Sci-fi/fantasy take new forms as new generations dare to imagine

“The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror” by Joyce Carol Oates
“The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror” by Joyce Carol Oates

When the Guardian newspaper of London conducted a study on the most popular fiction genres based on sales figures and authors’ incomes, one surprise was the solid placement of science fiction/fantasy (usually combined as one genre, though they’re really two). They ranked it No. 4 (of five), ahead of horror and behind romance-erotica, crime-mystery and inspirational. That must have made the 1,800 members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America happy.

“There’s huge interest in sci-fi and fantasy,” said Michael Troyan, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Citrus Heights and co-author of “MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot.” “Our sci-fi/fantasy section is so large it’s broken out into sub-genres, and by authors and series. It’s centrally located in the store, and it keeps growing.”

The face of sci-fi/fantasy has changed over the decades – due partly to advances in technology – with newer generations of writers spinning their stories off the foundation created by pioneers such as Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Richard Matheson, Isaac Asimov, Doris Lessing, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Theodore Sturgeon, James Blish, Fritz Leiber and others.

Let’s consider some new tales of “speculative fiction” and no-boundaries fantasy:

National Book Award medalist Joyce Carol Oates is one of the world’s most highly regarded and prolific authors, a Princeton professor but not above getting her literary hands soiled. The six “tales of terror” in “The Doll-Master” take us on an edgy ride into the far corners of the macabre (Mysterious Press, $24, 304 pages). Let’s remember that Oates has written other terror fiction – “Zombie,” ”The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares,” “Black Dahlia & White Rose” and “Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon,” and edited “American Gothic Tales” and “Tales of H. P. Lovecraft,”

On a brighter note, “A Robot in the Garden” by Deborah Install follows the unlikely road trip-friendship between Ben Chambers and Tang, a damaged robot he discovers and restores (Sourcebooks Landmark $16, 320 pages).

In “The Vagrant,” author Peter Newman explores a post-apocalyptic world where a lone “knight” battles the army of the Usurper to reach the Shining City, “the last bastion of the human race” (Harper Voyager, $17, 400 pages).

“The God Wave” is Book One in a planned trilogy by Patrick Hemstreet, starring a neuroscientist who finds the secret to unleashing the untapped potential in the human brain. The resulting community of “super-beings” becomes the target of “power brokers with motives far from peaceful” (Harper Voyager, $25, 400 pages).

Though Irish novelist John Connolly is best known for his 14-title “Charlie Parker” thriller (with supernatural overtones) series, he and writing partner Jennifer Ridyard have their “The Chronicles of the Invaders” trilogy, which they conclude with “Dominion” (Atria, $26, 448 pages). In it, two protagonists who have survived an alien invasion (and a trip through a worm hole) must help save Earth from “the Others.”

“Gifted clairvoyant” Paige Mahoney was introduced in 2014’s best-selling “The Bone Season” as a tormented young woman living in the year 2059 who is imprisoned for her “treasonous” special powers. Now she’s escaped the penal colony and is on the run in the sequel, “The Mime Order” – only this time she’s got some very special friends with her as she finds her way to “the secret catacombs of Camden” (Bloomsbury, $17, 528 pages).

This story of an evolutionary nightmare poses the question: What would happen if technology allowed people’s minds to commingle and “experience the world through multiple bodies”? In “Join,” Steve Toutonghi ratchets up the tension with a serial killer, an ecologically devastated landscape and a forgotten band of “ferals” who have been ignored – up till now (Soho, $27, 336 pages).

We’ll revisit sci-fi/fantasy in an upcoming summer books preview.

Switching genres

Try these new titles:

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have collaborated on 25 thrillers, most notably the superb Aloysius Pendergast series starring the fascinating FBI “special agent,” but they also have the Gideon Crew series. In “Beyond the Ice Limit,” their fourth title (Grand Central, $27, 384 pages), the adventurer and his posse are tasked with destroying what once was believed to be an ancient meteor – but is really something deadly.

The premise of “The Second Life of Nick Mason” is fast and deadly: A felon serving life is “freed,” housed in a mansion, given a luxury car and told to wait for the occasional phone call for instructions, which he must follow or be killed (Putnam, $27, 304 ). To compound his new life, the police detective who originally put him away is hot on his trail. This starts a new series for Edgar Award-winning novelist Steve Hamilton.

Another Edgar winner with a new thriller is John Hart, whose “Redemption Road” goes beyond Southern Gothic to feature his first female protagonist (Thomas Dunne, $28, 432 pages). The usually composed North Carolina police detective Elizabeth Black turns vengeful after a murder, a betrayal and a threat to a young boy. In a note to his readers, best-selling Hart explains why he’s been away from the scene for five years: “I managed 300 pages of what I thought would be this book, but realized I was on the wrong track, so I started over.”

“Instructions for the End of the World” by Jamie Kain is a big-buzz YA title told from the points of view of teenagers whose survivalist families have hidden out in the Sierra to await Armageddon in whatever form it may take (St. Martin’s Griffin, $20, 224 pages). Nicole meets Wolf, and young love blossoms until an unexpected disaster tests their mantra of “survival, evasion, resistance, escape.”

Sacramento playwright-composer Gail Avery Halverson uses London in the Great Plague of 1665 as the backdrop for “The Boundary Stone” (Knight Wenstrom, $15, 332 pages). The historical romance swirls around a woman too bright and ambitious for the arranged marriage she’s trapped in, and a doctor whose medical research has tested criminal boundaries.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe