A common piece of advice to writers is to understand your place in the current market. Which novels are comparable to yours? Who writes as you do? This is good advice, as a big part of marketing – ‘brand’ – is signalling to readers what kind of book is in front of them; hopefully, with the result that they buy it. I’ve heard an industry insider admit that publishers and literary agents “love jumping on [successful] bandwagons”, so our books may not even make it to potential readers if we can’t do this!
However, I find it difficult to be objective about my writing. What kind of writer am I, really?
Maybe you do too.
The writers who formed me as a reader, and probably also as a writer, were in my childhood and teens – that was a long time ago! However, the advice is to pick comparable books published recently, say in the last five years, and avoid the mega-successful best sellers (too aspirational, apparently).
So we’re supposed to read lots of recent, only moderately successful (i.e. less well known) books in order to find ones that might be like ours? As a short cut, I tried looking at the runners up for sci-fi awards in the last five years, but even that’s a task: say five runners up for each of four awards over five years could be up to a hundred books (actually less, as there’s considerable overlap). Even then, it’s quite difficult to tell what a book’s really like from the blurb, Wikipedia, etc., and reviews aren’t always a reliable guide either.
None of this addresses my fundamental problem: if I don’t have an objective view of my novel is like (my baby, my beloved, my burden, I can’t do this, I suck at writing, I hate my novel – you get the idea), then how can I spot comparable books?
Then, one glorious day, I happened upon the website ‘BestScienceFictionBooks.com’. This site has lots of lists of the ‘best’ of this and that, which may or may not be your thing. However, it also has heaps of guides to different sub-genres of science fiction, from ‘Space Opera’ to ‘Gay Science Fiction’. I’m terrible at labels or recognising sub-genres, so I looked eagerly at the guides.
First off, I’m not going to read all those web pages, however good they are, to find out what sounds like my novel, so let’s narrow it down a bit with an example.
A Work In Progress (WIP) of mine is called ‘The Daedalus Souls’. It’s set in the near-ish future in this century and the next, and there’s a lot of real ‘hard’ science underpinning it; two of the key characters are Artificial Intelligences (AIs). If you want to know more then there’s a page on ‘The Daedalus Souls’ here.
Okay, so there are guides to ‘hard science fiction’, ‘AI science fiction’ and so on. Could these guides help me understand what kind of writer I am? Read on…
Hard Science Fiction
What is Hard Science Fiction?
“To put it simply … hard sci-fi is a science fiction subgenre that concentrates on relating stories from a correct scientific perspective and an attention to technological detail.” Yep, that sounds like my WIP, which is based on a real engineering study in the 1970s. “Other common themes are … an inclination for militaristic masculine values.” Hmm, guilty as charged, I did serve in the Royal Air Force for 20 years!
It goes on to say “the subgenre has two major characteristics. The first is … some technological advance that hasn’t happened in real life as of yet, [which] if taken out or questioned makes the whole story collapse.” Absolutely, if you take out the nuclear fusion engine that makes interstellar travel possible, then there is no story.
“The second would be the rigorous attention to scientific detail and … everything that follows will be a scrupulous, realistic description of what [that] world … would look like.” Again, this sounds exactly like ‘The Daedalus Souls’. “It will explain every step in great detail and expand on the scientific gains with technical jargon.” Ahh – I’ve received feedback that I need to back off on the technical detail and jargon, as it gets in the way of the characterization and story.
Other Features of Hard Science Fiction
Level of Real Science. I think we’ve covered this.
Level of Characterization. “Characters aren’t the main focus when it comes to hard science fiction. The focus is on story and on the logical and technological thread”. Now, I beg to differ. I don’t see any sci-fi story succeeding these days with cardboard-cut-out characters. The characters might have their decisions shaped by technological constraints, but they’ve still got to be believable! “Also the high density of technological details and jargon turns the characters into some type of unrealistic super humans.”
I don’t really follow the argument here (do you? Please leave a comment below), but I suppose that the AI characters in the novel might be described as ‘unrealistic super humans’.
Level of Plot Complexity. “The plot is highly complex with a huge number of details that don’t refer only to scientific explanations but are a scrupulous description of characters events and places.” I’m trying to back off on the detail and keep the novel’s plot manageable and fairly pacey.
(The statements that “characters aren’t the main focus” and “a scrupulous description of characters” seem contradictory. This only makes sense to me if the author meant that Hard SF isn’t character-driven.)
Level of Violence. “The violence levels may vary, but are generally mild”, fair enough. There’s the threat of deadly violence in my WIP, but it’s rarely realised ‘on-screen’ as it were.
Related Science Fiction subgenres
“Hard Fantasy, Interstellar Travel and even Time Travel themed fiction are also related to this subgenre.” Fair enough, the Daedalus mission is the first interstellar vehicle, so I’ve got one of those boxes ticked. “Cyberpunk is also tied to hard science fiction as it has important technological advancements at its core”. Okay, the AI characters are there, but they drive the plot forward in the real world; we don’t really spend much time with them in cyberspace, which brings us neatly onto…
Best Artificial Intelligence Science Fiction
There’s no subgenre guide for AI, only a ‘Top 25 Best Artificial Intelligence’ list, but it does have some useful description: “Which sub-genre of sci-fi can claim both the literary greats, the grandmasters of science fiction, like Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, and the recently departed Iain M. Banks and the gritty, depths of fiction shown in the dirty sex and drugs and rock’n’roll of Robert Heinlein, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson? It’s artificial intelligence.” Okay, so here’s where the big boys play…
…Okay, a critical aside here. Ann Leckie has written the ‘Ancillary’ trilogy, in which the central protagonist is an AI, but she’s not mentioned. Given that ‘Ancillary Justice’ won the 2013-2014 season Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA, Locus awards and others, I can only assume that her incredible novel is not mentioned because the AI list is out of date.
It goes onto say that “artificial intelligence [stories] … force us to look deep within ourselves and question what is it, exactly, that makes us human, when computers and machines can learn, educate themselves and others, show morality and ethics, and most importantly, understand and exhibit human emotions of love, anger, and fear.” Bingo! Now, this cuts to the core of my AI characters, their motivations and actions. This is definitely a valid subgenre for my WIP.
“And not to be too serious, it usually comes with a healthy slathering of flesh on flesh and blood and guts.” Ah, my WIP is sadly lacking the blood-and-guts stuff! Maybe in the sequel, I can have a murderous AI running amok?!
Space Opera SF
Now, I’ve included Space Opera because I’m a huge fan of lots of writers in this subgenre, like Iain M. Banks, C.J. Cherryh, Greg Bear and Larry Niven (I also note that Ann Leckie has made it in here, although only at No 44!?). As a teen, I loved reading Niven’s work, and it led me to the others – I suspect it has formed me as a writer too…
What is Space Opera?
“Space Opera is a science fiction subgenre that is known for having large-scale, often over-the-top characters, themes, and plots.” Large scale: tick! Being very literal, interstellar travel couldn’t be anything else, could it? Over the top? Not so much, I guess the focus on realistic (ish) science in my WIP stops it getting too out of control.
“The setting is nearly always in outer space, and [plots] often follow an adventure-style format.” I do like a good quest or a journey (here, we could talk about ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ by Christopher Booker if we wanted to get truly Mythic, but that’s probably a whole other blog post or even a series of posts). If I’m honest, I can’t help myself; I’m going to give you an epic, escapist journey – and why the hell not: why else would we read science fiction?
What’s the Difference Between Space Opera and Science Fiction?
I didn’t know there was a difference: did you?
“Space opera differs from other “hard science fiction” in that it doesn’t always hold to the accepted laws of science, mathematics, or the nature of space as we know it.” Okay, I guess that’s all the faster-than-light travel, galactic-scale space empires and so forth. That’s not in ‘The Daedalus Souls’, as the novel is set before such things, but in the rest of the series (oh, yes, there’s a series), these things are coming…
It goes on to suggest that there may be “a separate sub-genre of space opera, as well, that would be better classified as military science fiction, which often involves large-scale battles and weapons of the future.” This is very definitely Iain M. Banks’s oeuvre, and I’m a huge fan of his books. Again, that’s not in my current WIP, but it might come later.
New Characteristics of Space Opera
“In recent years, … [a] darker-mood evolved in many works that came out in the 1980s, many heavily influenced by the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction.” Yes, thanks to William Gibson, et al, things have changed. Again, if you’re talking dark Space Opera, then you can’t leave out Iain M. Banks. My novel certainly doesn’t have his level of darkness.
“These changes also saw a heavier-reliance on technology, strong character development, and a more rigorous adherence to hard science.” Okay, so maybe my WIP is smack-bang in modern Space Opera territory?
“Space Opera usually includes a heavy aspect of “military” to it. Because of this Military SF is a closely tied science fiction subgenre to Space Opera, often incorporating or being incorporated by it.” From what I’ve read, I can’t argue with that. Although ‘The Daedalus Souls’ doesn’t contain any military elements, some of the sequels might.
Well, that was a quick romp through so-called hard science fiction, AI science fiction and space opera. These subgenre descriptions may or may not work for you, and I don’t agree with everything I read within them, but I found it a useful exercise, nonetheless. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide what you do like, or would include in a subgenre until you’ve sorted out what you don’t like, or would exclude.
Previously, I had a vague feeling that ‘The Daedalus Souls’ and its planned successors did, sort of, fit into these categories, but I couldn’t have told you why. Now I would feel much more confident describing my WIP that way, and I have a much better idea where my novel might fit in the current publishing market.