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Genres and Sub-Genres
It's strange to see so many of the books that pass through this office fall neatly into categories. Perhaps "fall" isn't exactly the word I want -- "leap joyously" into categories may be more accurate. Star Trek books, Babylon 5 books, King Arthur books, multi-volume quest fantasy books. I once thought it was because SF fans are an analytical lot, with an innate love to categorize, that we'd created a literature thick with sub-genres: hard SF, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, military SF, elves-with-goggles. But I don't believe that any more.

Admittedly, it's grossly unfair to put the blame solely on the hard-working authors. As many of you can attest, all of the sub-genres I mentioned above contain healthy portions of original work, novels and series that show a surprising amount of talent and creativity. Then why are they packaged in a same-as-the-book-you-bought-last-week wrapper? Because the Art Directors designing the book, and the publicists writing the jacket copy, know that if they can make the book familiar and comfortable to you, you'll be much more inclined to buy it.

So if we can't blame the authors, and we can't blame the people packaging the books, the list of usual suspects rapidly narrows down to... us. Why are we the readers to blame for the homogenous look of the SF section at our local Borders? Frankly, because often we are just as lazy in our book buying as we are in our grocery shopping. Sure liked that taco mix I bought last week. Think I'll get me another one.

Now, I'm as guilty of this as anyone else. Worse, probably. As a book collector, I like to have a complete series. Which means that if an author (and the book cover artist, and the marketing director, and the publicist) sell me on the first book in the series, I'll shell out for the others. When I spot a book packaged with the same cover art, design, or even carrying the same logo as the novel I enjoyed last week, I can tell it wants to be sitting next to its kin at home, and my book-purchasing hands automatically reach out to it. In the packed shelves of your local Borders Bookstore, that little bit of gravity can make the difference between a breakout book and the midlist title that gets stripped next week.

So where's the problem? If publishers are using visual cues like similar cover art, repetitive design, custom fonts and the like to help signal a house literary style to their readers, where's the real harm? Once you open the pages, it's just you and the author, and I've yet to see a marketing strategy that successfully managed to intrude on that relationship.

Perhaps it only bothers me because I've always pictured SF as the literature that pushes the envelope, defied the boundaries. To see it spend so much effort chasing its own tail frustrates me -- not to mention the layer of difficulty it adds when introducing someone to the genre. What, that SF stuff? Ummm, I dunno. It all looks the same.

Is there anything we can do at the SF Site? Well, yes. We read more books than you do (trust us -- we do). Our function here is to highlight the best, in every sub-genre and in every medium. And we take that responsibility very seriously. The books we bring to your attention are the kind that stand proudly on their own, and will remind you of the clear, original voices that first called you over to the science fiction racks when you were nine. In short, fewer books with a trademark in the title, and more of the kind of volume that casts your eyes skyward on a warm summer night.

As always, let us know what's on your mind.

Keep in touch,

John O'Neill
Managing Editor

TSR Update

Last month we updated you on the situation at TSR, which had stopped publishing books and games late last year due to serious financial difficulties. Our man on the spot, TSR's online coordinator Sean Reynolds, now informs us that "Some interesting updates are at our site right now, including a revised _official_ 1997 product schedule." That's good news to everyone here, and the schedule looks fairly complete. We'll look forward to seeing TSR return to a place of prominence on the shelves.


Locus Magazine

Locus Cover Time for the credit-where-credit-is-due department. Here at the SF Site, one of our proudest accomplishments is our monthly New Releases column, where we highlight every book we know about of interest to SF and Fantasy fans. We have a lot of sources for the column, including press materials, catalogs, and nearly two dozen publicists at most of the major American publishing houses. But we still refer to the same place that SF fans have been turning to for book info for decades -- Charles N. Brown's Locus magazine. There are a handful of other excellent magazines covering the field, but Locus continues to be our favorite. If you don't know about it, you should. Check out their website for a look at the latest issue.


New and Noteworthy

We get a lot of mail at the SF Site, and many of those notes begin something like this: It's been a while since I've read any SF that's really grabbed me. I'm looking for something that really... well, that's really science fiction, you know? Yes, we know.

Here's a short list of the June/July releases which we feel have the best chance of satisfying that hunger. The first book we recommend is Alpha Centauri (Avon Books, July, 438 pages), by William Barton and Michael Capobianco, authors of IRIS. This is a classic science fiction adventure story from the old school. The year is 2239 and the Earth is groaning under the weight of 200 billion people and clearly headed for disaster. The hope of humanity is her first starship, Mother Night, on a colonizing mission to Alpha Centauri.

But a terrorist group that believes the only sure cure for the population problem is rampant, viral-induced sterilization has unleashed the virus onboard ship, and the vessel of humanity's deliverance now carries the seeds of its extinction. But an ancient artifact found on the rocky moon of Atalanta offers a possible solution, and hope that Mother Night's mission may somehow be salvaged.

Next on the list is The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourteenth Annual Collection (St. Martin's Press, June, 594 pages, hardcover and trade paperback), edited by Gardner Dozois. If you're really looking for science fiction that defines and shapes the genre, this is the place to start. It's the latest volume in what has become the most influential anthology series in Science Fiction, collecting short stories and novellas culled from the best publications of 1996. Dozois defines the state of the art each year in his annual round-up of the best of the best, and his lengthy opening Summation is the closest we have to a State of the Union address. If you're serious about understanding the forces shaping the science fiction of tomorrow, you need this book. This year's volume includes stories by Paul Park, James Blaylock, and Jonathan Lethem among many others.

And lastly we offer something a little... different. Our favorite book this month isn't really science fiction. It's not even traditional fantasy -- in fact, there's not much traditional about this book at all, and that's why we think you'll appreciate it. The book is Tales From the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird (Dell Yearling, June, trade paperback) by the extremely talented Vivian Vande Velde. In a month with so many fine hard science fiction and fantasy releases, it's surprising to find the book that's generated the most conversation is a slim volume aimed at the young adult market. One of the most popular books to arrive in our offices for some time, it has been passed around and chuckled over for weeks. It's a collection of energetically re-told fairy tales with a slightly off-kilter spin, with Chicken Little as a wealthy modern-day evangelist, Hansel and Gretel as horrible children who deserve baking, and a generous handful of others. Marketed as Young Adult, we think everyone will want this one.



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