The worlds a mess. How do thoughtful people make sense of it all? In this series weve asked a number of our authors to suggest a book, philosopher, work of art or anything else, for that matter that will help to make sense of it all.
Back in the 1990s, some speculative fiction bookshops sold a T-shirt with the slogan, Reality is for people who cant cope with fantasy. Today, bookshops are almost extinct, while fantasy geeks can link to 3-D printers to fabricate their T-shirts.
Speculative fiction consists of multiple varieties, with fantasy and science fiction the two major streams. It has often anticipated new technologies but that may be the least important reason why reading speculative fiction helps us make sense of the world.
Some writers deny their work belongs in either fantasy or science fiction. Among them, ironically, Margaret Attwood, whose own 1985 Handmaids Tale time-travelled to the site of some of its own dystopian speculations when Donald Trump became US President in 2017.
While science fiction and fantasy ask that most powerful question What if? they also deal with This, now: reflecting it, interrogating it and satirising it.
Speculative writers flesh out our passing thoughts into complete, functioning societies and explore how they might unfold. For example Kim Stanley Robinson looked in New York 2140 at what if global warming flooded Manhattan.
Or, what if a world without gender shaped a language to match, as in Ann Leckies award winning Ancillary Justice? Leckie, considering her linguistic experiment all her characters take she notes how this writing tactic affects not only on imagination, but also on the experience of readers in the here and now:
Linked to this, speculative fiction is free to unleash the full power of metaphor. Richard Morgan in Market Forces, for example, makes literal the rhetorical assertion that global investment bankers have blood on their hands.
Commenting on NK Jemisins Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy, The Guardian says:
And the borders of understanding ourselves are widening. Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Jemisin and many others provide examples of Afro-futurism freed from the ethnographic distorting mirror of Black Panther. They follow on from predecessors like Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany and Sun Ra.
Just as Okorafor in Lagoon and Thompson in Rosewater take us to Nigeria to illuminate the what-ifs of that society for Nigerians themselves, so the works of Liu Cixin, Xia Jia and multiple other Chinese speculative writers unfold Chinese concerns.
Translator Ken Liu frequently warns against crude interpretations of Chinese speculative fiction as simply veiled criticism of current regimes. He cites Xias short story Tongtongs Summer:
Sometimes, critics reduce speculative fiction to the dystopian visions of past and future presented in the macho and often Eurocentric massacres and rapes of Grimdark military fantasy. Or, they conflate the genre with the thinly disguised right-wing survivalism of much post-apocalyptic SF. But that isnt all there is.
Advocates of both sub-genres employ defences citing realism: war really is hell; people really are engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival; white men really always rule.
Yet fiction writers make conscious choices about what elements they abstract from the real and how to use them. There are multiple scholarly explorations of these arguments. Lets just say here that engaging in fabrication and simultaneously arguing that what has been fabricated is real rests on very shaky terrain.
Further, as science fiction author Kameron Hurley argues in her riposte to the tropes of military fantasy sometimes the veracity of the elements writers select is itself shaky. Sometimes they represent arbitrarily Eurocentric picks from a near-infinite landscape.
For a writer such as Aliette de Bodard, of Vietnamese heritage, its Annamese dragons that pervade her steampunk, fin de siecle Paris. Its emblematic of the corrupting history of French colonialism. Introducing such new tropes challenges conservative myth-making. She says:
The potential to contest is even more striking for those supremacist extrapolations from present to future. Much research suggests that after disasters, people actually get together to help one another.
Speculative writers such as Cory Doctorow react against the way this is under-reported. What if, Doctorow asks, post-apocalypse,
His novel Walkaway (and Robinsons New York 2140) look forward to just such futures.
Speculative fiction provides vivid cases to provoke debate about such issues and thus helps us make sense. Maybe its time to wear the T-shirt again, but with a new slogan: