A Review of Spec Fic For Newbies

Alexander Glass on a new writing guide by Tiffani Angus and Val Nolan

In the realms of science fiction, fantasy and horror, Tiffani Angus and Val Nolan know whereof they speak. Angus’s 2020 novel Threading the Labyrinth, a historical fantasy, was a finalist for Best Novel in both the BSFA and British Fantasy Awards. Val Nolan has published a wide selection of articles and short fiction and, in 2022, Neil Jordan: Works for the Page, a study of Jordan’s novels and stories. Both have taught creative writing, including speculative fiction; both are accomplished academics (Angus has a PhD in Creative Writing, Nolan a PhD in Contemporary Literature).

The title of their first collaboration, Spec Fic For Newbies (Luna Press Publishing, 2023), does not suggest an academic study, and it isn’t. The subtitle explains: it is A Beginner’s Guide to Writing Subgenres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. A writers’ guide, then, more than a readers’ guide – if you are new to reading (or watching) these genres and are looking for a way in, I wouldn’t start from here. In particular, the jokes – with which the book is generously seasoned – will work best for readers already familiar with the genres. A section on mirror universes begins: ‘Grab your goatee for a world just like our own…’ – if you know your Star Trek, you will know the goatee; if not, you may feel the gag does not quite make the cut (though it might grow on you). But anyone already interested in these genres as a reader, or even as a non-newbie writer, is likely to find much of interest here.

The book is divided into three long chapters (Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror), each of which is subdivided into sections focusing on ten subgenres, examining – necessarily briefly, but engagingly – the nature and history of each, its relationships to other subgenres, common features (including, importantly, clichés and pitfalls), and suggested exercises for writers. The discussion is often illuminating; the section on robots would be expected to cover Asimov’s laws, but I had never heard of the Lokapannatti, spirit-powered mechanical soldiers guarding the relics of the Buddha. Some observations are subtly thoughtful, such as the comfort found in body horror by some transgender people; others are merely curious, but fun (Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series was a favourite of the rapper Coolio).

The authors draw out the richness of each subgenre, but most interesting are the connections made between different genres and subgenres – noting, for example, that the Borg – Star Trek again – are closely related to zombies. The links are so numerous, and so clearly set out, that it is clear the walls between subgenres – and even between genres – are low, and apt to crumble at a touch. If there are gates, Angus and Nolan have no interest in keeping them.

This is consistent with a recurring theme in the book – not only the
often-observed fact that genre fiction, regardless of the specific
subgenre, is less about its apparent subject matter and more about its writers and readers and the times in which they live, but also, more subtly, that the various subgenres and motifs provide a set of tools for examining the world, and even for reverse-engineering it. This book is a beginner’s guide to using some of those tools.

The authors come to the material from different starting points: Nolan from a classic science fiction angle, Angus from a fantasy standpoint; but both worked on all sections of the book, revising and redrafting, raising questions and offering suggestions. As a result it is impossible to say who wrote what. The shared tone is informal, infectiously enthusiastic, even breezy: one imagines both authors give vastly entertaining classes. The tone may not suit everyone’s taste, but the point is to be as broadly accessible as possible, and in that it succeeds.

Writers, whether newbies or not, might be interested in trying out some of the exercises in subgenres in which they do not usually write – and perhaps even in subgenres they do not usually read. Even if they choose not to do so, an enhanced knowledge of diverse subgenres and the links between them will likely be useful. Here, Angus and Nolan clearly benefit from their experience of teaching creative writing: they know that some things work better than others; some mistakes repeatedly recur; some questions keep coming up, and so can be anticipated.

There are other studies of genre fiction on the market, and other writing guides, but there is no book combining the two in quite this way, or breaking down genres and tropes in similarly concise but granular detail.

There seems to be hope for a sequel, which would be welcome (a floated title, Spec Fic For Newbies Two: Subgenre Boogaloo would be fun, although the American far right has adopted the term ‘boogaloo’ – it may be too late to rescue it). That would allow inclusion of space opera, and perhaps of the liminal edges of genre, such as the references to Lovecraft in the first season of True Detective, or the dark magic realism of various Korean dramas, or for explorations of the wider, wilder territory of fantastika – of non-mimetic literature more generally – beyond the carefully tended walled gardens of modern, marketing-friendly genres. Angus and Nolan might be open to suggestions, but seem unlikely to want for ideas: they know whereof they speak. ∎

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.

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