Science-fiction and fantasy of 2011

Literary authors writing genre novels is no longer news.
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
 (Jacket design: David Stevenson)
Jacket design: David StevensonEmbassytown by China Mieville
The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham
By Jonathan Messinger |

It was the year of the death of the trend piece. Since the turn of the century, various types of journalists slumming it in the nation’s books sections have noticed a peculiar commingling of the so-called literary with the genres. It may have started roiling with Jonathan Lethem’s successful turn at the detective novel, 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn. And then there was the time we elected George W. Bush president twice, and every author in America started writing a postapocalyptic novel.

The most egregious example of lazy trend spotting may have come in the form of a 2007 piece on, in which the writer opined, “Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.” A sufficient coda for the movement came this October when, after publication of his zombie novel Zone One, author Colson Whitehead tweeted, “I only wrote a ‘genre novel’ so you’d have another example for your trend piece.”

Of course, no one really believed that genre fiction was dead unless he or she was paid to say so for a publication, and no one who has read a novel out of Latin America in the last 50 years has been surprised by literary culture’s embrace of the fantastical. But while it’s now time to put a silver bullet in any notion that “genre” and “serious literature” are separate and distinct, that hasn’t exactly translated into more coverage of what’s traditionally considered genre work. Though HBO forced everyone to cover George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, unless an author already comes with a gold-embossed “literary” star, he or she doesn’t receive much attention. So while you may see some of the literary crossover books on year-end best-of lists, there is still plenty of great stuff that’s gone unrecognized.

One of my favorite books published this year was Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless (Tor, $24.99); ironic, considering how bafflingly genreless the book is. Set in Russia before and after the Bolshevik revolution, the book begins with a young Marya Morevna watching as birds fall from the tree outside her bedroom window, bouncing off the ground and transforming into handsome men who marry her older, prettier sisters. From there it only gets weirder as Valente dips into Russian folklore and invents her own in equal parts, reworking the Soviet Republic as the sort of mythological land through which you’d like to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

The titular city in China Miéville’s Embassytown (Del Rey, $26) makes Tatooine look like Tampa Bay. Aliens called the Arekei speak from two mouths, and can only make true statements, so humans on the planet must perform various short plays to provide metaphors and similes. If that’s not cool enough, there are also living buildings and a giant war.

David Anthony Durham completes his fantasy trilogy with The Sacred Band (Doubleday, $28.95). If you haven’t been reading these books all along, go back to the first volume, Acacia, and catch up on this story that uses Africa, rather than Britain, as the setting for its swords and sorcery. Durham cut his teeth writing historical fiction, which is still a genre largely ignored by big-name authors, and therefore ripe for a trend piece next year. You read it here first.