On Speculative Fiction and Reality

It’s been a while since I’ve done a discussion post – not for lack of topics, I assure you.  This is much more due to lack of time and an inability to follow through on my thought processes.  I want these posts to be coherent, after all, not a hodge-podge mess.  Hopefully some more will get straightened out, but this one managed to do it first, thanks in part to me reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga and the ways in which that series has been resonating with me.

All opinions expressed in this post are my own, but I would love to hear your viewpoint and discuss further in the comments. 🙂

Speculative Fiction – more commonly known as sci-fi/fantasy or SFF, referred to in this post as SpecFic.  A lot of people see this particular genre as escapist, often with very little to tie it to reality (note that I said ‘a lot’, not ‘a majority’).  But often SpecFic is a reflection of ‘real world’ problems, technology, social issues, etc.  It always has been, since what could be termed the first SpecFic novel – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1818, took inspiration not only from German ghost stories but also from occult ideas and scientific theories (not Theories) of that time period taken to an extreme.

And that, to me, is the core of SpecFic.  No matter how far removed from the present it might appear, it reflects something that we in this present are somehow thinking about or grappling with.  Look at Star Trek: The Original Series (or many of the subsequent spin-offs, for that matter).  The 1960’s version dealt with racism, gender equality, and so many other social issues of the time, and many other ST series would go on to follow that model.

SpecFic at its best takes a present-day issue or technology and showcases it in such a way that you cannot help but take notice of it.  For example, the new Ghostbusters film (the all-ladies one).  If you removed the character of Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth, most of the film wouldn’t change.  He doesn’t do anything in the film.  His role is, quite literally, that of eye-candy with a dash of comedic relief.  This is what a lot of female characters do in a majority of male-dominated films (often without the comedic relief aspects), something that might not have been apparent to people until they saw the gender-reversed edition.  While a lot of people were aware of this issue, even if only in the abstract, watching it play out on the big screen might have helped drive the point home emotionally.

The reason I mentioned LMB’s Vorkosigan Saga in the opening paragraphs of this post is because of her penchant for infusing significant issues into her works.  That’s not to say her novels are only about The Issue.  No one would read her work if there wasn’t some entertainment value to be gained.  But she has a way of injecting compassion and thought-provoking conversations and events into her novels that bring those social and scientific issues to the forefront, whether that issue is cloning, in vitro vs in vivo birth, quality of life, or so many others.  And that is what keeps me reading her novels.  Space adventures are a dime a dozen.  But LMB’s fusion of adventure and commentary is what I personally look for in my SpecFic.

I recently read an article that the demand for SpecFic to reflect reality is only a recent shift in geek culture.  To be fair, they were talking about a diverse cast that didn’t reflect tokenism.  But I would argue that the seeds of that movement have always been there.  If it hadn’t been, Star Trek would never have survived one season, let alone upwards of four spin-offs.  LMB’s Vorkosigan Saga would never have sold its first book – or at least wouldn’t have been anywhere near as popular as it’s become.  Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen would have a shrinking readership, not an ever-growing one.  The Netflix show Sens8 wouldn’t have ever been green-lit.  And so many other  SpecFic novels, comics, shows, and films would be different or nonexistent.

I’m not saying that all SpecFic fans want or require that reflection of reality.  But I think that it’s not a new phenomenon, and it’s not a small group that wants it.

What do you think?  SpecFic readers and non-SpecFic readers, all are welcome to weigh in.  Just keep in mind that SpecFic is the genre I know best, so I might not recognize some famous work from a different genre that you want to quote/reference.

2 thoughts on “On Speculative Fiction and Reality

  1. I think you’re completely right. Literature is often successful because we can relate to it and to what’s happening in the books we read. It’s a very important aspect of all literature I think, so it makes all the more sense for speculative fiction.

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