I am what is often known as a “geek”; I am also a nerd, though that is a rather separate, albeit connected, subspecies of humanity. As a part of my particular brand of geekery – combined with my general love of English Literature – I have had a lifelong love of speculative fiction; that is, fantasy, science fantasy, science fiction, weird fiction and most of the countless sub-genres that lay in between. As such, the commonplace dismissal of these genres, especially from those of an older generation, has been a constant source of irritation to me, especially when based, as it often is, in ignorance.
I am not going to suggest that everyone should like speculative fiction; whether you like it or not is of course dependent on personal taste and preference. Neither am I going to suggest that all speculative fiction is worth reading – like all genres, speculative fiction has its fair share of utter garbage and hack writing (I should know, as I’ve read enough of it). Instead, what I am about to rail against is the instant dismissal of any speculative fiction as being lesser than ‘real’ fiction, when the dismissive individual in question has never even read much, if any, fantasy or science fiction at all.
The most usual argument against speculative fiction given by these irritating individuals is that it is not any good because it is not ‘real’. Beyond forcing me to suddenly fantasise about burying a chainsword in their skulls, the sheer fething ignorance of such a statement makes me want to fall down on my knees and weep. What these people do not seem to understand is that all fiction is not ‘real’; ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ are essentially antonyms, while the former and ‘fantasy’ are synonyms, as a cursory glance at Merriam-Webster will show. Just because the novels of Wilbur Smith or Robert Harris (both of which I am a fan) do not contain dragons or star destroyers do not make them any more ‘real’ than the average sci-fi or fantasy novel. They are still, in a sense, ‘fantasy’: they are made up.
If I ever do mention this, the individuals I am debating with might then modify their choice of word to ‘realistic’. I could get into a long rant about how ‘realistic’ a lot of this supposedly ‘real’ fiction is, but I won’t, in respect of your time. Instead, I would simply ask you to think about how many mundane conversations, telephone calls and appointments you have in real life, and how many appear in the pages of fiction. A disparity, no?
Regardless, what is more laughable is the fact that these same people who disparage fantasy and science fiction also tend to hold Shakespeare in extremely high regard. I also adore Shakespeare, and one of the reasons I do so is because of how fantastical and escapist his worlds are; if written today, a good proportion of his works would be classified as fantasy literature. They are certainly not ‘realistic’ in any sense of the world. Let us take, as an example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Half the characters are fairies, and the plot contains magic galore – including the transformation of Bottom’s head into that of a donkey. Realistic indeed. Or what about The Tempest, in which one of the major characters is a wizard?
Let us have a look at a few more classic texts of the English Literary Canon so beloved of many haters of speculative fiction, and see how ‘realistic’ they are. We have Gulliver’s Travels, a text containing minuscule men, giants, floating islands and talking horses (and no, it is not a children’s book, before you make that ignorant suggestion). What about Frankenstein, which could be not-unreasonably called the first major English science-fiction work and even the first zombie fiction? Nobody would blink twice at including these works on an English Literature course, yet many of the haters would not even consider their modern counterparts to be proper ‘literature’.
I think this illogical attitude stems a lot from cultural history and the reverence of canonical texts, as well as the fetish of the Victorians (damn their eyes) for ‘facts’ and ‘realism’, which has unfortunately lingered on even into the 21st century. That is a topic beyond the scope of this article, however. Now that I have vented some of my anger, I will instead proceed to point out the value and worth of reading speculative fiction.
The two main sub-genres of speculative fiction, at least in popular perception, are fantasy and science fiction; as such, I will limit my focus to these two broad categories.
Fantasy fiction tends to deal with many of the same issues as other popular fiction – love, war, race, gender, friendship, childhood, etc. – but simply displaced to an unfamiliar realm. At its best, fantasy fiction can magnify the scope of such themes to epic scale, when problems of love and desire can affect empires, when friendship can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Much of the best Fantasy asks very profound questions, and attempts to answer them in difficult, unfamiliar settings, allowing the authors to explore those themes in different, unusual ways. For example, what does the Lord of the Rings have to tell us about the relationship between industrial humanity and the natural environment in an age of climate change? What does A Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) say about gender and power in its portrayal of female rulers? Can we learn anything about protest and resistance to authority from Star Wars: A New Hope?
Perhaps fantasy still isn’t your thing, and you can’t learn anything from Ents, White Walkers, Jedi or Wasp-Kinden. Well, don’t dismiss speculative fiction entirely, for we have yet to come onto my personal favourite sub-genre, science fiction.
We live, in case you hadn’t noticed, in an age of incredibly-rapid technological change – many call it the Digital Revolution. Technologies that the layman has not even thought or heard of will be commonplace in the near future; computers process at ever-faster speeds, and in many sectors human labour is becoming obsolete in the face of machine-work; these trends are set to continue. How are we to cope with the vast changes that climate change, improved technology and a growing population brings? Such questions are explored primarily by the writers of science fiction.
The late Iain Banks, a wonderful writer of both ‘mainstream’ novels and science fiction, stated in an interview that science fiction could be considered the most important genre because it deal specifically with the effects of “change on humans, on both an individual and a societal level”. His Culture series details a civilisation that is post-scarcity, where humans have no need to work and A.I is so advanced that machines are considered citizens with equal rights to those of organic beings. Improbable? Perhaps. Impossible? Certainly not. Just think about how far computing has come since the development of the transistor.
It is not just the effects of advancing digital technology that should be explored – what about biological technology? The citizens of the Culture are almost superhuman, essentially impervious to disease and able to change their appearance, gender, and physical abilities at will. Dan Simmon’s Illium describes a time when ‘post-humans’ play the role of Greek Gods, so mighty have they become through genetics and technology. Will Homo sapiens sapiens be usurped by a Homo sapiens superior in the future? I think it not unlikely.
Maybe these visions of a strange future seem a little far-fetched and removed. Perhaps. But never forget that the best speculative fiction – especially science fiction – often has much to tell about the time it was written in as well. Star Trek could never have been created in any time but the 1960s; Ender’s Game has much to tell about its Cold War context, and recent global events have made it even more relevant. As much as I laugh aloud at the capers of Sam Vimes, the Luggage and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, I have also been impressed by the author’s subtle commentaries on immigration, population expansion and the media.
I hope that I have laid out a successful case for the value of speculative fiction, and that if you were previously dismissive of the genre I have given you some pause for thought. I strongly encourage everyone to at least try a few speculative fiction novels; even if you hate them, at least you have had a go. It is a wonderful genre full of many hidden gems that have much to tell us about not just our world, but other worlds as well.
And anyway, you gotta admit that phasers, magic and dragons are gakking awesome.