Monday, January 7, 2008

Why Speculative Fiction?

All right, intros first. I’m Jordan, and I write things that are sometimes YA, sometimes SF, sometimes mostly totally insane. Usually all three, to a certain degree. Right now I’m working on a monstrosity about triplets and comic books and what happens when they try to take over the world, and I’ll be delivering the SF primer this evening.

Hopefully I’m qualified enough....let me give you my credentials. Been writing ever since I learned spaces separated words and not little squiggly marks, in sticker-covered notebooks about monsters and aliens and creatures with heads too big for their bodies. We called it The Notebook Club, you might call it horrendous, but here we are, talking about fantasy and science fiction and other insanities of the like. Not that much of a departure, although I’d like to think I’ve advanced a little in fourteen years!

Okay, enough of that, now onto the topic of this post....Why Speculative Fiction?

That’s a good question. You could very well ask that of any fiction, and get an array of answers. For fun, to get away from it all, to learn something or pass the time, to connect, to understand....

Speculative Fiction, in this context, is a large category of fiction that encompasses many different genres: fantasy, science fiction, horror, supernatural, alternate histories, to name a few. Speculative Fiction has been said to be that “what if?” factor, the “what if a giant shark started eating all these people outside some seaside resort town?”

BANG! Suddenly you got Jaws.

“What if we could somehow clone dinosaurs and put them into this giant theme park on an island and sit back to see what happened?”

Jurassic Park.

“What if vampires and werewolves lived among us, in secret, and we just didn’t realize it?”

“Wait wait wait,” you say, interrupting my well-crafted definition. “But none of that is really real. Those things don’t really happen, or can’t, or aren’t likely. So what does it matter to me, to my life in the modern world full of computers and copy machines and microwave breakfast burritos?”

Ah, but you can rightly ask that question about any kind of fiction. Fiction, by its definition, is something imaginary, made up. Totally fake. There is someone out there who has never tasted the delights of microwave breakfast burritos, and could very well wonder the same about your magnificent modern world.

Really, then, it’s not about something being possible or not, or likely, or logical. Most everybody would agree that “truth is stranger than fiction,” anyway. Things in life just don’t happen the way they do in books, all wrapped up tightly with a bow, with properly balanced rise and fall of tension, clearly established goals and identified antagonists, subplots that wrap themselves up neatly right before the climax...

“In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find--if it’s a good novel--that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we have never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we are changed. The artist deals with what cannot be said in words....All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor.”

So said Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novelist Ursula K. Le Guin in the introduction to her classic science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness, perhaps to answer the question, why the hell did you write a book about androgynous creatures on some ice planet far, far into the future?

Because, she says. It’s a metaphor.

“A metaphor for what?”

She answers: “If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel.”

What it comes down to is fiction addresses things that are difficult to say succinctly, in just a few words: what it’s like to lose someone in death, how one goes about getting a girlfriend, what issues are raised when that girlfriend happens to be green and you and all your friends are red....

No one is really red or green, not without considerable effort. But some people are white, or black, some even yellow, and a lot of people have made a big deal over those varied shades of flesh throughout history.

It’s easy to dismiss something with magic and fairies and spaceships and alternate universes as inconsequential and pointless, since everyone knows those things aren’t real, never were and never will, and if they are it won’t be for a long long time.

But if you’re going to think of it that way you might as well dismiss everything labeled “fiction,” because everyone knows that fiction isn’t “real.”

That doesn’t make it any less relevant to us now, in our modern lives with our microwave breakfast burritos. What if the meat in that burrito wasn’t really meat, or worse, was still alive, and only lying dormant waiting for its chance to take over the world....

Don’t worry, it’s not real. Or is it..?


Andrew Carmichael said...

perfect! Strangely enough, I've never thought about speculative fiction as metaphors, but I think that's a good connection. Next time I read speculative, I'll definitely keep that in mind to see what I can get out of the underlying story.

...and I've never had a microwave breakfast burrito.

hannah said...

haha, neither have I, reen. But I gotta say, the only way I ever get through fantasy is to think of it metaphorically.

I guess I'm just really self centered. I want everything to relate to my life. And I have an easier time getting coming of age to relate to my life.

I think there are people who read fiction to escape and people who read fiction to relate, and I am definitely the latter.

Jordan said...

I still don't know why I read fiction. To understand the world, to understand myself, because I like it.

Same reasons I write fiction, I guess.

Meggy said...

Good points!

Like Shady, I like books I can relate to for the most part, but I guess you can relate to any book that has a human--and the human condition--in it.

Andrew Carmichael said...

See, for me it doesn't matter if it's fantasy or not, I still want it to relate to my life. If I'm reading a YA lit about a girl who's preggers, obviously it's not going to happen to me, but I want to feel some relation there, or some "What if?" connection.

I feel the same way with fantasy. If vampires attacked my home, I have to fell some kind of "What if?" connection where I see and understand why the MC's doing what they're doing.

Since it's all fiction, and all fake, none of it will actually apply to me unless it's based on my life. So it's all a stretch, in my mind. I just have no problem stretching past "What if my mom had AIDS" to "What if my mom were a werewolf".

Sophie W. said...

I read fiction for escape. Seriously guys, real life is boring. We need some adventure! It doesn't matter where you get it or how you go about finding it, as long as you have adventure in your life. Fiction is my adventure. :)

I definitely think of speculative fiction as a metaphor, though - especially when writing my own novels. I can tell you what each of my WIPs is a metaphor for and why. I bet you'd never guess.

Sophie W. said...

Oh, and "microwave breakfast burrito" totally made my day.

<3 ya Jordan.

Jordan said...

It was originally microwave pancakes. Microwave breakfast burrito just sounded funnier.

Glad I changed it :D

Vanessa Concannon said...


I totally get this. And, well,

“If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel.”

That's exactly how I feel about my stories. They're meant to capture a feeling, and the more complex the feeling the more complex the story. Because that story is the only way I can verbally capture that feeling.

Haphazard said...

I don't like reading about people like me. I'd rather read about the world at large, with other people with other problems, but I don't really read for wish fulfillment, either, I just want to see how it all turns out.

This is probably why I like fantasy -- it's got a lot of elements in it that we don't have and never will have, and I want to see what happens. It's like an experiment.