Welcome to the first Subgenre Highlight post! With these posts I want to explore different subgenres in speculative fiction. My goal is to define what they mean, cover common tropes in the subgenre, establish what makes them unique, look to the history of the subgenre, and give examples. Not all posts will manage all these goals, and some posts may manage even more. I want to use this series as a method to explore subgenres that aren’t as well read, as well as some subgenres that are, and give people who love them a place to shine.
Slice of Life isn’t something I consider myself an expert in. I consider myself a dabbler. So I asked Para from To Other Worlds, who I know to love Slice of Life, to guest post this week. Luckily for me, she agreed! If you haven’t already, check out her blog.
What is Slice-of-Life/Mundane Spec Fic?
Slice of Life (or Mundane Fantasy, the terms are more or less interchangeable, it’s only a question of which will stick) is, to put it simply, a subgenre concerned with the daily life of the characters. The momentous event that kicks off the plot is usually something fairly ordinary – getting a new job or losing it, entering a mysterious magic school, something like that. The most important thing is that it never escalates much beyond that, that the scope of the plot remains small and personal.
Unlike epic/high fantasy, which usually focuses on preventing the literal end of the world or some other calamity that’d affect many people, the characters in slice of life are…simply going around their daily business. The stakes are low and if things went wrong, the impact would be limited. Certainly not the nation, much less the world. And unlike in heroic fantasy or sword & sorcery, it’s not focused on a grand, extraordinary adventure the characters have. I don’t think books where the MC’s daily job is “adventurer” or “mercenary” would qualify. Maybe if it focused mostly on the quiet time between adventures or on looking for new gigs, sitting around a campfire freezing your ass off, that sort of thing. There is little violence.
It is compatible, however, with tone- or setting-based subgenres. I don’t see why a slice of life story couldn’t also be grimdark, or UF, or portal fantasy. For it to be spec-fic, the criteria are the same as for other genres and subgenres – the world needs at least a spark of the extraordinary or implausible.
Essentially, it’s fantasy made boring. Plotless. And that’s what makes it so fascinating to me. It takes some serious skill to pull off a story carried mostly by its characters. It takes balls. And when it’s bad, it’s terrible.
This calls into question – what about books that focus on the daily life of royalty (e.g. The Goblin Emperor)? Are they still slice of life because they feel like it, even though the characters are in an extraordinary situation, and because of their position of power, their choices do impact a lot of people, however indirectly? I don’t know. I put them in a separate category on my list. I also separate out borderline cases that nevertheless scratch the same itch, and magical realism since it takes place in our world and may not be what people looking for secondary-world fantasy want.
What can you expect to see in Slice-of-Life?
When I pick up a slice of life book, I mostly expect a calm comfort read. Which is probably interesting because there’s absolutely no rule that says slice of life cannot be grim. And I have been burned this way before – by Station Eleven, which was beautifully written, but absolutely devastating. Comforting? Not even remotely.
Regardless, most slice of life books are something to be read curled up under a blanket with a nice cup of tea. If a book is well-written, the languid pacing is relaxing rather than boring, and character-focused readers will probably enjoy the focus on characters in the absence of plot.
Another interesting question is whether SFF slice of life is magical made mundane or mundane made magical. And entirely a matter of perspective. Those who don’t like it are probably going to claim the former – that slice of life makes even the most interesting of magical worlds boring by wasting the potential for awesomeness on a boring non-plot. For fans, it might be the opposite – magic or other speculative elements adding the necessary spice to descriptions of everyday life. Or not even that, if they like non-speculative slice of life as well.
Personally, what I look for in slice of life is similar to what I look for in general, and I search for it in the same subgenres or settings as non-mundane kinds of fantasy. And perhaps I’m even stricter when picking slice of life books (I wouldn’t read a genre I normally dislike even if the book in question was slice of life) since the balance of good and comforting vs. boring is so delicate. I’m firmly in the “mundane made magical” camp. Something about observing how would people – normal people, peasants, bakers, tailors, and so on, not chosen ones – live their lives in a world with magic or a culture unlike any of our own is infinitely fascinating to me. And I need that distance from the non-magical modern life. I don’t like the idea of contemporary, non-SFF slice of life at all.
What is the history of Slice-of-Life?
There’s very little slice of life out there. As far as I’m aware, it’s not an official subgenre. Not when it comes to SFF books (I know it’s an established thing in anime/manga, but that’s not my area of expertise). I don’t think anyone deliberately writes in it, that publishers market slice of life SFF books as such. It’s organic. It’s the readers who went “Are there any fantasy books like this? Could you recommend some?” And that’s one of the things I like about it.
But at the same time, that makes it really hard to trace down its history. Personally, my first was The Healers’ Road by S.E. Robertson, which floored me with how well it worked – it has no plot, it should have been a boring mess, and yet. But was that the first slice of life SFF book? I doubt it. It’s still a young subgenre. Who first asked for slice of life on r/fantasy, who first used the label…it’s impossible to know.
What are some examples of Slice-of-Life?
If there was one book I’d recommend to everyone, it would be Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I know, I know. Why not The Gray House? Why not The Healers’ Road? For one, they are more specific. While Sourdough, I think, has a broader appeal. And besides, it’s like a hug in book form, therapeutic. Many of us need that right now.
Otherwise, I’d recommend people to check out my list, pick whatever tickles their fancy. Obviously, that’s a curated selection of fantasy books limited by my taste – I didn’t include the DNFs or books I wouldn’t like, including some prominent slice of life books that get recommended often (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, or Balam, Spring…). And there’s a lot I have yet to read. My Goodreads shelf is a broader and more complete list, but there may be some books I haven’t yet read on it that aren’t actually slice of life.
I would love if people who don’t typically read this subgenre take this next month, until the next post, to read one Slice-of-Life book. Either fantasy or science fiction works. Para’s recommendation list is a perfect place to start, and her Goodreads shelf has even more options to choose from. If you decide to take up this challenge, I would love it if you could leave the book a review and tag me in so I can see the reaction!