February 19th, 2013

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Boskone Panel Notes: The Changing Face of SF -- Editorial Viewpoints

This panel happened on Saturday at noon. My notes are pretty incomplete, but I tried to write down key points and book titles. Please feel free to offer additions or corrections in the comments.

Here's the official blurb:

If you want the widest possible view of the ever-evolving science fiction landscape, ask a bunch of editors to tell you what's really happening. (And who, and why.) So we did.
Jim Frenkel (M), Ellen Asher, Shahid Mahmud, Beth Meacham, Julia Rios

Jim Frenkel is a senior editor at Tor. He has over 35 years of experience in the publishing field.

Ellen Asher was the editor-in-chief for the Science Fiction Book Club for 34 years (1973-2007).

Shahid Mahmud runs the small press, Phoenix Pick. He is also the publisher for the forthcoming online magazine, Galaxy's Edge (edited by Mike Resnick).

Beth Meacham is also a senior editor at Tor. She, like Jim, has been working in the publishing industry for over 35 years.

Julia Rios is me. I'm one of the three fiction editors at Strange Horizons, an online magazine of SF and fantasy. Strange Horizons has been publishing free fiction online since 2000, but the entire fiction editing team changed in 2012, so this is my first year as an editor.

Jim: Begins panel by reading blurb, and talking for a few minutes about trends.

-- Jim edited Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter (the first novel to be called steampunk) in 1986. Steampunk is a big trend now, but goes back to Jules Verne. Jim notes that Cherie Priest is a great author who wrote several very good novels that didn't get much public recognition, then had a breakthrough with Boneshaker, which is steampunk. Not sure why that was the breakthrough, but steampunk definitely seems to be a trend.

Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance are two similar subgenres. Both trendy right now.

The New Space Opera is another trend, and Jim mentions Alastair Reynolds and then jokes that all the authors seem to be Scottish.

Ellen: Points out one really big change in SF is that it's now a popular mainstream thing. Back int he day there was Doubleday publishing hardcovers for libraries, and then there were mass market paperbacks, mostly for youngsters, and adults who seemed not to have grown up. SF was looked down upon by mainstream. Books like 1984 were "not SF" because they were considered to be good, and SF couldn't possibly be good.

Julia: We're seeing a lot more e-books and online magazines now.

Beth (I think): Newsweek no longer publishes a print edition, for instance.

Jim (I think): Talks about a quote by J.G. Ballard that stayed up in the Tor office for a long time. "Far from being a small, obscure offshoot of lit, SF will be the mainstream of lit in the 21st century." [I can't find a source for this, and am not sure I have it right.]

Shahid: We live in the future, so this influences SF authors and makes them push the envelope. He is also seeing a lot of cross-genre stuff right now.

Ellen: Literature seems to be evolving back to the 19th century when genres weren't separated.

Jim: Brings up alternate history, and notes that a lot of steampunk is alternate history. Books like Pavane and Bring the Jubilee ask what might have happened if something had gone differently in history.

Ellen: Interesting thing about history is not just what happened when, but why? Can examine that in SF through tracing a different path.

A lot of SF is more Biologically based now, like Blood Music by Greg Bear. There's a shift away from space travel to science we see changing a lot on Earth because now we have hit some limits on space travel within our lifetime, so some of the things that seemed possible 60 years ago seem less plausible now.

Beth: Literature pretends to be about the future, but is actually about today. SF writers don't pretend to predict future. SF has always been about social commentary.

Julia: But at the same time there is a definite history, especially in the magazines of the 30s, of people specifically asking authors to try to imagine and predict the future in SF, so as to inspire people to invent that technology.

Jim: We can explore social issues on a secondary world without upsetting people.

--discussion of dystopian novels and disaster novels. Paolo Bacigalupi dealing with climate change, and Cory Doctorow with security and oppression. Charles Stross and Vernor Vinge are also mentioned.

Jim: SF has always been political. H.G. Wells was a socialist.

Julia: This goes way back. Rabelais was commenting on the French monarchy in Gargantua and Pantagruel, for instance.

Audience asks what the next big trends will be.

Jim: That's impossible to predict.

Julia: probably good to keep in mind that if it's already in the movie theatres, the trend is probably at its peak or past peak, whatever it is. What are some specific recent or forthcoming titles the other editors are excited about?

Jim: Billy Moon: 1968 by Douglas Lain, a magical realist novel about A.A. Milne's son.

Beth: David Brin's novel, Existence. A first contact novel.

Jim: Thieves' Quarry by D.B. Jackson, a fantasy mystery novel set in Boston.

Beth: Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky books. Secondary world epic fantasy in a non-western setting.

Shahid: Robert Silverberg's Born With the Dead (expansion in collaboration with Damien Broderick) is forthcoming. Also very excited about the Stellar Guild series, all available through Phoenix Pick. Stellar Guild is a POD (print on demand) series by established authors. Shahid may be first person to publish Larry Niven as POD.

Beth: Suggests it might be more profitable to take pre-orders and do an initial print run before settling on POD.

[Speaker not listed in notes]: Mad Scientists' Guide to World Domination.

And that's all I've got. For more panel notes, click the panel notes tag. I will be posting more in the next day or so. I still have Steampunk, Crowdfunding, and Podcasting to write up.