Over the past few months, three friends I consider to be prolific readers have asked me, ‘Speculative fiction? What’s that?’ And I have to confess that with every asking my response has mutated by degrees from faint incredulity to scathing exasperation, made worse when they respond with a haughty sniff and a muttered, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ following it with the more dismissive, ‘But it’s not real literature, is it?’ and ‘Yeah, I don’t read that stuff.’ Because, yes, often it is and yes, they probably do. And while sci-fi is speculative, speculative fiction is not restricted to works of sci-fi.
The publishing industry is just that: an industry. A business that classifies and categorises and shelves its products like a pharmacy does its face creams. It’s all about marketing, hailing one book as literary fiction to appeal to the more (often self-professed) discerning reader, branding another as fantasy for lovers of genre. But why can’t a novel be both? And why do sci-fi and fantasy and horror engender disparagement from readers of mainstream ‘realist’ literature? Particularly when so many of those readers will have already read and admired and recommended books that fall into such genres (The Road and 1984, anyone?) Just as the shoehorning of books featuring young, school-aged protagonists into the YA category doesn’t deter adult readers, nor should labelling a particular book as sci-fi put off the more literary minded.
Beneath its wide awning, speculative fiction houses sci-fi, fantasy (high, urban, contemporary and soft), apocalyptic (pre- and post-), utopia, dystopia, cyber-punk, solar-punk, horror and paranormal. Supposing the impossible, it proposes the probable and, when both writing and vision are accomplished, it can open readers’ minds to some very disturbing questions. But it’s not always done well. A rash of vampiric and uber-lupine romances sparked by Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series has caused many agents and publishers to retrieve the welcome mats and nail crosses on their doors. Zombie apocalypse stories, too, are becoming dead in the water. Yet writers still persist, and Amazon et al are flooded with highly questionable speculative fiction, much of it self-published.
But when it is done well — when the probable becomes utterly believable and the horror settles uncomfortably and won’t be shifted; when a reader is transported from reality and their only regret is that they don’t have a one-way ticket; when the novel transcends genre and crosses over into the hallowed halls of literary fiction — the work can be extraordinary. Such novels don’t (usually) feature fantastical undead creatures; instead they delve deeper to reveal the monsters within us. They place ordinary people in re-imagined worlds and subject them to terrible trials, always posing the question, ‘what would you do?’
Historically, speculative fiction has provided the building blocks of civilisation. A grandiose claim, you say? Not so. What are ancient myths, legends and religious teachings, if not speculative? What is our enduring fascination with heroes and anti-heroes (both ordinary and super) if not speculative? What is mankind’s obsession with — and fear of — death, if not speculative? And the emergence of science through the ages has done little to dispel our interest. If anything it just prompts further speculation. No sooner do we break through one scientific barrier, than authors are imagining another.
Raymond Coulombe of Quantum Muse answered the question very simply: The classic answer is that [speculative fiction] is the fiction of what-if? Whether fantasy or sci-fi or any other speculative genre, the list of authors whose what-if fiction has propelled them to fame is long and illustrious: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, JK Rowling, Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman, HP Lovecraft, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick, Douglas Adams, Stephen Donaldson … the list goes on. Even I-wouldn’t-touch-speculative-fiction-with-a-bargepole fans of literary classics will have heard of these authors, and many will have read them.
At last week’s US National Book Awards, the great Ursula Le Guin, (whose work includes both sci-fi and fantasy and who is probably best known for A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness) was honoured with the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Instead of humbly accepting her award (as perhaps many were hoping), the 85 year old author began her speech thus:
“Thank you Neil [Gaiman], and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”
Speculative fiction might not be to everyone’s taste, but to dismiss it as inferior smacks of arrogant ignorance. Perhaps more than any other genre, it embodies all that is human, exposes our flaws and lauds our triumphs. It holds out for a better world, for redemption of the human spirit, and for justice and freedom.
So if you’ve never read anything speculative, maybe it’s time you did.
This article was first published in November 2014 on Jane’s website, Big Bad Words.