Decline of Fictional Uniqueness?

As some of my readers know, these days I binge-read fiction on business trips or other travels, and, for the most part, I make an effort to search out books and authors I haven’t read, as well as books that deal with what I’d call interesting subjects or more familiar subjects addressed in a unique fashion.

The problem is, at least for me, that, beneath the veneer of “new and different” claimed by publishers and authors, I’m finding that there really isn’t all that much truly new and different. Oh, there are definitely books that deal with “new and different,” but not nearly so many as the publishing hype might suggest. Perhaps that’s always been the case, and perhaps when an author gets older, and has read as many books in the field as I have, it’s just harder to find something that’s truly different.

But I’m not so certain about that. Tolkien re-invented heroic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings, and I can’t even count the number of follow-ons and knock-offs. As far as I can determine Fred Saberhagen re-invented the vampire genre with The Dracula Tape in 1975 [Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire wasn’t published until May of 1976], although one could also claim that Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend [1954] was the first of the true twentieth century vampire “re-births,’ but Matheson’s blood-suckers were more “generic.’ Saberhagen also pioneered the whole idea of malevolent, non-gendered cyber beings with his berserker stories, something that tends to get overlooked in all the hoopla about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its sequel.

Certainly James Tiptree, Jr., [Alice Bradley Sheldon], Joanna Russ, Sheri Tepper, and Ursula K. LeGuin were questioning gender roles and societal norms some thirty years ago, and even in 1987 Melissa Scott wrote The Kindly Ones, a masterful work in which it is impossible to determine with any certainty the gender of the protagonist.

The Wheel of Time and Game of Thrones are essentially huge-scale epic fantasies, with a few twists, that, in my mind, at least, fall into the post-Tolkien follow-on school.

Now, as I’ve noted in some of my comments on what I’ve read, there are still books with unique twists on old themes and some few with new themes, and I’m still looking, but it just could be that, as I’m getting older, it’s just harder to surprise me.

What do you think… and what books have struck you as unique… and why?

16 thoughts on “Decline of Fictional Uniqueness?”

  1. Bob Walters says:

    How about Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops and Reawakening?

  2. Hmmm. I suspect nearly all fiction is largely variations on old themes, though particular themes may be new to particular readers.

    Looking back over what I’ve read this past year, the fantasy book that seemed least standard in approach to me was Ken Liu’s “The Grace of Kings.” But there are two caveats. One, I didn’t enjoy it that much, primarily because I didn’t like the principal characters. Two, I think it may not seem fresh to different (Asian?) audiences. Despite those caveats, I was glad that I read it.

    I read and liked Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel “Uprooted,” which won the 2016 Nebula Award, and which I think some consider innovative. I liked it, but didn’t find it particularly innovative.

    I also read Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards books, and considerably enjoyed their flamboyance, but I don’t think flamboyance is new to fiction…. I note that I started reading the second of these books in parallel with “Imager’s Challenge.” After a while, I set the Scott Lynch book aside to finish “Imager’s Challenge” first, because I cared more about Rhenn than about Locke Lamora.

    I loved Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire,” about the Battle of Thermopylae, but it is historical fiction rather than SF/F, and not that new (first published in 1998). If not innovative, it is at least non-standard, in that the reader is expected to know what’s coming. It’s a book I liked enough that I plan to re-read it.

    I also very much liked Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” but that is neither SF/F, nor even fiction, and is over 2000 years old.

  3. Daze says:

    We’re all getting older and time is compressing … The Left Hand of Darkness and the early James Tiptree stories are late 60s, so fifty years old now!

    Although the great bulk of urban fantasy is very formulaic indeed, the idea that some event re-introduces magic to the world – the GM tomato disaster in Kim Harrison’s books, or the Shift in Ilona Andrews’ – seems to me to be at least slightly different. Not sure who could claim first dibs on it, unless it’s Charlaine Harris?

    1. Daze says:

      Although come to think of it, Anne McCaffrey’s Talent series is at least analagous to that idea, and To Ride Pegasus was 1973 and included previously published stories!

      1. Daze says:

        aaannndd – The Lady in the Tower was the second story AMcC ever wrote, published in 1959. heigh ho, nothing new, grumpy old man me …

  4. Matt says:

    “West of January” by Dave Duncan. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else like it. Same with “Planet of Treason” by Orson Scott Card.

  5. Left says:

    Brandon Sanderson is building something unique with his Cosmere books, which when finished will be as large and probably more complex and generally better written than any other sci fi or fantasy series. Since the subseries are still very independent they could be considered high quality Tolkien camp books, but I think once it’s all done and tied together it will clearly be a new and impressive new kind of fiction.

    I’m going to mention Dune because it’s hard not to mention Frank Herbert’s work.

    The Red Rising trilogy by Pierce Brown is interesting because it takes modern writing and a sci fi dystopian world, and then presents itself as a kind of Homeric tale.

    Though less well known that 2001, Clarke’s Childhoods End is my favorite 1st contact book. I think it’s picture of an interaction between an alien civilization and ours is by far the most interesting I’ve read.

    Planet of the Apes the original novel is actually quite interesting because while it combines the adventure writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs with attempts at hard science and sci fi.

    These are just what I could think of in fantasy and sci fi.

  6. Matthew Runyon says:

    While much of the rest of her fantasy and science fiction isn’t terribly unique (just masterful), Lois McMaster Bujold has one story that is unique, at least in my experience. Ethan of Athos takes advanced reproductive techniques and patriarchal religion to their logical conclusion, and opens the door to so many other possibilities that the mind boggles.

    1. JakeB says:

      Although you might argue that Janet’s world in _The Female Man_ is a predecessor, mutatis mutandis (though it’s true the intersection with religion is worked out in _Ethan of Athos_). Only half a propos, my favorite bit in _The Female Man_ is where Janet ends up beating up a good ol’ boy after he calls her a baby, which turns out to be a deadly insult in an all-female world. That had the pleasing sense of orthogonality to our world that is part of what I look for in good science fiction.

  7. darcherd says:

    While Tad Williams rose to fame with his Tolkienesque “Memory, Sorrow, & Thorn” series (and an extremely well-written example of the genre), for something a bit different, I highly recommend his “Bobby Dollar” series about an angel doing duty on earth in a slightly alternate version of the San Francisco Bay Area. Wry humor and rollicking good adventure to boot!

    1. Left says:

      I think that Bobby Dollar, at least the parts that I’ve read, has a lot in common with the previously written Dresden files and Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Gaiman. Dresden Files also takes many cues from previous urban fantasy books/tv/films.

      I do think that there is a case for much of Neil Gaiman’s work to be considered unique. I’m specifically thinking of Anansi Boys and The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

  8. John Prigent says:

    I don’t expect originality in any book. The possible themes and settings are so limited that repetition of at lest one of them in any story is unavoidable. Epic of Gilgamesh, anybody? Or the Homeric stories? So I just look for new twists on the old themes of boy-meets-girl (or vice versa), search-for-lost relic/person/city/what-have-you, repel invaders/expose traitors, find-the-killer, growing-into-maturity, and all the other hunt the thimble themes. I’m just happy that so many good writers like LEM can come up with believable characters to inhabit their variations on those themes!

  9. Jim S says:

    While it’s at least arguable that there ae only a handful of themes and broad story lines (heroes journey, coming of age, etc.), some writers have certainly brought something new and unique to it. Things like the depth of Tolkien’s world (and of Recluce!) come to my mind as examples.

    But there’s certainly a strong similarity to a lot of what’s written today. Series are common, rather than well told one-off books. I think that’s driven a lot by publishers and market forces. There’s a reason the “men’s adventure” or romance novels are all so nearly interchangeable; it’s what that market wants! Publishers, looking at tighter and tighter bottom lines, look at what they think will sell. That’s part of why I think series have become so common — keep giving the people what they wanted last time! Rather than run a risk on a more unique novel or even novella or less known author — stick with stuff that’s worked before. And, since writers, I’m told, have an odd fondness for keeping houses over their heads, food in their bellies, and bills in general paid… they write what the publishers will buy.

    1. darcherd says:

      All true. And yet, I LIKE series. Once I’ve discovered a well-crafted world with interesting characters, I’m loath to leave it and eagerly await the chance to return to it. Plus sometimes they allow an author to tell a truly immense tale that could not have possibly fit into a single book. I’m thinking of C.J. Cherryh’s “Foreigner” series that is now 20+ books and telling the ongoing saga of the central character.

      1. Jim S says:

        I don’t have a problem with a good series. One that makes sense, that’s not just “let’s throw out another book to keep the money coming in.” Too many just feel like “how long can we keep this running? when will the public stop buying it?” And way too many of those, after a bit, start to feel like the writer was just going through the motions to fill the pages and meet the requirements of a contract.

  10. Joe says:

    The most innovative SciFi last year, was for me AMC / Channel 4 / USA’s Humans TV series. The Swedish original was good, but Series 2 of the English version was even better. I highly recommend it.

    The TV adaptation of the Expanse book series is also visually/culturally very interesting. A good prediction includes the fact that things don’t actually change all that much from century to century. I find the books of the series oddly addictive, but not that original.

    Despite reading a lot of SciFi, there does seem to be a dearth of new ideas. Contrast to last century: Ursula Le Guin’s Hain Universe, Asimov’s laws of robotics, and Dune stand as amazing new worlds. Some of C.J.Cherryh’s work also hits the mark.

    For me, Ursula Le Guin isn’t about gender equality, but addresses the much deeper question: what is sentience? How can different sentient beings perceive the world so differently and yet still be creatures whose skin I can creep into, and empathize with? Dune’s inhabitants push similar boundaries despite being human, as of course do robots.

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