Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Spectacular World(s) of Speculative Fiction

by Laura Mahal

Speculative fiction, or Spec Fic, is a broad field, consisting of a mind-boggling number of subgenres, generally split into three or four primary categories: 

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, and Horror. 

Subset genres include epic and urban fantasies, paranormal romance and post-apocalyptic stories, space operas, science fantasy, science fiction romance, cyberpunk, steampunk, time travel, alternative histories, dystopian, and Cli-Fi. Not to mention superhero stories and fairy tales, magical realism, space westerns, and more. 

Wow! How can one possibly keep these straight? 
(See Speculative Fiction, with Venn diagrams)

Be sure to visit NCW's very own expert, Carol Van Natta, via her hilarious and enlightening Facebook Live Podcast: Author Carol Van Natta talks Space Opera, Science Fiction Romance, and Science Fantasy

Experts disagree as to how to best explain speculative fiction. A basic definition would center around a narrative approach to something that is, in essence, speculative. Merriam-Webster defines speculative as “theoretical, rather than demonstrable.” A speculative world is different than ours in ways that require another set of laws, whether this means the inclusion of supernatural or futuristic elements, or a twist that cants world-building in a familiar yet fantastic manner. 

(Essentially, an improbable but believable universe.)

You are making my head explode.

Tropes one finds in Spec Fic include monsters, shapeshifters, aliens, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, magical objects and creatures, prophecies, time travel, and space exploration. The language is often a curious blend of scientific, lyrical, and disturbing. 

Inventive settings/characters may draw readers in and repel them in equal measure. 

H.P. Lovecraft wrote horror, which had underpinnings of “brutally hypnotic” speculative elements. He is considered by many to be one of the most influential twentieth-century writers in his genre. Conversely, Lovecraft has been criticized for his racism and misogyny, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. 

There is a field of literature—“new Lovecraftian fiction”— consisting of a diverse pool of talented authors (including women and people of color) who emulate, but redefine, this branch of Speculative Fiction. 

A writer whose work you surely recognize is J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were extraordinary for his day, and retain their appeal. Tolkien was a scholar and a philologist (one who studies literature/language). The “evil” Tolkien witnessed in World War I propelled a venture into the very much speculative Middle Earth. The hobbit is mythical, yet has captured many a heart, as has Tolkien.

Speculative—mostly dystopian—classics many of us were assigned in high school include: Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was accessible Gothic horror, ahead of its time for presenting a monster one could root for . . .  

Brave teachers suggested their students pick up the absolutely fabulous (can’t-miss, in my opinion) Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Relatively recent bestsellers include Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. I would be remiss were I not to assert that yes, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are Spec Fic. 

Fun fact! Peter Heller, who will be our Keynote Speaker at the 2018 NCW Conference, wrote a speculative debut novel called The Dog Stars.

I humbly apologize, as I am out of room. Leave a comment as to which book(s) had the greatest impact on your life/writing. Madeleine L’Engle -Terry Pratchett - Anne McCaffrey - Stephen King - Scott Westerfield - Cassandra Clare - Larissa Lai - Frank Herbert - Isaac Asimov - Robert A. Heinlein - C.S. Lewis - L. Frank Baum - Lois Lowry - Ayn Rand - Susan Cooper - Octavia Butler - Neil Gaiman - Douglas Adams - Kazuo Ishiguro - which of your favorites have I missed?

These remarkable writers pioneered new pathways and improved the caliber of this world we live in.

Laura Mahal is a two-time winner of the Hecla Award for Speculative Fiction. 
2016 - (S)he and WC           2017 - The Kid From the Other Side 
You can follow her @leela_mahal


Deborah Nielsen said...

Thanks for explaining what speculative fiction is, Laura. I see this (these?) category for story submissions frequently and had no idea what is was. Obviously, I don't read this stuff, except for JRR Tolkien's books way back when. I thoroughly enjoyed them. David Eddings probably falls in this category (fantasy). I loved his several different series. For the rest (horror, distopian), all I can say is "uck". They're depressing and give me nightmares so I don't read them. And I can't imagine writing them for the same reasons.

I took a sci-fi English lit class in high school because I needed to fill a period. The title "Dune" rings a faint bell. It was the one English/English lit class that I ever took that I absolutely did not like.

Laura Mahal said...

Thanks for your comments, Deborah. One unfortunate link that has been imprinted in many people's minds is that speculative fiction leans toward dystopian (which many equate to depressing) as well as horror (worst-possible-situations). That is certainly part of the genre in its entirety. And the books we were assigned to read in school very much played into reinforcing this view. But today's spec fic is so much more than that!

I happened upon this rather by accident, as last year, I was assigned to write a speculative story for a tiered writing contest. In researching the field, I discovered wonderful pieces of a wide range, many of which were authored by women and people of color. In this way, I discovered a happy pathway to approaching social justice from a theoretical perspective. Talented writers were pointing out the flaws in our current system, in a way that didn't provoke a backlash. This gave me the inspiration to try to incorporate more of a speculative approach to my own fiction.

Perhaps others will suggest a favorite work that would appeal to those who prefer to avoid the depressing/horrifying? I'll be honest. Many of the short fiction I've read of late has been both humorous and clever. Writers are responding to our "reality" with brilliantly understated perspectives. A wealth of talent is cropping up across the spectrum of speculative, for when our own world becomes a frightening place, then why not look for alternative options?

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