When I tell people when I’m writing a steampunk novel, I’ve accepted they’re going to look blank. Steampunk is a subgenre of fantasy and not widely read. In the UK, at least. But why when I say ‘fantasy’ do they all look disappointed?
Someone once told me they only watched soaps and dramas because shows like Star Trek are unrealistic and ‘silly’. I pointed out it’s no more unrealistic than Robert’s long lost evil twin rolling into town, while Michael gets a bad case of selective amnesia but that’s okay because it was all a dream and Bobby is alive and well in the shower.
My argument was not taken in the spirit with which it was intended…
No one is expected to enjoy every genre. I’ve tried, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read a romance without rolling my eyes out of their sockets. But that doesn’t mean that romance stories are bad, they’re just not for me and I think most people would accept that.
But even after the incredible successes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, either consciously or unconsciously, speculative fiction is still looked down on. But why?
Speculative fiction is a broad term which encompasses sci-fi, fantasy, horror, supernatural and superhero fiction. Any story with supernatural or futuristic elements. And looked at in one some ways, speculative fiction is still a fairly new genre. It’s beginnings are usually credited to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the 19th century.
Between 1938 to 1946, known as the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction’ many writers were churning out speculative short stories to feed a growing demand. This was the era of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Consequently, speculative fiction was in some way tarnished. This was the era of ‘pulp fiction’ – cheap fiction magazines that were published from 1896 to the 1950s en masse and became synonymous with low-quality fiction. The established literary community saw them as ‘working for the money’ (in other words, commercial fiction) – rather than ‘for art’s sake’.
Incidentally, both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens were famously honest about writing for money. Charles Dickens’ robust word count is purely down to the fact he was being paid one shilling per instalment. And you can’t possibly say of either author their art suffered for their need to earn a living.
In the 50s, the increasing amount of television being produced meant channels were crying out for material and there was a saturation of sci-fi and fantasy like Flash Gordon, The Quatermass Experiment and obviously, my personal favourite, The Twilight Zone. With the advent of nuclear power and the Cold War, it’s probably not surprising this was also the rise of dystopian futures and courageous superheroes.
Which leads me to escapism. There is a tendency for people to see speculative fiction as pure escapism. It takes us to an alternative world with magic, or spaceships so we don’t have to think about our daily lives. Certain literacy communities don’t view this favourably, preferring fiction which deals with the gritty world with style and aplomb. Think Arthur Miller or Dostoevsky.
And while speculative fiction is, in part, escapism, it’s a very deceptive statement.
The best speculative fiction performs two functions; a story unto itself, but also an allegory of society and commentary on the human condition. Are the Harry Potter books just about magic and good triumphing over evil? It actually tackles a plethora of themes like loss, coming of age, complex relationships and questing one’s identity. The fact that it’s done against a backdrop of fantasy doesn’t detract from it’s more complex themes. By the same vain, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is not just a story about colonisation.
In speculative fiction, highly charged social topics are explored by stealth. Doctor Who is a master of this, creating fantastical plots which mask debate on real world issues. For example, in The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion, it creates the fictional conflict between humans and the alien race of Zygons. On its face, a classic alien invasion with a twist ending. But in an incredibly intelligent way, it’s tackling the subject of domestic terrorism using the neutral ground of science fiction. A way of demonstrating the conflict without an audience bringing their established emotive prejudices to the table. It allows us to explore the issue in a way that you simply cannot in the ‘real world’.
And that’s why I believe speculative fiction does something no other genre can do. It gives us level ground to tackle real-world issues in fiction. Areas factual or literary fiction simply can’t go near, whether because of religious, political or emotive considerations. It’s baggage free. It can tackle issues which deserved to be looked at from every angle, not just the one which is popularly accepted.
What do you think? Is speculative fiction an underrated genre? Or do you disagree? Let me know!