Speculative Fiction

Literature of Change

We have discussed What Speculative Fiction is, What makes it Progressive, and Why it is important that it is progressive,  but now it is vitally important to clarify some key points about the nature of Progressive Speculative Fiction.  There are two equally disastrous paths we can take from here.  As with everything in life, we have to find the middle path between the opposites:

  • The Light Side: Everything is great, and will only get better.  The future will be a universally happy place.  We are heading towards a utopia.
  • The Dark Side: Entropy rules the world and things are only getting worse.  The future will be a gloomy and sinister place.  We are heading towards a distopia.

Both are extremes, and neither can ever paint a valid world that has any grounding in reality.

Does Speculative Fiction have to be gloomy?

Damien G Walter at the Guardian wrote a fascinating article about the utopian and distopian sins of Science Fiction (read it here).  He asks the basic question that I would love to paraphrase: Does Speculative Fiction have to be gloomy?

From the recent releases, you might assume the answer is a yes, but it doesn't have to be.

Gloomy has its place in any story, but if that story only strikes one note throughout, then it become boring, and the audience looses interest.  We can see this trend with Lost and Heroes, but shows like Torchwood, Battlestar Galactica, and Sanctuary show that it s possible to strike a happy median.

Sometimes a story has to be bleak and gloomy throughout to make the point, like 1984 by George Orwell, but more often then not writers take the gloom to an unnecessary extreme.

The challenge for writers of science fiction today is not to repeat the same dire warnings we have all already heard, or to replicate the naive visions of the genres golden age, but to create visions of the future people can believe in (The Guardian).

Must SF fix the worlds problems?

Kathryn Cramer at Tor had an interesting take on Damien's post (read it here):

I view science fiction partly as a set of perceptual tools we take with us into the world. I don’t think SF can be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world’s problems, but I think it is SF’s task to help us understand them (Tor).

Whether or not the writer understands or believes it, all fiction is a perceptual filter that shows their readers/viewers the world from a certain point of view.  People are influenced by these perspectives to differing degrees.  The quality of the fiction plays a part in that, but so too does the structure and discipline of the reader/viewer's mind.

It is too much to ask any writer to solve the world's problems in their work, but they have to understand that they are responsible for show the cost and consequences of their character's actions.

For example, we like to believe that people are born good or evil, and that it is alright to be amoral from time to time.  This is why so many people reacted negatively to George Lucas' edits of the original Star Wars Trilogy and the addition of the prequel.  He clarified Han Solo's morality and showed how a good person can become evil.  In fact, it has been argued by C. S. Lewis and others that their truly is no such thing as evil.  There is only vile, horrible, and misguided attempt to do good.  If you look at most of the "monsters" in history, they are people who thought they were doing good even though they wrought horrors on the world.

It is the job of every writer to show that every action has an effect.

A Positive Science Fiction Platform?

Jason Staddard over at Strange and Happy put forth his Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform.  While it is well intentioned, I think it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction.  Let's go through the planks in the platform.

Positive science fiction starts with acknowledging that there are positive things happening, now (Strange and Happy).

Is this necessary? No.

Often an SF writer will start here, but others will start with the fear of the current situation or from the perspective that the current state of affairs in beyond saving, and impose a new solution to avert the mistakes the present state could lead too.

  • Star Trek starts with a world war and global catastrophe that nearly brought about another dark age.
  • Lestat saw the system of mandated belief an filial duty as corrupt and corrupting.  It wasn't until he became a vampire that he started looking for a better way.

That does not mean we should ignore this plank, but simply take it as advise rather than a rule.

Positive science fiction is about the possibility of positive change (Strange and Happy).

Absolutely.  In the Project: Shadow Manifesto, I call this simply "hope for the future."  Things can get better, but that doesn't mean they are destined to.  If there is no hope, there is nothing at stake for the characters and no tension in the story (What is Progressive SF?)

Positive science fiction has a protagonist or protagonists that can effect change (Strange and Happy).

Definitely.  This is the problem I have pointed to time and time again with SF media, and why I didn't like Battlestar Galactica for a long time.

This ties directly into hope.  If it is impossible for a character to affect change, then there is no tension.  The villain will win.

Positive science fiction isn’t afraid to look at challenging definitions of “positive (Strange and Happy).”

This is where the writer has an important question to answer.  "For whom is the change positive?"

Anakin Skywalker's fall to the dark side is necessary to bring balance to the force.  There are many ways to take this, but it is fundamental to Progressive Speculative Fiction.

Positive science fiction inspires people to act and influence positive change (Strange and Happy).

So long as it is not preachy, I agree.  If the story inspires the reader/viewer to make a possitive change within themselves, then the story succeeded.  There isn't enough time or space for me to list all of the stories that have influenced me positively.

Literature of Change

There is a common thread weaving through this discussion.  Jetse de Vries on his blog, In the Plane of the Ecliptic found the middle ground between gloom and naivite, the answer we have been looking for:

I disagree with the cliché that SF is the literature of ideas (they help, but they're not the core): to me, SF is the literature of change.

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of change: things change for the worse, or things change for the better (I realise life is much more complex than that: some things improve, other things worsen, and some things don't change very much. I'm looking, admittedly roughly, at the net result here) (In the Plane of the Ecliptic).

Even the simplist horror and fantasy deals with the nature of authority and friendship.  Change is the only constant in the universe, and Speculative Fiction is the literature of change.  Writers ask themselves, "What if this happened?"  The answer is usually, everything would change.

How writers explore the changes is the difference between and great and a mediocre story.

What is Progressive Speculative Fiction?

"Progressive Speculative Fiction is a story told in any medium which has a “What if” at its core and is filled with hope for the future and promotes a sense of community (Project: Shadow Manifesto)." Of all the things I wrote in the Project: Shadow Manifesto, that one sentence has proven to be the most controversial.  Writers have emailed me asking if their work is Progressive SF or not.  Let's approach the question slowly.

What is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative Fiction is any fiction that has at its core a "What if?"  There are five main subgenres of Speculative Fiction:

  • Science Fiction
  • Scifi
  • Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Alternative History

What sets these stories apart from the mainstream?

All fiction asks the question, "Suppose X happened to this character, what would happen?"  Speculative Fiction asks, "What if X were true about the universe, how would this character react?"  For example:

  • Harry Potter: "What if magic existed in the world and it could do anything but bring people back from the dead?"
  • Lord of the Rings: "What is the prehistory of Europe where a mystic struggle between the powers of light and darkness over the nature of the world to come?"
  • Dune: "What if it were possible to alter consciousness enough for people to see the interconnectedness of all things"
  • Cthulu Mythos: "What if there were beings in the universe as powerful and incomprehensible as we are to an ant?"

The question is the heart of the story.  You cannot have a ghost story unless you ask, "What if ghosts interfered with the lives of people?"

That is why it is called Speculative Fiction.  It speculates about a world that is different from ours in some way.

What makes Speculative Fiction Progressive?

Hope for the future and promotes a sense of community.  Some have taken this to mean that dark fiction cannot be Progressive.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Heroes and Battlestar Galactica

i has BSG S3!!!
Image by Mostly Lisa via Flickr

Heroes is not progressive, but Battlestar Galactica is.  Both of these stories are dark, and at times bleak.  Why is one Progressive and the other not?

There is no hope in Heroes.  Nothing inspires the characters forward.  They looked into Kierkegaard's void and could not take their eyes off of the fact that the world is free from purpose and meaning.  They embrace their meaninglessness, and robs the series of any lasting merit it could have.

Battlestar Galactica looked into the same void, and the characters chose to carve out their own meaning in the cosmos.  They have hope for the future, even if it is challenged often, and they are continually struggling to build a viable community.

Hope for the Future

Hope is a necessary element of fiction that many post-modern writes/producers neglect.

  • Without hope, the characters have nothing to loose.
  • With nothing to loose, there is no tension.
  • Without tension, there is no reason to care about the characters.
  • If you don't care about the characters, there is nothing left but spectacle.

That is the primary problem with shows like Lost, Heroes, and Fringe.  All they have is spectacle and shock value.  They have no depth, and there is no reason for people to care about them.  People watch simply to see what crazy thing happens next.  They will be forgotten quickly.

Community

A side effect of the hopelessness and ennui that fills post-modern SF is the focus on the individual to the detriment of the community.  This factor alone was able to change my opinion of Battlestar Galactica.  I didn't used to like the show, but after I marathoned the boxsets, I could see and better still feel the communities that were trying to maintain themselves.

A sense of community is integral to Speculative Fiction because most if not all stories present a world that is different from our own, and without a sense of community it is hard if not impossible to understand the nature of the setting.  For example look at Legend of the Seeker:

  • The levels of mistrust amid Darken Rahl's soldiers
  • The submissive population of Brennidon
  • The reverence of the Confessors for each other and their outrage at sacrelige
  • The prevelence of hidden valleys and islands

All these and more add up to a better understanding of the world under Darken Rahl's control.  Through these communities and the relationships between Richard, Zedd, and Kahlan defines the setting.

Hope and community are part of what Progressive Speculative Fiction is, but they are also Why Progressive Speculative Fiction is important, which we will talk about in the next post in this series.

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Fantasy and RPG's Who's Killing Who

In his blog, Mark Chadbourn asked the question, Are RPGs Killing Fantasy? In response, Jonathan McCalmont reversed the question and asked Is Fantasy killing the RPG? Lets take these one at a time. Are RPGs Killing Fantasy? Chadbourn's argument is that the ubiquity of Fantasy RPGs are robbing the magic from the Fantasy Genre:

This huge industry has turned all the tropes of fantasy into crashing cliches. Elves, dwarves, and dragons are as familiar as your next-door neighbour. We all know how magic works, as clearly as the laws of physics - it’s defined in a thousand rule books (Mark Chadbourn).

Now, I have to agree with Chadbourn on a certain level, but I always blamed publishers for making all fantasy into a version of Tolkien, but he is right.

I have always been a fan of Fantasy, but lately, I have been having a hard time finding anything written before 1950 that I want to read. It is frightening how mass marketing can turn a brilliant idea into a cliche practically over night. As a writer, it is even harder. I am trying to outline a fantasy story now, and nearly every idea that I come up with feels like something I have seen a thousand time.

Why does it feel so cliched? Because I am a fan of RPGs, and I not only seen it, but have experienced it through some form of game play. Is this the fault of the RPGs, or me for playing them. Again, I have to blame the publishers.

Business is not in it for originality, but seeks out anything it can create with a cookie cutter model. O, fantasy, slap a dragon and an elf in it, and there you go. A dragon and a spell does not a fantasy make.

Ok, lets look at the McCalmont's question for a moment: Is Fantasy killing the RPG?

As a reader I think he's [Chadbourn] hopelessly optimistic and, as a gamer, I think that he has the problem backwards, I think that the values and tropes of fantasy have come to infect the RPG so thoroughly that it is robbing it of its ability to innovate and progress as a medium (Jonathan McCalmont).

McCalmont argues that the Epic Fantasy market is not saturated, but is just hostile to innovation. Furthermore, he complains that Fantasy has infected all roleplaying including what he calls SF which I assume means Science Fiction not Speculative Fiction.

I have to disagree with McCalmont's argument. Fantasy is not the contagion, it has been reduced to a simple marketing ploy. It has a wizard, and, well, you like fantasy, so buy it! The problem is that people fall for it, and spend their money on it.

The marketing departments that now run the world have reduced all genre's into nothing more that a set of trite cliches.

  • Science Fiction, add a space ship your done.
  • Fantasy, add the word magic.
  • Western, put a guy on a horse.
  • Romance, make sure it is a love triangle with a good guy and a bad guy.

Any story that does not fit into the cliche is seen as unmarketable. The problem is not with the familiarity with the elements of fantasy as Chadbourn says, and it is not a dislike of innovation by fantasy fans as McCalmont argues. The real problem is that publishers/producers want to know what stories yours is like, and if you cannot name one, then the story is generally not produced/published. At the very least, the innovative tale will not be well marketed.

Fantasy fans are so hungry for innovative fiction, they seek out foreign authors and reprints as far back as they can find them. The trouble is with the mainstream publishers/producers who prefer to go with safe ideas than risk failure through innovation. The problem is compounded by the mainstream audience that buys into it.

There will always be innovation on the fringes, but the mainstream will never care about it. We should not delude ourselves and think that any original idea will break through into the mainstream before it has created an underground splash and inspired enough copycats to make the mainstream publisher/producers feel safe with it.

Innovative fantasy is always there for anyone who sets out to find it, but be warned, the journey is perilous, wrought with pitfalls and false leads, but in the end, it is worth the effort.

(from my Amazon Connect blog)