What is Speculative Fiction?
In anticipation of our upcoming speculative fiction issue, Headland editor Gina Cole, author of Na Viro, a work of Pasifikafuturism, discusses the value of speculative fiction as a literary form.
What is speculative fiction?
We love receiving speculative fiction stories at Headland. Please send more. To those of you who do not usually write in this genre, you may wonder—what is it exactly? Please know that it is a broad and constantly expanding genre and difficult to define. Speculative fiction might best be described as an umbrella term for a broad category of fiction which embraces genres that depart from reality. This wide classification includes (but is not limited to) science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero fiction, alternate history, utopian and dystopian fiction, supernatural fiction, gothic, weird fiction, ghost stories, zombie, vampire, post-apocalyptic, fairy tales, steampunk, magic realism, slipstream fiction (the fiction of strangeness), as well as any combinations of these (for example, science fiction horror—think of Hollywood movies Alien or Nope). This list is by no means complete and there are debates even between speculative fiction writers as to the boundaries of speculative fiction; for example, the famous debate between Margaret Attwood, who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, andUrsula Le Guin, who wrote The Left Hand of Darkness, as to what the boundaries are between science fiction and speculative fiction.
In my view, speculative fiction is a great genre through which to explore the question ‘what if?’ Speculative fiction can also be looked at as a mode of thought experimentation. Neil Gaiman, who wrote American Gods, argues that speculative fiction grants us a liberation of vision—but only so long as we honour its most essential characteristic: the multiplicity of meanings to any one story. Marek Oziewicz writes in the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia that speculative fiction can be used as a tool to dismantle the traditional Western cultural bias in favour of literature imitating reality and as a quest for the recovery of the sense of awe and wonder. Daniel Heath Justice, Professor of First Nations and Indigenous Studies and English at UBC, writes what he calls ‘wonderworks’. He suggests ‘wonderworks’ as a concept that offers Indigenous writers and storytellers—
something more in keeping with our own epistemologies, politics and relationships—in English, admittedly, and limited by its generic applicability, but no less useful, I think, for that. It’s a term that gestures, imperfectly, to other ways of being in the world, and it reminds us that the way things are is not how they have always been, nor is it how they must be.
To give you a taste of speculative fiction, and because I am a science fiction nerd, I offer an example of a science fiction story, ‘Exhalation’, by a writer whose work I love, Ted Chiang, as published in Lightspeed Magazine 2014. The story is written in a memoir style from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, an anatomy expert made from metal who belongs to a race of mechanical robotic beings who breathe argon. It is a science fiction story that explores the urge of beings to understand their world and their existence, where they come from, where they are going and what the future holds. These are universal themes that we can all understand. However, these are characters completely different from us and from our world.
We know that ‘Exhalation’ is set in a strange place. However, we are not told where this world is exactly, except for the narrator telling us that they have ‘journeyed all the way to the edge of the world and seen the solid chromium wall that extends from the ground up to the infinite sky.’ We are not given an elaborate description of what the world or the characters look like. We are told that the beings in this world replenish their detachable lungs at filling stations where they congregate for conversation. If a person is unable to replace a lung before their installed pair runs empty, they will die within seconds of their air running out. Lungs are shared between beings and between districts. The communal activity of replacing lungs is also a means of sharing news and gossip.
As an anatomist, the robotic narrator is curious about their own anatomy and embarks on a journey of literal self-exploration, auto-dissecting their own brain to understand how their memories work. The world is clearly and creatively explained to us, not in an expository information dump, but through the point of view and actions of the narrator, who is exploring their own existence. The story evokes a sense of awe and wonder about the mystery of life. The narrator concludes with a gripping and philosophical message to the reader to ‘contemplate the marvel that is existence.’
Although this world is radically different to our world and our life on Earth, there are many aspects of the world that are as relevant to us humans as they are to the mechanical robotic beings in the story. Like many scientists, explorers and knowledge seekers in our history and in our present, the narrator engages in a risky experiment that they believe will give them some understanding of their world. We also crave connection, and we love to be social and engage in communal activities. Also, we must breathe air to live. If we are deprived of air for even a brief time we die instantly. And so, even though the world and its inhabitants are completely different from us, there are many points of connection in the story for us as readers.
I would say that it doesn’t matter whether we are in a world of zombies, witches, vampires, robots, aliens or any other world that is not familiar to us. Like any great narrative, a good speculative fiction story will leave a reader with questions, or leave a reader wanting more, or give a reader enough clues to come away from the story feeling some connection with the characters.