Writing Science Fiction

Karen Joy Fowler on Writing Sci-Fiction and Fantasy

December 06, 2012

By Chey Street

In a small, comfortable room in the Humanities building, I recently had the opportunity to converse with Karen Joy Fowler, author of four novels and two short story collections. Her short story collection, Black Glass, won The World Fantasy Award.  Fowler spent over an hour sharing her wisdom about what makes good sci-fi/fantasy.

According to Fowler, many students haven’t read much contemporary sci-fi or fantasy, so that when they go to write it, they rely on old tropes and standards to tell their stories. 

Fowler explains that beginning students of fantasy and science fiction are working in a universe more akin to fan fiction (fiction written about a story, character, or universe, not by the original author). A lot of student work is being done to recreate the feeling of the classics like those by Robert Jordan, Tolkien, and Asimov. 

Fowler is clear that when writing fantasy and science fiction for our contemporary world, it is important, first and foremost, to write good fiction. All standards of fiction writing need to be applied to genre fiction. Genre writers need to be able to do it all: plot, character development, setting, scene, symbolism, as well as create an original new world.

Karen Joy Fowler is very interested in fantasy and sci-fi as explored through the short story. She offered several places to read quality work of this variety including: “Eclipse,” an anthology out of Australia, “Fantasy and Science Fiction” magazines, Best Of collections (but she warns, these publications can be agenda-driven), “Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet,” Tor.com, and “Turkey City Lexicon,” which discusses in length the pitfalls to avoid when writing sci-fi/fantasy. 

When I asked Fowler if sci-fi/fantasy was just escapism, she answered that in a way, fantasy and sci-fi do nothing but discuss contemporary issues. Fantasy is a stronger vehicle than ‘realism’ to portray “reality” because the real world is becoming more and more bizarre every day. 

Fantasy and science fiction are genres of setting, first and foremost, Fowler asserts. Karen Joy Fowler offered more advice for those of us who work in these genres. When creating ‘evil people,’ keep in mind that most people who do bad things think they are doing something good. Do not promote stereotypes and prejudice. And, possibly most importantly, Fowler urges us to be creative. The future of fantasy and science fiction needs more imagination and fewer world-weary immortals. 


Below is a list of recommended reading for those interested in contemporary fantasy and science fiction from Karen Joy Fowler. 


For people writing high fantasy—meaning vaguely medieval with swords or elves or wizards, Fowler recommends:

  • Kelly Link “The Wizards of Perfil”
  • Daniel Abraham “The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairytale of Economics”

Folklore and fairytales:

  • Ursula LeGuin “The Poacher”
  • Kelly Link “Travels with the Snow Queen” and “The Girl Detective”
  • Shweta Narayan “Pisaach”
  • John Kessel “The Juniper Tree”

Time and time travel:

  • Ted Chiang “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”
  • Connie Willis “The Schwarzchild Radius”

Deals with the Devil

  • Bruce Sterling “The Little Magic Shop”
  • Richard Butner “Ash City Stomp”


  • Kelly Link “The Specialist’s Hat,” “Louise’s Ghost,” and “Stone Animals”


  • Maureen McHugh “The Naturalist”
  • Kelly Link “The Hortlak”


  • Ted Chiang “The Story of your Life”
  • Michael Swanwick “A Winter’s Tale”
  • Octavia Butler “Bloodchild”
  • Molly Gloss “Lambing Season”
  • Carol Emshwiller The Mount
  • Eleanor Arnason Ring of Swords
  • China Mieville Embassyrown


  • Kij Johnson “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs”
  • Terry Bisson “Bears Discover Fire”
  • Pat Murphy “Rachel in Love”
  • Howard Waldrop “The Ugly Chickens” 


  • Christopher Rowe “The Voluntary State”
  • Maureen McHugh Nekropolis

Speculation on the future:

  • Maureen McHugh “Useless Things”
  • William Gibson “The Gernsback Continuum”
  • Geoff Ryman Air


  • Vandana Singh “Infinities” 
  • Ted Chiang “Division by Zero”

For imaginary settings:

  • Kim Stanley Robinson “Venice Drowned”
  • Michael Swanwick “The Edge of the World”
  • Ted Chiang “Tower of Babylon”

On gender and race (arguably, most stuff under aliens)

  • John Kessel “Stories of Men”
  • Raphael Carter “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation’ by K.N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin”
  • Alice Sola Kim “Beautiful White Bodies” and “The Other Graces”
  • Maureen McHugh China Mountain Zhang

For voice and originality:

  • Christopher Rowe “The Force Acting on the Displaced Body”
  • Ed Park “Well-Moistened with Cheap Wine, the Sailor and the Wayfarer Sing of Their Absent Sweethearts”
  • Joe Hill “My Father’s Mask”