What is the appeal of speculative fiction?
Why are both readers and writers so drawn to these non-realist genres?
The short answer is that speculative fiction is just straight-up fun. While genres like science fiction and fantasy have typically endured in cult followings on the fringes of mainstream culture, speculative fiction as a whole is now enjoying a place in the center of pop-culture. As speculative fiction author China Miéville points out, a “brief survey of popular books, television, comics, video games etc. illustrates the extent to which the fantastic had become a default cultural vernacular” (qtd. in Davidson, “Writing”). With the popularity of films like Marvel‘s cinematic universe, post-apocalyptic young adult fiction like The Hunger Games, and dystopic video games like Deus Ex, one can’t deny the wide appeal of speculative fiction in today’s culture.
But what is it about non-realist fiction that makes it so enjoyable for readers and writers alike? Perhaps it lies in the fact that “speculative fiction’s unifying, identifying characteristic is that it doesn’t attempt to mimic real life in the way that literary fiction does” (McKenna). In a post 9/11 world, many readers are seeking an escape from the dreariness of reality, and speculative fiction genres by definition provide that escape from realism. Unlike literary fiction, which typically employ extremely realist settings to explore what are often socially and politically charged themes, speculative fiction operates under the assumption that “the chief function of a novel is to tell a story, rather than to present a thesis” (Polack).
But that’s not to say that speculative fiction cannot tackle serious themes like literary fiction does. In fact, there are many who believe that “[s]etting a story in another place or another time enables speculative fiction to explore ideas that literary fiction might really struggle with” (McKenna). The biggest difference between most speculative fiction and literary fiction, however, lies in the way that speculative fiction is typically concerned with telling a good story first, and providing social commentary second. This idea is best summed up by Miéville:
[A]nyone who wants to do the job of extraction, the politics in Perdido and The Scar and so on are pretty clear. But because it’s not what the book is ‘about’, in some narrow sense, you don’t have to be interested in that at an explicit level to like the books … I tried to make it accessible to those who aren’t interested or don’t agree, because I come out of a pulp tradition so there’s a strong sense of narrative and cliff-hangers and monsters and all that stuff. And each of those monsters and narrative hooks will have a political unconscious but they also have a super-ego, and if you’re not interested in the unconscious you can read them at the super-ego level. (qtd. in Davidson, “Writing”)