioned that science fantasy has this kind of biological spaceships, organic elements, giving birth to spaceships like in Aliette’s work – 

[Pop-up from That’s So Poe: I think Kai Ashante Wilson is another really good modern example of Science Fantasy.]

DONGWON: You can also have a tonal thing, so one of the things I love about Kai Ashante Wilson is the way he incorporates really contemporary vernacular English against this very ornate fantasy language, and the way he particularly uses African American Vernacular English from the character’s speech, it was one of the most exciting things for me to read, and you can have tonal science fantasy in that way, where you have very contemporary and very classical at the same time. And to plug one of my own books, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, is very much a science fiction, very much a space opera, but it’s set in this society that feels so epic fantasy in its structure, with all the way the poetry works, the language works, it’s absolutely a science fictional book, but it has all these tonal elements of fantasy. It was so much fun working on that and trying to figure out, OK how do we sell this book, that was able to hit both of those notes at the same time, and how it was framed, and how it was marketed and published.

BOGI: I think that brings us also to something that we discussed before the panel that we want to talk about a little bit, and it’s about how genres are conceptualised differently, when it comes both to readers and to the publishing industry per se, and to writers. So everyone has a different perspective on it. So how do you manage to squish yourselves into these restrictive categories, that there’s the science fiction box and then there’s the fantasy box, when what you’re writing is somewhere completely outside of those boxes, but also in them at the same time. So how do you counteract this kind of – when something fits in multiple places, sometimes the tendency is to categorise it as neither, and that can be frustrating to me as a reader because I know about science fantasy. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that.

DONGWON: I want to run with it just a little bit because this is a big hobby horse of mine. One of the things that I really want to point out is there are three different ways of thinking about genre, and whenever we get into these big internet fights about what genre means, it usually is because two different audiences trying to talk at each other and not understanding that they’re speaking about different things. So there’s the way publishers and booksellers, there’s the industry way of thinking about genre, there’s the critics’ way of thinking about genre, and then there’s fans’ way of thinking about genre. And I’m mostly going to talk about the industry side, but. Critics and fans are concerned about what a thing is based on the text and based on the history and the emergence – publishing doesn’t give a crap about that, we genuinely don’t care about, does this fit into a tradition or not. What we care about is – publishing is an industrialised, capitalist business, our job is to take these beautiful flowers of a story and figure out how to sell it to as many people as possible. And to put it into an industrial system you literally have to put it into a box, so it can be packaged and shipped in quite literal and metaphorical ways. Genre is the way in which we package and box something up, because when you’re publishing – in my view the only question that really matters is: who is this book for? And genre is one of the major, major, major ways that we communicate: this book is for you. Do you like Star Wars? This book is for you. Do you like hard science fiction, do you like Greg Egan? This book is for you. Do you like fantasy? This book is for you, right. And that’s why Fifth Season, that we’ve talked about, this sprawling – covering everything, was packaged very specifically as epic fantasy. If you look at how that cover was designed, how it was marketed, how everyone talked about it before publication: this is an epic fantasy from a big epic fantasy writer, it’s epic fantasy, over and over again, was what you heard. And so when it came out, that’s exactly how it was framed and sold. All these things that we’re talking about that are science fantasy will be framed by the industry one way or the other so that it fits into that category. Because as you were saying Bogi, if you don’t do that well enough, it’ll fall into that gap, where no-one really knows – if you don’t know what shelf to put it on in the bookstore, you have a major problem. Now that I’ve said that, everyone is thinking of some example of a book that has completely defied that. And that is possible, I think it is possible to have a book that is deliberately riding that line, but it’s a difficult needle to thread. But even if you think about Gideon the Ninth, that’s a science fiction book that is packaged and framed as a fantasy book. That’s a fantasy-ass cover, right, that’s a painted cover of somebody in this skull outfit and it feels very much like, that’s a fantasy-adventure heroine, even though what that book is, is very very different from what that cover represents. Not in a way that it feels inappropriate, I think everyone who went into that got what they were looking for, but that book wasn’t packaged like a big space opera science fiction book, even though you could make that argument too.

JEANNETTE: The King Arthur in space one has a – there’s that King Arthur in space book recently with the sword, the gauntlet, the rose – that has a really interesting cover. Because it had a space feel as well as the sword feel, for straddling that line. But perhaps King Arthur in Space is just a cleaner concept. [Crosstalk] [editorial note: the book referenced is Once and Future by Cori McCarthy and Amy Rose Capetta]

DONGWON: Right. To go back to Arkady Martine again, because I can speak to how involved we were in that, we had all these conversations about, do we put a spaceship against a planet, which is the classic science fiction space opera look, and we were like, no, we want something fresher and something that feels different. So we went with this painted image of a throne, because literally our reference image was the Star Wars, the second Star Wars of the new trilogy, I’m blanking on what it’s called, the throne room fight scene from that, we wanted that big, stark fantasy throne feel, and that’s what we went for with this painted cover, and that was us trying to thread that needle of this is both science fiction and fantasy feeling. And it seems like we did hit that appropriately, but these are the questions that we’re thinking about when we’re publishing a book, and that’s how genre plays in here, which is why so many fans are like, this book wasn’t that, why did you market it that way, what’s wrong with you people, why don’t you understand what genre is? And the reality is we do, we just are solving for different solutions than what you are as a reader or a critic. Does that make sense? My rant is done. 

JEANNETTE: I think sometimes it is frustrating that you think that this book would have interested you if you were sold that book. Because I was really excited about Jen Lyons’ book, it was quite a generic name as well –

DONGWON: The Ruin of Kings.

JEANNETTE: Yes, Ruin of Kings? Yes. And it has this quite epic fantasy generic cover to me, but it’s this multi-voiced, brimming with footnotes, it’s this mindfuck of a postmodern explosion to me, and it’s fantastic, but the cover promises me – third person epic fantasy of the most generic type you can imagine. This is going to be the fifty millionth hero’s journey you’ve read, Jeannette, and the contents didn’t feel like that. It was very, this cacophony – 

DONGWON: But you have to understand - but that approach worked, right? 

JEANNETTE: I know a lot of people who did read it because of the cover – 

DONGWON: I mean, you miss a certain audience, but it hit a really big audience, it hit the core fantasy readers, so a lot of people bought that book, a lot of people read that book and were excited about that. We’re talking about Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons, sorry, I saw a comment in the chat. 


DONGWON: They were right to publish that way, right, even though – yes,  the problem is when you make that choice you’re going to lose somebody, right. And if you made the choice to publish it as this postmodern, technically dense thing, then you’re going to lose a bunch of people who wanted the fantasy side of that. That’s the trade-off, that’s the entire challenge, and it sucks! Is the reality of it, because business is shitty.

JEANNETTE: But I couldn’t find it!

DONGWON: I know, I know, I know – but that’s capitalism for you, that’s marketing for you, that’s publishing.

BOGI: Yes, I noticed Suyi, you’re nodding and also you have literally your own book behind you, so. We have heard a lot and discussed a lot about the publishing side, but what about the writing side?

SUYI: Yeah, I think they are all intertwined. I think the people I worry most about are editors, because they’re in that space between the publishing side and the writing side. And they’re like, oh no, how do we place this? It’s like what DongWon was saying, my book had the same problem. I called it the godpocalypse, my editor called it godpunk. The people in Lagos called it urban fantasy. Or a post-apocalypse. People called it different things because it wasn’t really one thing, because it couldn’t be. It was an apocalypse caused by gods. And it was like, what is that? Is it fantasy? Is it dystopia? Because they felt like it was a dystopia. But I was like, that’s not really a dystopia though. Lagos doesn’t really change too much after the gods arrive, so. It was like all these things, and it made for a very interesting discussion, funnily enough. But, you would not believe that, when I was writing it I didn’t ever think, I didn’t think about genre. I was just like, oh gods in Lagos, that would be cool. And that was pretty much it, that was the extent of my thoughts. I guess on the writing side, I think what DongWon is saying here is, as a writer you’re really just thinking about the core of your story. Sometimes that core will blend so many elements that you don’t really think about until you’ll get to the table where someone who’s like, a packager, in this case which is what the publishing side is – is like alright, what packaging are we going to put this in? And parcel it out to everyone. The cover, the blurb, the description, everything is going to like, tell one story. It’s like your trailers we see for Hollywood as well, and stuff like that. It’s like, how are we going to present this to the world? And if there’s five things then I’m sorry, we have to pick one. Or two, sometimes, if the two are strong enough. The Mandalorian is a good example – it’s like space! But also western. And you can manage to do one big one, which is like space for the Mandalorian, and then one smaller attached one, which is like the western for the Mandalorian. And that way – but I think outside of that, you just kind of have to lose some people. It sucks. And I guess that’s why as authors you have to do many appearances so you can always be like, hey! There’s also this other stuff you missed, hi everyone!

DONGWON: Suyi’s kind of making the point that I was hoping to make, which is: genre is a publisher problem, not a writer problem.  Y’all don’t need to think about it, right. When you’re writing, write the book of your heart,  write the book that you want to write, let us figure out, OK, how do we package this and sell this and market it. You will participate in that process but that’s not your problem, and not something you should think about at the outset of telling a story. Anyway, sorry, continue. [crosstalk]

BOGI: Mmhmm, Gareth?

GARETH: Yeah, when I was -

JEANNETTE: I’m interested in genre in terms of a taxonomy/recipe kind of approach, because I like the idea of taking apart stories, putting them next to each other and comparing them, but where I put them is obviously very different from where you put them. The classic – where tomatoes are in the supermarket is very different from where a botanist would put them, versus where your home chef would put them. Where would be most convenient for the shops to put an object is very different from a museum versus me in the kitchen. But I do think that there is some use in looking at genre? At least for me, because it’s a way of sorting things which are similar to each other and putting them apart, but I think that’s just, I have a weirdly analytical mind like that. I feel like I write in a defunct genre, because I write the gothic, the gothic is not a genre these days, you can’t go into the bookstore and go ah yes this is the bookshelf full of gothic books, because they’re split across general fiction, classics, and science fiction and fantasy. And oh wait, historicals, historicals are a different genre these days. And something – there was a word there.

BOGI: Yes, yes, and I think Gareth was starting to say something, yes Gareth?

JEANNETTE: Sorry Gareth!

GARETH: I was just picking up on DongWon’s point about as a writer, whether or not we worry about it when we’re doing it. My latest book, from Titan, Light of Impossible Stars, basically features a big fight between a huge armada of spaceships, and a huge pack of dragons. Because I knew I was writing a space opera, but at the same time I can raid other toy cupboards while I’m doing it and take – like when you’re cooking a stew and you just throw in bits from everywhere. So I don’t overly concern myself with “is that a fantasy element, is this...” as long as you put it all in there and it all has a reason to be in there, I think you can mix and match quite nicely.

JEANNETTE: I suppose I find “science” in bunny ears – I find it useful when I look at a fantasy world I’m writing, or writing about. I ask a bunch of questions, I buy coffee for all my scientist friends and ask them questions, and if they ask me interesting questions in return, that’s when it gets interesting to me. I always talk about, oh yes, I’ve got my sun, it’s on a pendulum, what would that make the day/night cycle look like, what would that do to my world, and I bought a physicist some coffee and he was like, oh but wouldn’t that mean, if it was an ever-expanding plane, wouldn’t that mean all the air was expanding outwards, wouldn’t that mean there was this wall of solid air around your fairyland, I’m like, yes, yes, and he’s like, wouldn’t you run out of air, because it would be constantly expanding outwards? I’m like yes, you’re right, it would, I should make some of my characters miners who drag, like mine the frozen air and drag it back into the middle of fairyland, that sounds hilarious. And I find it interesting to ask these “sciencey” questions because they give me interesting answers, not because it makes it more “accurate”, if that makes sense. [Crosstalk]

BOGI: Yes, DongWon?

DONGWON: I was going to say, JY Neon Yang’s books, The Black Tides of Heaven series – did I just confuse the titles? No, The Black Tides of Heaven is correct, sorry – one thing that is completely invisible to the readers but yet affects almost everything in those books, is that – that world is shaped like a doughnut, it’s a torus. Which is why the seasons and the days are weird. It’s never explicitly put on the page, but it impacts almost every part of that story, it’s just this little thing that I happen to know because they mentioned it to me at some point. I was like wait, what, what are you talking about? It’s fun how these science details can really inform the fantastical elements. Gravity is weird in certain places which causes the animals to grow weird, which is why you have giant dinosaurs. You know – that is a consequence of the fact that the world is a torus. And stuff like that, where I was just like – oh, I had no idea. Those are things that just enrich the story and make it fun, and then Neon wanted to find a way to make it make sense in their head, and so that’s how it all worked. I think that is the power of playing with science fantasy – is, yeah, put it in because it’s fun, and then you make it all work together because that’s also fun. Consistency is way more important than accuracy in my opinion, so.

BOGI: I think that now might also be the time for some audience questions, if anyone has anything? I’m looking through the comments.

SUYI: I did see a question earlier, that I wanted to bring us back to, from – I’m just going to bring it up, it’s from WorldsinInk, the person asks if there’s a distinctive genre focus, if it’s a marketing thing. Yep, that’s it, right there.

[Pop-up from WorldsinInk: Is a distinctive genre focus (either SF or fantasy) a marketing thing? Slot something into a box that can be promoted/sold easier. Is work that’s not quite either harder to market?]

SUYI: An I was thinking about how, especially when you’re thinking about how books make it to Hollywood these days, this starts to become like – the books that are ready-made for Hollywood, almost always make it to Hollywood, while if you’re writing – I think this is a thing that I guess writers are starting to worry about, is this going to be easy to package for film, TV rights, or whatever. I do think yes, to a degree, there is a marketing thing that I would say authors are starting to worry about now, because it does add to the success of your work – especially if you’re POC, and indigenous people, and BIPOC in general, right. And you want to get the same visibility, and – trying to write from the heart versus how do I make sure, or, not make sure, but how do I see if I can make this very focused in a way that it can be presented. Because – yes, for some parts of storytelling, outside of the book itself, like TV or audio or some other forms, or comics, even, it’s almost like the “flatter” it is, the more accessible. Which I think, again, in the end, is the point of publishing, how many people can we make this accessible to. And yes so – I think it does have an effect. But again, I still think at the end, it’s less about flattening, and more about, how can you – there was something DongWon said that I remembered, I’ve forgotten now – it was something like, how do you make this unique and consistent, and that’s like – what makes it stand out, as opposed to making it less complex, or more flat and easily slot into some sort of marketing approach. 

DONGWON: The problem is that if you cynically chase that thing of, “oh this is going to fit exactly into that slot”, you often miss that. Because there’s nothing distinctive and exciting about it. So, it’s this balancing thing of, you want to write the thing that feels really fresh and distinct, but also fits into a preconceived notion of what this thing is – and then, from there, once you’ve gotten people hooked because they like epic fantasy, then you can wander off and do whatever cool weird thing you wanted to do. But there are successes in all kind of ways, all kinds of strategies work – I’ve seen people aim for the centre mark and hit it spot on, and people do the weirdest freaking thing in the world and it becomes a huge success, right. I think Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is a great example of – he was a weird writer doing weird stuff, and ended up blowing up and ended up getting a movie, and ended up all these different things, and it’s very hard to predict those aspects, so, that’s why my advice is always, just write the thing you wanted to write.

BOGI: Polenth has this very cool question that I think is also good for a whole round of answers – what would like to see more of in science fantasy? I see Jeannette is already trying to say something.

[Pop-up from Polenth Blake: What would you like to see more of in science fantasy?]

JEANNETTE: No, I was going to recycle my favourite analogy about – if you look at all food, if you look at all Italian recipes all of them have pasta and olive oil, so I will make something with pasta and olive oil and maybe tomatoes, and you only have these three ingredients – and you’re like no, that’s not a dish, that’s not how cooking works. And it’s exactly the same thing – if you look at only the elements that all the popular things have in common, you will have pulp, it’s, you’ll end up with carb and oil. But yes. Things that I want to see more of – the titular dragon on spaceship, I always love dragons. But I think I have a fascination with animalistic dragons, which are kind of based on biosciencey shit, so, I don’t know. Dragons – I think Mercedes Lackey did some books which were like, Ancient Egypt-y, but their dragons were this mix of big cats and also birds of prey. And it’s very charming – I think it’s very charming because it seems like she was really into both big cats and birds of prey, and had some experiences with both. It’s very transparent, the characters all have backgrounds in these animal training, but it’s always cool to see that kind of aspect of biology and animal training being brought into the work, rather than just biomechanics stuff of, “oh dragons couldn’t possibly fly because they have too many limbs” or whatever.

BOGI: Gareth?

GARETH: I’d like to see more main characters who aren’t chosen ones, or who aren’t picked by destiny, just to make a change, because it’s something we’ve been through a lot, from Star Wars onwards. It’s the narrative, isn’t it, the hero’s journey, which we need to maybe – 

JEANNETTE: Fuck the monomyth.

GARETH: – retire a bit, move onto some of the slightly less well-trodden paths of myth.

JEANNETTE: I will say, I feel like in some of these really quite tired old tropes and steroetypes and archetypes, I keep feeling like there’s something more that can be done with them. Every now and again I keep thinking that, OK, the chosen one secret bloodline bullshit is awful, but every now and again I’m like – but oh, the idea that say, your family is keeping a secret from you to protect you for reasons, we all – I roll my eyes when it comes up in a story – but then I realise, wait, my family never tell me anything! My grandfather has this entire backstory in The War that I’ve never heard of, so, it’s not implausible, I grew up with a family history that’s full of – I’m not saying I am the chosen one, I’m just saying that this idea that our parents didn’t tell us shit, is very relatable –

DONGWON: So many things.

JEANNETTE: - and yet, all these versions of chosen ones with their parents who don’t tell them things, I can’t relate to that. It’s written in a way that’s not – that doesn’t have that note in it for me. And I feel like, whilst a lot of the stuff that’s being written or has been written doesn’t quite work for me, there’s something there. There are these notes that you could hit – you’re not hitting them right. Does that make sense? Like the secret bloodline stuff is bullshit, but trying to reconnect with a heritage that my parents don’t care about but I want to care about, that’s something I can relate to. My parents thought that certain aspects of my Hakka heritage, they thought it wasn’t important to me, and now I’m reading a Hakka cookbook. That’s not the same thing as having secret magical blood, but it also kind of is, if you see what I’m trying to get at. If you squint really hard, and I think we could do that. The metaphors are [crosstalk]

DONGWON: Like I was mentioning earlier N.K. Jemisin made magic crystals exciting and fresh, right! It’s literally, a book about wizards with magic crystals and I was like, this is the most exciting thing I’ve ever read, so. Go on.

JEANNETTE: Exactly. I do hate all Campbells. The soup should watch its back.

BOGI: Yes, Suyi?

SUYI: I was going to draw from – I almost said Campbell’s – Gareth’s comments on myths. What I would like to see more is about how people can draw from myths to solve scientific problems, or mystical interpretations of myth to solve science fiction problems. Again, this draws me back to Nalo Hopkinson, and how she thinks about intertwining – I like to think about Lagos a lot, Lagos is one of those places that is undergoing a lot of change climate-wise, and a lot of the changes people are putting forward aren’t scientific, they’re not like, let’s do X, Y, Z science thing, most of the time they’re thinking more, who do we pray to. Or, how do we employ more traditional systems like, where do we plant trees. And all of that is science, but is also mystical in a way, for the people and however they interpret them. And one of the things I like to think about is how reclaiming change, right, or, sorry, reclaiming what was lost, in terms of change or in terms of trying to fix things, that are traditionally fixed by science, right – in a more mystical sense – or both of them working together to fix that problem, because that’s what’s more natural to the place I come from, it’s always a combination of both, and very nearly never one or the other. 

BOGI: I think that our hour is going to be soon up, so maybe a few words as a final statement from everyone, and then I think we are going to say goodbye for now. I don’t know who would like to go first?

DONGWON: I think for me, I kind of said this earlier but I want to reiterate it – write the thing that you want to write. I think these are really interesting questions to examine from a critical standpoint and from a fan standpoint, about what we’re excited by, why we like a book, and then looking back and putting it within a heritage, a lineage of fiction, I think is always really exciting. But for you as a creative – yeah, if you want to put dragons fighting spaceships, absolutely do that, that’s a great idea, that’s a ton of fun, right? If you want to do something that is purely using physics and math to metaphorically show us what is the heart of a human story then absolutely, that works too. Science fiction and fantasy to me is all about metaphor, Gareth was kind of hitting on this earlier, and I think that’s absolutely true – it’s not predictive, it’s not about the future, it’s only about the present moment, and it’s only about people. Whatever metaphors you want to use to tell that story that gives us an insight into human nature, do it. Do it if it’s math, do it if it’s magic, do it if it’s space monks or dragons, or whatever the hell it is. Go hogwild, have fun, write the story you want to write, and let the process of the industry and the market figure out where it fits on the shelf. We can solve that problem – I’ve solved that problem in a million weird ways, and a million exciting ways – there are solutions, but you need to not worry about that in the creative moment. And then that’s the thing you figure out when you want to pitch it, and sell it, and market it.

SUYI: I second that, that’s my own final statement, that’s really where I’m gonna go.

BOGI: Gareth?

GARETH: Just that sometimes I think that books can become science fantasy, after the fact. Which may have started off as science fiction, and then – I’m thinking, the one that I’m thinking of is Samuel Delany’s Nova, which – it was possible when it was written, about diving into the heart of a star to get this rare element, but now the science is looking a bit more iffy, so you have to take it more as a metaphor for the grail quest, which is what the book’s about. I think science fantasy is a bit of a moveable feast in that way. Some books can be written as hard science fiction, but then shade into science fantasy as our understanding of science advances.

BOGI: Jeannette?

JEANNETTE: I suppose I want to talk a little about literalisms, to end on.  Which I think is just a strain in critiques these days – it’s very easy to make jokes about this, it’s endemic in nerddom, the sort of, oh, “Jack could have fit on that door too, Rose,” Titanic critique, or that very nitpicky, numbers-driven, science-y, this is not a metaphor for anything, I just need to solve this plot as a problem. And it’s not inherently bad to write stories that way of course, or inherently bad to approach stories that way, but if you only approach stories that way, you’re cutting yourself off from a lot of other ways to tell stories. And I think that’s something that really frustrates me, when it comes to – I’ve enjoyed it a lot, that kind of nitpicking, a lot of my life – but that that is a foundation for so much nerd humour around our media, makes me feel like we are missing the point of the magical metaphors that DongWon was talking about. We have this powerful – that stories mean things beyond their immediate, this is a lamp, this is a sword, this is a door. With something like Titanic, it’s this moment of, the choice Jack makes is that – he’s in the first blush of love and he’s willing to sacrifice that because he knows she will survive, and that’s important to him. More than the idea that both of them will survive. That’s the big dramatic sacrifice, and that’s why it works, or doesn’t work, but you judge it on those terms, these metaphorical, big emotions terms, rather than the maths. I feel like that’s how I want to approach stories, with this openness to feels.

BOGI: I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you everyone for participating, and thank you everyone who tuned in, we were very happy to have you, and wishing everyone a pleasant fringe. There is still more stuff today, tomorrow. And, have fun. Thank you, bye bye!

DONGWON: Thank you everyone, this was a lot of fun.

SUYI: Bye!

Special thanks to Charlotte Geater for drafting this transcript! Responsibility for final text lies with Adri Joy - for any corrections or comments, please get in touch via Twitter.