This year has been a great year for watching science fiction. It’s been the year of the superhero blockbuster, with “Infinity Wars” and “Black Panther” leading the way. It’s been another year that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has dominated pop-culture conversations, as has Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and “Altered Carbon.” Even the 2017 best picture Oscar went to a science fiction film, “The Shape of Water.”
But science fiction and fantasy books, with the exception of source material for films and TV shows, aren’t dominating the conversation in the same way. Genre books don’t top the best-seller lists, don’t get the mainstream review space and aren’t in the front of airport bookstores as a quick read. Perhaps it’s time to throw labels like “genre” away in books, like movies and TV have begun to do. After all, a good story is a good story is a good story.
Case in point: John Scalzi is a massive name in science fiction circles, a past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and a winner of the Hugo, the genre’s biggest award. His latest, Head On, is a “novel of the near future,” where a small percentage of the population has succumbed to Haden’s Syndrome, in which their bodies are inert but their minds remain active. They’re able to transport those brainwaves into “threeps” (robots or artificial intelligence) and live life as usual, even as their bodies remain in hospital beds.
In this world, a sport called hilketa has been developed, and it’s a more violent version of football — in order to score, you must rip the head off of a threep and get it over the goal line. But threeps aren’t sentient; the head goes back on and the game continues. Until a person behind a threep dies in a game, and FBI agents Chris (who suffers from Haden’s) and partner Vann are brought in to investigate.
At this point, a reader may wonder, is this really a science fiction novel or an FBI novel like those of David Baldacci? The setting is futuristic, but the investigation is right out of “Law and Order.” Scalzi dips into discussions of gender as well. Chris’ gender is not named, and since the character can go in and out of threeps at will, naming it doesn’t matter. Now it’s science fiction, gender studies and a mystery in one. See, who needs genre?
Kill the Farm Boy is the start of a new series by two big science fiction writers, Kevin Hearne, best known for the “Iron Druid Chronicles,” and Delilah S. Dawson, a regular writer of short stories set in the “Star Wars” universe. This quest novel is equal parts “The Princess Bride” and “The Wizard of Oz” with a touch of “Life of Brian.” A farm boy named Worstley is named “the chosen one” by a drunken pixie, who also gives his goat, Gustave, the ability to talk. The two of them set out to fulfill their destiny, but Worstley is soon crushed by a giant woman, Fia. Fia and Gustave are convinced they can bring Worstley back to life, so they set off in search of the magic that will do this, picking up more folks on the way, including the Dark Lord Toby, who mostly loves cheese, and the rabbit person Argabella, a bard who wants to be an accountant, among others. The book is full of puns, double entendres and lots of goat poop jokes. There’s even a troll that is not only a classic troll, but also a contemporary one, “trolling” our characters with insults about their appearance. The amount of wordplay actually rewards rereading and will likely reward reading subsequent adventures of this ridiculous crew as well.
Young adult books are the one place where fantasy has ruled over the last decade, especially dystopias such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” Is this all fallout from the Harry Potter juggernaut? Already Tomi Adeyemi has been called the “new J.K. Rowling” by Entertainment Weekly, and the movie rights to Children of Blood and Bone have already been optioned by Fox. Released in March, this book had one of the biggest advances for a teen novel in publishing history and is already getting a heady fandom of teens and adults alike. In a fantasy version of Nigeria called Orïsha, those with magic are called “maggots” and live as second-class citizens, heavily taxed or even enslaved, and the magic is dead. When Amari, the daughter of the ruler, escapes the palace and enlists the help of Zelie, a young girl from a family of Maji, both of their brothers join in as they attempt to return the magic to the land. Epic chase scenes and frightening battle scenes mingle with romance and magical realism in this novel that might make Afrofuturism a household word.
Jamie L. Watson is collection development manager with Baltimore County Public Library.