With wide appeal and a long history, just what is the role of speculative fiction?
To use a definition from Masterclass:
Speculative fiction is a literary ‘super genre,’ …with speculative elements that are based on conjecture and do not exist in the real world.
Evidence of the genre exists as far back as A True Story / A True History, a long novella or short novel written in the second century AD by Greek author Lucian of Samosata. It’s a fantastical satire of utopia and interplanetary war.
Skip forward to Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Gulliver’s Travels, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Fantastical beasts, alternative social systems and ‘advanced science indistinguishable from magic’ (pp. Arthur C. Clarke), are staple ingredients of the speculative genres. Skip further forward, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, Brave New World, and 1984 are literary classics.
Readers enjoy the escapism, the adventure, the glimpse into the fantastic. But there’s a key to understanding the role of speculative fiction, a broad heading coined by Robert Heinlein around 1947.
Under the Radar
Sci-fi, or speculative fiction, isn’t really about the future; it’s about now. As a genre it allows writers to sneak subjects under the radar of readers (and governments) to talk about difficult issues they’d rather avoid – or ban. It’s a way of framing issues – in a way a reader who isn’t interested in culture or politics or economics will happily digest.
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about fascism; 1984 is abut totalitarianism. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Bladerunner) is about consumerism and societal values. Dune is about politics and the distrust of authority.
A Picture of Dorian Gray may be more fantasy than science, but it concerns the corrupting, de-humanising effect of immortality. The moral and ethical dilemma’s of Frankenstein are far more important than the hokey science behind the physical re-animation of the creature.
The key to all of these is not ‘the big idea,’ but how relatable are the stories?
Mirrors and McGuffins
Warp drive in Star Trek is a McGuffin to get us from one strange new world to another. Roddenberry’s original series was as much concerned with the Cold War and international relations as anything. Remember the ‘silicon monster/man under a carpet’ episode? That was about the colonisation of the New World and the failure to communicate across cultures. Roddenbury wasn’t subtle when he shifted Nazism, organised crime, eugenics, genetic engineering, race relations and the Cold War to outer space.
Yes, speculative fiction revels in the fantastic adventure. But that’s not its job. The role of speculative fiction is to hold up a mirror to the here and now. It criticises governments, satirises social trends and challenges social norms. Crossing media, Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror is a more savage inheritor of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.
An obvious umbrella genre that includes all of science fiction and fantasy, ‘spec-fic’ also covers a large slice of more ‘respectable’ literary fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale is framed by a future civil war in a fundamentalist USA. The Hothouse by the East River has one smaller idea; a character whose shadow casts in the wrong direction.
After two millennia, where will the genre go next? We can only… speculate.