Apologies for the delay in posting this–again, I’ve been sick, and then on vacation, and the discipline of writing weekly is proving to be at least as difficult in the longer term as I imagined it would be. Still, I want to keep making the good effort, and I thank you for your patience with my gaps.
Gene Wolfe observed that in the literary history, the twentieth century’s tendency to grant legitimacy only to realism is an anomaly–from the Odyssey through the Divine Comedy through the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, fantasy has permeated what we think of as great literature. Tolkien, meanwhile, wrote in “On Fairy Stories” that a great deal of what many in his time
would call “serious” literature is no more than play under a glass roof by the side of a municipal swimming-bath. Fairy-stories may invent monsters that fly the air or dwell in the deep, but at least they do not try to escape from heaven or the sea.
I believe that the “realistic”–what we find believable and tasteful in fiction–is only a subset of the real, the real is only a subset of the possible, and the possible is only a subset of the imaginable (what an infinitely intelligent being could conceivably imagine, not what humans actually can imagine now, which is probably quite limited even compared to the real, although it certainly exceeds the realistic and can depart from the real in radical and interesting ways.). I believe that realism is only one of many, many things that fiction can do, and to look at speculative fiction as a genre or genres subsidiary to it is silly. It should be the other way round.
It is with a certain amount of hypocrisy, then, that I write about the speculative as if it were a) monolithic and b) nothing more than a literary device….but I want to speculate (hah) on what drives us beyond the realistic in fiction.
I want to talk about three broad, basic things people look for in speculative fiction. (I’m sure there is a lot I am missing. This is a blog post that has been pondered for a few afternoons scrubbing used books with Windex, not a book–but I am very curious to hear just what else people look for in their spec fic.)
Thing 1: Truth.
One of the main things people look for in realistic fiction as well. Communicating something real about the world–whether just by capturing something about the texture of our everyday existence or by revealing the forces and principles underlying that existence (forces of the psyche or social forces or moral laws or “laws”) or by introducing us to realities that we didn’t realize existed. Looking for truth in fiction that is manifestly and explicitly far from reality is, to those not used to it, counterintuitive–in, perhaps, a macrocosm of the way that looking for truth in fiction in general is–but there are ways in which the speculative is able to get at truth that other forms of fiction can’t, or can’t as easily and naturally. Allegory is one obvious example, and its cousins exaggeration and extrapolation. The speculative can take philosophies to their logical extremes or test out their corner cases–also an example of Thing 2, but in a way that basically points back toward our world. Often the relative simplicity of the surface of much genre fiction may serve to emphasize realities that would otherwise be obscured by a clutter of “realistic” detail.
Some defenses of speculative fiction hinge on the fact that it points back toward the real world. But that’s far from the only thing it can do, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the most exciting.
Thing 2: What-if, or thought experiments
This is the purpose of speculative fiction that interests me the least even though I think it’s one of the best and most exciting from an objective standpoint. Speculative elements can basically say “What if?” and, as it were, trot out hypotheses about variables. You could argue that this overlaps so much with Thing 1 that there’s no reason to separate them, but I don’t think so–even if the insights gained from it can be brought to bear on the real, its spirit is exploratory. The “variables” played with can range from the possibility of some kind of magic to the reversal or extinction of gender roles to (as in Diane Duane’s worlds) the presence of “moral constants” like phythat differ from universe to universe. Here, the real remains present, but it serves the possible, in that it is used primarily to extrapolate the consequences of the alteration in the chosen variable.
Thing 3: Wish fulfillment.
This is a much-maligned function of a great deal of fiction, speculative not least, because it can alter the world not merely to see what happens but to make impossible desires possible. I said it’s much-maligned–but it has also been celebrated by the likes of Tolkien (who writes, “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”) and Northrop Frye (who, if I understand him, argues in Anatomy of Criticism that an important component of literature is the depiction of a world embodying the fulfillment of human desires).
This can mean fulfilling desires that are good for you and for the world (“I want to help lots of people”), in which case it does point back not to the way the world is but to the way that it could be, that we could try to make it–or good for you and neutral for the world (“I want to fly!”), or, alternatively, not even good for you outside the strange sandbox of narrative (e.g., “I wish I could hurt X person in Y way–but wait, that would a) make me a worse person b) have bad practical consequences for me and c) run against with whatever empathy I have for them.”)
Note that the different kinds of wish fulfillment can intertwine in interesting ways, and I think even the last, independent of all other redeeming qualities, has a great deal of value. Lambasting a piece of fiction for inculcating horrible values sometimes misses the point–the horrible values are just a harmless outlet for our baser natures, not a direct influence on the way we view the world. I think that fiction should, ideally, embrace a wider range of experience than we are willing to embrace in the real world, and that that in itself is good. Bad things in fiction aren’t perfectly harmless–violent TV may lead to violence in real life, for example–but I think that, consumed responsibly, they are very nearly so, and also worth it both in terms of the pleasure they afford and in terms of the greater breadth of experience they include.
Finally, I would like to add that this can be third-person wish-fulfillment, pleasure that depends on the narrative nature of the work being read (or written) rather than “something I would enjoy in any way whatsoever in real life.” A novel that answered only my actual, real-life desires would be pretty weird and boring to read. One can and possibly should enjoy one’s own life as one enjoys a story, but the form of the pleasure one gets by actually telling or hearing the story seems to me to be primary, and there are many, many things that I love to read about but have no interest in experiencing.
I’m not sure this aesthetic third-person pleasure shouldn’t be its own category, as it doesn’t point beyond the realm of fiction to either the reality we live in or to a putative different reality.