In defense of speculative fiction

I find the rise of both the fantasy and science fiction genres totally fascinating—and awesome. The genres, which fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction, have surged in popularity over the past decade or so, going from a niche market to something more mainstream.

“Lord of the Rings,” the Harry Potter series,  “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Babylon Babies” and “Dune” are some books-made-film that come to mind.

While I mourn the loss of the exclusivity of the community, I am excited that it’s not considered “weird.”

I’m going to assume most of you are literary fiction or non-fiction types, for the sake of argument, and start at the beginning. The speculative fiction umbrella covers many genres and all of them have numerous sub-genres, but I don’t want to get too down and dirty, so we’ll just cover the basics of fantasy and science fiction.

Fantasy books typically use magic or supernatural phenomena as primary elements of plot, theme or setting.

These are some books from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series.

Science fiction books typically revolve around imagined innovations in science and technology (often taking place in the future), but the science or technology stem from something theoretically possible, according to the laws of nature.

Summary and generalization: fantasy means magic. Science fiction means space travel. Are you still with me? Oh, good. Even literary fiction is getting in on the speculative fiction action, spawning a hybrid genre known as “fantastic fiction,” which cover books that take one fantastic element and plunk it down in the real world, like “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “The Lovely Bones.”

Writer’s Digest has a nice little article on that phenomenon here.

In the past, the proponents of literary fiction have derided the science fiction and fantasy genres as sub-par. Not “real” literature. Fluff. However, the general opinion of speculative fiction is changing. People are discovering, either through reading the masterpieces of the genre or through adaptations that this “fluff” has excellent literary merit.

Now, as with any genre, there are those novels that are specifically for entertainment and contain little to no lasting value. And that’s totally fine—everyone needs something that is easy to read and entertaining to boot.  But there are an equal number of books that are valuable as societal foils.

Science fiction explores the consequences or benefits of scientific theory or innovations. Fantasy tends to focus the battle between good and evil, and fantasy literature often becomes a morality tale. Both reflect society as we see it currently and as we would like to see it—even what we would like to change historically.

Speculative fiction as a whole allows us to reflect upon past mistakes, consider our collective future, and examine our cultural norms. It allows us to question what we know in a way that literary fiction can’t by using impossibilities.

What would happen during a global alien invasion?

A zombie outbreak?

Magical cataclysm?

How would society react, change—evolve? In the event that these impossible things bring ultimate good, speculative fiction asks us: why can’t we make these improvements now?

It allows us to examine ourselves from the outside in, as the Other, observing something entirely new. All the while being entertaining.

To dismiss this type of literature—because it is literature—as fluff, is a big mistake. HUGE.  Mostly, because you’re missing out on some truly fantastic ideas. If it’s not your thing, okay cool. But don’t tell an avid fan that what they’re reading is stupid or has no value. It sort of makes us Hulk out.

And for those of you still scoffing, I submit that you’re all just jealous of my jetpack.

Woman with a steampunk jetpack, spotted at the Maryland Renaissance Fair, 2011. I done lost the business card with her info, if you recognize her (or the jetpack) please let me know!


5 thoughts on “In defense of speculative fiction

  1. Reblogged this on Tammy J Rizzo and commented:
    A friend of mine (I used to date him) is very literary-minded, extolling the virtues of the Great Novels like ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Les Miserables’ and the like. He always seemed just a little bit disappointed that I didn’t share his passions for literary greats like Joyce or Hemmingway. I just could never get into them, and I tried, especially while we were dating. They made no sense to me. My tastes have always run to the fantasy/science fiction end of the spectrum rather than the mainstream end, and many people I would try to discuss books with would belittle my tastes as juvenile and wasteful. What redeeming values does science fiction have, they’d ask me. What can it possibly tell you about the human condition? Or fantasy, where magic can solve all your problems? Hah! They have obviously not read any decent fantasy or science fiction, if they can’t see the human condition in those books. This post explains very well why speculative fiction is so very important, at least just as important as the ‘important’ novels we were made to read in school. Thank you for giving words to my frustration, Jackie Hames!

  2. Pingback: A Bumper Crop of Author Promotions | John K. Patterson

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