Spec what now?

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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.

ursula-le-guinAt 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.

Jane Abbott

This article was first published in November 2014 on Jane’s website, Big Bad Words.

Most Likely to Succeed

Available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmpnguy/92214672/in/photolist-4FEYZg-pp7ZLZ-5D2XpQ-4LDBaz-6vNYCx-Bb3Uq-gd2au-44nXcJ-dXEM6y-BMLyo-8429eX-9i9QUS-oz3Zdn-aDPyCo-5T858V-4QF4ch-dERcri-99Cd9-wR4xs-aiJ5PJ-8nrw9Z-5u1nze-9oMJNH-nG7jq4-7fDYu-6aRWKr-3eLdT1-b8ocdz-Bb42i-3AiLhe-ci85c9-bPaTap-nGRnr1-6zBHbi-jQv8h-7BQD1b-Bb3ZQ-gA5B4Q-9rAjY6-NxRFT-2AMvfX-G3NVq-nXdNf5-tHSUZ-m7V4yq-6zFMVf-3ezSGo-bPaT5z-ppnCDu-egauEH/

Photo: Loyd Schutte, ‘High School in the 80’s’. Shared under Creative Commons License.

One of the most fascinating things about being in my thirties is that I’m discovering what kinds of adults the people I went to school with have become. My family moved around a lot and I went to many different schools, but through Facebook, and extroverted tendencies, I’ve managed to keep in touch with several people. Some of their experiences have surprised me, particularly those of my old schoolmates Harry, Angie and Cecilia. Here are their stories. I’ve changed the names and fictionalised the details, to avoid incurring me a defriending, but the basics are true.

Harry was one of the first guys in the ‘challenger’ class for ‘gifted’ kids to get a girlfriend. They earned social status in well-behaved ‘challenger’ circles by making out at the bus stop and drinking beer, but not so much that it affected their grades. Later, Harry graduated from Law with great marks and started with a prestigious and highly competitive firm. He moved into a house with some of his male colleagues who’d also just started with the company. He once invited me to one of their parties, where Harry and his friends spent a lot of time listing which of their female colleagues had the best legs/tits/arse. He then moved to a regional office, where he worked for a female manager who talked openly about how as the acknowledged geek at high school, she’d been highly unpopular. (She would never have won that graduate boys’ prize for best legs/tits/arse.) She yelled at him in front of clients and criticised every piece of work he produced. Normally reluctant to admit to vulnerability, Harry asked for advice from his old school friends and sought help from HR. Our advice didn’t work, and HR backed his boss. Eventually, he quit his job. He now works for a smaller, less prestigious firm. He’s still angry about his earlier experiences, but he also says they’ve made him a kinder manager, because he doesn’t want to turn into his old boss.

Angie drove me a bit crazy at high school by asking me what mark I’d got on every assignment, and smugly announcing whenever she’d done better than me — which was quite often. Angie worked hard and got excellent marks. She also struggled with mental health issues. She was never popular and sometimes faced teasing by the ‘cool’ kids, but she always had a few loyal, nerdy friends. At the end of high school, when she didn’t win the dux, rather than congratulate the winner and grit her teeth, she went home crying. Shortly after graduation, she won a prestigious overseas role as a middle manager with an international development agency. She was unlucky enough to be involved with a public stuff-up in which her agency inadvertently caused several local people to be injured. As a manager, Angie was held partly responsible. The work pressure and media attention were too much. She left her job to focus on her mental health. Once this was stabilised, she took a less demanding management role back in Australia. Now, she devotes her competitive energies to running the best ever under 18s local girls’ basketball team. The girls love her — especially those who are going through tough periods — because Angie always makes the time to listen to them.

Cecilia always intrigued me, because she managed to get through one of the most brutally alpha schools I ever attended, doing well academically, and never being bullied or bullying anyone. This in itself was remarkable at our school. If you did well in class, the teachers would like you but the other kids would torment you. If you did badly, the teachers would call you stupid, but the kids would leave you alone. In Cecilia’s adult life, she continued to achieve impressive things modestly, earning a PhD and then a sought-after scientist role in an elite national institution. When she started at her workplace, the women’s toilets were being turned into offices because there weren’t enough female scientists to use them. Many of her male colleagues resented the arrival of this young, female upstart, and they didn’t bother to hide it. Yet Cecilia kept doing her job well and ignoring the critics, just as she’d brushed past the bullies in high school. She’s been there for five years now, quietly advancing the nation’s knowledge in her field, and showing future scientists that it is indeed possible to be female and do her job. She recently had her first child.

High school can be one of the most difficult experiences people go through. Surprising numbers of adults struggle to hold it together when asked about high school — or they lie and pretend it was all easy. What I’m seeing with the people I know, however, is that high school is not destiny. The smart, popular guy can lose his job. The modestly high-achieving girl can quietly smash gender barriers.

We as grown-ups have a responsibility to share this knowledge. I think this is a role for books, and for young adult writing in particular. We need to tell our own high school stories — honestly — and we need to share the perspective that comes from being out of school for twenty years (and developing wrinkles and knee problems). Yes, high school is full of bullshit, but the bullshit will pass. If you’re having fun, great — enjoy, and be nice to others. If you’re not having fun, ask for help, and try to remember that grade nine is not all you will become. Life has many more challenges and adventures along the way.

Penny Jones