Abaddon Open Subs month: subverting genre
5 months ago
Here, then, is the second of my little blogs for the Abaddon Open Submissions Month 2017, and I want to tackle one of the most important things about Abaddon Books: subversion.
Right from the outset, Abaddon has taken fairly traditional genre tropes and found ways to turn them on their heads, or use them to ask serious questions. Not always in huge, fundamental ways – and we’re not always the first to use a particular twist – but there’s always something in there that’s a little different from the usual.
The post-apocalyptic Afterblight Chronicles are explorations of authority, society and faith. Weird Space is about riotous space-smugglers and rebels… and weird, interdimensional Lovecraftesque horrors. The Tomes of the Dead series glory in this, dropping zombies on Napoleonic ships, in Medieval Welsh castles, as training aids for investment bankers, and as weird gumshoe-mercenary-shapeshifting-alien-bug-things.
As you saw previously, four of the five winning pitches in the last two open-subs months won primarily on the concept, generally because it was in some way subversive or challenging on a type. So how do you do subversion? What’s the sort of thing that’ll make us sit up and take notice, here at Abaddon Towers?
Glad you asked.
So the most obvious way to subvert a genre is to build something fairly traditional and change a part of it in some way. Malcolm Cross’s Orbital Decay is a whodunit on a tiny space station. The hero of Death Got No Mercy’s a sociopathic killer. Hungry Hearts is a zombie love triangle.
It’s an exercise in lateral thinking. How about a legal drama set in a world of superheroes (where the legalities of mind-reading, or the definition of “armed,” undergo fresh court challenges every week), or a military-SF told from the point of view of later generations trying to piece together how they lost?
Okay, so mashups are kind of hokey these days, but there’s always scope to come up with something fun. Chuck Wendig’s Double Dead is vampires (well, a vampire) vs zombies; The Malory’s Knights of Albion series is Arthuriana meets gothic horror. Addison Gunn’s Extinction Biome is both military SF and CliFi.
The sky’s the limit, really! An alien invasion story set in the Renaissance? An espionage thriller set in a fairy court? How about a stone-age epic fantasy?
One of our favourite subversions is the straight-up reversal. Make the villain the hero, bring the dead to life, make the end the beginning… turn the story on its head. This is most evident in Toby Venables’ epic Hunter of Sherwood trilogy, in which Guy of Gisburne is an idealistic hero – agent of the shrewd, principled Prince John – trying to rescue Britain from the ravages of the psychotic Robin Hood.
What does this mean for you? What about a company of spaceship troopers desperately trying to protect Imperial workers and their families from the bloodthirsty ragtag of the so-called “rebellion”? What does the ancient and secret monster-hunting order do when the prophesied saviour is killed, like, as soon as she turns up?
REPRESENTATION AND INTERROGATION
Often, the story doesn’t have to be particularly new or different, if the character is. Foz Meadows’ Coral Bones examines The Tempest with a genderqueer Miranda; Cass Khaw’s Rupert Wong Cannibal Chef swung us with the writing and the character, but we certainly liked that it was a story about Malaysian mythology, with a Malaysian hero, written by a Malaysian writer. Una McCormack’s The Baba Yaga is a desperate flight from an evil government, with a pregnant hero.
What could you do along these lines? Give us a “chosen one” heroic fantasy narrative, where the hero lives with anxiety. How about a gay superspy, killing bad guys to rescue his abducted husband? Obviously, here, your own experiences are important, but odds are good you have something to draw on to tell a story, something that breaks with the norm and is still personal to you.
But most of all – and in a way, all of these approaches also do this – subversion is about asking (sometimes difficult) questions. Steampunk is guilty (much of the time) of glorifying imperialism; Pax Britannia shows us the darker, uglier side of that world. Scott K. Andrews’ School’s Out asks why, in a world no longer bound by the rule of law, kids would trust adults for a minute. Hillary Monahan’s Snake Eyes is about gender identity, and how it complicates family.
Pick a cliché and unpack it! How do orcs feel about their legacy as slaves? What sort of person gets non-therapeutic cybernetic implants, and what drives them to it? Why does the Dark Lord want to conquer the kingdom?
And there you go. Not by any means a comprehensive list, but some avenues for inspiration.
Next week: the Synopsis.