Archive for December, 2013

On Speculative Fiction

On the Validity of Speculative Fiction as Literature

I have taken more literature classes over the course of my life than I have any other subject. Fitting, perhaps, for an English Major at NC State, to be sure, but my love for the subject reaches back much further than that. It was in first grade when I first decided that I would be a writer, when my playground activities turned from four square and dodge ball to imagining these fantastical scenarios in which my friends and I played our favorite characters and saved the world at least once a week. I was, over the course of my grade school career not only Obi-Wan Kenobi, but a Ninja Turtle, Link from the video game series The Legend of Zelda, and of course: Batman. Whilst this did of course set me up for an endless stream of ridicule at the hands of the archetypal “cool” kids, I—awkward, out-of-shape kid that I was—found my main role as the chronicler. It fell to me week after week to keep a log of what post-lunch tomfoolery happened on the playground, fell to me to account for the struggles in which a Jedi Knight, a Digimon and a pair of Power Rangers fought valiantly against an endless stream of universe-threatening villains played bravely and with aplomb my friend David.

And it fell to me to suggest, early in the third grade, that we might be better served creating our own characters to play as, that we might create some sort of overarching story, rather than select our roles on a weekly basis. I learned storytelling at the knee of my own frustration with my friends’ collective inability to imagine a bigger picture, and eventually I came to realize I didn’t need the help of my friends at all in order to tell a story. I retreated inwards, with everything they had taught me, and started anew.

It wasn’t until the fifth grade I started really getting the sense that I was a little different. I went to a small Jesuit-run Catholic school, and with not even fifty kids in my entire grade, a group of seven dorky kids playing pretend seemed to be the whole of recess: we weren’t weird. But David moved away, and Matt started playing football, and soon it was just me and my books. Now, I had the good fortune to be born in the Harry Potter generation, where everyone was at least reading that, so I retained some tenuous link to the world of my peers. But I outstripped them quickly. Fifth grade marked my discovery of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in all my life no single novel has has so lasting an impact as The Lord of the Rings. From there, I found myself reading Shakespeare and—for whatever reason—Dante. You scoff, I know, but I advanced quickly.

To me though, it was all the same, I would go from Hamlet to The Lord of the Rings to The Inferno to Frank Herbert’s Dune (where I tarried a long while, reading and rereading). I never learned to distinguish between what the ivory tower calls Literature from speculative fiction. Certainly I learned that some books were for young adults—and that as a general rule they were of a less literary caliber—but no one ever bothered to tell me that Tolkien was somehow less deserving of praise than Hemingway, or that William Gibson deserved derision while Zora Neale Hurston ought to be pedestalized. In the same way that a child has yet to inherit the racial prejudices of his parents, I had not learned to put the speculative fiction at the back of the bus.

Then I arrived in college, and everything started to change. I started taking creative writing classes, as any student interested in being a novelist would be. My first instructor, a grad student named Lucas, was not overwhelmingly enthused with my love for speculative fiction. When I announced my plans to write a science fiction short story to him, I remember still how his face fell, how he sighed heavily, as if to say “Oh, Christopher…things had been going so well!” I was genuinely confused at this reaction, as I had never been exposed to what I can only think of must be a hierarchy of genre whose existence one is presumably made privy to upon their entrance into the tweed-and-ink word of upper academia.

And I, being poor—had no real idea.

My first story went very well, was received extremely well by my classmates and by Lucas, surprisingly. He said after the reading that he was surprised how I focused on the characters and the drama rather than on “the technobabble and bug-eyed monsters” (here I paraphrase, I regret that the events are a few years past and I cannot quite remember the precise words). I was rather taken aback by this—why shouldn’t science fiction focus on character and character drama? Character is the absolute soul of literature: We enjoy Hamlet because of Hamlet, not because of Elsinore or the sword fighting. That being said, the sword fighting is an attractor, come for the sword fighting, stay for the characters. I don’t see why the window dressing—whether it’s drafty and paranoid Elsinore or the deserts of far-flung Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune—should much change the drama of the moment. Is Paul’s forced suppression of grief over the murders of his father and first son and his thinly suppressed rage any the lesser because his revenge unfolds on a desert planet so very far from Earth? Is his victory any the lesser because it’s won with sandstorms and sandworms and nuclear warheads?

No.

I’m sorry, but I don’t think the point is really all that negotiable. I’ve a hard time seeing much difference in artistic merit between one avenging son and his utter failure in Elsinore and another in his success on Arrakis. Why should Arrakis be a poorer stage for such a drama than Earth? What exactly makes Earth better? What makes Hamlet’s struggle better than Paul’s? What makes the revenge of Edmond Dantes better than that of Hiro’s in Snow Crash, or the doomed love between Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby more tragic than that of Meryn and Siri in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion?

Oh, because it’s more real, they said. Because of the verisimilitude. Because it’s easier to conceive of and empathize with a doomed romance in 1920’s New York than it is to conceive of a pair of lovers who only meet for a couple weeks every seven years, the visiting man only aging slightly thanks to relativistic space travel whilst his land-bound lover goes from girl to woman to crone before his eyes. Nonsense. You can imagine that well enough, as can this mere twenty-year-old, undergraduate that I am, still yet uninitiated to the upper echelons of the tweed-and-ink ivory tower. If I can manage it with only my natural interest in the material, I’m quite sure my writing instructors over the years can manage it with their much-vaunted powers of literary analysis.

Is it perhaps that the alien setting and material somehow distracts from and dilutes the message? Perhaps through all the glitz and technobabble and bug-eyed monsters the inherent soul of a narrative might be buried. I submit to you that that is not the fault of the genre but of individual authors. Regular literature has its bad actors, for every Khaled Hosseini, every F. Scott Fitzgerald, every Ernest Heminway, every Mark Twain and every John Green there’s a hundred thousand Nicholas Sparks, trotting out the same old saccharine romance time and time again. The fault, if there is one, lies not with the genre, but with the specific work of fiction. This should be apparent particularly to teachers of creative writing. Lucas should have seen that in a class of about twenty students, maybe six or seven were writing anything resembling decent work. (I confess I do include myself in this, but then, it was an introductory level class and I had already been writing for some years.) By sheer volume we’re already looking at a majority of work—genre fiction or no—that fails at being narratively coherent, much less good.

There is also the problem of simple familiarity. You value Hamlet’s struggles more than Paul’s—value Edmond’s torments more than Hiro’s—value the tragedy of Gatsby’s love for Daisy more than Meryn’s for Siri—not because of some inherent superiority in these works of classic literature, but because you’ve heard of them. There is a sense in literary academia of being “the old guard,” last bastion of a vein and episode of western civilizaton, keepers of the flame of Culture with a capital-C. But C also stands for conservative, a four-letter word in learned circles. I submit to you that this prejudice against science fiction and fantasy stems, not from some legitimate complaint against the conventions of the genre but out of some contempt for the newness of it all.

Granted, it is extraordinarily hard to inject high drama into a tale of of bug-eyed monsters and silly robots. All the more reason to admire the successes of the genre then, succeeding in the face of genre conventions which by their very presence damage the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief and to connect with the human elements and the deeper message and point of a narrative. Consider the second episode of the now fifty-year-old television program Doctor Who, which introduces the series’ most iconic (and longest lasting) villain: the Daleks. Sydney Newman, Head of Drama for the BBC and the man behind the launch of the program, insisted the show stick to “proper history” with a particular ban on robots and funny aliens. Due to the show’s premiering the day after the Kennedy assassination, ratings for the purely historical—and frankly quite dull—pilot episode An Unearthly Child were dangerously low, and the show faced cancellation after a mere one episode. Fortunately, the show’s producer, Verity Lambert, managed to convince Newman to run a story, The Daleks, which did indeed contain robot-monsters, albeit not bug-eyed ones. The Daleks netted over ten million viewers, cementing the show’s place in the BBC’s schedule.

While on the one hand, a TV program about scary robots with laser guns was very popular with the children tuning in, it was the narrative which has stood the test of time, and brought the Daleks back to television screens time and time again, season after season for fifteen years. In narrative, the Daleks evolved from a race of human-like aliens on a distant planet embroiled in decades of thermonuclear war with another race of aliens distinguishable only by hair color. (The Daleks’ antecedents were dark haired, fighting against a blond-haired, blue-eyed race of equally fascist opponents for command of a nuclear wasteland of a planet.) The Nazi analog should not be ignored, but that the writers made the dark-haired British analog the group that would evolve into the hateful, xenophobic, armored mutants that are the Daleks was an inspired choice. It helps to show that one doesn’t have to be an officer at a concentration camp to be capable of evil, it’s not necessarily the Nazis that spawn evil—but the evil we might become in fighting them. Add on top of that the Cold War anxieties running through the west in 1963 (especially airing within a month of the assassination of President Kennedy) and you have a perfect example of seizing the zeitgeist.

Hence ten million viewers.

Hence fifty years of programming.

Could The Daleks work without the science fiction elements? No. How precisely would you tell a cautionary tale about the horrors of nuclear war and blind use of science in pursuit of destruction other than to show such a world? And such showing would of necessity demand a little speculating. You see, science fiction and fantasy allow us to tell stories that exceed our ordinary world. It would be impossible to tell the story of Paul Atreides on Earth, as Arrakis itself is crucial to the story of Dune. It is similarly impossible to tell the love story of Siri and Meryn told in Hyperion, as it hinges on the time-dilating properties of light-speed space travel, which is as distant from our day and age as is nuclear holocaust and bug-eyed aliens.

This then is one of the stronger points in favor of speculative fiction. Regardless of quality, speculative fiction, be it science fiction or fantasy, allows us as readers and writers both to explore the vasty vistas of the improbable, the impossible and the arcane. It allows us to tell stories that transcend mere reality, and in transcending allows us to examine aspects of the human spirit in ways which cannot be described by the tale of a lost boy wandering New York City alone in winter. It is sometimes not enough to say that mankind in indomitable, to say that our works will last a thousand thousand years. Sometimes you need to show that, to examine what the passing of so much time might do to our civilization. How can you write a tale about the effects of technological integration on society without taking things a little further than they are in our day and age? You’re much better served as a writer showing a future like those imagined by Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, where technology has wiped out traditional institutions like governments and families, than you are to tell a story of a family grown distant and sour because their kids play too much Angry Birds.

Moreover, the tweed-and-ink world ought to remember that it’s proud tradition of stultified, capital-L Literature with it’s capital-C Culture is full to bursting with the tropes and memes and conventions of speculative fiction. Hamlet himself learns of his father’s murder from said father’s Ghost. Dante crosses into the afterlife, accompanied by a dead Roman poet as he encounters the famous dead, noble and otherwise. Macbeth confronts witches. Arthur becomes king of the Britons with the aid of a wizard and a magic sword. But that’s only fantasy, you say: Science fiction remains an infant genre, full of what Jules Verne himelf called “mere entertainments.”

Respectfully, tell that to François-Marie Arouet—better known as Voltaire—who in 1754 wrote Micromegas, the tale of a pair of alien visitors and their reflections on Earth. Tell that to Johannes Kepler, who in 1608 wrote Somnium, a novel written in Latin about the cosmic adventures of a young boy who travels to the moon with the help of a witch and a demon. Where exactly does the line get drawn? Are we to accept Romeo and Juliet and Henry V as “literary” but deny Hamlet and Macbeth the privilege?

Let us be honest now, in frowning on speculative fiction you’re merely attempting to legislate taste. You know that inwardly your complaint against these genres is that you feel there’s something inherently unserious in talking about hyperspace and dragons. And literature should—above all else—be a serious undertaking. I invite you to tell that to Lewis Carroll, whose work, it should be noted, most assuredly counts as fantastical. More than that, I’ve yet to hear any one of those nay-saying writing professors (and grad students like Lucas) dare to so much as whisper that Alice in Wonderland might not be of a sufficiently literary nature.

Ultimately, though, what is and isn’t “literary” is not a thing which anyone, not even the tweed-and-ink emperors of the ivory tower, can legislate from on high. Despite my sincere wishes that such drivel as Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (a work of fantasy) and EL James’ Fifty Shades of Gray (a work of realistic fiction) might be stricken from circulation and from the pages of history, that is not my call to make.

Literature simply is.

Art is.

We, the audience, intended or otherwise, may enjoy or revile a piece of writing (I personally loathe Lewis Carroll) but it is not for us to try to reduce a piece from the status of art. A story or narrative is “literary” because it is literature—because it is written words printed on a page. I could have written nonsense paragraphs in imitation of Gertrude Stein and my submissions would have been literary. For all their departures from realism, the Impressionists were creating art. Photo-realistic portraiture, for all its impressive technique, seems rather pointless, as reality can now be documented in all it’s mundane detail by any eight-year-old with his own smartphone.

It is left to artists to dream.

And it is for this reason that speculative fiction should not only be tolerated, but lauded. Speculative fiction allows writers to dream more broadly than ordinary literature. It allows us to exceed reality, and in exceeding to turn back to regard ourselves as individuals and as a species from a new height. It allows us to take humanity both as it is and as it might be, and to discuss our contemporary state through a lens alien enough that we might come at our own problems with fresh eyes, and looking, truly see for the first time.