Is there an aesthetic dominating today's English-language written SF/F?
January 26, 2022 4:21 AM   Subscribe

Elizabeth Sandifer suggests that we are now experiencing a "clear aesthetic shift in how sci-fi works" in observations that started as this Twitter thread. She notes "Diversity as an underlying assumption....A massive dollop of fanfic and romance influence....It’s stylistically a big tent" and suggests the prospective name "Tor Wave." (Followup comments from Sandifer.) A related conversation about the label "squeecore" started with an episode of the Rite Gud podcast (transcript) and has drawn responses from Doris V. Sutherland - "'Squeecore' and the Cartoon Mode in SF/F", Camestros Felapton - "Is there a dominant mode of current science fiction?", Cora Buhlert - "Science Fiction Is Never Evenly Distributed" & "More on the Squeecore Debate", and Simon McNeil - "Notes on Squeecore".

I believe that these critics are discussing primarily (or exclusively) written SF that's available in English - hence the specifics I chose in this post title.
posted by brainwane (47 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes our discussions of literary trends get kind of fighty (example) as we argue about the edges of definitions rather than share what we've noticed as broad patterns, or we define a category or approach as Bad and show contempt for people involved with it. I've failed previously to frame this kind of conversation well and help it get off to a good start, and at least some of the links in this post are fairly fighty, so I'm trying to do better this time to encourage curiosity and friendly conversation. Please consider the MeFi Community Guidelines before commenting, especially "be considerate and respectful".
posted by brainwane at 4:22 AM on January 26 [19 favorites]

thank you for this post! as someone who has always loved sci-fi but has been reading more fantasy than science fiction, i was absolutely HOOKED by the Murderbot Diaries mentioned in the first link:

It’s stylistically a big tent, with the lyrical and allusiveness of Piranesi sitting comfortably alongside the cyberpunk reconstructionism of The Murderbot Diaries.

Having now consumed all of the available Murderbot content, I am desperately seeking more science fiction that has similar vibes. Diversity as an underlying assumption is a great way to put it. Definitely will be watching this thread with interest and revisiting more of the links when I have time. Great post!
posted by lazaruslong at 4:33 AM on January 26 [11 favorites]

I've only read a little of this so far (will get back to it later) but it just makes me want to reread Gideon the Ninth even more than I already do.

I feel like what Tamsyn Muir writes is cute/squee as a counterbalance to, and interwove with, the grim and scary and disturbing threads that run through her stories, and neither side is the slightest bit subtle about it. Princess Floralinda and the Forty-Flight Tower is very close to being a very macho survivalist kill-or-be-killed gorefest except the protagonist is a dainty princess and her fairy sidekick.
posted by Foosnark at 4:36 AM on January 26 [10 favorites]

Great post.
posted by signal at 4:57 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Fascinating stuff. I occasionally wish I could engage with sf/f commentary more fully because it's always interesting, but as soon as something becomes A Whole Thing in The Discourse I have to check out for reasons of having been burned out in the fandom wars of the early 2000's.

It's interesting that Camestros Felapton calls Becky Chambers' novels "uplifting" (and almost "too much" so). I love Chambers' work for the threads of optimism she weaves through her narrative, but I wouldn't say it's uplifting or a "hugbox" so much as stories about survival and struggle and, occasionally, succeeding in that. I wouldn't say A Closed and Common Orbit, for instance, is all that uplifting, besides being glad that Pepper and Lovelace managed to work their way through their respective abusive situations/traumas. Those traumas still happened. They are fortunate to have escaped, but it's clear nothing is wholly "fixed". The universe in Wayfarers is more like the one in the Culture series than in Star Trek (which I would argue is much more about being "uplifting" over being interrogative). That is: good and bad parts, where the good sometimes depends on the bad having happened or being allowed to continue to exist, and the bad occasionally winning.

I liked Sandifer's comments about "hugboxing" vs. "scab-picking" (though I'm glad she admitted her bias since it's clear she doesn't have much time for the former). I've sat with some of these thoughts myself as a trans person who is a big fan of Star Trek, watching the new shows (finally!!) embrace queerness, transness and battle with the franchise's own history of oppressive narratives (allowing Klingons to be more alien and different colours besides "non-white actor in dark makeup and a Fu Manchu beard", for instance).

On the one hand, I'm glad to see Trek finally picking up these threads and allowing marginalised identities to exist in a future where some groups of fans have often argued that trans people "wouldn't exist" in a future where medical technology is so advanced (the same argument is also often levelled at the presence of disabled characters). On the other hand, these steps forward are occasionally awkward, given that they're weighted with so many metatextual expectations, and I find myself wanting conflicting things: to learn more about what it's like for a trans person in that world, up to and including the oppression they might have faced, but also to never have their transness addressed and it for it to be simply accepted, with no discussion. Part of me wants to investigate the reality of a possible future for people like me, and another part is so fucking tired and just wants to enjoy something nice for once.

(The second part is, admittedly, a lot bigger right now, especially as a fan of "trashy" and occasionally problematic literature. Sometimes I like reading gross dude fantasies, ok!)

Anyway, it's a lot. Thanks for this post! Lots to percolate over.
posted by fight or flight at 5:06 AM on January 26 [12 favorites]

I haven't read a fiction book by a cismale author in over two years; of the 200+ I have read since then, they've been all over the map in genre and tone. Some of them great, some good, some clearly not for me, and some simply appalling. One thing they do have in common is the lack of plot arcs and major themes driven largely by testosterone and its effects on the human brain and how heteronormative patriarchy has shaped our shared fictive mythologies for thousands of years.

It's a breath of fresh air. Well, after two years, it's more like coming out of a smog-riddled city of grey, grease and smog and into a paradise full of everything else.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:47 AM on January 26 [8 favorites]

This is so good! The pandemic has removed me from my usual SFF haunts and depressed me to the point where I haven't been reading anything much about the future so I've only been keeping up with things very slightly, but I've been sort of vaguely trying to think thoughts like these. Also I'm sure I'll be reading a lot more of Sandifer's blog. This is so great - I've kind of exhausted a lot of my normal sources of writing about SFF.

On balance, it has been weird to see SFF do everything I wanted in the past and realize that I don't like it very much and that I'm drifting apart from the mainstream of left SFF fandom.

Obviously if there's a big trend then there's a lot of stuff - if you look at old New Wave anthologies, it's not like every story is a deathless pearl. So I admit that it's a bit unfair that I look at places that literally publish multiple short stories a week and feel like it proves anything when most of them are after all just...perfectly adequate, it's not like I'm out there writing stories and getting published. If I were reading an anthology of the best stories of this era I'm sure I'd like them as much as I would an anthology of the best of the New Wave, etc.


When I don't like examples of "Torwave", it's usually because they seem awfully pious to me. The writers aren't stupid, it's not like they're writing strong-jawed morally spotless protagonists who never have a self-serving thought; it's more that there's always a Very Worthy Explanation whenever a "good" character acts in a self-serving or cruel way - they're that way because of trauma, they're that way because they don't know how to set boundaries, they're that way because they are the type of person that a therapist would find a very sympathetic and good or at least interesting patient. Very often even in stories I otherwise like, I feel that the lens is therapy and the resolution is sort of the SFF version of "three years of weekly sessions with a very understanding queer-competent practitioner". There's a philosophical sameness to a lot of them.

I guess I'd say that when I don't like examples of Torwave, it's because they seem as morally schematic as other, worse science fiction...but this time they're on my side.

I will say that it's clarified what I really like about science fiction, which, strangely enough, isn't its use as a moral or didactic literature. That is, I thought that what I wanted was science fiction that was on my side, and it turns out that what I really want is science fiction that derives from Samuel Delany (etc, fill in nerd/snob SF) and I'm willing to put up with a certain amount of Not On My Side.


In re Becky Chambers - if you follow her arguments about consent as expressed in Angry Planet, they are really disturbing and that put me off her work for good. I think, fundamentally, that I can't see myself as an insider - that has not been my life experience. So when it's a cozy world of insiders who work out their differences according to contemporary left values plus a religious weirdo and an asshole-but-everyone-also-picks-on-him, I don't feel very sure that I'd be on the inside of cozy world, and then the arguments about consent really start to cut.

A thing I like: writers who clearly weren't making much money ten years ago have found a lot more success, even though "a lot more success" presumably doesn't translate into "quit your day job and buy a country estate" . Aliette de Bodard, for instance, has a lot more mainstream presence now. I really had to scramble to find a physical copy of On A Red Station, Drifting and now it's easy to get her books.

It's obvious that the Current State Of Things in SFF is a better and more promising one than I can remember. I've been through periods when SFF wasn't doing that much that I liked before; things ebb and flow, I wasn't super into much in the late 90s/early 2000s either, and that sure wasn't a time of diversity in publishing. In three or four years new writerly concerns will emerge, writers just starting out now will gain power, scope and confidence, the concerns of "Torcore" will be taken for granted and no longer need to be stated, etc.
posted by Frowner at 6:53 AM on January 26 [19 favorites]

There’s never a bad time to read Ursula K LeGuin’s short essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, and it has some relevance here…
posted by sixswitch at 7:27 AM on January 26 [19 favorites]

In case you need some tempting:

“… So the [classic male protagonist] Hero has decreed through his mouthpieces the Lawgivers, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the central concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict; and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.

“I differ with all of this. I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us. One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd…

“Finally, it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.”
posted by sixswitch at 7:33 AM on January 26 [22 favorites]

Fantastic essay, sixswitch. Le Guin surgically hones in on what I was just swatting at in my comment above.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:50 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

It doesn't seem to me that in written sci-fi there is a movement toward a particular aesthetic as much as there has been a decision among, first, consumers and consequently then among publishers to seek out and promote diverse, non cis-het-male authors. For the absolute good. It no longer has to be a search, for me, to find these writers, they are simply there and their work is good, and likely they have always been there, with their aesthetic, just hard to find.

The first essay also mentions film and the Epic Cold. It does seem that there is an aesthetic, discussed elsewhere, exemplified by Villenueve's color palate and scale, that may be more of a movement.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:06 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Long Pale Road, linked above, is also winning in lots of ways, but I was thinking about this and twitter and the internet and why things are bad but not as bad as they look:

Considering what happens in the first book alone, with some brutal violence and very explicit, very gay and kinky sexuality, I’m kinda surprised that Palmer herself isn’t in the center of some moralisitc tirade against “harmful” media supposedly endorsing evil through depiction of flawed, even evil characters.

Okay, see, there is no moral crusade against Ada Palmer because her books are large, kind of dry and rather in the vein of other thick SFF paperbacks with tiny print and elaborate forms of government. A moral crusade has to be against something that is juicy and easy to read, especially easy to read onscreen in a short period. That way everyone can have an opinion, and people who would not normally be drawn in are drawn in by the juiciness/readability/emotionality of the prose or premise.

(Ada Palmer is pretty neat actually and has a great blog. It's almost unfair that someone could be so accomplished.)

That's why "Helicopter Story" was such an easy target - it was free and quick to read and while it was an accomplished piece of writing, it wasn't difficult. If Fall had published a novel she might have gotten attacks, but not in the same quantity or intensity - because that would have required reading a longer piece of prose for which one might possibly need to pay.

The trouble with juicy quick free stories is that they tempt even people who are smarter than that to engage in the Discourse, and even if people have good, worthy opinions, it just strengthens the Discourse. (In the case of Isabel Fall, obviously there was a moral obligation to defend her, but usually situations aren't so clear cut.)

But anyway. I bet that if you could cast a spell and take away social media while replacing it with a vast, well-built series of blogs and forums with paid moderators, the amount of stupid, horrendous science fiction discourse would drop by probably 75% and what was left would be a lot slower and better informed. I'm not saying that it would be great - consider Racefail - but it wouldn't have the potential to rope in everyone on the internet basically instantly with a bunch of wretched and mean hot takes and no patience for anything longer than a tweet.

The problem with the SFF social media ecosystem right now is that - and I recognize that this isn't precisely a new thought - it privileges the worst kinds of conversations and it moves people toward being their worst selves.

But on the other hand, that means that people are not quite as bad as they appear. The moral panics, etc, are not baked in, IMO, and even when they are quite widespread they do not represent the level at which most people think and read most of the time. Most people do not in fact demand only Whedonesque squee books; it's just that the shape of the discourse makes it appear that they do. This is obvious when you think about big sellers and highly talked about books.
posted by Frowner at 8:08 AM on January 26 [7 favorites]

Frowner, I'm sorry, I missed what "Long Pale Road" is? Is that a link elsewhere in this thread?

I don't actually know much about circulation numbers in sf/f, even limiting the scope to stuff published in or translated into English. Like, can we compare readership numbers (including purchasers and people who read lent copies via libraries) among: the latest Warhammer 40K tie-in novel and the novel that won the latest World Fantasy Award and this year's most popular webnovel/English translation of a cnovel and the most popular novel-length chunk of SCP Foundation collaboration? I am hesitant to make assessments about what is actually popular without knowing these kinds of things. And I figure that these different subgenres have substantially different dominant aesthetics, although that is only a guess on my part.
posted by brainwane at 8:41 AM on January 26

Oh, shoot, I somehow thought it was in the links at the top. Thank you brainwane!
posted by Frowner at 8:44 AM on January 26

My sense of SF readerships is that it's different circles, and while a few books get really widely read, most are for a specific crowd - maybe a large crowd, maybe small. So for instance, I know zero people who read the Warhammer books but literally everyone I know read the Ancillary books and the Broken Earth books as they were published, and then in my own circles like three of us are super interested in proto-New Wave, some like and read squeecore (kickass quippy werewolves, a passion we do not share)...but only the Ancillary and Broken Earth books are really hegemonic and shared references.

I would really like to know about people who don't read much SFF. Like, everyone I know who reads SFF reads a lot of it, maybe almost exclusively - I'm a bit of an outlier most years. Are there many people who mostly read some other kinds of books but occasionally read contemporary SFF? (Let's not count people who never read SFF except they've read, eg, Tolkien, Frankenstein and "The Machine Stops" as part of a broader literary project.)

Without knowing circulation numbers (and surely some of them are available to google once I finish this comment) I do know that books and outlooks can be totally dominant in one coherent, motivated fandom circle and totally non-starters in another, and I suspect that the puriteens/moral panic/Whedonesque-quip/squeecore set is actually very small - not that no one else reads or writes quippy SFF or cozy spacefic, but I think most people read those sometimes and feel that they are one kind of enjoyable SFF among many.
posted by Frowner at 8:59 AM on January 26

I think she totally misses the mark on the Hugboxing v. Scab-picking thing. She admits her own bias, which is great, but I'm surprised she doesn't even try to understand why some may prefer hugboxing.

My son (18 and gay) reads a lot of sci-fi, and he is just tired of his identity only ever being mentioned as a source of trauma and oppression. He yearns to read more books where people are just gay and do things that have little or nothing to do with them being gay. And I can assure you that he did NOT learn queer history exclusively from Tumblr - he can go on at length about ball culture in the 1930s, for example.

Sure, some people deal with their trauma by diving headlong into it. Others deal with their trauma by imagining a world without it. Why is that so difficult to understand?

(I also think she's wrong about Villeneuve. Arrival is one of the most emotional movies I've seen, and is not "hella male.")
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:30 AM on January 26 [8 favorites]

She admits her own bias, which is great, but I'm surprised she doesn't even try to understand why some may prefer hugboxing.

Well, Sandifer is a trans woman, so I'm pretty sure she's well aware of what it's like to not see your identity reflected in media except in ways that are traumatic, oppressive, or mean. And she does acknowledge that it's not a totally dualist issue.
posted by fight or flight at 9:42 AM on January 26

It's interesting that Camestros Felapton calls Becky Chambers' novels "uplifting" (and almost "too much" so). I love Chambers' work for the threads of optimism she weaves through her narrative, but I wouldn't say it's uplifting or a "hugbox" so much as stories about survival and struggle and, occasionally, succeeding in that.

Right. Chambers' galaxy doesn't even have the Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism of the Culture or the United Federation of Planets--if you don't work, you don't eat, and not only do AIs have no rights, but there's not even a question of their having some sort of legal hearing to get them, and there doesn't seem to be an AI rights movement of any sort. Similarly, Murderbot may want to just sit around and shotgun Future Peak TV, but elements of their similarly problematic universe keep interrupting.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:44 AM on January 26 [3 favorites]

Thank you so much for that Ursula le Guin essay, sixswitch. It's one I will definitely read again to try and absorb its wisdom and humour.

I had the oddest sensation, reading through the OP links. On the one hand, these people clearly value a lot of the same things I do. I've read nearly every book mentioned, and I am a writer of science fiction and fantasy myself.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about some of these issues on my lonesome, it's heartening to be exposed to a world of people who take these ideas as seriously as I do.
On the other hand, I have such a strong sense that I am missing some central context or assumption.
There's such a strong sense of a shared conversation I'm excluded from "we don't have to explain things because everyone who matters already understands, and if you don't understand, you don't matter."
Maybe it's because, as a self published, South African writer who is not on Twitter, I'm just too far outside of the world these people live in?
It makes me want to crouch down and growl that all that matters is telling an entertaining story, while wondering if I'm a "real" writer after all.
The opposite, in fact, of what the le Guin essay made me feel.
posted by Zumbador at 9:56 AM on January 26 [10 favorites]

(I also think she's wrong about Villeneuve. Arrival is one of the most emotional movies I've seen, and is not "hella male.")

Agreed; I haven't seen his other work, so I can't judge it as a whole, but I will note that I loved Arrival and have now flat out refused to rewatch it (spoiler?) post-having a baby, because I don't think I'd be able to deal.
posted by damayanti at 10:32 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]

I would really like to know about people who don't read much SFF.

I think this is me, though it wasn’t always, and I think actually reading Scalzi’s essay helped me understand why, because my reaction to these hell years has been absolute exhaustion, and when I have the time to pick up a book, I want something vaguely familiar and comforting. I want it to be a little thinky but not to have to spend my time thinking about it because my brain is tired of fighting every day uphill and that’s why I want to read in the first place, as a rest.

And so I have no interest in innovative science fiction involved in debates with other science fiction, because the effort it would take to follow all of it is just too much, and I’m spending all that effort living my life. I like diverse characters that remind me of me, but I don’t like when the story is focused on that aspect of them, because I already spend all day thinking about how it sucks to exist like that in this shitty world and I want a hour or so when I’m not.

This is, by the way, a mix that the much-derided romance genre has actually been doing smashingly with, by just inserting queer or disabled or BIPOC characters into their existing genre conventions and changing the story to fit, which means I tend to be reading a lot of that more than SFF these days.
posted by corb at 10:36 AM on January 26 [9 favorites]

Hi, it's me, once again begging everyone to stop using a "-core" construction to name their movements. It's not 1981, and you're not Henry Rollins. I thought we'd learned our lesson with "mumblecore", but apparently not. Please, come up with a creative new name for your movement. You're writers. You can do this.
posted by vibrotronica at 11:20 AM on January 26 [8 favorites]

posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:27 AM on January 26 [13 favorites]


I hate every part of this.

Unless it’s the thing our heroes are trying to access to reach the center of the galaxy and hold off the Forerunners or something. Only interested if the heroes are generally good people who are emotionally intelligent and like each other, tho.
posted by curious nu at 11:52 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]

A moral crusade has to be against something that is juicy and easy to read, especially easy to read onscreen in a short period.

Yup, almost every time. There's a great bit in "Usher II" where Bradbury's hero snarls at the censors that they'd have lived through their ordeals if they'd actually read what they banned.
posted by doctornemo at 11:53 AM on January 26

Would some of you post your current great-yarn-that-grabsyou-until-3am-core novels, please.

(apologies to vibrotronica)
(Being an, um very, postadolescent) SF reader that scoured the local libraries from preadolescents and just remember being deeply fascinated by what were at the time edgy books from authors like Samuel Delany that were in many ways far from cistraditional.

Small personal rhetorical note, the use of "they" makes me a bit crazy in science fiction. I mean, I really do not care what gender or what color the protagonists tentacles are or where they are, or if they were born with any particular part, but in SF there is not just room but sometime the expectation of plural identities in a single body and it's just confusing to be well into a story and there is a gratutious reference to "they" and my SFdar starts to look for indications if she's been infected by a nice or evil psyche from an alternate universe. So disappoint. Need more invasive mind worms. ;-)
posted by sammyo at 11:56 AM on January 26

the use of "they" makes me a bit crazy in science fiction

So - I just encountered it for the first time over the weekend, reading a couple MeFi Fanfare recomendations; Finna and Defekt

And... I took a breath, thought for a couple minutes, and continued reading - in the end it was no different than the introduction of languages, terms, cultures and differences that all Sci-Fi/Fantasy has been doing since inception.

I mean - I cannot recall the number of times I have read about "tri-gendered" characters from planet Bldsdsarewrq2343 who have a vastly different reproductive biology and pan-sexual culture - that is fine and ok - but "they" is not?
posted by rozcakj at 12:32 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]

I don't think the use of "they" in SF is really out of line with 1. the use of "they" by non-binary people in real life; after all, people with DID sometimes call themselves they too; 2. Samuel Delany's use of "he" to indicate attraction/potential attraction rather than gender in Stars In My Pocket. Or, for that matter, the default use of "she" in the Ancillary books. There should be a lot of textual cues about whether a character is a multiple personage, non-binary or taken over by an alien; if there aren't, I think that's a problem with the writing rather than the pronouns. When I first read Stars In My Pocket it was a headtrip when I realized that I didn't know for sure whether the characters were "men" or "women" and could not really establish this (whereas I feel like the Ancillary books are more interested in the tension between default-she and what the reader is going to feel is the "underlying" gender)....but it was an enjoyable headtrip. I think a bit of puzzle and uncertainty is what science fiction is for.

Despite my dislike of quirky-twee space-rangers-at-Ikea/quippy werewolves, I will say that it's pretty neat that there's so much science fiction that is overtly, directly about work-as-we-know-it. Stargate and Star Trek and so on are also about work, and so is Alien, but for good or for ill, those are metaphorical or utopian treatments of daily work rather than average worklives transposed into SF.
posted by Frowner at 12:42 PM on January 26 [3 favorites]

And... I took a breath, thought for a couple minutes, and continued reading - in the end it was no different than the introduction of languages, terms, cultures and differences that all Sci-Fi/Fantasy has been doing since inception.

I think I've only read Becky Chambers using "they," and for the first few occurrences in an audiobook, it threw me, but then I knew the character, and it was totally normal. Chambers also had a character in A Closed and Common Orbit who changed genders depending on a cycle (I think? Not quite remembering), and that was briefly confusing too, but then it was as normal as anything else in a book about space stuff.

"Scab-picking may more consistently produce good and artistic fiction, but you can’t help but think that if something comes along that shakes the foundations of what’s possible it’s gonna come from the hugbox side."

I just loved Sandifer's quote here, and it really gets at why I love reading the hugbox fiction. I see courage and hope, not escapism, in that kind of optimism.
posted by gladly at 1:16 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]

vastly different reproductive biology and pan-sexual culture - that is fine and ok - but "they" is not?

Just to be clear, fine it is. But as Frowner suggests the quality of the writing may be the issue. I have no problem, actually live for, an essential mystery being "is it a "tri-personality" or is it a single person with some other interesting issue. The use of "they" in a contemporary novel makes a clear point. The use in a far future novel in a far solar system leaves an ambiguity that may not be intended, is the author discussing todays gender issues? For good SF, will gender even be an issue in 500 years? Even be something other than a quaint historical idea like phrenology?
posted by sammyo at 1:17 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

We don't use "thee" and "thou" much because we dropped the extreme social stratification that made use of 'thee" and "thou". Maybe the future has just dropped extreme gender stratification. Would that help?

The problem I have with what I guess is hugbox SFF is that it seems increasingly intolerable for the protagonist to make, or ever have made, a real mistake. No irreparable harms done that you just have to live with and try to make amends for. That seems ε unlikely, and I'm rarely convinced, and the result is that I take the protagonist to be one of those people who cannot believe they ever made a real moral mistake, which is not comforting to be around.

But I hate talking about this with other SFF readers because I tend to be squicking on someone's squee. I am now wondering if it's common in new fiction generally? I don't think it's any more prevalent in romances than it used to be.
posted by clew at 1:36 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]

Pretty sure I meant "squeecore" rather than "hugbox" above, sorry.
posted by clew at 1:49 PM on January 26

I am now wondering if it's common in new fiction generally?

There was a thread a few weeks ago about the impact of MFAs and writing workshops on modern fiction, and someone floated the idea that writers were being taught to reduce the critical attack surface to the exclusion of making bolder choices. I don't know that I totally agree how widespread it is (or what the source is), but I definitely feel like I've read some SFF things where conflict or personal unpleasantness has been smoothed out in the name of likability or relatability, to the point of blandness, and it felt like a choice rather than a limitation of the writer.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 2:17 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]

Hi, it's me, once again begging everyone to stop using a "-core" construction to name their movements. It's not 1981, and you're not Henry Rollins. I thought we'd learned our lesson with "mumblecore", but apparently not. Please, come up with a creative new name for your movement. You're writers. You can do this.

I disagree, only because the other common suffix is "-punk" which ends you up with things like "steampunk," a genre that elevates the worst excesses of 19th century colonialism and classism and isn't remotely punk in any way.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:31 PM on January 26 [4 favorites]

I published the first anthology of solarpunk and still agree, Mr.Encyclopedia. I kind of hate most genre names (though I like the name "dark academia" which seems to just be, uh, boarding school books for adults? like the Scholomance books). Reminds me of the infernokrusher joke genre name, which was better than any other genre name ever.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:38 PM on January 26 [6 favorites]

I would really like to know about people who don't read much SFF. Like, everyone I know who reads SFF reads a lot of it, maybe almost exclusively - I'm a bit of an outlier most years. Are there many people who mostly read some other kinds of books but occasionally read contemporary SFF?

This is me (with the caveat that I read mostly SFF until I was 16 or so.) What pieces of SFF are so big that they break into the consciousness of people who, like me, read lots of fiction but mostly don't follow SFF? I read Ancillary Justice. Annihilation and the first sequel. Some Ted Chiang stories. Among Others. Tried Ada Palmer but couldn't get into it. One or two Culture novels. Perdido Street Station. Piranesi, though maybe that doesn't count as SFF. Parable of the Sower, though maybe that doesn't count as contemporary.

Anyway I think of myself as someone who's interested in SFF without being deeply involved in it, so I actually listened to some of that Squeecore podcast even before it was linked here, and it didn't really jibe with the limited amount of SFF that *I* read. I did feel like the reaction pieces linked here expressed the same kind of feeling I get when people say that contemporary non-SFF non-romance fiction is dominated by some kind of hegemonic mode in which middle-aged men drink too much and sulk about their divorces and hit on college students -- namely, "I know what kind of story you're talking about and I get your beef with it but that is really not everything or even on the whole very much of the thing."
posted by escabeche at 2:38 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]

I think the main problem I have with hugboxing stories is that they are boring. All the conflict is resolved by having an open and honest conversation about being poly over tea in the ships galley. Its dull and lacks the meaty depth and brain-bendiness of let's say Le Guin's Hainish stories.
posted by edbles at 4:42 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

I think there's a variety of different stories going under the term "hugbox"...A story where nothing bad really happens isn't necessarily a bad or dull story, nor is a story about ordinary events, nor is a story that places a lot of emphasis on positive representation. There's a lot of very good fanfic, for instance, that is just "here are some characters having a day with a small plot point, everyone is happy". For me, that's what I mostly go to fanfic for - representation, light plots, everything working out happily...even though, of course, this is by no means how I would characterize the vast majority of fanfic. I'm not as familiar with happy-representation non-fanfic because that's not what i look for, but I'm sure there's plenty.

Bad hugbox fiction is IMO fiction that doesn't think to hug enough. Like, if you tell me that consent is very, very important and show all the "good" characters being really scrupulous about consent, learning lessons about consent, etc and then the climax of the book is heavily-signaled as good and laudable violation of consent of a conservative religious character, and this violation of consent is presented in the text as actually totally appropriate and reasonable and in fact good for the religious character, who likes it, you're not hugging hard enough. You're reminding me that what most people mean by consent is "consent among people I think are worthy". This is especially true if the consent of the other "bad"/disagreeable major character is also violated even as he is scolded for his behavior. (This is a subtweet, so to speak.)

Similarly, if you write a positive, romantic magic-y book about wealthy, educated, thin, femme-to-Katherine Hepburn lesbians with a lovely happy ending while also having only one fat butch working class character who gets beat up and jailed and then dropped from the narrative, you're telling me that class injustice is not important, fat people are undesirable, butch women exist to be tokenized, etc. Like, hug harder - if you're not going to deal with it, then leave out the "poor fat prole dyke gets beaten bloody by the cops" plot point so that I don't have to think about it. (Also a subtweet.)

If a book is going to be cozy, positive representation, then the writer needs either to write around shitty unfairness so that we don't have to think about it or else deal with it up front.

Bad hugbox books also have really one-note characters and too much unity. So all the good people have, like, good vibes - or if they don't have good vibes it's because of a sad childhood trauma that is fucked up enough to be sympathetic but not too fucked up, etc. The good people only have sympathetic flaws - it's sort of the SFF version of how girls in Twilight-esque romances always have the "flaw" of being clumsy, because that's not really much of a flaw and can be spun as cute. Similarly, if there's an oppressed group, the whole group is pretty unified, has a sympathetic and easy to understand history, etc, and any conflicts or flaws are fake conflicts and flaws that don't alienate the audience. The old ways are very good (or have fake flaws) and they are being displaced by the bad new oppressive ways - there's no ambiguity. The opposite of, for instance, Ursula Le Guin's "Solitude" where there's a lot of time and space given to two conflicting ways of being.

So anyway, I guess my problem with bad hugbox books is when they don't live up to billing - they seem positive and cuddly but then they're not really and when you point it out you're a buzzkill.
posted by Frowner at 5:49 PM on January 26 [14 favorites]

How much of this is just the fan fiction scene taking over the "mainstream" sci-fi scene? A lot of the hugbox stuff reads like Mary Sue fanfic.
posted by keep_evolving at 5:54 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]

Hi, it's me, once again begging everyone to stop using a "-core" construction to name their movements.

I rather like "Torcore", if only because it feels nice in my mouth.

I consider myself an SFF reader at heart, and will naturally gravitate towards that genre, but I haven't read much of the newer stuff lately and I'm not entirely sure why. Despite my best efforts, I've bounced off a lot of the internet's beloved series (one of which I shall not name as it is mentioned in this thread and is my personal bugbear). The only possible reason I can determine is because they read like fanfiction.

Don't get me wrong - I love fanfic! I have several tabs of fic open on my phone, I wrote 50k words in 3 months last year, and I'll go through specific tags like a tidal wave. But hugbox and squeecore vibes for characters I don't already know and love? Turns me off. Feels too intimate too soon, with not enough familiarity and good faith to give a pass for plot elements I wouldn't think twice about in fic with established characters. It's been a bit frustrating looking for newer published books: I know what I like, but I'm not trend-savvy enough to know how to search for it. Ah, well. Thank goodness for Kindle previews, I suppose.

'A Quick Thought on “Squeecore”' by Long Pale Road was a great read; thank you Frowner for mentioning it and brainwane for linking it. I think I might actually pick up Terra Ignota sooner rather than later because of that post.
posted by lesser weasel at 9:39 PM on January 26

I recognize that people don't want to name specific works they dislike because it might derail things or might bother people who like those things. But I'm conscious of what Zumbador said about not knowing the context of some analyses mentioned in the links:
I have such a strong sense that I am missing some central context or assumption.
There's such a strong sense of a shared conversation I'm excluded from "we don't have to explain things because everyone who matters already understands, and if you don't understand, you don't matter."
So maybe one way to balance this is by also talking explicitly about books and stories we DO like, in about the same amounts as we talk about what we didn't like in books and stories that we found we didn't care for? And those of us who have figured that we aren't fans of squeecore or Tor Wave can share recommendations for contemporary authors and works that do work for us? I know Ada Palmer has come up, and I know Frowner and I both love Vajra Chandrasekera's work. I suspect that Rebecca Campbell, Peter Watts, and Maureen F. McHugh might also appeal.

Some time ago I started Celia Lake's gentle magical romance Mysterious Charm series with the first book, Outcrossing, and enjoyed it, and have now read the next six in the series. Sensible adults making considerate decisions and planning and speaking so as to achieve tasks while reducing inconvenience and hurt to others! What a concept! Very soothing and I enjoy it a lot. I think this kind of thing -- fantastical romance where we know there will be a Happily Ever After or Happy For Now ending and where all the protagonists treat each other well and have explicit conversations about problems as mature and responsible people ought to -- sounds like squeecore, if I understand the definition properly.

But I've thought more, recently, about what I like particularly in short sf/f, because a friend who read my series of short sf/f MeFi recommendation posts asked me for my curatorial thoughts -- why did I choose these? What is my aesthetic? What do I look for in a story? So, much of the rest of this post is adapted from a blog post I wrote about that.

In case you haven't ever run into Nancy Pearl's approach to reader advisory, she mentions four main pleasures readers seek:
the headlong rush to the last page, the falling into a character’s life, the deeper understanding we’ve gotten of a place or a time, or the feeling of reading words that are put together in a way that causes us to look at the world differently....It seems to me that all works of fiction and narrative nonfiction are broadly made up of four experiential elements: story, character, setting, and language.
I do enjoy all these things but mostly, of her four "doorways," I like short fiction in which character and story appeals. In particular, I like fiction in which we watch relatable characters learning how to connect with others, how to adjust to change, how to be brave, and how to stand up for themselves, and I like suspense that gets me curious about how needs or problems will be resolved.

I do tend to enjoy short stories centering on personal stakes, especially around labor and healing: will this craftsman find the materials he needs to make his masterpiece violin? will this careworker find a way to understand and connect with her patient? will this aunt successfully make the cake that she wants to serve as a gesture of reconciliation with her family?

If the stakes are more existential -- our protagonist's life or death, their family's freedom, the survival of a species -- then I either want a perfectly done Golden Age-pulp-style story or I want an approach that very much isn't that. Perhaps humor and genre-savvy, or plotless style experiment, or character-light/characterless thought experiment, or a political point of view I wouldn't have seen in the pages of midcentury pulp mags, or an epistolary narrative from an unreliable narrator.

Like Sigrid Ellis, "I dislike narrators who lie to ME," but I do enjoy narrators "who lie to themself.... a narrator lying to himself while telling the reader exactly what is happening.... unreliable narrators who are unreliable because they do not understand their own feelings" as long as they do eventually figure it out (or if they never figure it out but they were the villain of the piece so their incomprehension is part of the justice of the resolution). This is something you get from Ann Leckie's Breq and Martha Wells's Murderbot, and from some authors of genre romance. There's a related approach I enjoy perhaps more in which the point-of-view character at first misunderstands a situation because they're from a different culture or because of neuroatypicality, and eventually resolves the misunderstanding, but we the readers got enough clues to understand what they didn't throughout.

And that speaks to an age-old theme that I always always always adore: the struggle, and eventual triumph, to understand and connect with the Other, ideally leading to a relationship of solidarity and love. Robots, gods, robots, people on the other side of the class boundary, monsters, clones, aliens, did I mention robots? I am a sucker for this. It's like John Rogers says: the "meet, fight, team up" plot is a classic.

I do enjoy the language and setting doorways as defined by Pearl, but they're not as appealing to me as story and character. On a fundamental level I care about language on the level of verismilitude and craft. I need realistic dialogue, including self-talk in first-person stories. I struggle to appreciate particularly experimental stories that dispense with traditional narrative to foreground innovations in language use. And while I enjoy stories with unusual settings and speculative premises that structure what our characters assume, notice, and can do, I need the graphical or sociopolitical descriptions of those settings to infuse character, point of view, theme, mood, plot, or some other charge beyond "here are some pixels to render" or "here's the org chart."

Oh, and I like for a story to have a resolution at its ending. Often the major problem is solved. Sometimes in a tragedy it's resolved in a destructive way, but the point-of-view character has definitively finished wrestling with it. Or sometimes the problem in the story has been solved, but at the close of the story we see that it's about to lead to a different, possibly larger unsolved problem; I can be satisfied with that sort of twist if it's elegantly done.

So that's me - I have enjoyed Tor Wave stuff like the Ancillaryverse/Imperial Radch trilogy and the Murderbot books and (I presume) Zen Cho's and Naomi Kritzer's and Aimee Ogden's work, and I've enjoyed squeecore stuff like the Celia Lake books I mentioned. And I like Chandrasekera's, Palmer's, Watts's, McHugh's, and Campbell's work in a different way, and sometimes I have to approach those when I'm in the right mindset for them and it's a little more challenging.

I am genuinely curious about what other people enjoy and how we enjoy it. I'm grateful for everyone in this thread who is sharing the patterns of what you like!
posted by brainwane at 10:34 PM on January 26 [13 favorites]

Oh, another recommendation for folks who want uncomfortable sf where the main conflict does NOT get resolved by friendly people talking carefully through their differences: "Exile’s End" by Carolyn Ives Gilman (August 2020) is "a complex, sometimes uncomfortable examination of artifact repatriation and cultural appropriation" (previously). I nominated it for "best novelette" for the Hugo Awards for 2020, and I was not alone - it ranked 15th.
posted by brainwane at 10:52 PM on January 26 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the recommendation brainwane - a very impressive story.
posted by domdib at 5:36 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]

A decade ago, I was getting absolutely exhausted by the near-constant stream of "grimdark" works that seemed to fill the mainstream of speculative fiction. I think a lot of people were, and that has led to a more whimsical tone being amplified. People are still writing grisly stuff, but we're not collectively in the mood to celebrate it as much, right now.

As for Trek, I absolutely love that Discovery manages to balance these forces out. For every harrowing dystopic vision, we get a bubbly "YAY SCIENCE!" scene, and the plots give us an ultimately optimistic and triumphant victory over cynicism and despair. We get our sappy speech at the end and I am 100% there for it, even if it is festooned with Starfleet's uncomfortably military pageantry. And the bubbly comic-relief "squee" character is not there for unalloyed saccharine: she has her own struggles and dangers.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:03 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]

Good idea, brainwane.
I don't really have any books to recommend other than the ones discussed in the OP links. But maybe it helps to share what I find so compelling about most of them, something I haven't really seen mentioned much.
I definitely find the aspects of diversity attractive, and the "every day" slice of life thing that Becky Chambers does is really interesting too. It's a nice companion to the more gritty and claustrophobic "what would it really be like to live in a space ship" thing that C J Cherryh does so well.
I'm struggling to articulate the quality that I find so attractive about Murderbot, The Goblin Emperor, and Piranesi, and similar books. It's got to do with having intimate access to the inner world of a character, combined with insight into how that character comes across to others in a way that makes you, as the reader, feel unusually perceptive.
Those moments in Murderbot when you realise that this person, who presents themselves as relatively unremarkable is actually Pretty Damn Intense when viewed through the eyes of the people around them. The writer leaves you just enough clues so you can feel that "a hah! I'm so clever" feeling of insight that is pretty rare in real life.
Or when Maia, in the Goblin Emperor, inadvertently reveals just how messed up their childhood was, but you realise it not from what they themselves said, but through the reactions of the people around them. Maya is rather innocent of the effect they have on others, but I, as the reader, pick up on it, and it makes me feel special too. More connected to that story world, somehow.
And the same for Piranesi who has this sort of winning innocence about their situation and you're left going "oh man, sweetheart, what the hell happened to you", and watch them gradually putting together the pieces themselves, in this honest, unflinching way.
It's like I, as a reader, am allowed to go through the process of rearranging reality into a different pattern without the different versions of reality being presented as false or true. Which is also what happens, of course, when you try to figure yourself out in therapy. Or at least that's what happens to me.
I think I struggle to connect to the idea of hug box and squeecore as genre categories partly because I don't read much fan fiction. But here is a place where it really does seem to connect.
Critical Role.
That fits like a glove. The story being told is complex and layered, and quite superficial and cartoony as well. Matthew Mercer definitely makes an attempt to include diverse characters of all kinds, with varying success although I particularly appreciate the way he consistently undermines traditional gender roles.
The thing which I find so fascinating, and I wonder if this is something that's been quite strong in scifi and fantasy, is the way the audience is interested in the creative process itself, and not just in the story.
This is something I've found pretty interesting - how fan conversations these days are not just about what happens in the story, but about the choices the writers make. As if a large part of the audience don't see themselves as just consumers or readers, but as story tellers too.
Discussions about characters being fridged, or killing your gays, or mary sues, this feels like a relatively new phenomenon to me, that so many people feel able to comment on the creative process and creative choices.
This is particularly interesting in Critical Role, where you get to see the story being created - the players and the DM swopping in and out of character in real time, and often discussing their narrative choices as they go.
And the "Talks Machina" discussion program where the players and DM talk about the choices they made, and the alternatives they could have chosen...I can't really think of another show or book or process where the creation of the story is so much part of the experience.
posted by Zumbador at 1:19 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]

More on this from John Scalzi.
posted by brainwane at 5:20 AM on February 14

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