Fun with Epistolary Novels and Short Fiction at Chicon 8

I was fortunate to be selected for a panel at Chicon 8 on epistolary novels in speculative fiction. We (author and moderator Meg Elison, author Caroline Stevermer, publisher and editor Sarah T. Guan of Erewhon Books, Professor Leigha McReynolds, and myself) had a wonderful and spirited discussion of many facets of epistolary writing and some of our favorite examples. Here is a link to my list of epistolary speculative fiction, updated by examples from the panel and audience. See below for more information and caveats.

The Full Story. When I found out that I could be considered for Chicon 8 (Worldcon) panel participation and that one of the panels was on “The Resurgence of the Epistolary Novel”, I was quite excited. I have been a fan of this form of story telling for a long time, especially in speculative fiction. I immediately started to prepare for this panel, regardless of whether I was selected.

One useful definition is that from Wikipedia, “An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of letters.[1] The term is often extended to cover novels which intersperse documents of other kinds with the letters, most commonly diary entries and newspaper clippings, and sometimes considered to include novels composed of documents even if they don’t include letters at all.[2][3] More recently, epistolaries may include electronic documents such as recordings and radio, blog posts, and e-mails.”

Epistolary fiction has a long tradition in speculative fiction, starting with “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) and “Frankenstein” (1818, originally published anonymously!) among others. As was noted on the panel description, some think it is undergoing a resurgence. One aspect of this is clearly the new modes of communication which were envisioned in some ways and which are now actual, such as email, text messages, twitter, etc. We could have equally argued that epistolary fiction never went away.

I am not going to try to summarize the panel discussion in any detail. I was too busy to take notes, but I certainly received a master-level education on the form and what it means to readers, writers, editors and others from the panel. My thanks to my fellow panel members for this, including:

  1. Moderator Meg Elison (on Twitter @megelison), author of “The Pill” (first published in the 2020 PM Press collection “Big Girl Plus The Pill Plus Such People in It and Much More”) and other great stories
  2. Caroline Stevermer, co-author with Patricia C. Wrede of the 1988 Ace Books novel “Sorcery and Cecelia: An Epistolary Fantasy” and two sequels
  3. Sarah T. Guan (on Twitter @Sarah_Guan), publisher and editor of Erewhon Books
  4. Leigha McReynolds (on Twitter @LeighaMcR), Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Maryland

I did learn from my fellow panel members that epistolary fiction can be a wonderful way to tell certain stories without some of the challenges and overhead of dealing with multiple points of view. I also learned that epistolary fiction can be a challenge for people who are used to “normal” narrative structure that most of us are used to in literature.

Many of the novels and stories we discussed as being epistolary were speculative fiction, but many were not. I know I was quite enthusiastic about this as only a fan can be, and I sure hope I did not go over the line on the panel.

I started out preparing for this by identifying stories and novels that I knew or thought were epistolary from my own reading. I received some great suggestions from the members of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy – Short Fiction group on Facebook, which is a great resource and place for anyone interested in speculative fiction at less than novel length. I searched the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (www.isfdb.org) for works with an “epistolary” tag. I did read many of the ISFDB tagged works, which had quite a number I had not identified as epistolary. I found that a few are probably incorrectly tagged as “epistolary”. I’ll update ISFDB eventually after checking again.

I read, or reread, as many of those as I could find, and summarized my very personal opinions of them in a Google Sheets file, “2022 Epistolary SFF“. I shared an earlier version of this file with the panel, and suggested to our moderator Meg Elison that we discuss short epistolary fiction as well.

Some of my top Short Fiction epistolary stories are:

  1. “Flowers for Algernon”, a novelette by Daniel Keyes, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) April 1959
  2. “This Is How You Lose The Time War”, a novella by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, 2019, released as a book by Saga.
  3. “That Only a Mother”, a short story by Judith Merril, Astounding June 1948
  4. “Asymmetrical warfare”, a short story by S.R Algernon, Nature, March 26, 2015
  5. “Little Free Library”, a short story by Naomi Kritzer, Tor.com, April 8, 2020
  6. “My Brother Leopold”, a novelette by Edgar Pangborn, 1973, from “An Exaltation of Stars: Transcendental Adventures in Science Fiction”, Terry Carr editor
  7. “Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, a novella by Richard Cowper, F&SF, March 1976
  8. “The Trap”, a novelette by Howard Fast (variant of The First Men), F&SF, February 1960

It was interesting to see that 3 of my top 8 epistolary short fiction stories were from Fantasy & Science Fiction. I assume this is coincidence.

Some of my favorite epistolary novels are:

  1. “Freedom & Necessity”, Steven Brust & Emma Bull, 1997, Tor
  2. “A Fire Upon the Deep”, Vernor Vinge, 1992, Tor/Millennium
  3. “Excession”, Iain M. Banks, 1996, Orbit
  4. “Parable of the Sower”, 1993, Four Walls Eight Windows & “Parable of the Talents”, 1998, Seven Stories Press, Octavia E. Butler (Earthseed)
  5. “The Book of the New Sun”, Gene Wolfe (“Shadow of the Torturer”, 1980, Simon and Schuster, and after)
  6. “The Knight” and “The Wizard”, 2004, Gene Wolfe, Tor
  7. “Ministry for the Future”, Kim Stanley Robinson, 2020, Orbit/Hachette B and Blackstone
  8. “Hard Landing” by Algis Budrys, 1993, Questar/Warner Books (after a 1992 novella release)

This file includes two sheets, labeled “No Spoilers!” and “With Spoilers!”. “With Spoilers!” has my full comments/reviews/etc. in it, which is chock full of spoilers! Do not look at this sheet, or avoid that column, if you want to be surprised. The other sheet, “No Spoilers”, has that info excised.

For my own purposes, I sorted the stories/novels by order of my personal ranking scale, from 5/5 (a perfect story, which “Flowers for Algernon” is for me) to either a 2/5 (Did Not Finish, for some reason), or no rating, which usually means I did not even attempt to read it for some reason. My not reading a story does not mean that it’s not good or that you should not give it a go. I might have decided I was too busy, ran out of time, just felt it was not for me, or felt that I had a good enough grasp on it without a read or reread. I assume that you could download/copy the sheets and re-sort them as you desire, but have not checked this.

I also added a column in which I attempted to roughly categorize the entries. When I say “traditional”, it’s a classic epistolary form of letters to and from people, or something like that. I did not overthink this, so it’s possible I have not been completely consistent. These categories made sense to me, but I know there are innumerable ways of categorizing them.

The sheets are organized into 3 sections, Short Fiction at the top, Novels in the middle, and Other examples of epistolary novels or short fiction, whether speculative fiction or not, from the panel and the audience. Below the bottom section, I’ve added a brief list of References for websites and posts I looked at for examples of epistolary speculative fiction.

Maybe I was not paying attention, but I don’t think I heard Meg Elison mention that she has an epistolary novel, “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife”, 2014, Sybaratic Press. I’ve added that to the list.

I had a great time on this. I’d love to get your thoughts, added suggestions for epistolary speculative fiction reading, or any corrections.

I will be blogging on my other Chicon 8 panels, such as the Titus Groan panel and two other 1946 Project panels.

2 responses to “Fun with Epistolary Novels and Short Fiction at Chicon 8”

  1. […] “Fun with Epistolary Novels and Short Fiction at Chicon 8” at A Deep Look By Dave Hook. […]

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  2. […] it out of the library as it was the best way for me to read a Becky Chambers story for my recent Chicon 8 panel on epistolary speculative fiction. I was a sucker for reading this anthology anyway (I’ll explain below), and I’m glad I […]

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