Here is an interesting question. If you looked at the range of SF&F that gets critical acclaim, buzz and Hugo/Nebula nominations, what would you call the current dominant style? Take a step back from that question. Is there even a dominant style? I think both are interesting questions and I don’t have an answer but I wanted to look at one particular answer.
Actually, this arose out of a podcast I listened to a few weeks back that was ostensibly about the Sad Puppies. I was going to write about that at the time because it was odd in various ways but the timing was poor because of other factors around the participants. Specifically, this was the Rite Gud podcast https://kittysneezes.com/sad-puppies/ featuring Raquel S. Benedict and Kurt Schiller. By the time I caught up with it, other stuff was going on which I’m going to skip over for the time being, so I can talk about one thing at a time. Suffice to say, I didn’t want to start picking holes in a podcast at a point in time where it might look like I was trying to open up a new front in a wildfire of a toxic argument.
The short summary of the podcast was they’d read El Sandifer’s excellent essay Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons but otherwise, it wasn’t very insightful – but OK, maybe I need to get my own head out of my own arse at this point on the topic of Sad Puppies. Let’s skip over that bit as well because that’s not what got my attention.
In the podcast, it was argued that there is, in fact, a dominant style of works that get Hugo attention. Not every work but enough for it to be driving out other styles and the name that the presenters preferred for it was “squeecore”. The term was defined as:
“But something I’ve noticed reading a lot of published Sci-Fi fantasy stories is that they follow this particular template, which is a person of ex marginalized identity, is plagued by outsiders and also some kind of supernatural unpleasantness like there’s a monster or some kind of uncontrolled superpowers. It’s usually a metaphor for their marginalization in some way. And then something transformative happens. They gain confidence. They learn to harness this supernatural thing to use to their advantage, and then they defeat the oppressor and become basically a superpowered supernatural crusader for social justice. It really follows the template of a superhero origin story, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s a very cathartic type of story, but the fact that it’s ubiquitous and that it’s very similar and that so many stories follow that particular pattern, it gets kind of same and kind of boring.”Transcription of https://kittysneezes.com/sad-puppies/ [any transcription errors are mine – apologies if they create any misrepresentations of what was said]
I mean, sure I can think of some stories vaguely like that but outside of YA, I wouldn’t call it dominant in broader science fiction. One example of a book I’d read recently that fitted that template did spring to mind but…I’ll come to that later because there’s an interesting twist there.
A quick mental run-through of recent Hugo finalists didn’t really match that specific description. Lodestar finalists? Yeah…a better fit but “dominant style in SFF” and “dominant style in Young Adult SFF” are two very different propositions.
At that point I could draw a few implications:
- Squeecore is a thing as defined in the quote above
- Squeecore (given that definition) is not actually the dominant mode currently of science fiction in the Hugo Awards
- OR squeecore as defined as the current dominant mode of science fiction does not match the description above
Yeah, but ad-hoc definitions in a podcast might not capture the full understanding of a term. People can intuitively recognise aesthetic similarities in a disparate set of works without necessarily being able to capture the essence of those similarities in words. Further, I think there is a compelling idea that at a given point in time there are going to be aesthetic similarities in high profile works in a genre that we could capture, at least in the form of a family resemblance.
To tie back to the Sad Puppies, we could partially grant them a concession that “works published by Tor or Tor.com” gets us some of the way towards a “dominant form of science fiction” if only because Tor has been a prolific publisher of science fiction for some time. So even if, many (most?) Hugo finalist novels aren’t published by Tor in recent years, they have still been a trendsetter. [eta: see also this 2021 Twitter thread by El Sandifer https://twitter.com/ElSandifer/status/1432417837440716808 ] Tor.com’s influence on novellas and novelettes is more obvious but we can also add in recent years the influence of Uncanny Magazine and to a lesser extent Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons and others. A relatively small set of editors have a significant influence over what gets published — which is nothing new and arguably is a broader group than several previous decades of the Hugo Awards. I’d struggle, though, to say what the aesthetic commonalities are. Vaguely leftish, social-justice concerns, liberalish notions of identity and civil rights are the elements that upset the Puppies but I’d be hard-pressed to say what unites aesthetically Bo Bolander, Ursula Vernon, P. Djèlí Clark, Sarah Gailey or Rebecca Roanhorse for example.
This takes me to a more recent Rite Gud podcast, this time with Raquel S. Benedict again and J.R. Bolt from The Podhand (a podcast about the manga Berzerk). This recent podcast takes as its topic “A Guide to Squeecore” https://kittysneezes.com/a-guide-to-squeecore/ which is great as an idea because the term appears very important not just to Raquel S. Benedict but also to many people in a community of writers and fans surrounding her and this podcast. So I listened hoping for some better answers.
This second podcast restates the thesis:
“If fish were contemporary Sci-Fi fantasy readers, the last thing they would notice is squeecore. What is squeecore? You’re soaking in it. Squeecore is the dominant literary movement in contemporary SFF, a movement so ubiquitous it’s nearly invisible”Transcript of https://kittysneezes.com/a-guide-to-squeecore/ [any transcription errors are mine – apologies if they create any misrepresentations of what was said]
Again, I think that idea (if not the name) that there are common aesthetic elements in notable science fiction (ie what gets critical attention and award nominations) makes some sense. Historically, in the Hugo Awards, I think what we see is overlapping time periods of the popularity of some authors, publishers and outlets (5 to 10 year periods, with some figures having much longer spans of relevance). Pick any snapshot of time though, you are likely to find works that reflect elements that are going out of fashion, works that are currently most fashionable and works that reflect newer fashions. That is reflected in the kind of names (some coined contemporaneously and some retrospectively) given to works from particular times. The podcast picks up on that element and the need for a name for the current state of affairs.
“And most eras in Sci-Fi fantasy have a name. We have the Golden Age. We have New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Weird, bizarro, so on and so forth. And from what I could tell, most cyberpunks were pretty comfortable saying, yeah, I’m writing Cyberpunk. There was a movement with a certain aesthetic, certain tendencies, and there was often a sort of political ideology that went along with it. Like Cyberpunk tended to be anticapitalist, or at least looking at the decay of late capitalism. New Wave tended to be, I guess, a little left libertarian. Golden Age was very conservative and very like Age of imperialism, pro imperialism, I’d say not globally, but yes, and then New Weird, of course, is broadly leftist, right? So right now I think there is a dominant style and tone in speculative fiction, and I think it deserves a name.”ibid, and again, any transcription errors are mine
I’m not going to quote too much because firstly, it’s a pain and secondly I don’t want this to read as a fisking. However, I thought this was a key point because I think this is where you can see the central thesis starts falling apart.
Of those names, only one “The Golden Age” really fits with that idea of a kind of dominant style in a given period. The other names (e.g. Cyberpunk) refer to literary movements or subgenres that arose at particular periods but were just one part of a broader range of works. New Wave is perhaps the strongest contender for a distinctive period name but the height of its usage was when it was competing for attention. Using the Hugo Awards as a bellwether (which the podcast hosts in both of the episodes I’m looking at, do to some extent), by 1985 when Neuromancer wins Best Novel it’s competing with Robert A. Heinlein and Larry Niven (post-Golden Age but part of the Campbellian legacy) and in short fiction, we find figures like Octavia Butler or Kim Stanley Robinson. Now, the mid-80s Hugo Awards are arguably disproportionately recognised by the very last works of Golden Age giants but even if we subtract the Heinleins, Asimovs and Clarks from the rosters, you still get overlapping influences of New Age, Cyberpunk etc.
In other words, stepping out of the particular pond I’m in like a mutant mudskipper and peering into the historical murky waters of ponds that I’m not swimming in, I still don’t see a uniformity of water or any kind of neat way of summing up particular periods. That doesn’t disprove a uniformity now but if it is the case NOW then that is actually a claim that there is an exceptional degree of similarity now compared with recent decades. Well, I guess some people have claimed we have a new Golden Age…
Returning to the podcast. Do we get a neat definition of what squeecore is like in terms of its aesthetics? Not really. Many things are mentioned and I think that is fair enough. The hosts are trying to capture a general vibe of things. I am confident that they are overstating the ubiquity for rhetorical reasons but maybe they are still getting at some unrecognised sub-genre that is particularly in mode right now but perhaps less ubiquitous than stated?
The podcast moves on to list some of the elements that the hosts see as elements of what they call squeecore. Rather than another hefty quote I’ll try and sum it up in list form.
- it tends to be very uplifting and upbeat.
- It is didactic.
- It has a young adult fiction tone to it, even when it’s supposed to be for adults.
- Central characters can feel weirdly young, like they always think and act and feel as though they’re in their late teens or early 20s. They’re kind of inexperienced, naive, still very full of wonder.
- It has notable influence from films and a lot of influence from mainstream commercial narratives…
- One such influence being three-act structure screenplays and the ‘save the cat’ style narrative.
- Central characters can feel like they are intended to be reader-inserts like video-game RPG protagonist.
Some of those are elements you can find in contemporary work. The uplifting/upbeat element has had a degree of popularity, in particular, the work of Becky Chambers comes to mind. Didactic? I’m less sure of. That feels a bit like the Puppies’ “message fiction” complaint and like that complaint, it is hard to pin down. The podcast really suffers here by intentionally avoiding direct examples. Partly this is because they acknowledge that the term “squeecore” is intended to be somewhat disparaging but I think also, as an idea it starts falling apart once we deal with examples. Sure Becky Chambers’s books hit that uplifting aspect to a point that I personally find too much to my taste but while Chambers is popular, her books aren’t typically — if anything they stand out in this regard. Alternatively, I can see several of these elements in Charlie Jane Anders’s 2020 Hugo Finalist novel The City in the Middle of the Night and elements of that if you squint and look sideways even marry up with the original squeecore definition given in the earlier podcast. Except…that book is anything but uplifting.
Other elements there, such as naivety of protagonists is an element that has run through science fiction and fantasy for many decades. Frodo Baggins, Michael Valentine, Ender Wiggins or Genly Ai each have elements of that. Yet, if I look again at the 2020 Hugo Finalists for Best Novel there’s some positive evidence that there’s more than usual and perhaps more YA influence than usual:
- A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK) – a young protagonist on her first mission as an ambassador
- Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing) – two protagonists who are children, teenagers and young adults
- Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing) – I’m not sure of Gideon’s age but she’s either an older teen or a young adult
- The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK) – doesn’t really match at all
- The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan) – young protagonists
- The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK) – main protagonist is a girl
So maybe a point there and I think a point to a general YA influence. The sort of empty RPG protagonist element doesn’t work though and the uplifting/upbeat element is not a consistent feature. Gideon the Ninth…there’s a stronger “squee” element in how the book was marketed and that’s telling because marketing suggests somebody somewhere who is watching trends is picking up on some of these aspects. However, the book itself goes in other directions and the sequel even more so.
I’m also cherry-picking. Extend out from 2020 in either direction and these elements lessen in the Best Novel finalists. Extend out to other Hugo story categories and again these features lessen. 2020 is probably the best example for the “squeecore” claim and even there it looks weak.
The podcast then ventures into stronger territory by considering the social class dynamic to science fiction and the extent to which professional writers workshops like Clarion or Viable Paradise play a networking and gatekeeping role in the genre. There are good points made here but they don’t connect well with the squeecore point. These socio-economic barriers have existed in genre publishing for a long time and can’t explain current aesthetic trends.
The danger of starting with an intentionally pejorative way of classifying a sub-genre is it quickly runs into the opposite problem of the poor fish that can’t perceive the water that it is in. This opposite problem is the reification of all the many things you don’t like about the environment you are in as reflecting a single thing. As the podcast continues it folds in more things of that nature. The podcasters make weaker points about the popularity of deconstructing tropes, there’s also a reference to John Scalzi’s Redshirts which they describe as winning a Hugo “a couple of years ago”, which I highlight not just to be my pedantic self but because it shows how the “squeecore” idea is just pulling in anything that the podcasters just generally didn’t like that much as an idea. In this case, a book that came out nearly a decade ago illustrates what a moving target summing up a genre is. Later in the podcast they pick out Chuck Wendig as an example of a squeecore writer – well I’ve never read any Wendig so maybe he is but then that feels like they are talking about a different generation of writers and writers positioned quite differently in the genre space. Added to that are Joss Whedon imitators, which absolutely fine to dislike that style of quippy, snark stuff. I can see how John Scalzi’s work fit into that but Scalzi famously has older protagonists. In short, lots of legitimate criticisms of specific tropes, aesthetics and elements that you can find in the broader world of SFF and works but many of these are elements that are old and few are present collectively in works in a way that makes it a clear sub-genre or literary movement.
Pulling back, I think some defensible points that we could pull from these claims is that contemporary science fiction arguably has more influences from mainstream popular culture than previously (and hence a degree of Joss Whedonism) because of the increasing role science fiction (often in the form of superhero films) is playing in popular culture. That’s not wholly new obviously, given the role since the early ’60s of Star Trek and Doctor Who and the impact of Star Wars in the 70s/80s but the degree to which big-name movies are predominately genre is exceptional. Likewise, the influence of Young Adult fiction is relevant (a point the podcasters make is the degree to which the financial success of J.K.Rowling has led to many aspiring writers thinking that there is a great fortune to be made in YA). I may have missed it but I don’t think they touch on the influence of fanfiction but I’d see that as another element that is maybe more influential now than previously.
I mentioned that the podcast does not really touch on examples. The 2015 Hugo finalist novel The Goblin Emperor is given as an example of squeecore and OK, yes, I can see how that fits some of the elements they mention but if that’s what squeecore is then I don’t think it’s typical.
More revealing is some of the examples of what the podcasters regard as NOT squeecore. By charting out the negative space, that can help define the territory. Carmen Maria Machado is mentioned, and she’s certainly a credible writer but I’m not sure in what way she is less squeecore than other Nebula-nominated writers (also she’s a Clarion graduate). Ted Chiang is mentioned as not being squeecore and OK, I’m not really seeing a pattern here. Gretchen Felker-Martin is a more obvious not-squeecore as a writer who I’d associate with Raquel S. Benedict’s general circle (although notably Felker-Martin is published by Tor).
Now here is where I have to become utterly puzzled. Another example given is The Poppy War books by R.F.Kuang. I was really puzzled because these were the very books that came to my mind based on that very first definition of squeecore given in the first podcast. See if you can see why:
- a person of marginalized identity
- is plagued by outsiders
- and also some kind of supernatural unpleasantness like there’s a monster
- or some kind of uncontrolled superpowers.
- It’s usually a metaphor for their marginalization in some way.
- And then something transformative happens.
- They gain confidence.
- They learn to harness this supernatural thing to use to their advantage,
- and then they defeat the oppressor
- and become basically a superpowered supernatural crusader for social justice.
Now, absolutely The Poppy War trilogy overtly SUBVERTS several of those tropes while also reflecting them but trope-subversion is also one of the complaints about squeecore in the second podcast. The books also fit multiple criteria in the list I paraphrased from the second podcast, including a didactic element, an overt YA influence, and a young naive protagonist. Yes, there are lots of ways it doesn’t fit the squeecore description the podcasters give but aside from some of the Lodestar finalists, it really ticks more of the boxes they cite than even The Goblin Emperor.
Yeah but. The Poppy War is very much NOT uplifting or upbeat. It also contains some acts of horrifying violence based on real historical atrocities. Looking out further at both the squeecore complaints and what the podcasters generally like in their own work and social media boosting, there’s a lot of horror and violence. I’ve no problem with that but it gets a lot easier to pick out functionally what Benedict et al are likely to decide is NOT squeecore on the basis of:
- violent or dark themes
- if not actually horror then borderline with horror
- maybe more overtly sexual
That’s a perfectly reasonable set of aesthetic criteria to like but at the end of all this functionally the way they are using the term “squeecore” is little more than “things that aren’t that”. It’s the equivalent of the term that used to bug me when I was growing up — “non-Catholic” as a category that encompassed the vast diversity of everybody else who wasn’t Catholics like us.