Why Speculate?

“Days Without a Zombie Apocalypse sign, Jimmy’s Coffee, Toronto, Ontario, Canad” photo by Cory Doctorow is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

When it comes to tackling the big issues faced by humanity, fiction is often acknowledged as one of the most effective means of exploring what it is to be human. In a discussion of the relationship between history and fiction, novelist and historian Gillian Polack writes that “[t]he capacity to creatively engage with current issues and to test them experimentally is important: novelists can provide significant subtle insights into the past in terms of thought experiments” (540). Whether realist or non-realist, fiction serves as one of the best ways to think about the past, present, and future of humanity.

But what is it about speculative fiction in particular that draws creators to the genre over realist genres? If you ask author Margaret Atwood, the answer is simple: it’s fun!

Yet, speculative fiction must offer much more than just creative enjoyment to authors — though that enjoyment is an important trait — to explain the lengths both creators and consumers of speculative fiction will go to defend the critical merits of the genre.

Ursula K. le Guin posited once in a discussion with Margaret Atwood that realistic, literary fiction has become too narrow in focus, and asked if it has become easier to pose big political/social/moral questions in non-realist settings, to which Atwood replied, “yes” (Literary Arts). Atwood suggests that the narrowness of much modern realist fiction (which tends to focus on well-off but dysfunctional suburban families) generally prohibits authors from placing their characters within settings of serious social and political strain. Their commitment to depicting a world that genuinely reflects reality leaves stories like this only able to tackle such issues in passing, whereas speculative fiction can delve right in to the heart of the matter.

Literary Arts Archive: Usula le Guin & Margaret Atwood

However, Atwood’s point that these things can be treated more seriously in speculative fiction than in realist fiction gets somewhat derailed by the notion of censorship: while she is right that speculative fiction does allow for the discussion of subjects that cannot be addressed openly, her point is moot in a society without heavy censorship, where there is no need to disguise the content under discussion behind fantastical worlds.

So why in such societies (like America) are writers still drawn to speculative fiction as the vehicle for their political/social/moral commentaries?

Poster for MGM’s 1960 film “The Time Machine” by Reynold Brown

For many, it is still a matter of the benefits of speculative fiction over realist fiction in tackling big political, social, and moral issues. Science fiction and fantasy author Juliet McKenna says on the merits of speculative fiction versus realist fiction that “[s]peculative fiction may not mimic real life but it uses its magic mirror to reflect on the world around us. It’s a fundamentally outward-looking genre, in direct contrast to literary fiction, which looks inward to explore the human condition” (McKenna). She suggests that, while realist, literary fiction does well in examining the inner workings of the individual mind, speculative fiction is much more effective in looking at the workings of society and social/political systems.

Philosopher Ross Cameron builds on this notion further by suggesting that “we can learn from considering unreal circumstances truths about our actual circumstances” (30). He explains how “[f]antasy worlds have their own rules, and we know that, and in so knowing have no trouble accepting what we would resist in a realistic fiction” (39). Because of this, creators can explore deeper into the consequences of various political, social, and moral systems without being burdened by the constraints of historical reality.

“If” June 1954. Cover art: “Lava Falls on Mercury” by Kenneth Fagg

Still, the fun aspect of speculative fiction cannot be ignored, and is not an insignificant factor when considering the merits of the genre. Perhaps one of the greatest barriers to authors who want to address serious political/social/moral themes in their work is the perception that, as speculative author Rjurik Davidson puts it, “approaching culture politically (in the broad sense of the term)” will “necessarily result in the production of dour and didactic texts” (“Imagining” ). On the contrary, speculative fiction allows for authors to tackle these issues in a way that doesn’t turn readers off, but indeed actually engages them more fully with the text and its themes. In this way, speculative fiction can be more effective than traditional literary fiction, which carries the expectation of having politically charged themes.