Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thirteen Astonishing Writers of Fantastika You Should Be Geeking Out Over

Scanning the offerings at the local big-box bookstore or mercantile website, there's quite a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy out there.

Books in these genres get plenty of hype in the geek universe (witness the Fantasy panel at the New York Comic-Con this past weekend), and there are a plethora of ongoing series and thick, epic-sized novels to choose from in the marketplace.

But while it's entertaining to devour the latest Harry Dresden or Miles Vorkosigan novel, there's a lot more to fantastic literature than that.

Somewhere between the genre standards and rarified "serious literature" (itself often taking some cues from fantastika) are a cabal of wordmages who are spinning tales of wonder and regalement, yet are grossly underappreciated by wider fan base. They are fresh, idiosyncratic fabulists who both play with convention and pen enjoyable tales.

There are many to choose from, but I would like to select thirteen who are particularly worthy of being geeked-out over.

Whether you are looking for a twist on a cherished genre or for something that totally warps your expectations, these writers will provoke and delight you at every turn.

1) Nnedi Okorafor: Here is a writer with a varied body of work, a pile of accolades, and an intrepid vision for bringing the ideas and sensibilities of African literature into SF, and vice versa. Much of Okorafor's work to date has been YA novels (such as Zahrah the Windseeker, which won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and was in the running for several other awards). Her first SF novel for adults, Who Fears Death, mingles destiny, brutality, and liminality in the story of a young woman's coming-of-age in a harsh, dystopian future. Despite a few missteps, the book is "without preachiness or didactic overkill," and demonstrates both Okorafor's gift for storytelling and her ability to create deeply grounded stories out of folkloric traditions and speculative insights.

Recognizable themes emerge quickly from Okorafor's work, but rather than submit them to a conventional telling, she accentuates and intensifies their messages through the lenses of fantasy and science fiction. She deftly combines traditions from African cultures and populates her world with candidly human characters. Okorafor pulls an array of disparate elements into her stories and creates a fusion of realism and anomaly that resonates on the page. Her characters do some of the things that other genre characters do, such as quest for power, but they do them in settings that produce a very different kind of experience for those characters as well as the reader. Okorafor is striving to synthesize disparate literatures and mythos, and it makes for extraordinary reading.

2) Amelia Beamer: Magazine editor, poet, fiction writer, critic: Beamer is multifaceted in her contributions to fantastic literature. A not-so-mild-mannered stalwart at Locus, Beamer's first novel, The Loving Dead, was released with an avalanche of accolades from writers such as Christopher Moore, Paul Witcover, and Connie Willis. A zombie novel about the power of love, seduction, and obsession, the book promises to inject both wry humor and atypical vitality into the standard undead tropes that are frequently reanimated in the genres.

Beamer is pretty fearless in her writing, and it is the combination of audacity with sharp crafting that makes her work so compelling to read. She has even written a short story in the dreaded second person narrative form, and made it absorbing. It doesn't always work, but the story shows Beamer's penchant for venturing into a literary territory and taking it in a new direction.
You read, in part, to see what she will pull off next.

3) Catherynne Valente: I like to think of Valente as the most amazing literary outsider on the planet. Her work is unquestionably fantastika, and often easily categorized as SF and fantasy, but while her books have been nominated for a number of awards in those genres, there is something more to them that keeps them on the edge of these easy classifications. Much of her work exceeds the constraints of genre and resonates as postmodern folklore or a mythology of the present, and always demands the reader's full attention. It is because of this, I believe, that her work wins recognition for its poetic delights and its profound chimerical mythography.

Valente's fiction always seems to be operating on multiple levels simultaneously, whether she is writing about "a sexually-transmitted city" or a girl's journey around Fairyland. To call her prose rich is to realize that there is no term itself rich enough to explain how Valente uses language. Her prose makes you want to drop a thesaurus at your feet, rip it apart, and start taping pages of descriptors together into a mad scroll of cascading meanings. There is beauty, perspicacity, and ravishing elegance in every sentence. Her prose is strangely beautiful, daring you to understand what lies beneath the words. Her style is so singularly gorgeous and laden with adumbrations that you feel instantly ensorcelled by it even as you realize you cannot take it all in at once. Her writing is the epitome of fabulous (in all uses of the term).

4) Andy Duncan: A well-regarded writer in critical circles, Duncan is known for his Southern themes, but they do not define his writing, and do not explain the crispness of his prose or his ability to build a note-perfect progression of images and feelings into a deeply satiating story. To say that he is a "Southern writer" almost seems like an attempt at pigeonholing his work, when in fact he is a marvelous wordwright who makes the South (and other places and times as well) the backdrop for superbly-pitched narratives.

The great quotation "[i]f Harper Lee and Gene Wolfe had a love child, Andy Duncan is it," sums up just part of Duncan's prowess. There are hints of Chekov in his presentation as well, but Duncan is not someone echoing others' methods; his voice emerges with a disarming combination of straightforwardness and depth. His easy command of dialogue makes his stories read smoothly and pleasurably, and his prose inexorably lulls your suspension of disbelief into complicity with the atmosphere and underlying lessons of his story. Duncan is a writer's writer who can put any reader at ease.

5) Willow Fagan: I know of Willow solely through stories published in Fantasy Magazine, but those stories are enough to warrant looking for other work and anticipating longer tales in the future. In particular, Fagan has a talent for penning great opening lines, such as this one from "Cockatrice Girl Meets Statue Boy:"

"Having been born in vinegar and conceived by a viper, cockatrice girl knew how to hurt people."

There's a lot going on in these stories, whether you read them as contemporary fables or as deep metaphorical exegeses. They are lovely and painful, weird and enlightening. They dwell on significant emotions and issues but are very entertaining. I look forward to seeing what mischief his writing will conjure next.

6) Robert Shearman: The name may be familiar if you follow theatre or love Doctor Who: Shearman is an award-winning playwright who has written teleplays, short stories, and a Hugo-Award nominated episode of the beloved SF series. Shearman has directed his own play in Delhi and had one of his short stories disseminated in four languages in Singapore. On top of all that, he is writing some of most heartbreakingly hilarious short fiction in fantasy, and his collection Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical won a Shirley Jackson Award this summer.

I discovered Shearman when he was on a panel on "Bookaholics Anonymous" at last year's Readercon. He was the highlight of the panel, and I went to his reading later that weekend I was hooked. Shearman's writing not only has precise comic timing and snappy erudition, it has beautiful pacing and structure (and he reads it with gusto and wonderful theatricality). There are no excess words in his stories: everything is there to build up to the ending, and each tale leaves you wanting to hear more to the point where you continue the story in your head. His stories exhilarate your imagination and nearly burn out your funnybone.

7) Carrie Laben: Perhaps the author with the fewest publication credits on this list, Carrie (I use a familiar register here because we are acquainted and both been employed by the same large used bookstore) is not just in good company. She has demonstrated that she has the talent and the acumen to write superb stories that stay with the reader for a long time. They worm their way into your dreams and unnerve you no matter how you try to familiarize yourself with them.

Here's how good Carrie is: one of her first published short stories gets nominated for a Shirley Jackson award. Pithy, grotesque, and uncanny, it contains much more than its brief reading might suggest. Her knack for a fiendish consistency of tone that communicates tension and emotion viscerally makes her stories unforgettable. Her next major piece is coming out in the anthology Haunted Legends, and I am eager to see what new strangeness she has in store for the reader.

8) CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan: Of all the writers on this list, Kiernan is probably the best known, and most highly respected by other authors and aficionados of fantastika. And yet, as I stated in a tweet recently, "I find it criminal that all do not worship her." I believe Kiernan is one of the best writers of the turn of the millennium, either within or outside of the genre, and her work should be read by everyone who calls themselves a lover of fantastic literature. She is frequently nominated for World Fantasy and International Horror Guild awards (and has won several of the latter) and was a recent James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award honoree.

Kiernan's stories are, as stated in her Clarkesworld interview: "as atmospheric as narcotic hallucinations, folk tales and nightmares. At the heart of most of her books are characters experiencing existential shock and characters sorting through messy relationships." They are often pitch-black in their darkness, Jovian in their atmospheric pressure, and deeply affecting examinations of psyche and spirit. Kiernan's gift is her ability to link the visceral to the mythic, to place mortal bodies and magical beings in tension with each other, and find a bit of each in the other. Her writing is immersive, encompassing, and alluring. From erotica to sword-and-sorcery, Kiernan adeptly manipulates conventions and mines them for their psychological and relational insights. She will take you places you may not want to go, but will reward you for taking the trip with beautiful writing and unforgettable moments.

9) Rachel Swirsky: A graduate of both the Clarion and Iowa Writers' Workshops, Swirsky has a classical undertone to her work, both in terms of craft and theme. But her work is neither literary legerdemain nor homage to past masters. Swirsky combines taut erudition with affecting situations that the reader can relate to, not in spite of but precisely because of the fantastical elements she uses. She deals with the stuff of being human through strange lenses that intensify the emotions and travails of her characters, until the harsh light focused on them burns through to a revelation.

Her catalog of fiction is growing rapidly, and has been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. She is a frequent contributor of stories to Tor.com, which is where some of her best work (like her nominated stories) appears. Her work contains profundities, but does not parade them around gaudily, and rarely wastes time. A single story can speak more profoundly about love than a bookcase of romance novels, or get to someone's pain with more precision and evocation than the collected works of Jodi Picoult. It's high quality writing with heart and insight.

10) Maurice Broaddus: I first found Broaddus not as a writer, but as an editor. He co-edited (with Jerry Gordon) the anthology Dark Faith, which not only has some excellent stories in it, but deals with a subject matter often shied away from in most genres. From there I've read a few of his short stories, and will soon be reading his first novel, King Maker. What I've read of his work so far is quite good, but I recommend him here not just for his writing skill.

What makes Broaddus one of the Astonishing Writers of my column's title is that he is focused very strongly on questions of faith and belief, and can write about them in fiction without sermonizing or hesitation. He does not beat you over the head with religiosity in his stories, but makes the stories about "a leap of faith" itself; its contours, it effects, where it sits inside our souls. Even in a story as brief as "Secret Garden" challenges the reader to think about how belief impacts their life, and how often our paths are guided by faith. Accessible and provocative, Broaddus shows us how faith appears in the strangest of situations, and leaves it to us to decide the significance of what we see while pushing us to think harder about the power of belief.

11) Megan Arkenberg: While her body of work is young, Arkenberg has strong connections to fantastic literature as both a writer and purveyor of fantastic stories (as well as the historical fiction journal Lacuna). She has a strong sense of story that feels as if it has absorbed the experience of reading piles of stories and looking for what the reader wants. She also possesses versatility and seems at home in a number of different subgenres.

Her SF story in Port Iris, "Father of the Riverborn," is like a cross between Heinlein and Le Guin, and it shines despite needing a bit more editing. She deals with the complexity of gender issues through a classical framework, and makes her points entertainingly. Contrast that with the multilayered fantasy tale "All the King's Monsters," which has more poetry and a different heft. Arkenberg can shift narrative gears with literate grace, but maintains a coherent core in each tale. I find her stories appealing in their precisely-combined lucidity and eloquence.

12) James Enge: There's a growing buzz of excitement around this author in fantasy circles, and for good reason: not only is he a crackerjack writer, he can make you laugh, cringe, and shake your head knowingly within a single paragraph of writing. His contribution to the new Sword & Sorcery collection Swords & Dark Magic is one of the anthology's high points, an immensely enjoyable tale with a particularly unlikable protagonist, places very human characters in a fantastic situation and spins a yarn about power and irresponsible behaviors. Enge has written two novels in this setting, with a third on the way, and I'm eager to read more of his work.

Enge describes his main character, Morlock the Maker, thusly: "He was originally sort of my more Byronic version of Lessingham (from Eddison's Zimiamvia books). Then I got sick of writing about Perfectly Perfect McBrooderson and I smashed him with a big hammer until he had a lot more dents and broken edges." One of the things that makes Enge's fiction so geekily enticing is his blending of traditional S&S tropes with a definitive classical and Romantic edge that he frequently puts to his story's own throat. Enge likes to play with themes that simultaneously honor and sabotage the conventions of the pulpiest of fantasy sub-genres, but unlike the grandeur of Elric or the lugubrious pomp and roguery of Vance, gets under his characters' skins and lets their humanity shine through the strangeness.

13) Vandana Singh: Another Tiptree Award Honoree, Singh has written short fiction for the past several years that is often hard-to-find. A physics professor, Singh brings a scientist's eye for patterns to her writing, but it less "hard SF" than it is about the stories we tell ourselves and others.

Her stories are deceptively intricate and benefit from re-reading and reflection. She also writes thoughtful nonfiction that reflects the care she brings to the foundations of her fiction. While her stories sometimes require extra exposition to establish, they finish strongly. It is well-worth the effort to seek her work out.


The same can be said for all of the authors on this list, and many others as well: from the precise fabulations of Ted Chiang to the lunatic energy of Paul Jessup, a wide range of geek-worthy worlds await, and you don't need to invest in a 3,000-page, multivolumn fantasy epic to get a thoughtful kick out of them, nor submit to endless throwaway diversions for something quick and satisfying to read on the bus or in bed. And this is just a sample of what's out there right now, waiting for you to read and love it. So, whether on paper, an iPad, an MP3 player, or skywritten with a jetpack, go forth and enjoy the infinite riches of fantastika!

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