On Friday, we explored how shame is the beating heart of great fiction, how probing the shadow sides of human nature is what can separate the mundane from the magnificent.
All fiction has its place. Some fiction is purely fun and escape and the world needs more fun and feel good. Certain books are simply a holodeck to get away from the mundanities of life, the overwhelming pressures of being an adult (kids, laundry, bills, car repairs). They serve as a place of rest and we all could use more of that!
But that isn’t all fiction.
Many writers (myself included) desire to go far deeper with our fiction, explore wounds and human issues, poke and prod at larger social dilemmas using the narrative form to expose that which is diseased and show it can be overcome. Speculative fiction is an excellent outlet for this. This genre offers a myriad of ways to help us mere humans face all the stuff we fear the most.
I am breaking out of my comfort zone and now offering new classes specifically for the genres I love and read the most. In August I have a class on Speculative Fiction and one on Character-Driven Stories (which includes but is not limited to literary fiction and can greatly enhance genre fiction) before I leave for New Zealand to keynote.
Why did I pick these two to start with? These are my favorite kinds of books to read, which means I’ve read a lot of these kinds of stories. I also find it fascinating how (believe it or not) great speculative fiction has a lot more in common with literary than one might believe.
What is Speculative Fiction?
Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.
Basically, all the weird stuff.
(And forgive me because today we are using seriously broad strokes.)
But what makes the difference between the laughable 1950s science fiction matinees and the long-forgotten pulp fiction versus the works of Philip K.Dick? What makes The Road literature even though it’s a post-apocalyptic novella? Why is Heart-Shaped Box or Wool so deeply disturbing and simultaneously resonant?
It’s easy to dismiss speculative fiction as escapist fluff and some of it is. But, when we look to the great speculative fiction, we see the authors are disguising explosive social commentary within narrative so it can be viewed and experienced behind the safety-glass/containment field of story.
By using story, we writers place the reader into this world then (hopefully) generate empathy that is impossible to create any other way. I’ve seen the movie I, Robot countless times and I bawl EVERY time during this scene.
Yeah this is me…
Stepford Wives was a commentary on the women’s liberation movement. Animal Farm was a treatise on socialism and the dangers of groupthink. The peril that comes with handing over too much power to those who claim to have noble and benevolent intentions without asking the hard questions.
Brave New World was Huxley’s stab at a culture propelled by temporary highs, unlimited choices and instant gratification while rejecting that which endured (love, family, marriage), because that which lasted required time, sacrifice and work. He showed us an eerily accurate picture of what society could become if we were not vigilant…and is now probably rolling in his grave.
*Makes note to write story about Huxley haunting Instagram*
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was Philip K. Dick’s commentary on artificial intelligence and just because we can play God, should we? What sort of moral implications are involved? These are issues we are now facing for real, that are no longer fiction and we are being tasked with the tough questions.
Is it wise to create and sell sex robots that come with a “frigid” setting? What happens when we extend the logic of this? Blade Runner. We get Blade Runner. Also a bizarre escalation/reinvention of the previously mentioned Stepford Wives.
All these great science breakthroughs that float across our newsfeed are now fertile ground for new and possibly even better stories that prod the science with ethical dilemmas.
We show the world it’s upside down and maybe even ways to right it.
I believe that the great speculative fiction writers have always been the conscience of culture, the voice that whispers things like, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” Or, “This really is a big deal and can go ugly really easily.”
Horror does a lot of that as well. Good horror writers tap into the subconscious angst and gives it a face. What happens when society is allowed to continue to devalue human life? When mobs are handed permission to call the shots? Let’s chat about this after watching The Purge.
To Make it BIGGER, Make it Smaller
When we care about everything, we care about nothing. Additionally, the human mind can’t truly grasp the loss of a billion lives. It doesn’t resonate because it can’t compute.
Thus the great spec-fic plots make the big small. We tell a small story of one person or a group of people as it plays out on the far larger stage. World War Z anyone?
This is why so many Hollywood movies about asteroids hitting the planet fizzle while The Road simply guts us.
Not All Big Stories are Big
Sometimes speculative fiction isn’t addressing something big, rather it dives into the intimate and deeply personal. Heart-Shaped Box is about a vengeful ghost out to destroy an aging rock star and anyone he loves. While the supernatural elements are terrifying, what is so beautiful and moving about this story is how the characters are forced to face and conquer inner demons they would have been happy to bury if not running for their lives.
The human story is what elevates this from a forgettable scary book into a work that prods at the deep dark places of the characters (and by extension the reader).
Writing speculative fiction is really tough. It has a lot in common with literary in that it can turn preachy or fall flat so easily. Too many writers get fixated on world-building, when world-building is backdrop and can never substitute for story.
Spec-fic is tough and I swear it is the souffle of fiction. If we aren’t careful and look away one second? Yeah.
Plot of course matters in that we need a core story problem to drive the story, but characters are vastly important (possibly even more important). We must develop multi-dimensional characters with flaws and problems to set on this adventure because gizmos, gadgets, spaceships, magic, chainsaws, gore and ghosts alone are not a story.
We don’t need a bigger asteroid…we need a better story. Story is what is going to rattle the cage, not the two-ton spider. More blood or teeth won’t scare us and won’t change us.
In a world where we are overwhelmed with doom and gloom, where any debate on-line easily devolves into ranting, I think spec-fic is more important than ever in human history. Story is the place where the armor goes off and the heart is exposed and then able to be changed, fixed, remolded, and softened.
What are your thoughts? Do you love horror? Dystopian? Science fiction? What are your favorites? I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU! What makes spec-fic great? Or fall flat? What are your pet peeves?
I love speculative fiction, even though it took about 4 years to figure out what other writers meant by “speculative fiction.” I am a horror and science fiction JUNKIE. And I love the good stuff, the stories that poke and prod and that people can’t help talking about, debating, discussing in a way no Facebook rant-fest can. Which, again, is why I am thrilled to be offering a new class on it!
****And MAKE SURE to check out the classes below and sign up! Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! So scroll down and sign up!