Jan 21, 2022·edited Jan 21, 2022Liked by Lincoln Michel

David Mitchell has been an outspoken proponent of breaking down the artificial genre/literary gatekeeping, and so it's good to see one of his novels take its place as an archetype in this current trend.

One other novel that comes to mind is Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. It doesn't exactly fit the speculative epic rubric since there's a direct thread across the hundred years rather than skipping time, and, of course, the genre elements are fantasy/magic realism rather than science fiction. (Genre fantasy readers have long complained that "magic realism" is just code for "fantasy that literary critics like.")

I believe Cloud Atlas is much more directly influential to the current wave of speculative epics than 100YoS, but I do think 100YoS played a role in making epic-scope fantastical novels have a place in the literary world.

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It's interesting (to me, anyway!) to compare these novels to a couple older ones that almost fit but not quite. A Canticle for Leibowitz gives you the same place in three time periods (all future), is very up-front about the mystical connections between characters across time, and uses the time shifts to explore current social issues (the big obvious one of nuclear war, but also euthanasia/eugenics, the role of libraries, and expanding technological control). But it's not aiming for that gigantic "epic" feel--it's tighter, more like a series of linked fables.

Meanwhile Infinite Jest is SF in lit clothing, is huge and feels epic, and uses its sprawl to depict all-pervasive social conditions like consumerism and the distraction economy; it's definitely about the role of narrative, also, which seems similar but maybe subtly distinct from the question of the role of art. But it doesn't cover that much of a timespan and I don't remember (though I could definitely be forgetting!!) much in the way of mystical rather than normal, often thwarted connections among characters. Still, I wonder if it was an influence for any of these authors.

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I'm a lowly genre-reading plebe so I don't have much to add on the literary side. But I did want to add that this sort of panoramic storytelling is grist for the mill of speculative sf/fantasy.

Even restricted to space-related stuff, there's series like Benford's Galactic Centre, Baxter's Xeelee novels/stories, and Reynold's Revelation Space books which all play with the sweep of time and (at least in some of those) multi-layered characters & POVs. Epic fantasy clearly has its own versions of this.

I don't know if that adds anything to your analysis here but it seemed appropriate.

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Jan 20, 2022Liked by Lincoln Michel

To the list of novels that weave together two different and interacting timelines, I would add Sandra Newman's 2019 book "The Heavens." In this novel, the actions and choices of characters in the 17th century world of Shakespeare (including the bard himself) ripple tragically -- in some magic that is never explained -- into the early 21st century in the same kind of ways we mean when we say with dark humor "This timeline sucks."

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Hi Lincoln, I absolutely loved what I just read. Thank you for writing this! It's actually crazy because, before this was even a thing in my mind - I'd been coincidentally reading all these books in succession. I devoured Sea of Tranquility, having been a fan of Mandel's for years, and having highly anticipated its release, then moved on to How High We Go In the Dark, which mesmerised me. A few weeks ago I'd read To Paradise. I'm now well into Cloud Cuckoo Land and I just thought ... wait a minute, something's up here - and these are all recent fictions.

So it seems you're not the only one noticing the pattern. But beyond the trend of writing this kind of fiction, for me, what was mystical was my tendency to be attracted to these (and I don't think I would harbour similar attraction to the genre were there not some kind of SF element - near or far future). These books have similarities but they all feel so different. So I think what you say, in your review of Nagamatsu's book is spot on: "Or perhaps it’s because the issues we now face feel so overwhelming that only a vast, imaginative canvas can begin to tackle them."

I've been wondering if we couldn't fit this into this term I recently read about called "transrealism" and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Someone forwarded me this link from the guardian about it:


This refers to "a transrealist manifesto", which I also read right after:


What are your thoughts on this? Could we go as far as saying "transrealist epic" to narrow it even more? :) since what the manifesto refers to is elements of magic in "realistic" settings? -- curious to know what you'd think :)

PS: Happy to subscribe to countercraft!

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Loved, this, thanks, Lincoln!

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Jan 19, 2022Liked by Lincoln Michel

Thinking of Tochi Onyebuchi's forthcoming GOLIATH as I read this, and wondering if SFF also considers this "speculative" epic (as employed via a "literary" lens, as opposed to how SFF authors will traditionally employ epic scale) as fertile ground.

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While none of his comics fit in here, both of Alan Moore's novels - Jerusalem and Voice of the Fire - do! Neal Stephenson feels like he has one of these in him. Same with a Connie Willis of 15-20 years ago.

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Jan 20, 2022·edited Jan 20, 2022

I hadn’t heard of any of the books mentioned save Cloud Atlas; I look forward to reading them all, someday, as this new genre you’ve mapped out sounds fascinating.

I wonder how much of this trend is just a reflection of American culture’s increasing dependence on the spectacle. Everything happening at once and too much; the inability to keep your audience’s attention unless you just do a lot of Stuff. Hysterical realism chasing after our increasingly short attention spans. Which isn’t to knock on any of these authors, or to say that spectacle is an inherently bad thing!

But the media landscape itself - everything novels are competing against for attention - is increasingly hysterical. I don’t know if quiet stories have much room to breathe.

And I’m also trying to work out if our current Large Societal Issues are over- or understated as a contributing factor. There have been a lot of doomsdays over the past century and a lot of technical advancements. Why weren’t speculative epics manifesting after, say, WWI? Or the Space Race?

My extremely cynical take is that these Large Societal Issues are only being dealt with because they have finally affected Americans - particularly the isolated, educated class that a good deal of successful writers come from. America has never really had to deal with the apocalypse on our doorstep the way other nations have. But now we do. Maybe that’s the real change that these novels are reflecting.

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