Through a Glass Darkly: The SFF Trends of 2018 and 2019
With 2018 finally in the history books, and 2019 stretched out before us, it’s a perfect time to take a moment to examine just what happened to science fiction and fantasy in 2018, and, in science fiction’s tradition of extrapolating into the unknown, what SFF readers might expect of the new year.
Let’s begin with 2018.
Independent writers embraced Pulp Speed. Simply put, in the new world of science fiction, “world production equals money.” At the time Dean Wesley Smith coined the term Pulp Speed to describe publishing a million words and more a year, many writers scoffed at the idea. Now it is becoming standard practice. Where a traditionally published writer might be able to publish a book or two a year, entire series can start and end in that interval. Now, it is customary for a writer to need to publish at least one book a quarter to stay in the public eye, often one book a month. And writers continue to experiment with release schedules. Some, like Galaxy’s Edge and the Four Horsemen Universe ensure that a monthly schedule is met, some will publish a fantasy pentalogy on a weekly basis. Perhaps the most ambitious release came from Isaac Hooke who twice in 2018 released an entire trilogy over the course of a weekend. And all these cases, the books average 400 pages or more. Strangely enough, Pulp Speed has yet to mean shorter books.
We readers are spoiled by this bounty. Just don’t blink, or you might miss a trilogy.
LitRPG, Light Novels, and Harem Hijinks dominated the 2018 SFF scene. With roots in Russian, Japanese, and cyberpunk fiction, LitRPGs, or literary RPGs, are gameworld fantasies, typically video game but sometimes tabletop, where the mechanical rules of the game are as important to the worldbuilding and action as the story. Inspired in part by Japanese light and video novels, harem stories are the romantic and sexual fantasies of one man sharing adventures and beds with many women, with the reverse harem being the fantasies of one women with many men. And if you were searching for fantasy and science fiction reads in 2018, half your results would be filled with examples of one or both of these subgenres. They’re as popular and ubiquitous as the military science fiction novel was in 2017, so much so that it takes a little effort to find other genres of fantasy.
But the real surprise came in October, when I noticed the latest volume of the somewhat misleadingly named light novel Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? held its ground on SFF bestseller lists alongside George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi, and Dungeons & Dragons art books. Keeping an eye on the lists since has revealed that other light novel titles enjoy the same success. These Japanese illustrated young adult fantasy serials have built on the popularity of anime, and with the rise of publishers such as Yen Press, J-Novel Club, and Vertical, over 200 such titles has flooded bookshelves in the past couple years. The result is that bookstores continue to sacrifice SFF floorspace to the manga/light novel aisle.
The publishers never escaped their ‘Death by Newbery’ obsessions; they could not bring themselves to buy happy books. The dose they prefer is the Y.A. dystopia, sometimes dressed up as science fiction, sometimes as fantasy. Instead of the magical mini-world of Hogwarts, they have gone in for dumbed-down versions of 1984.
Simon is talking specifically about Young Adult publishers of the late 00s and early 10s, a time which set the stage for the ebook boom and several fan revolts, however many SFF publishers and authors were intertwined in this trend as they followed the money from Harry Potter’s success. With litRPGs, light novels, and harems, readers are searching for happier fantasies, not finding them in American media obsessed with dystopia, going to where the happy fantasies are, and bringing back what they enjoy.
Authors are leaving Kindle Unlimited. And it’s not just the recent announcement by Castalia House that Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service is taking a greater share of money from authors and publishers. 2018 saw repeated crackdowns on Kindle Unlimited fraud that, in the traditions of such crackdowns, spread too wide a net. As a result, science fiction bestseller Michael-Scott Earle was removed entirely from Amazon, as were many other science fiction, fantasy, and litRPG writers. While this incident, a contentious court case, and others deserve an article of their own, the uncertainty caused by these removals reverberated through readers and writers alike. As one redditor put it, “The biggest issue I have as a reader is that I never know when an author is banned – I just assume they aren’t publishing much any more.” And many writers, whether out of solidarity for those banned or out of fear of Amazon deleting a career in seconds, abandoned Kindle Unlimited and are searching for alternatives. Amazon continuing to alter the deal of Kindle Unlimited only makes it less appealing.
So what trends might make 2019?
Independent science fiction will continue to drive the audiobook market and audiobook innovation.Mark Coker of Smashwords points out that “audiobooks are now the fastest growing segment of the book market.” Recent events such as the release of Starship Pandora by B. V. Larson and the new Audible deal for Jason Anspach and Nick Cole’s Galaxy’s Edge series reveal the future of the audiobook: the full cast recording. In other words, audiobooks are reinventing themselves as radio plays.
Readers will continue their search for happy fantasies abroad and writers will continue to experiment with popular foreign genres and media. The translation, content, and art of Chinese xianxia fantasies has quickly grown in sophistication, as has that of native English light novels. And thanks to sites like RoyalRoad.com, the stage is now set for the web novels and web serial. Japanese and Chinese web novel sites helped fuel the light novel and xianxia booms, and with stories such as Everyone Loves Large Chests and Sentenced to Troll already making the leap from web novel to print books, the web novel pipeline is gathering steam. Writers such as John C. Wright are already experimenting with web series on their own sites. If a story such as Galaxy’s Edge: Takeover makes the jump to a RoyalRoad.com, it may be enough attention to cement the web novel’s place in publishing.
The rise of light novels, litRPGs, and web novels will fuel the rise of the gimmick novel. Isaac Asimov declared that there were three kinds of science fiction: gadget, adventure, and social. I’ll add a fourth kind, the gimmick, where the worldbuilding is in service to a specific joke or conceit–and not necessarily for parody’s service. While this can be more readily observed in light novel titles such as Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?; In Another World with My Smartphone; So I’m a Spider, So What?; and Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon, books such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, John Scalzi’s Redshirts, Orconomics, Everyone Loves Large Chests, and Sentenced to Troll reveal that the trend is native, too. And as the ebook market grows more cutthroat, a clever idea is a more reliable hook than clever writing for readers–as the consistent editorial heartburn over light novel quality reveals.
Finally, the stage is set for a Mecha boom. And while I must admit to rooting for the #AGundam4Us team of Brian Niemeier, Bradford Walker, and Rawle Nyanzi–all of whom are set to release their books within the next weeks and months–this trend has been gathering steam for awhile. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers popularized powered armor and mechanical soldiers, although it has evolved into different directions. While American milSF has ran with the space marine concept for decades, Japan turned the idea into the giant robots of Ultraman, Gundam, and Macross, all of which found international audiences. But while American fans still debate the practicality of mecha on the battlefield, Travis Taylor’s Tau Ceti Agenda, Isaac Hooke’s Mechs vs. Dinosaurs, Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan, and the recent relaunch of Battletech show that there is indeed an American market for giant robot battlefields and taut political maneuverings–and it is growing.
Of course, these predictions depend much on economics and audience appeal. It is just as likely that some other trend that’s quietly building steam will capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of readers this year.