Wednesday, January 5, 2011

WHY WRITE?: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

Thanks for waiting patiently (more patiently than I did, that’s for sure) for me to get my computer back up and running so the Why Write?TM series could return! I’m back in action now with a shiny new hard drive, and I can’t wait to hear all of your thoughts on speculative fiction.

You probably know that I love a good piece of speculative fiction, whether it’s a short story by Neil Gaiman, a novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, or a TV show like Battlestar Galactica. I’ve written and read my fair share of literary criticism on speculative fiction, and recently had my socks rocked off by the Sci-Fi Museum in Seattle (which I highly recommend, if ever you’re in the area). Recently The Rejectionist got us all psyched up with her awesome Feminist Science Fiction Week, and it seems the book world still hasn’t run out of things to say about fantasy since the last Harry Potter book was released more than three years ago. It’s clear that speculative fiction has made a huge impression on us in recent years, so this is an area I’m particularly excited to explore. So with no further adieu—why write science fiction and fantasy?

Because you want to be part of a community. From the Trekkie to the Renaissance Faire regular, fans of science fiction and fantasy are a breed of their own. They devour every piece of speculative fiction they can get their hands on, they gather in rock-concert-crowd numbers for conventions, signings, and midnight movie showings or marathons. As readers, they tend towards a religious devotion to the science fiction and fantasy section of the bookstore. They know the cover clichés and spine fonts to look for, and they’ll approach new and established authors alike with the same eager, open mind. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more devoted fan base.

Because you want to get away. It’s no surprise that science fiction and fantasy tend to see an uptick in sales during times of political unrest, war, or economic strife. To some extent, all reading is about escapism—the chance to experience the unknown through another’s eyes for a few hundred pages—but nowhere is this more true than in speculative fiction. In sci-fi and fantasy we find an escape from the monotony (or downright unpleasantness, in some time periods) of everyday life. I’d guess that, in large part, the genre gains such devoted fans because the worlds it imagines, with all their wondrous possibilities, are positively addictive.

Because you want to channel your other passions into your writing. J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist and linguist whose first job was with the Oxford English Dictionary; C.S. Lewis was an influential lay theologist; and James Tiptree Jr. (whose real name was Alice B. Sheldon) was a photointelligence expert for the U.S. Army Air Force and a doctor of experimental psychology. Great science fiction and fantasy has been written by biologists, astronomers, physicists, psychologists, philosophers, mathematicians, political theorists and more, and for good reason. The challenge of inventing an entirely new world forces writers to draw upon all of their areas of expertise, and many writers take delight in the challenge. For many who write speculative fiction, part of what makes the genre so much fun is the chance to invent a new language for the world’s mythological creatures to speak; to describe the properties of an imagined world’s extraordinary flora and fauna; to accurately depict the physics of spacecraft motion; or to create an entirely new social structure, government and religion. Writers and readers of speculative fiction take delight in finding their other passions woven into the stories’ plots.

Because you want to take advantage of a blank slate. But there are more reasons to want to create a new society than simply to be able to weave your own passions into its structure. Every writer, regardless of his or her genre of choice, has to establish the rules that govern their story’s world. These rules can be as basic as gravity or as complex as socioeconomic class, and they often go unnoticed by the reader unless they are unexpectedly broken, but they are nonetheless crucial to a story’s believability. Most writers are stuck with the rules that govern the world that we live in—all except, of course, for writers of speculative fiction. Because they require the author to build a new world and society, science fiction and fantasy offer writers a chance to work from a clean slate and create whatever rules will best serve their story.

Because you have something to say… The chance to create their own worlds allows writers to critique the world we live in by calling rules we take for granted into question. In science fiction and fantasy, people of color can be in the majority; homosexuality can be typical while heterosexuals are considered unnatural; gender and sex can be fluid or altogether changeable; religion can be re-imagined or re-interpreted—the possibilities are endless. By presenting a different social structure as normal and fully functional, these stories call attention to the constructed nature of our own society and force us to confront our own learned prejudices. Writers like Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip Pullman, James Tiptree Jr., Octavia Butler, and more have created functional new societies in which the rules of our society are turned on their heads. In doing so, they have encouraged readers to question the beliefs they’ve inherited from the world around them, open their minds to all kinds of diversity, and imagine a more ideal world.

…And you can’t always just come out and say it. Because of their incredible potential for subversiveness, science fiction and fantasy are often highly political and relevant to social and political climates of the time and society in which they were written. Often, the best works of speculative fiction subtly satirize or comment upon contemporary events. George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World expressed fears about increasingly tyrannical leadership and the dehumanization of a society dependent upon modern technology; more recently, M.T. Anderson’s Feed expressed these same fears in a more updated form, featuring telepathic instant messaging and horrific pollution in a reflection of contemporary society’s obsessions. One of the things I love most about Battlestar Galactica is that it aired in the post-9/11 era and asked us to question issues of patriotism, fear, and our assumptions about or own humanity and that of those we treat as “others.” Episodes containing questionable election tactics or a character’s plea for a government that doesn’t make its decisions based on fear were startlingly relevant in the Bush era and remain so as the war in Iraq continues. In many ways the imagined-world context of science fiction and fantasy allows writers to make political statements that might otherwise be suppressed. And I think because there's a tendency in some lofty literary circles to write speculative fiction off as "too genre," it gets away with more than we give it credit for.

Do you agree? Disagree? Maybe there are other genres that do some of these things better. Maybe I missed a few good reasons. Let me know in comments!

1 comment:

  1. As a reader and writer of fantasy fiction I think that something I value about this genre is its ability to open up the imagination. Since the slate is blank, as you say, fantasy/sci fi can expand the imagination into brand new places never before considered, in a way that is less likely with other fiction. Once expanded, once loosed from the box as it were, the imagination is more free and flexible even when working on ideas or problems that are bound by the rules of everyday life.