Cover of Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer from a 1980s edition.This long column is my reaction to one panel at this year’s excellent in-person ReaderCon. It contains spoilers for the STEERSWOMAN series and several books that were published forty or fifty years ago.

ReaderCon was a chocolate layer-cake of delight, and I enjoyed myself immensely. As with any conference that has multiple panels, some delighted more than others, and one, “Cross-Genre Surprise,” discussing books that seem to be one genre (eg, fantasy or realist) but are revealed to be something else entirely, (science fiction, horror), was slightly less delightful than most.

Panel members included Ruthanna Emrys, Yves Meynard, Zigzag Claybourne, Kenneth Schneyer and Robert V.S. Redick.

I came away from the panel disappointed, feeling like the panelists were stretching to meet the definition of the write-up, instead of initiating a genuine discussion.

As Emrys pointed out, the best recent example, THE STEERSWOMAN series by Rosemary Kirstein, was already “taken” in the program’s panel description. In the STEERSWOMAN books, protagonist Rowan seeks clues that explain the sudden and serious changes in her world, in the process discovering that their agriculturally-based, low-technology culture is descended from a colony of spacefarers. The series is a good example of how to peel away the layers of official history to uncover “what really happened.”

The panel struggled to identify works that contained the perspective shift necessary to make it a true “surprise,” rather than merely a work that blends genre to tell its story. Some of their reaches were downright acrobatic.

Yves Meynard offered the film version of The Wizard of Oz as a “cross-genre surprise,” because we think Dorothy goes to an imaginary land, but really it’s all a dream, hence realist fiction. (That is his description.) Meynard specified the film, not the book, for this example, so I assume he is aware that Frank Baum wrote fourteen Oz books, set mostly in Oz, and clearly fantasy.

Someone else (my notes don’t name them) worked very hard to make Of Love and Shadows, Isabel Allende’s fictionalized account of the Pinochet coup in Chile, “cross-genre” because, in his opinion, it “shifts” from realist fiction to magical realism. Here again, the panelist might have been talking about a film version of the book; I couldn’t tell.

Other panelists offered up examples of books that radically change tone, or are genre blends from the start, with no expectation of a “surprise” and probably no real genre-perspective shift. Discovering the zombies are the result of a virus doesn’t suddenly shift the book into “science fiction;” it’s still horror.

I think the panel’s hurdle was the word “surprise.” “Surprise” implies a plot twist or a startling reveal. While those can work well in shorter fiction, works that count on a “trick” are often, for me, the least interesting ones.

To the extent “genre surprise” works for me, it’s because I’m right there with the characters, trying to figure out the clues and discrepancies with them—and because of the characters’ emotions, motivations and actions once they discover their world is not what they thought it was.

Since I wasn’t happy with the panel, I wondered if I could do better. I enlisted the help of writing friends to compile a list where the fundamental nature of the world in the story seems to change as information is revealed. Frankly, I had the same problem the panelists did—the perspective-change element varies widely from work to work. The ones I might consider true surprises were older—pre-twenty-first-century—stories.

In Tanith Lee’s The Birthgrave, (1975), an amnesiac first-person narrator wanders a fantastical, brutal pre-industrial world seeking information about her identity and the source of her powers. The book reads as straightforward fantasy until the end, when the narrator encounters the starship that holds her answers. The Birthgrave is a good example of genre blending; the world may have developed to this stage before the starship arrived, and be a true fantasy setting. No surprises are really needed, although I do remember the startling ending being satisfying when I read it.

In 1980, Gene Wolfe’s tetralogy THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN follows Severian, a torturer, through a strange land filled with wonders, magical and otherwise. The towers of the Citadel, where Severian lives, look strangely like rockets. The books are filled with magic, sword-duels, drugs, high technology, science, clones, extraterrestrials and time travel, while still reading as a high-fantasy quest story. It’s not completely clear whether Severian already knows some of things we learn through the four books, such as the existence of time-travel and spaceships, or if these are revelations.  (Off-topic: Cross-genre or not, surprise or not, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN remains one of my favorite examples of the unreliable narrator.)

1975’s Phoenix Without Ashes was the novelization, by Harlan Ellison and Edward C. Bryant, of Ellison’s teleplay for the short-lived Canadian-USA science fiction television show The Starlost. Devon is a resident of the small pastoral farming community of Cypress Corners. There are immediate clues that this isn’t exactly, say, the American Midwest; the sun is a funny shape, and the moon doesn’t transit, but Devon doesn’t have a basis of comparison for these oddities. Devon loves Rachel but she is required to marry another, because the community is ruled by an authoritarian theocracy (even though there is a plausible science-fictiony rationale for the arranged marriage that is also a clue to the real situation). Ellison and Bryant both seem to focus mainly on repressive regimes and religious hypocrisy, particularly in response to sex, so Devon’s discovery that he is not in a bucolic countryside, but rather an agrarian “pod” of a generation starship comes fairly early, and easily, in the story. Even after he finds the bridge and the mainframe computer which fills Devon in on the backstory, Devon seems less interested in this world-changing moment, and more about eloping with Rachel.

Writer friend Nancy Jane Moore suggested some of John “Bud” Sparhawk’s short fiction, where advanced tech functions in the world much as magic does. This is not presented as a surprise or a secret—simply the way his worlds work.

Moore also mentioned two works marketed as general fiction or literary; Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, and  The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is the clearer-cut of the two. It’s set in the future of its publishing date (1999) and involves a fictional charter giving Jewish people a “promised land” in the rapidly warming state of Alaska. The charter is set to expire with the turn of the century, and schemes are afoot. The only general fiction part of the story is the writer, but the book was not marketed as science fiction. Whitehead’s book is not so simply categorized; it relies on a fantastical premise to tell its story, but I’d call it surrealism rather than fantasy. Why? I think because Whitehead isn’t choosing to tell a fantasy story; he’s adopting a fantastical style so he can tell the story the best possible way.

Does this hair-splitting even matter? I think it does. The value of examining how a writer perpetuates a perspective shift on both the reader and the characters is a discussion of both craft and art.

On the craft level, the writer who is choosing to take both readers and characters on a perspective shift must plant clues carefully, must present us with characters who, even though they are intelligent and intuitive, can’t know what they don’t know—and yet can make the necessary leaps in awareness when they are needed.

As far as art, genre surprise books do create a shift in perspective, and they very often involve in-world history. These works also help us recognize when, in the real world, we’re having a shift in awareness ourselves—that moment of insight where suddenly we grasp another way of looking at a situation.

As readers, we bring both a curiosity and a skepticism to the story-world’s history, for “how it’s always been.” Rowan, Severian, Devon, and the birthgrave woman, all have to look beneath the surface of their worlds to find truths that have been buried, semi-erased or disguised in some way. As citizens in the world, we must remember to do the same.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.