Hi all! So there's a local writing organization where I live and part of what they do is host talks on writing/writerly-related topics. I was fortunate enough to speak to some of the people involved in the organization and set up a craft talk about speculative fiction and that went down this last week. It was...nervous for me, because it's hard to feel legit as someone who drunkenly reviews Goosebumps online but at the same time I know that part of the point of the talk is to reach new writers who might not know much about the field. Having had to figure out a lot of it on my own/with similarly new people, I know how suck that can be. So I talked about rejections and payments and contracts and all that good meat-and-potatoes things that college didn't talk about but for a ten minute hand wave at the end of one class once (that was optional to attend). That part of the talk was largely me just talking, but I started off the talk with an examination of what I feel makes Speculative Fiction distinct and meaningful. I want to share that part of the talk.
The whole thing was recorded and at some point I will try to find where it's been posted so that people can see the whole awkward mess, but for now I hope that maybe you'll find some of this interesting. Okay, full text after the bump:
Hi, I'm Charles Payseur and I'm a writer of speculative fiction. Now, a big part of why I wanted to do this craft talk was because the standard response to that is..."Oh, yeah, uh huh...what's that?" And the quick answer is always "Well, it's science fiction and fantasy and some horror." Which isn't a very good definition of speculative fiction, because while most people won't admit that they don't know what science fiction and fantasy and horror mean, the way most people define those is based on what I refer to as the "book store definition of genre." In short, it tells you where to find the stories, what shelf they're most likely to be on, but doesn't really get into what makes speculative fiction stories meaningfully distinct from anything else.
And how to do that? How to find a definition of speculative fiction that is useful and meaningful. Because while the book store definition is helpful to readers who want to find the stories, and even to writers who are looking to sell a story they've already written, it doesn't address why people might want to write speculative fiction, and what makes it valuable as separate from other kinds of stories. I want to start by looking at the term itself, speculative fiction. Like many terms, I think it can be both very appropriate and rather misleading. It's derived from To Speculate, which means essentially to ask "what if?" Which, I mean, fits quite well. What if dragons existed? What if it was the future and there was faster-than-light travel? What if history had gone a different way and there were airships and steam guns? What if ghosts were real? Those are all solid speculative fiction premises.
But really all stories are speculative in that way. All stories ask "what if?" What if there was a city called Eau Claire? What if someone went on vacation to Florida? What if a dog ran away from home? What if what if what? These stories engage in no less speculation than the others, but they aren't speculative. Instead, these stories fall into a different category, which is another I find quite appropriate and very misleading. These are called realistic stories, and realistic fiction encompasses pretty much everything that isn't speculative, including most literary fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. And I know, that seems odd—how can nonfiction fall into a fiction category, but I'll circle back around to that.
Now, all of these stories are essentially built the same way. There is no telling, at a sentence level, what is realistic and what is speculative. They all ask "what if?" But realistic fiction, as its name implies, strives for "realism." Which means that it makes a rulebook and calls it "the way things are" and into that rulebook go all the things that make up our accepted reality. From things like physics and biology to sociology, economics, psychology—it takes all of these things and it says "here are the givens to our stories." When you read a realistic fiction piece there's the implication that there's not really going to be anything that breaks with these rules.
But speculative fiction? Speculative fiction requires that these rules be broken. Big or small, something has to be different from "the way things are" in order for a story to be speculative. Fancy yourself a rule breaker? Then welcome home. Pick a rule. "There's no magic." Break. "Space travel is impossible (or at least very, very difficult)." Break. "Monsters aren't real." Break. You can break as many rules as you want. You can write an entirely new rulebook. Indeed, you have to.
And it becomes about more than just breaking the rules, then. What speculative fiction allows, and part of why I love it so much, is that by breaking these rules, by creating a new rulebook, you show that all rulebooks, including the one that governs realistic fiction, are just fictions that people tell themselves. Where realistic fiction sets "the way things are" as somehow Real (big R), speculative fiction shows that there is no Real. That all we have are stories, are rulebooks that cover up the questions that we don't know the answers to.
It's no surprise, then, that when many people talk about speculative fiction they talk about a thing called the willful suspension of disbelief. Which I hate as a term and as an idea. It's a mouthful and a double negative and really just doesn't fit with my experiences. It states that when we read stories that break "the way things are" rulebook, our minds experience such a level of distress and anxiety that we must constantly and consciously suppress the part of ourselves that insists (Insists!) that this isn't Real. But this isn't how anyone I know reads speculative fiction. Brains are fascinating things. If you read a story about running, that really describes it, it's been shown that your brain lights up in the same ways as if it was actually running. This happens regardless of if the running in the story is happening in Chicago or on Mars. Your brain, in essence, wants to believe. When you sit down with a speculative story, or at least when I do, I have no problem believing the story. It becomes real.
And as it becomes real I can see then that it's real in the same way that realistic stories are real. The same way the world around me is real. We live fiction. Our lives are just the stories that we tell to make sense of everything around us. It's why I don't separate out nonfiction from fiction, because they function the same way. That's why fake news is so dangerous, because it seeks to rewrite what is "the way things are" while still maintaining that "the way things are" is objectively true. And what speculative fiction can do, then, is to show people that we are always in the process of defining what is realistic and what isn't. And that it's by breaking the rules that we can expose parts of "the way things are" as harmful fantasy and not objective truth.
Speculative fiction is a genre of revolution and change. It seeks to grow beyond "the way things are" to show people that truth is not the province of realism. That the strange and the unlikely and outright impossible have things to teach us. And yes, it can just be lots of fun, too, but speculative fiction is no less literary, no less complex, and no less valuable than any other genre. Indeed, for me, it's much more valuable, because it lets me explore worlds not bound to the limits of realism that I have always found constraining. I can imagine worlds that are different, where change is not only possible but happening, and through that I can inspire myself and hopefully others to push for change here, to push past the calls that things are just "the way things are" to create a better world and brighter future.
Or, as Samuel R. Delany said, “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”
[Yes, I completely stole that quote from Sam J. Miller's Uncanny essay on Resistance 101.]