Science Fiction and Fantasy’s Divided Markets – What it Means for Authors


Taking the disagreement too far...
Taking the disagreement too far…

The readership of science fiction and fantasy is pretty divided at the moment. This leads to conflicting advice for authors. Sometimes you’re told to be daring, air your own voice, and represent the under-represented. Other times you’re told to play it safe, that you’ll only get anywhere by focusing on familiar stories with Eurocentric settings and white male leads.

So what’s going on? Which advice should you take?

As I see it, that depends upon how you want to build your career.

Writing for Mass Readers

On the one hand, there’s trying to build your career through direct appeal to the mass market. That means playing it safe so that you’ll appeal to the nervous links in the chain of big publishing. The aim is to produce something that can uncontroversially grab a chunk of the casual reading market. You write is people who read sf+f but aren’t heavily involved in the geek scene. You write for those who read to relax, not to be challenged.

Writing for Core Fandom

On the other hand, there’s trying to build your career by appealing to the hard core of fandom. If you succeed then these enthusiasts will advocate for you, push your book on other people, and generally big you up.

Recent years have shown that the majority of this set like diversity. They run events like Nine Worlds. They wear badges telling you their preferred gender pronoun. They keep the magazine market afloat against the pressure of financial common sense. They vote awards to Ancillary Justice. They kick over the bins of the patriarchy just to hear the sad puppies scream.

These are the people who want something novel and want it now.

There’s Wiggle Room

This is a model of what’s happening, not an absolute. Real writing sits on a spectrum between these extremes. But if you think about which one you’re aiming for, you have a better shot of understanding and reaching your audience.

Personally, I’ve never thought it through well enough, though I tend toward writing for core fandom, as shown by the mix of stories in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

If you write, which of these markets do you tend to write for? And what do you look for as a reader? Let me know in the comments below.

Steampunk Universe Kickstarter

steampunk-universeDiverse characters in worlds of brass, steam, warped science and wild adventure.

Steampunk Universe is an anthology being kickstarted by Alliteration Ink, publishers of the award-winning Steampunk World. The focus is on disabled and aneurotypical characters leading the way in steam-powered worlds. Among the stories in here is one from me, “To Measure the Heavens”, a story of religious politics, personal defiance, and gears that grow on trees.

I’d be proud to be in this one even it didn’t feature writers such as the awesome Ken Liu. So if you’re inclined to kickstart things, you love steampunk, or you want to encourage the publication of anthologies with this sort of interesting focus then please check out the kickstarter page at


The Problem of the Manageably Exotic

Don't make me explain my obvious metaphor - picture by Seabamirum via Flickr Creative Commons
Don’t make me explain my obvious metaphor – picture by Seabamirum via Flickr Creative Commons

As we seek to broaden our culture, we’ve found ways to tame what we bring in. It’s a process that’s problematic but also useful, and like so much of being human, it can be understood in terms of control.

This is the realm of the manageably exotic.

Difference on Familiar Terms

I came across the term “manageably exotic” following my post on Christianity in sf+f. My friend Marios suggested that the prevalence of Catholicism in the fiction of Protestant countries is partly down to it being manageably exotic – different enough to intrigue, but familiar enough for people to cope with.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the manageably exotic is a huge deal. For example, when American and British culture looks to the far east it seldom shows the more alien parts of foreign cultures. It’s Chinese businessmen in western suits, Japanese kids remixing American pop culture, and of course the once exotic but now terribly familiar ninja. We usually look at the manageably exotic rather than the truly unfamiliar and different.

There’s something similar going on with the co-opting of elements of other cultures, and the watered down way diversity is achieved. The upcoming Star Wars  film Rogue One has taken flack from the culturally conservative for its more diverse cast, yet even in this case, five out of the eight racially identifiable characters in the trailer are white. As for its allegedly over-female casting, six of those eight are men. The film-makers are increasing diversity, but in a manageable way – mostly white and male still, and using familiar faces.

Picking the manageably exotic – even when ‘exotic’ means something as trivially different as Anglo-Americans with a different skin colour or set of genitals – waters down the representation of more diverse people and cultures.

Expanding Spheres

That said, making things manageably exotic is also useful. By making culture more varied by tiny inches, it expands people’s comfort zones. We all become uncomfortable with stories that are too different from what we expect, whether in subject matter, genre or structure. My dislike of James Joyce’s Ulysses isn’t the same as some racist idiot complaining about diverse casting, or bigots complaining that Chuck Wendig has put homosexuality in Star Wars, but some of the same emotional drivers are there. “This thing is not what I’m used to – take it away.”

Making things manageably exotic makes them palatable, and after a while not exotic at all. It leaves people feeling comfortable with the new elements. It can expand minds.

I’d love to be able to turn our culture upside down tomorrow, to see race, gender and sexuality representative of our complicated reality. But I also know that attempts at radical, sudden change create resistance. Gradually revealing the manageably exotic has done a huge amount to make our society more diverse and tolerant.

I’m not even forty years old, and I can remember when gay marriage was a dream even more unimaginable than a black American president. Our very awareness of intolerance is a symptom of tackling it. The shittiest edges of our world are being eroded by a slow but accelerating agenda of not just accepting but embracing difference.


This isn’t to say that our acceptance of the manageably exotic comes from a good place. Let’s face it, the sign of decency is our ability to cope with people and beliefs completely different from us.

No, the manageably exotic is about that vital but ugly human motivator – control.

By shrinking down the exotic elements, we make them appear as something that can be incorporated into the status quo, and by extension be controlled by it. Like 18th century aristocrats commissioning paintings of their country estates, our portrayal of the unfamiliar lets us feel control over it. It creates a sense of ownership – “that’s OK, it’s part of my thing now”. And let’s face it, trying to control others leads to some terrible places, from dysfunctional relationships to horrible social inequality.

Our collective desire to make things manageably exotic means we compromise values. It comes from a dark place. But it still does good, and that’s worth remembering, even as we reach beyond its limits.

The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tiger and WolfThe Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky is an exciting fantasy adventure story. It has one of the best fantasy metaphors I’ve ever read for growing up. And, as you’d expect from Tchaikovsky, it’s a great piece of world building that provides a new and fascinating setting.

Stepping into Different Bodies

The protagonist of The Tiger and the Wolf, Maniye, is a tribal chief’s daughter. In her world, everyone can transform into an animal, a process called Stepping.

Which animal depends upon the culture they come from. Maniye lives in a wolf tribe, so the people around her can transform into wolves. The traders can become horses, the people of the distant southern lands alligators, the cave dwellers of the far north bears. Stepping gives the story its unusual and well-written action sequences, as characters shift between bodies to give them an edge in fights and chases.

One of the interesting parts about this is that Stepping is entirely voluntary. Which body to use is a choice characters make, unlike many traditional werewolf stories in which the animal takes over. This isn’t about a division between civilised and base instincts – it’s about what sort of person to be at any given moment.

For Maniye, that’s a tough decision.

Choosing Who to Be

Maniye’s father may be a wolf chief, but her mother was a tiger queen. She can turn into either animal, but violent tensions between the tiger and wolf cultures mean that her tiger form is completely unacceptable in her tribe. On the verge of adulthood, Maniye is about to face the choice of all those with two animal spirits within them, abandoning one and embracing the other.

As a metaphor for growing up, it’s not the most subtle, but it is powerful. Maniye is facing a choice between the different people she could be, the different heritages she comes from. It’s about the forms her parents would want her to take. She’s facing big choices about her identity, is under huge social pressure, and life seems out of her control. Her two animal souls are tearing her apart as she struggles to choose.

This could have ended up reading like a terrible heap of teen angst, but it doesn’t. Instead, it’s one more struggle for Maniye to face as she goes on the run, trying to define her own life and save that of a stranger. The final choice is predictable but immensely satisfying, and how she gets there is far from predictable. Like being a teenager, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

A Rich and Diverse World

When I started reading this book, I thought it was set in a world based on bronze age and dark age Europe. The more I read, the more it became apparent that that was my biases coming into play. As Tchaikovsky expands his world beyond the snowbound forests of the tiger and the wolf, we see civilisations influenced by real world examples from all over the globe. The wolf are reminiscent of hunting tribes from all across the icy regions below the Arctic. It was my background that coloured them Norse or Germanic. The world ofThe Tiger and the Wolf is actually far richer and more varied than that, and all the more fascinating for it.

Given the fierce online debates raging about diversity and representation in fantasy – debates which have fostered some gems of insight and a lot of ugly bluster – the diversity of this world reflects the themes of the book within a wider context. Fantasy culture is facing choices about what to be, just like Maniye. And like her, it is tearing itself apart over this. This book sets an example of a positive direction that choice could take us, and how that is compatible with the exciting stories more conservative elements claim to fear losing.

But honestly, most readers will neither know nor care about that. Good for them. What they’ll find is a gripping story, good characters and a cool new setting to explore. What more could you want?




I know Adrian Tchaikovsky personally, and my copy of this book was provided courtesy of his publicist.

But if I hadn’t liked the book I just wouldn’t have written about it. I’m not a pro reviewer, I mostly save this space for enthusing about cool stuff, and so if someone I know produces something that’s not to my tastes, I just don’t deal with it here. Call it my review policy, if you like. Andrew Knighton, taking the discreet way out since 1978.


And remember, my new book A Mosaic of Stars, collecting together over a year’s worth of weekly short stories, is available for pre-order as a Kindle e-book now.

Diversity in science fiction

As well as hosting a guest post from Austin Dragon earlier this week, I also wrote a post for his blog on the same theme – diversity in science fiction. Here’s how it starts…

Diversity in science fiction

Diversity is a hot topic in science fiction. There’s increasing acknowledgement that the genre has long been dominated by straight white men, and that it would be good to diversify both the creators and the characters.

This is a trend that, as a straight white man, I’m in favour of. So why is diversity important to me?

Aesthetic variety

I’m a fan and writer of science fiction and fantasy. A large part of their appeal for me is the range and variety of things they contain. The potential to read about something new, whether it’s a new place, a new culture, a new technology, a new point of view…


You can read the full article over on Austin’s site.

Diversity In Science Fiction And Why It Matters – a guest post by Austin Dragon

As well as having a ridiculously awesome name, Austin Dragon is a fellow member of the Google+ Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy community. So when we decided to exchange guest posts, it seemed only natural that we’d focus on that topic and why it matters to us. So without further ado, here’s Austin’s take on diversity in science fiction…

Diversity In Science Fiction And Why It Matters

What is Diversity to Me? I learned a long time ago from my stint in political activism that it is very important to define words and terms from the start. It’s the reason that most political debates are pointless and real solutions are rare. Different groups respond differently to the same words whether it’s liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in America, or two different groups of Labor and Conservatives in England, respectively.

As a Black man born in one of the most diverse cities in the world, New York city, living in another overseas for a year, when I began college—Paris France, and upon my return to the States moved to even more diverse one—Los Angeles, CA, I am obviously at home in diversity.

Unfortunately much of the diversity as defined by many elite has simply devolved into the arbitrary color of a person’s skin. That is not diversity. Diversity is not just race; it is culture, class, language, upbringing, nationality, politics, education, occupation, religion (if applicable), and more. It is a rich tapestry of the story and experiences that make you who you really are. Diversity that is just a game of musical chairs based on skin color is boring.

Also for all this “diversity talk,” people are rightly justified in being annoyed at the “talk with no end” about the subject or a “token” character thrown into a story in a feeble attempt to placate them. Virtually everyone will be Asian in a novel set in Japan or overwhelmingly White if set Sweden, but that’s not what we’re talking about. In the diverse or global societies often reflected in science fiction, demographic reality is not being reflected. Yes, fiction is fiction, but…

Three Reasons Why Diversity in Science Fiction Matters

  1. It Gives Us a Unique Window on a Problem. One of the brilliant things about science fiction is that it allows the reader to see an intractable problem from other points of view. Often that unique perspective can do more to highlight the issue or strengthen the drama than the same stereotypical characters we keep seeing over and over again.
  2. It Introduces Us to the New. Over six billion people, hundreds of countries, thousands of religions, tens of thousands of cultures, millennia of recorded human history. Science fiction spends a lot of energy creating new worlds to amaze us when the reality is that there already exists “new worlds” in our own to engage us that we never even knew existed.
  3. More Diversity Equals Less Tokenism. If we see “real” diversity with meaningful stories, substantive characters, and well-thought out backgrounds, the more the public will expect and demand it. I love Star Trek and always will but even as a child I thought it peculiar that there wasn’t far more diversity in the series knowing what the racial and ethnic make-up of the planet was (and is). Tokenism acts like people are just skin-color and genitalia. Diversity acknowledges and showcases so much more.

Science fiction writers, through this genre, we are in probably the best possible position to reflect the great big, wide universe of…humanity.

About the Author

Austin DragonAustin’s books currently include his science fiction and international After Eden thriller series. Next year he releases new novels in science fiction, fantasy, mystery, YA and horror. He is a native New Yorker, but has called Los Angeles, California home for the last twenty years. Words to describe him, in no particular order: U.S. Army, English teacher, one-time resident of Paris, political junkie, movie buff, campaign manager and staffer of presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, Fortune 500 corporate recruiter, renaissance man, and dreamer. Find him and all his writing madness at

Building the same old world – a FantasyCon panel

I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the ‘Building the same old world’ panel at FantasyCon. Based on the panel description it could have gone two different ways – focusing on the mechanics of world building in fantasy fiction, or focusing on diversifying the worlds we build. In the end it was an interesting mix of the two, thanks to the excellent panellists. These were….

One of the results of all this world building
  • Camille Lofters – the panel moderator  and a PhD student who is dealing with world building in her thesis – how cool is that as a subject to study?
  • Foz Meadows – a YA fantasy writer and one of the people who most impressed me over the weekend.
  • Tiffani Angus – a creative writing PhD student who writes in many genres
  • Peter Higgins – writes epic fantasy based on 20th century Europe.
  • Kate Elliott – a guest of honour at the con and writer of all sorts of speculative fiction.

Camille did a great job of moderating a panel for the first time, keeping the conversation flowing without intruding too much with her own views.

The tension of world building

‘Our preconceptions are the hardest thing to push through.’ – Kate Elliott

One theme that came out early on was the tension in world building between presenting the familiar to draw people in and the unfamiliar to interest them and make a fantasy world. As Camille pointed out, deviating from accepted reality risks confusing and alienating readers, and so you have to be careful how you do it. It’s important not to try to change everything, but to give readers things they understand.

All the panellists found exploring imaginary worlds useful in writing, whether to create a lens for exploring contemporary issues as Foz does, or to tell stories Kate couldn’t read when she was young.

Challenging assumptions

‘It’s so sad because speculative fiction is about all this cool shit and there’s this one thing that people can’t get past.’ – Tiffani Angus

Discussion turned onto the concept of presenting more diverse and unusual worlds, combining conversations about world building with ongoing debates about representation in fantasy.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that the majority of fantasy is built from a male Euro-centric perspective. It doesn’t take long for debates about this to get angry, and that was something Camille directly raised. As Foz pointed out, people who are used to seeing themselves constantly represented get confused and angry when this changes, as their expected representation has been taken away – this reminded me of Sue Archer’s guest post here on the lack of women in genre blockbusters.

Kate gave some great insight into how to approach this sensitively. We should like what we like and be courteous about what we read, because other people will like it even if we don’t. What’s comfortable to read varies from one person to another, and it’s useful to think about whose comfort is being defined in any story.

But for all the maturity of Kate’s point, a line from Peter gave me a certain dark satisfaction – ‘One of the things that comforts me all the time is that most people hate most things.’

Fantasy and fantasising

‘If you can get away with it then it works.’ – Kate Elliott

Peter also drew a distinction that we easily forget but that’s important when talking about fantasy – the difference between fantasy and fantasizing.

Fantasy is things like a dragon, an imaginative creation empty of defined reality, that the author can shape and readers will believe in.

Fantasizing is transforming the real into something unreal, like making a hitman pleasant. It upsets readers’ expectations, and so can be harder to believe.

My own thought on this is that what’s fantasy and what’s fantasizing may vary from one person to another, but it’s a very important distinction to make in trying to create your combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Of course there was more

I sadly don’t have time to write up everything that was said in the panel, or even everything that interested me. This particular discussion brought together two different but related subjects and made something interesting out of them. I hope that I’ve given you a taste of that.

Diversity in steampunk

It’s not uncommon for proponents of steampunk to call for more diversity in the genre. Whether it’s Steampunk magazine‘s stated desire for fiction that reflects diverse backgrounds, or Ann VanderMeer’s mission to show different takes on steampunk in Steampunk Revolution, it’s a familiar mission. Despite this, the steampunk I see is at least as centred on white western countries, especially Britain and the USA, as sci-fi and fantasy. For all its revolutionary cries, this is fiction dominated by first world white male characters.

Many of the reasons are probably the same as for science fiction and fantasy. The majority of influential writers and publishers, especially of English language work, are white guys, and this is self-perpetuating. There’s also an expectation, rightly or not, that the core of the readers fit this type and want to see characters like them. And there’s an element of cultural default, to which I’m as prone as any writer. In Britain, our ‘average person’ in any given piece of culture is white, male, and fairly well to do. Any deviation from this is a distinct characteristic, while these are used to represent the neutral. Of course they’re far from neutral, but we’re so used to this that it takes a conscious effort to depict someone different, and when concentrating on other aspects of writing we’ll often default to this for characters both great and small.

But I think there’s also something specific to steampunk. While fantasy literature as we currently see it was strongly influenced by European mythology, there are other mythologies to be drawn on when creating fantasy. For steampunk, this is harder. It’s a genre based on a nineteenth century experience of industrialisation and progress through steam-powered technology. That’s something that was experienced most accutely in Europe and north America, with privileged white guys as the main agents of change. Other parts of the world experienced that particular form of industrialisation in a more limited way, both technologically and geographically, and by the time industrialisation became a global norm it was already moving out of the era of gaslight and steam, into one of electricity and diesel.

This isn’t to say that we can’t explore steampunk from a myriad other perspectives. Whether it’s the role of women, children and the poor; shining a light on parts of the world that experienced that more limited, externally inspired industrialisation; or reimagining the industrial revolution as created by another culture. But there are less existing images and models to inspire and shape our work.

We should always aim for more diversity in what we write. It makes it more interesting, and expands the potential audience. But that’s harder work in some genres than others.

Anyway, if you know some good examples of more diverse steampunk, whether in literature or elsewhere, leave a message below. I could do with some inspiration to help me practise what I preach!