Wednesday, September 15, 2010


By Marcus Sakey

I’m inventing a new genre.

To be more accurate, I’m inventing a name for an as-yet-unrecognized genre. Just like in music, literary genres evolve and change. Where once there was just rock & roll, it wasn’t long before artists began to experiment with the form, and names had to be created to describe their efforts: punk rock and indie rock and heavy metal and so forth.

Literary genres evolve the same way, and I think it’s worth keeping an eye on those trends. After all, the word “trend” is just a way of saying “something a lot of people like,” and writing something a lot of people like is always a good idea.

So. My new genre. I’m calling it “Alt-Fi,” short for “Alternative Fiction.” What defines alt-fi? Glad you asked.

In essence, it’s about a world that is very similar to ours, and yet which has one or two significant changes around which the story is rooted. Alt-fi is a cousin to sci-fi, but more populist, appealing to a broader audience. It’s also rather like speculative fiction, but here the emphasis is on a world which is otherwise almost completely recognizable.

And it’s a huge market.

Take the movie Inception. It’s usually described as science fiction, but that’s not accurate. Yes, in this movie it’s possible to enter and direct a dream. But otherwise, the world is almost identical to ours.

This is an important point. Framing things this way allows an artist to explore an idea in a fascinating way that is also enormously popular. Inception has grossed $300 million in domestic box office alone. That’s because it appeals to a wide audience—not just geeks like me, but also my wife, my mother, to boys and girls and men and women.

Alt-fi is for everyone.

Here are some other examples:

  • Lost. A modern story, real people with richly detailed lives, stranded on a desert island by a plane crash. That’s a classic story archetype. But here, there’s a twist. This island is more than it appears to be…
  • Audrey Niffenegger’s THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. One man doesn’t live linearly, but rather jumps back and forth across the length of his life. But Niffenegger makes the very cool—and audience-friendly—move of focusing not on the technicalities of time travel, but on his relationship with the love of his odd life.
  • Or how about Inglorious Basterds? It’s a fun piece of storytelling on its own, and sure, who doesn’t like to see Nazis clubbed to death. But it’s the ending that gives the film meaning. Tarantino steps into alt-fi by rewriting history and ending World War Two in a stroke.
  • Most vampire novels fit this definition too, although they really comprise their own subgenre. Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE, however, is more alt-fi than it is vampire novel. The “virals” in his book introduce a change to a world we otherwise recognize, and the rest of the novel is an exploration of what happens as a result.
  • Then there’s a book called UNDER THE DOME by some dude named Stephen King. A small town is suddenly surrounded by an invisible force field. This single shift in reality changes all the rules for the people who live there.
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
  • The TV show Heroes.
  • Scott Smith’s THE RUINS.

I think it’s interesting to note that all of these were huge successes. People flocked to them. I don’t think it’s hard to see why. We’re hungry for something new. We always are. Alt-fi feels fresh. It’s a way to explore issues while also entertaining. It promises an adventure, that most elemental clarion call to fiction, for which we are especially hungry in these rather gloomy times.

What do you think?

Read or seen anything that you think fits?


plastic.santa said...

Have you ever read anything by Howard Waldrop? He's definitely what you're calling alt-fi. One thing in the world changes and the whole world changes. The Texas-Israeli War:1999. Custer's Last Jump. And the overwhelmingly mindblowing The Ugly Chickens, which is alt-fi science but not what you would traditionally think of as sci-fi.

Too bad it's not as successful for Howard as some of the examples you cited.

C. Michael Cook said...

Great idea. I've read (or seen) most of the examples on your list, and definitely think you're on to something here. Plus, you know how much I like to stay tapped into the zeitgeist...

Roger Wright said...

Alt-Fi rings true. It's also important, because it's so much a part of our times already and for something to flourish it needs a name. So thank you!

Building on the examples you have here, two other fertile grounds for Alt-Fi to grow.

1. Political discourse and current events. As newsmakers and news deliverers no longer require context or even a shred of truth to say something; Alt-Fi could be the literary vehicle of choice.

2. Practical, "how-to" pieces can be ratcheted up a notch by including "Alt-Fi." Here's an example:

Butterfingers said...

Sounds like advertising schtick...just my 2 cents.

John Kenyon said...

You're on the right track, because I'm vocal (to a silly level, I'm sure) about my distaste for sci-fi, yet I've read and/or watched and loved a lot of what's on your list. It's the opportunity to conduct an experiment: If "x" happened" instead of "y," what then?

The bigger question, Marcus, is: Is this the direction you plan to head?

Kevin Guilfoile said...

[Clears throat.] "Psst. Marcus. Over here!"

Victor Gischler said...

I'm for any genre with nudity.

Marcus Sakey said...

THE THOUSAND, by Kevin Guilfoile! A wonderful example.

Actually, so is CAST OF SHADOWS.

As usual, Kevin is ahead of the game.

nathan singer said...

This is a PERFECT genre title, man! And it happens to be what I often, though not always, write (Chasing the Wolf is definitely alt-fi). Now when people ask me what I write I no longer have to shout "Look! Elvis!" and run away. Thanks bro!

jeroentenberge said...

Really like the genre title.

The obvious question now is - when can we expect your contribution to this genre?

Look forward to reading it!

Sean Chercover said...

Yeah, Marcus, when ARE you gonna write us some alt-fi??