In Defense of “Soft” Sci-Fi
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Jade: Welcome, everybody. You’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. My name is Jade, and I’m part of the WriteOnCon team. And I’m absolutely thrilled to chat today with Sci-Fi author, M.K. England, all about the genre of Sci-Fi and, more specifically, defending Science Fiction. M.K., thank you very much for joining me today.
M.K.: Of course. Thanks for having me.
Jade: Absolute pleasure. So, for those of you who may not know, M.K. is the author of The Disasters, her debut YA Sci-Fi novel, which features a gang of misfits on the run in space. Which, even based on that basic premise, I would buy immediately — so I’m already sold for that one.
M.K.: Thank you!
Jade: Can you tell us a bit about how you first fell in love with Science Fiction — to the point that you actually wanted to write a book in the genre?
M.K.: Yeah. Gosh, I feel like it was my earliest genre love, honestly. I grew up watching Star Wars over and over and over and over again. Star Wars was what made me a reader. I read all of those Junior Jedi Knights books and then the Young Jedi Knights and then, you know, third grade I think I was already into all of the, like, adult Star Wars extended universe novels. I was just eating it all up. And I eventually moved on to Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card, even though he broke my heart with being a jerk. Like, teen Megan was very, very bitter about that.
But, you know, my dad was a Sci-Fi reader, so he kind of introduced me to it. And my brothers like to watch a lot of Sci-Fi. So, I think I was just always sort of immersed in it.
Jade: Yeah, so it was something that you grew up with and then it just, kind of, fell into your writing, I suppose.
M.K.: Yeah I was a total addicted reader of anything to do with Sci-Fi whether it was, you know, the Animorphs books or, you know, up through serious, heavy, adult Sci-Fi novels.
Jade: Okay, so obviously you have a big background with it. Why do you feel that it has to be defended? You know, is there somebody in particular attacking the genre or do you think it’s got a bad reputation? What is it that it needs to be defended from?
M.K.: I think it does have sort of a weird reputation. I think, for a long time, it was viewed as something, like, too nerdy for anybody to be into, and I think that has changed somewhat, but I’m still just so perplexed by the fact that Sci-Fi movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Wars, and the new Star Trek movies, and everything are so popular. But, in Young Adult especially, Sci-Fi novels just don’t experience the same level of excitement — and buy-in — that Fantasy novels do.
And I’m also a YA librarian as my day job, so I see this play out every single day. It’s hard for me to sell a Sci-Fi novel to a reader in the library. And I’m just so confused about, like, what is that mental block that’s keeping people from giving it a try? Because, once in a while, there will be something that’ll break through. You know the Illuminae Files really, you know, brought a lot of people in and a lot of people were willing to give that a shot. Maybe because of the interesting format. That’s great for reluctant readers. So, once in a while something will peek through. But, you know, overall, on the back end as an author, you know, you always hear “Sci-Fi is a hard sell. Sci-Fi is a hard sell. You’re never gonna be a lead title with Sci-Fi.” It’s just, sort of, baked in to the industry at this point, and, you know, I find that, like, a disservice, you know. I feel like, maybe, if a Sci-Fi title could get the kind of support that a big lead fantasy title does, maybe we could actually make some strides toward turning this around and maybe bringing some more people into the genre. And more variety can never be a bad thing, right?
Jade: Completely agree. Yeah, I think that we need some more Sci-Fi involved. I think that… you know, you mentioned that you’ve been always been told — or people are always told — about, you know, “It’s not going to sell.” What has your experience been with writing the Science Fiction book that is coming out and stuff like that? What has been your experience when writing that and how was that received, initially?
M.K.: You know, the writing of it was a total joy. You know, I was very lucky in that it was only my second book, but I wrote it totally from a place of, like “This is what I love. This is exactly the kind of thing I would have totally eaten up as a teen”, you know. But everything that I read as a teen was always, like, straight, white, cisgendered, hetero men. Like, not exactly me in any of those Sci-Fi novels. So I wanted to write the kind of thing that I would have loved, but with a lot more of me scattered across the whole cast of characters, and I had such a blast with it, and I think that kind of came through when I was querying the book, because it… you know, I think the humor is ultimately what sold it. But as I was querying and as we were even on submission to publishers, we kept hearing, like, “I just can’t acquire Sci-Fi right now”, like, “we just — the Sci-Fi on our list has not done well, so we just can’t take any more on”. You know, “the comp titles on our list are not supporting us taking on another big Sci-Fi title.” And I would love to go back and see, you know, what are these titles that are on your backlist and what kind of support did they get? What kind of marketing was there? What readers were you targeting with it and how were you targeting them? You know, I feel like it’s a very complex issue that could have a solution out there if people are willing to look at it.
Jade: Yeah, I agree. I mean, obviously, there’s a strong pull because Science Fiction draws people who are dedicated to Science Fiction. But what do you feel that it brings to literature? Do you feel it’s a specific place or meaning for people, or what do you feel that people get from it?
M.K.: I think it depends on the subgenre of Sci-Fi, to a degree. Because that’s the thing is, I think people hear Sci-Fi and they probably hear one thing. And maybe they’re like “Well, I don’t like books in space” or “I don’t like books about technology” or, you know, “I don’t like books with aliens” or whatever else. But, like, those are all really specific subgenres, and there is so much Sci-Fi out there. There is something for, literally, everyone. There is quiet, character-driven stuff. There’s stuff with lots of action and explosions, you know. There’s something for everybody out there.
So, I think the draw is, whatever you’re into you’ll find a Sci-Fi novel that’ll draw you in. In general, for me, I really love the, like, wonder and adventure of outer space, and space travel, and things like that. So space opera is always my personal favorite subgenre, you know, hopping between planets and having adventures out in the galaxy.
Some people really prefer things that take a hard look at our future, and I think that’s one of the most interesting things about Science Fiction — is ability to look forward and either predict or just project our hopes into the future. And that’s kind of what I did with The Disasters, is I painted the kind of future that I would like to see. Not with the, like, awful terrorists doing terrible things — not so much that — but more, you know, who I decided to put in power, who’s the hero, you know. Of course, it’s, like, a bunch of queer characters saving the day. Because, like, that’s what I wanted. So, that’s my vision of the future.
And, you know, I think there’s just so much potential to explore what humanity could become, or what humanity can be in different situations, and, you know, what the entire rest of the galaxy could be like.
So, whether you’re a character-driven person, or an idea-driven person, you know, if you like complicated magic systems and fantasy, then there is definitely something out there in Sci-Fi for you. There’s something for everybody.
Jade: So based on, you know — there is something for everybody. I mean, you spoke of Illuminae Files. I think that that took people by surprise quite a bit.
M.K.: I think so, yeah.
Jade: But what is it that you feel that people may get wrong, or wrongly assume, about Sci-Fi? Is there a particular thing within that that you feel that, really, if you just dug in a little bit deeper, you change your mind about it?
M.K.: Yeah. I think it just requires a little bit of a mindset switch. You know, like I said, I’m a librarian, so this topic drives me nuts. So, I had to ask my teens at the library about it, you know, why is this? Like, I see this play out with them all the time. So, “why don’t you read more Sci-Fi?”, “Why aren’t you willing to give it a shot, even when I talk it up and, you know, tell you how good this book is?” And their answer was that Sci-Fi is too complicated. And I was super confused by that because, like, I’m thinking about all the fantasy novels that I’ve read. And I’m like, “uh, that world-building makes my head hurt”, “this magic system is so complex”. You know, I’m not a totally sure what the difference is.
And some people knock some types of Sci-Fi, like softer Sci-Fi, space opera, things like that, by saying, like, “Oh, the technology, it’s just like magic”, you know, “what’s the difference?” And I’m like “Yeah, cool, what’s the difference?” Like, let’s embrace that. You know, if you want hard Sci-Fi, by all means, like, read The Martian and get super into growing potatoes on Mars. Super recommend that book, by the way. It’s great.
Jade: Oh yeah. Yeah, it’s great.
M.K.: But, you know, I think we can embrace the softer Sci-Fi as a way to bring in fantasy readers. Like, yeah, okay, it’s magic. We’re just pushing a button instead of waving a wand. Cool. I think we can go with that.
Jade: Yeah, I think that there’s been a resurgence in people claiming Science Fiction. It’s no longer just for nerds. There’s that sort of change now. But do you feel that this hinders or helps Science Fiction as a genre? You know, the resurgence of Star Wars. Star Trek‘s got a new series. Doctor Who, with a fantastic female lead now – do you think that’s changing it for the better, or are we just rehashing old stuff?
M.K.: Yeah. I’m not sure I really have a definitive opinion on that, because I, personally, like, you know, tropes.
Jade: Me, too.
M.K.: And so think of, like, the romance genre. The romance genre is incredibly trope-driven, because people know what they like and they want to read what they know they like. I can be like that with Sci-Fi sometimes. I know the kind of book that I like. But, just like with any trope-driven genre, you know, there’s always gonna be an interesting spin on it. Like, whenever I’m working with a new writer, I say, like, “tell me what the shiny factor is. What is cool and shiny about your specific book”. And so, that’s what I’m always looking for in any — whether it’s Sci-Fi, whether it’s fantasy, anything – like, what is the cool shiny thing that makes it different. Because even if things, you know, do still have certain things in common, you know — yes, it’s a misfit crew on a spaceship flying through space. You know, saving the galaxy. Like, that is basically its own subgenre — but what within that makes us care? You know, it’s usually characters. It’s usually some aspect of the world that’s interesting and different. So I think, yes, I think we are rehashing some stuff. I don’t personally see that as a bad thing. I also think there’s a lot of new things out there, too, that deserve some love and affection
Jade: Yeah, I mean is there anything in Science Fiction, like themes, characters, clichés, and the tropes that you mentioned — do you think there’s any of that that’s overdone? Like, what in particular would you like to see, maybe, put a queer spin on it, or put something, like, a person of color to write it in their own voice? Do you think there’s anything overdone that could afford that new perspective?
M.K.: I mean, all the things. I think those perspectives are needed throughout all genres in all ways. Like, all stories need to be told in those voices — in all voices. And I think we are starting to see that more, and we’re starting to see more genre-bending, which I absolutely love. My second novel is kind of a Sci-Fi/Fantasy mashup and I just I love it when people take Science Fiction and mash it together with something else. You know, we recently had Mirage by Somaiya Daud, who, like, took all of these fantasy tropes and, basically, just put them in space. And I think it worked very well. We’re seeing, you know, quite a lot of things like that now, which I think is very exciting. I think that’s a great way to bring people into the genre.
Jade: Yeah, I was actually going to ask. What are your favorite Sci-Fi novels out right now?
M.K.: I am actually trying to pull up a list I just gave somebody recently, because it occurred three seconds ago that you were probably gonna ask this question. So now I have to find it.
Jade: It’s fine. I mean, you’re clearly reading actively within your genre, which I think would help you, as well. So, for any of our listeners who are writers — and I’m sure there are many — there’d probably be some recommendations here that they could have a look at — just to see, you know, a prime example of how the genre is doing nowadays. What is actually selling and engaging readers in modern day, I suppose. So, if you do have any recommendations, that would be great.
M.K.: I definitely do. And I feel like I’ve read some really great stuff just this year. So, one of the ones that I feel, like, kind of flew under the radar is Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine and – oh, I’m not gonna pronounce her last name right — Anne Aguirre, I think. So, that’s one of those ones that, like, if you read the first couple of chapters you’re gonna go into it thinking this is gonna be like a, you know, shooting and shenanigans in space kind of book. And it’s really not. It’s really a character book and a worldbuilding book. It’s got living spaceships, which is a trope that I personally love and that we don’t see a whole lot of in YA, and I really enjoyed the main character. And there’s a, like, a really deep friendship in it, and there’s very little, or no, romance in it, which I think is very rare. So, that’s one that I like to hand people at the library.
Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan. That’s the one that was sitting right on the tip of my brain that I was like, “there’s a really big one that I just really want to say”. Yes, so, first of all, Maura’s great. Please go follow Maura in all the places. But, this is a book that’s about, you know, the galaxy’s most notorious outlaw. She is a really complicated and compelling main character, and there is, like, super, like, #friendshipgoals in this book and just a lot of really relevant, like, current events kind of themes in it. Fantastic book. And there’s going to be another one so definitely get caught up now.
There’s the Nyxia series by Scott Reintgen. Always recommend that one. If you like books that have, kind of, a competition aspect to them, this one has that structure to it — cutthroat competition — but also really tackles, like, systemic poverty, and has a great cast of characters. Lots of empathy and all kinds of feelings. Like, I just want everybody to be friends. So, great, great series. Highly recommend that one.
And I have to put in a plug for Star Wars books, because, I think, like, if you’re watching the movies you really should, like, at least check out a couple of the books. And I have two that I would highly recommend. They’re by the same author and they’re both Leia-centric, so if you were sad when Carrie Fisher died —
M.K.: Please, like, honor her by reading these great books that explore her iconic character. One is Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray, and that is a YA novel that’s more about Leia’s teen years, and — if you remember Admiral Holdo from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the second of the new movies — Admiral Holdo is a great character, and very, like, big spoilery things happen to her. You will have so many feelings if you read this book, so I highly recommend reading this book and then going back and watching the movie over again.
And then, there’s a book called Bloodline, which is an adult Star Wars novel, and it explores some of the political stuff that led up to The First Order. So, I think that’s one of the things about the Star Wars universe that can sometimes feel a little thin, is like — alright, we have these big authoritarian governments, but in the movies themselves you don’t see a whole lot of, like, how they came to be and, like, why is society like this? — In the books, you see that side of it. And I found this particular book really, really fascinating, and, yeah, it just made me love Leia’s character even more. Claudia Gray writes Leia like nobody else. I think that might be, like, it right off the top my head.
Jade: That’s a pretty good, extensive list for any of us to start with.
M.K.: You’re welcome for that extremely long answer.
Jade: Well, we asked for your expertise and that is what we got. Thank you so much for that.
But in addition to, you know, what you have seen before, and stuff like that. Is there anything that you haven’t seen in Sci-Fi that you’d like to see more of? Without giving away your own ideas, of course, because, you know, we don’t want to steal ideas here. But we do want to know, is there anything else that we could, perhaps, attribute or contribute to Sci-Fi?
M.K.: Mm-hmm, like I said earlier, just — certainly more marginalized voices, more people of color, more queer characters — I personally would like to see more magic in Sci-Fi. You know, I was talking earlier about that. Genre-bending. And there’s one coming out next year by Victoria… I forgot her last name. I’m so sorry, Victoria. It’s called The Fever King, though, I think. Beautiful cover.
Jade: Victoria Lee!
M.K.: Victoria Lee! I thought it was Lee but then I thought I was just mixing her up with Mackenzi Lee. Yeah, so their book is coming out next year, and, yeah, it sounds like kind of a Science Fiction/Fantasy mashup in a very similar way to my second book, which – I cannot share the title yet, but I love the title — and that book will be out January 2020.
So, all the magic. Like, magic in Sci-Fi, I think, might be the direction I’m going with my next few books. We’ll see.
Jade: Yeah. I have actually read The Fever King and it’s pretty darn good. So, yeah.
M.K.: Awesome. Good. I’m looking forward to it.
Jade: So for you — obviously, you’ve been writing for quite a while. — is there anything that you would advise people who want to get into writing Sci-Fi? Is there a step-by-step or, you know, what comes first, the characters, for you? What is your process and how might others approach writing Sci-Fi?
M.K.: I’ve kind of given up on there being a process. I feel like every book is different. And I used to think I had a process and then, this most recent book that I just finished — I just turned in line edits for the 2020 book — the science and magic one — and that book just taught me like “no you don’t actually have a process. Like, this book is gonna happen however it happens. It will get done, but how? Who knows.”
You know, I think a lot of my books start out as just like a little seed of an idea that sits in a Google Doc for, like, sometimes 2-3 years before it comes to fruition. Before I have, like, a character, or a voice, or something to associate with it. And I usually will have, kind of, a basic situation, like, whatever. I have the shiny factor. Because that’s what I like so much. You know, I have whatever is, like, the interesting concept for this world. And then I might try to figure out, like, who is the person who is in the best position to have the worst time with this. Or, you know, what kind of world necessarily follows from this specific situation? So you know whatever the shiny factor is, I kind of extrapolate out from there.
Jade: Is there a way that you kind of know whether it’s Hard Sci-Fi, Soft Sci-Fi, Militaries, you know, Space Opera — is there a way that you can distinguish that before you write, or is it as you write?
M.K.: I think you could do either. If having those kinds of labels makes you feel claustrophobic as a writer, then don’t worry about it, and write whatever you want to write, and assign the subgenre later.
On the other hand, if you’re somebody who really likes to write with a specific tone in mind — which I do, particularly, like that — then you might pick a subgenre ahead of time and go “okay this…” you know — Military Sci-Fi is an easy one — Like, “are your characters military?”, you know, “is this taking place, largely, within some kind of military structure?”.
You know, “are your characters spending a lot of time, like, on a ship flying from planet to planet?”, you know, you probably have Space Opera there.
Is your book, like, really focused on technical details and technology and things like that, that you really spend a lot of time really nailing those details down, so they’re scientifically accurate and things like that? You probably have Hard Sci-Fi.
So, if you like to, kind of, dive into something with a tone and with the theme in mind, then, by all means, pick your genre and go with it.
Jade: Is there a difference, would you say, that you think, you know, Sci-Fi is portrayed nowadays just how it was before? Have we come far at all in last few decades as to how Sci-Fi is presented?</p?
M.K.: I think yes. And I don’t necessarily think in good ways. I don’t know, it’s complicated. I mean, it’s great in that we definitely have a greater diversity of voices now. It used to be like Octavia Butler and a few others, like, you know, making, you know, Sci-Fi a little bit broader. But it was a lot of, like, you know, middle-aged white men portraying their vision of the future, which you can imagine, like, it was kind of narrow.
But I think Sci-Fi used to inhabit a much more respected space in literature. It used to really be looked at as a predictive kind of thing. It was looked at as a way to explore human nature and our future, and, you know, a lot of, like, heavier themes. And I don’t know if, like, space opera becoming more of a thing made people lose respect for it or, like, what happened? But somewhere along the way it became, like, the shameful thing for nerds, and I don’t totally know what happened there.
But I think, fortunately, we have kind of reached the age of like “You do you, love what you love”, and nobody cares. Like that’s one of the biggest, like, culture shocks for me when I’m, you know, talking to my teens at my library, and it’s, — you know, I’ve worked at three or four libraries now in different parts of country, and across the board — it seems like the super cliquish dividedness of, you know, when I was growing up doesn’t really exist so much anymore. Like you still have your group of people, but it’s not like “the jocks versus the nerds” or anything like that anymore. So I’m hoping that maybe that opens the door for Sci-Fi to just become more of a broader thing now.
Jade: Yeah, I agree. I hope that it’s more accessible to everybody and that we have loads of different voices that reach out and include many more people so they can enjoy Sci-Fi as well.
Jade: Because it’s not just for nerds.
M.K.: No, it is not. But nerds, I love you and I’m one of you, so, like, it’s all good.
Jade: Live long and prosper, all nerds.
Jade: Unfortunately, I think we’re running out of time now. I could talk about this all day, especially with you, so it’s just absolutely fascinating to talk to you, and thank you so much for joining me and, you know, talking about this.
M.K.: Of course. Thanks for giving me the platform.
Jade: Absolutely! And for anybody who would like to follow you or check up on your novels that are coming up that you cannot speak about yet, where can they find you?
M.K.: I am most active on Instagram and Twitter. On Instagram I’m @m.k.england. On Twitter, I’m @GeektasticLib, short for geektastic librarian. And you can also subscribe to my newsletter, which only goes out, like, once a month if I’m on top of things, so it’s not gonna be super frequent or spammy, I promise. Just go to bit.ly/MKEnews. — I’m making all these gestures that Jade can see. I’m so sorry, y’all. You’re not getting the full effect here. — That’s probably the best way to get, like, the important stuff in one short burst. And you can also just go to my website anytime, mkengland.com.
Jade: And, as of this going Live, The Disasters is now available,! So you can pick it up whatever you are. Hopefully from all good book shops.
M.K.: Yeah, that’s right. We’re recording this three weeks before release, but when this comes out it will have been out for, like, two months almost. So, wow, we’re time traveling right now.
Jade: We are. We’re a little bit Doctor Who.
M.K.: We are.
Jade: Which is good for this.
M.K.: Wibbly wobbly timey wimey.
Jade: Yeah. Wibbly wobbly timey wimey space stuff.
M.K.: Yeah. That’s where we’re at.
Jade: Well, thank you to everybody who’s listened to WriteOnCon 2019, and if you’d like to take part in the discussion, we’d love for you to do so in the comments of this podcast page. Enjoy the rest of the conference and happy writing! Thank you again, M.K.!
M.K.: Thank you. Good luck, y’all! Bye.
M.K. England is an author and YA librarian living in the mountainy parts of Virginia. When she’s not writing or librarianing, M.K. can be found drowning in fandom, going to conventions, rolling dice at the gaming table, climbing on things in the woods, or feeding her video game addiction. She loves Star Wars with a desperate, heedless passion. It’s best if you never speak of Sherlock Holmes in her presence. You’ll regret it. Her debut YA space opera, The Disasters, released December 2018 from HarperCollins Children’s. Follow her at www.mkengland.com.