Speculative Fiction: What is it?
Here you may need to take a deep breath. In some ways it’s easier to say what speculative fiction is not. It includes horror fiction, science fiction, supernatural, fantasy (very popular at present) gothic and psychological narratives. There’s also a whole spectrum of work about post-apocalyptic settings, dystopian fantasies, and imagined kingdoms. Speculative fiction can also turn the ordinary inside out and make it extraordinary. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.
The genre encompasses such diverse writers as Margaret Atwood, Douglas Adams, Tolkien, Poe, Mary Shelley, Ballard, Azimov, Stephen King, J.K Rowling and Terry Pratchett. Margaret Atwood has defined her speculative writing as ‘science fiction without Martians’, but purists may say that science fiction always contains visitors from other worlds, both internal and external. Other writers such as Tolkien wrote epic quests that hark back to mythical tales from Greece and Rome, Beowulf and the Mabinogion. All cultures have their mythical monsters and heroes, and speculative fiction enables the writer to draw on these magical elements.
Fashions change. Vampires, zombies and the undead populate the pages of teenage fiction now, as superheroes used to not long ago. Harry Potter had his day. Steampunk is in fashion, zombies are on the way out. The film industry thrives on original, speculative fiction now. Witness the adaptations of the novels Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi and The Hunger Games.
But the ordinary everyday world becoming strange and unreal can also be used to great effect. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski, contains no monsters, aliens or grisly murder scenes, yet it is the most chilling and unnerving of tales – too heavy to read on the bus and too frightening to read in bed, as my son explained.
Always in speculative fiction there is the element of absence; we step out of the known everyday world into the unknown, and missing are many of the elements that we use to sustain our everyday lives. Speculative fiction takes us out of our comfort zone, and that can be exciting, frightening and intriguing.
What speculative fiction allows us to do as writers is to use our imaginations more fully, to explore the ‘what if?’ and turn reality on its head. In doing this, we can combine historical, mythical, scientific and romantic elements, and subvert them in any way we choose. Avoiding cliches can be difficult – “I know, let’s split up; you go that way….” while in the basement, attic or forest there lurks something hideous and evil. As readers, we want some surprises; a new look at an old situation.
The first few lines of a speculative fiction novel should introduce the reader to a world that is familiar, yet alien. Maybe the clocks were striking thirteen, maybe the main character had become a cockroach in the night. The writer really has to get the reader’s attention at the start, and then keep it. It can be subtle, fantastic, terrifying, or anxiety provoking, arousing our curiosity and our sympathy, but it will not be (to answer my question at the start) about cosy family life, fluffy bunnies, chick lit or any of the pleasant normal mundane activities we all enjoy. Speculative fiction is ‘other’.
Although a rich vocabulary is a good thing, the words that littered dark fiction in the past tended to be of the eldrich, spectral, monstrous, hideous or phantasmogorial persuasion, and the words ‘creature’ and ‘thing’ appeared quite often. Some fine comedy writing is still to be had here, but vocabulary now is more restrained.
So how do you as a writer find an original approach and starting point for your own speculative fiction? History, for one, gives us plenty of material. Here are some ideas:
Visit your local museum and choose an object whose purpose you can only guess at: a mask, a ritual vessel, antique medical equipment, an old letter, and use it as a starting point. Who used it last? Who was there? What happened?
Write a list of unlikely ‘what if?’ possibilities – what if all walls are transparent? What if the tunnel under the river closes at intervals and all those trapped inside disappear? What if money really does grow on trees? What if everyone is twinned with another person in a much poorer country and shares all their emotions, sees through their eyes? What would happen if we could travel through time and we rescued something that changed the course of evolution? Using one of these as a starting point, the story will unfold, like pulling a piece of string.
I once worked with a group of prisoners, one of whom told me he felt he hadn’t been in prison that day; his mind had taken him somewhere else. Even if you’re housebound, you can escape through your writing and be somewhere else for a spell. What if?
Once you’ve got your starting point you can let your imagination take over. Then the hard part begins, where the plot has to be thought about, the setting and the characters take on their own life and the writer has to run with it. I have lost count of the number of first chapters I have read featuring a mythical mistress with strange powers, or a hero who changes into something else, and frankly, it’s boring, even if it’s set on a distant planet or mythical kingdom. It’s been done before. Dare to be different. If you’re still not sure about the genre, go back and read some of the old masters – H.P. Lovecraft, Daphne du Maurier, Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, John Wyndham, even Alice in Wonderland.
There are plenty of openings for writers of good alternative fiction of every type, and online sites like www.worldswithoutend.com have lists of magazines and anthologies specialising in speculative fiction. Reading what’s out there and getting a feel for the market is a good way to start.
Dark Tales, a UK based magazine, welcomes submissions of short stories and it’s where I started.
Good luck with all your writing. No good may come of it, and I say that in all sincerity.