Humanity has always told stories with elements of the speculative – the fantastical, supernatural, prophetic, science fictional. From saints to sirens to Hamlet's father's ghost, through to spaceships and robots. Speculative fiction goes ‘beyond’ current and or concrete reality; it enhances and imagines and twists what we know into something more or different. And yet, so often, it reaches right to the heart of what is familiar.
I first read Frankenstein when I was sixteen and I was struck by the novel as a philosophical and social text, including its commentary on the ambition and blindness of humankind (or we can, in this instance, quite actually say of 'mankind'). But one of the greatest strengths of Frankenstein was the humanity of the creature – and the complexity of feeling Shelley generates in the reader for him.
This is a point I will stress throughout this course: while speculative texts often act as parables, or feature enhanced, spectacular versions of a familiar world, they cannot be diagrams or mere commentaries. They must make the reader think and feel; they must resonate on multiple levels.
The most successful speculative texts also arise from a writer’s burning concerns.
For example, Clade, a narrative that places characters in a climate change-affected future world, comes from a writer, James Bradley, who says the novel came about partly through 'a desire to think through the whole idea of climate change, what it might mean, and perhaps just as importantly, what it might be like to experience'.
Charlotte Wood’s award-winning The Natural Way of Things, a searing feminist dystopian novel, was partly written to explore the ways language is used as a weapon against women.
My own novel, A Superior Spectre, combined concerns that have popped up again and again in my writing: women’s bodies and bodily autonomy, entitlement and curiosity, and the effect of the neoliberal capitalist socialisation on individual psychology (and behaviour). Throw in advances to technology and their effect. These are topics I think about, read about, watch documentaries about, observe within the world.
In this course we'll find a way towards your own burning concerns.
A temptation when you are a beginning or developing writer (or trying a new genre) is to think about what you like in other texts and derive your worlds and characters from there. But getting to the heart of what you want to explore and ‘speculate upon’ within these kinds of worlds is the secret to writing something that is genuine, that is in your own voice, and that you can be proud of.
My only warning is that this may take time. I first started exploring some of the themes in A Superior Spectre fifteen years before the novel was published!
Charlotte Wood has said that she began writing The Natural Way of Things as an historical novel – to reflect the real life girls' home that existed in the 1960s and 70s that inspired the book. 'The writing was just dead on the page,' she told The Irish Times. 'I was desperately trying all kinds of things to get the engine turning over. So I literally just thought, I’ll do the opposite. I won’t set it in the past. I’ll set it in the future – or some kind of future, or altered present. And as soon as I picked that time frame, possibilities started to come alive and the work took off.'
Speculative fiction can be so freeing in this way. I hope you find that some of your own concerns can find their perfect form by the end of this course.
Speculative fiction is a broad term that encompasses books shelved and marketed as both 'commercial' and 'literary'.
A book falls into either camp because of the themes the book carries, the style in which it is written, whether it crosses genres or adheres to the conventions of a specific sub-genre (ie. high fantasy, space opera, etc.), or simply because of the publisher it ends up with – who can arbitrarily signify (through choice of cover, marketing avenues, etc.) where it will sit.
In Australia in recent years, many of the speculative books published have been by more literary imprints of publishers (or by small publishers), and this is simply because some of the more mainstream spec fic publishers no longer exist in this market.
To me, the main reason why a book would be classified as more literary or more commercial or popular fiction depends on the drive of the narrative and the 'layers' the book carries.
In a literary novel, the tension is driven more by characters – their conflict with one another but also their internal conflict. The reader turns pages to go on a psychological and emotional journey with the characters. A literary novel will also more overtly carry philosophical and political questions – if it's a good novel these will be deftly handled, and the reader will finish the book feeling both emotionally and intellectually stimulated.
In a commercial or popular novel, the tension is driven more by the plot, and the characters are active elements in that plot. The reader turns pages to find out what is going to happen to the character/s – how they will overcome each obstacle, how they will learn and grow, and whether they will get what they need/want in the resolution.
Commercial fiction can still be psychologically complex. For example, the characters may not know what they need/want. The reader may even have more insight than them, creating layers of tension. And a commercial novel can still carry 'big ideas' – it's just that they are usually second to the satisfaction of the story itself.
In literary fiction, the characters hum with the irresolvable tensions of the world, while finding some resolution within their own character arc. In commercial fiction, characters act upon multiple strands of resolvable tension.
With a commercial novel, it's the movement of the story and the actions of the characters within it that will remain with the reader. In a literary novel, it is often the bigger ideas that will clang around in the reader's mind, once they put the book down.
But many books cross this divide, too. It is one of the most challenging things to do as a writer: to create something with a compelling plot, memorable characters, and deeply resonant and relevant themes.