by David Ebenbach
“Speculative Fiction” is one of those slippery terms that, for better or for worse, writers are always trying to pin down. The results have included elaborate Venn diagrams, massive databases, and unfortunate sentences such as “Like other cultural fields, speculative fiction is a domain of activity that exists not merely through texts but through their production and reception in multiple contexts.” Some people, meanwhile, have suggested that the “Speculative Fiction” label is mainly just a cover that can “allow the more pretentious to believe that their favorite work is a proper ‘literary’ work with no connection to, and thus obvious superiority over, that geeky science fiction or fantasy.”
Why are we so eager to pin this term down? Because otherwise, according to Lynn Reynolds of Liminal Pages we’ll be left with something “so loose that it can be stretched to include all fiction.”
But I think stretching would be a good thing. I think all fiction is “Speculative Fiction”—or at least “speculative fiction,” in lowercase.
The definition that Reynolds offers as too loose is this: “Often described as the ‘What if?’ genre, speculative fiction (spec-fic or SF) describes any work where the writer makes conjectures about a fictional scenario.” She prefers to zoom in a bit and think of it as an umbrella term for a number for sub-genres like SF, Fantasy, and Horror. Me, I think the definition does need a little tweak—I’d substitute “writer makes a fictional scenario that is a conjecture”—but, with that tweak, I actually think that, yes, it’s broad enough to include all fiction, and, furthermore, that it’s a really useful definition.
For example, when I wrote the short story “Pregnancy as a Location in Space-Time” [in the current issue on sale now] as part of my novel-in-stories How to Mars, I was full of conjecture. The whole project was in fact driven by conjecture.
I had been following the Mars One story, in which the Mars One corporation put out a call for volunteers to travel to Mars and live in small habitation units surrounded by an uninhabitable atmosphere for the rest of their lives, never seeing their loved ones up close again, never feeling fresh air on their faces, never getting to come back—and supposedly more than two hundred thousand people applied. Now, it’s quite possible that the whole Mars One story may itself be fiction, but even the idea of it took hold of me as a writer. It raised questions. Like: who would be willing to give up everything for a trip to Mars, and why? And what would it be like if/when two hundred thousand were narrowed down to a maximum of twenty-four people, and those two dozen adventurers got to Mars, a planet where those twenty-four people would be the entirety of the Martian social world, for the rest of their lives? Those are the questions that I tried to answer (for myself, first, but then hopefully also for readers) in writing How to Mars.
This was not a one-time, thing, though; it’s how I approach fiction. I’m always driven by questions. That’s certainly true in my weirder stuff: in my short story “Our Mothers Left Us” (from my collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories) I wonder what would happen if all the mothers in the world suddenly disappeared, and then just as abruptly came back; in “The Quiet House” I try to understand what the daily life of a serial abductor and killer might be like; “We’ll Finish When We’re Done” explores the results of a haircut that takes things impossibly far.
But the more important thing is that I’m still driven by questions even when I’m writing fiction set firmly on planet Earth and rooted entirely in realism. The story “Eleven Girls” asks: what if a teenaged boy who’s never really been noticed by girls suddenly finds out that eleven girls have a crush on him? “Vision Quest” puts a nature-phobic guy on a vacation in the woods (normal, unhaunted, serial-killer-free woods) to see how he’ll cope. My parenthood-themed short story collection Into the Wilderness basically asks what happens (in a variety of different situations) when a child enters a person’s life. I wrote my novel Miss Portland to understand better what can unfold when a person with bipolar disorder is caught in a manic episode.
No matter what kind of fiction I’m writing, it’s all born out of questions, questions, questions. What if a character had this experience, faced this challenge, crossed paths with that particular character? I write to see what will happen, and in doing so, to learn about people, and life, and the world.
This isn’t just me, of course; I think the fictional impulse is inherently speculative. In other words, I think we write because we have questions. As Grace Paley (who we don’t usually associate with “Speculative Fiction”) once suggested, “the writer . . . is nothing but a questioner.” Instead of “Write what you know,” she “would suggest something different . . . what are some of the things you don’t understand at all?” She wants us to “stay open and ignorant.”
From that place of openness and ignorance, you build a world—the right characters, the right situations, the right events and facts and possibilities—that will allow you to ask and answer your most pressing questions.
In this sense it’s not about genre loyalty, where some people are SF people and other people are literary people, and so on; it means that, no matter who you are, every time you set out (ignorantly) to write, you build the world you need.
To explore some questions, no matter what kind of writer you are, you have to build a world unlike our own in significant ways; you have to bring elves or vampires into the picture, put the characters on an interstellar journey or in a time machine, or bend the most basic laws of physics. When I was writing the story “Pregnancy as a Location in Space-Time,” I was interested in loss—the kind of loss that makes you want to run away from your life as far as you can get—and then what you do when you’re forced to face your life anyway. Creating a woman who was pregnant on Mars seemed like the best and most interesting way to dig into all that.
With other questions, you can work with the world we’ve got, more or less, and just give a realistic character a big job interview, a shaky love life, a party to go to, or a brush with illness or an accident. When I was writing Into the Wilderness I was interested in the way that parenthood impacts ordinary lives, so I needed to put ordinary lives on the page; Miss Portland came to be, in its realistic form, because I was wrestling with the way bipolar disorder plays out in our world.
You build the world you need, to answer the questions you have.
So—do you do horror? Science fantasy? Magic realism? Slice-of-life literary? On some level, it doesn’t matter; regardless, you’re a writer of speculative fiction. You have questions. There are things you don’t understand. You create the forum in which ignorance can lead to insight.