Speculative Fiction — My View

Most of my stories probably belong to the genre of speculative fiction (spec-fic). I say “probably” because spec-fic is many things to many people. In fact, there are famous spec-fic authors like Samuel Delaney who deny there is any such thing as spec-fic. It is also a semantically-challenged label. For example, isn’t speculation the element that makes fiction different from fact? So what’s the “spec” in spec-fic?

Here is how I understand it. Every story has a context. The context is the stuff the reader and the writer agree on, the stuff they can take for granted. The context doesn’t need to be narrated. For example, in a regular story if you say, “it rained” there’s no need to clarify that it was raining water?. But in a science-fiction story you can’t be so sure. If the story were set on Jupiter, say, then it could be raining diamonds. How? Well, NASA scientists Kevin Baines and Mona Delitsky have shown that lightning turns methane in Jupiter’s atmosphere to soot and as the soot (carbon) falls, Jupiter’s extreme atmospheric pressure morphs it into sparkly diamonds. It can rain diamonds on Jupiter. In other words, science-fiction plays with the material context of a story, which is what produces the genre’s much-valued “sense of wonder”.

There are many other contexts to play with: philosophical, linguistic, social, economic and so on. Speculative fiction is fiction in which “the” context is a key part of the story. Spec-fic includes genres like science-fiction, fantasy, magic-realism, irrealism, surreal fiction, and many others where the context isn’t a given. In ordinary fiction– establishment fiction– the context stands outside the story, something like a taken-for-granted domestic servant.

This doesn’t mean anything goes in the telling of the story. On the contrary, the author has to be even more careful about shaping the reader’s expectations. It’s a difficult form to master and one easy to mangle. All stories are a balance between statement and suggestion (see Krishna Rayan’s The Lamp And The Jar for a much-needed cross-cultural overview of this idea). Establishment fiction, the kind of naturalistic writing taught in most MFA programs and English departments, tends to be inward-looking and focused on internal suggestion. Speculative fiction broadens the possibilities of statement and suggestion to the story’s externals, its contexts.

If you’re new to spec-fic, then it might take a while to get comfortable with the ambiguity, uncertainty and novelty in the stories. Some sentences might seem like puzzles (Samuel Delaney: “The red sun is high, the blue low”); others may appear factually incorrect (Greg Egan: “Okay, he’s dead. You can talk to him now.”); some play with the subjunctive mood (Anil Menon: “Of course, it is not necessary to assume Padma had always been Indian. She is certainly Indian now.”); and some sentences are as beautiful as they are baffling:

At first sight everything may lead to believe that Palafox is a chick, a simple chick, after his eggshell breaks open, a baby ostrich like many that are born every day in the world, with long legs and an elongated neck, a very ordinary baby giraffe, with yellow fur and brown spots, one of these silent and fearsome leopards, ready to eat a man, a blue shark like all blue sharks, bloodthirsty, all in all another bothersome mosquito, with its very customary trunk, an ordinary baby elephant, but one begins to doubt. Palafox croaks. Palafox licks our face and our hands. So our certainties vacillate. Let’s take a closer look at Palafox.

Eric Chevillard

That’s all very well, but no matter how awesome the chef or advanced the recipe, a dish works if you look forward to the next spoonful. That’s a given. Speculative fiction plays with many givens but it too seeks to give you something to savor. Give it a try. Several tries. I think you’ll like its taste.