When I tell people I write speculative fiction, I usually get a blank look. I explain. The blank look turns into a small smile and a slight head tilt. Oh, that sort of fiction. Not serious fiction.
How wrong they are.
No one is expected to enjoy every genre. But even after the incredible successes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, either consciously or unconsciously, speculative fiction is still looked down on. But why?
What is speculative fiction?
Speculative fiction is a broad term which encompasses sci-fi, fantasy, horror, supernatural and superhero fiction. Any story with paranormal, supernatural or futuristic elements.
Sci-fi has a lot of prejudice to unpick, mostly because it’s a relatively new genre. It’s beginnings are usually credited to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the 19th century.
The ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction’ spanned from 1938 to 1946. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke are the famous names from this era you probably know. Writers churned out speculative short stories to feed growing demand. They were producing ‘pulp fiction’ – cheap fiction magazines that were published from 1896 to the 1950s en masse. It became synonymous with low-quality fiction and the genre somehow became tarnished. The established literary community saw these authors as ‘working for the money’, rather than ‘for art’s sake’.
Here was born the great Literary versus Commercial fiction debate.
Fantasy and horror, however, are far older genres. We know this genre as children, imagining creatures and worlds unfettered by realistic expectations. Where a talking dog really isn’t a big deal. As adults, the fantasy becomes more complex and gains its own rules. The epic fantasy genre is a stable of literature. Homer’s The Odyssey with its vengeful gods, magical creatures and stalwart heroes was composed in the 7th Century BC. Fantasy is a genre as old language.
The paranormal, too, has likely been around since the first shadow moved out of the corner of the caveman’s eye. The oldest ghost story was recorded by Roman Pliny the Younger in the 2nd Century AD. Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Lovecraft are key figures in this world. Where fantasy is often empowering, horror shows a world where we’re powerless in the face of the unknown.
What purpose does it serve?
Speculative fiction’s key selling point is also its major criticism. Escapism. It takes you away from reality and into a world of magic, or spaceships. People read these books and watch these shows for pleasure, not to delve into the nitty-gritty of purple prose, complex metaphors or snapshot reality.
However, I completely disagree with writing speculative fiction off as pure escapism. It’s a massively deceptive statement which leads smart and talented authors like Margaret Atwood to claim sci-fi is just “talking squids in outer space.”
The best speculative fiction performs two functions; a story unto itself, but also an allegory of society and commentary on the human condition. Are the Harry Potter books just about magic and good triumphing over evil? It actually tackles a plethora of themes like loss, coming of age, complex relationships and questing one’s identity. The fact that it’s done against a backdrop of fantasy doesn’t detract from it’s more complex themes.
Truth by stealth
This genre is the ultimate way to explore highly charged social topics by stealth. Doctor Who is a master of this, creating fantastical plots which mask debate on real-world issues. For example, in The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion. On its face, a classic alien invasion with a twist ending. Humans versus Zygons.
What it’s actually doing is tackling the subject of domestic terrorism and using the neutral ground of sci-fi to do it. A way of demonstrating the conflict without an audience bringing their established emotive prejudices to the table. It allows us to explore the issue in a way that you simply cannot in the ‘real world’.
That’s why speculative fiction can do what no other genre can and gives us level ground. We can tackle topics other fiction won’t go near, whether because of religious, political or emotive considerations. Speculative fiction is baggage-free and can tackle issues from every angle, not just the one which is popularly accepted.
Name me another genre which can accomplish all of this?