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Why I write spec fic: A (partial) manifesto

(Edit: I’d scheduled this post to go live on Wednesday the 4th, but somehow WordPress missed posting it, and I didn’t realize till now.)

In my senior seminar at college nearly ten years ago, we had an audit participate in the course. If you are clairvoyant (see what I did there with the spec fic aspect?) and therefore know the particulars, you are probably thinking, “But Amanda, isn’t it odd for someone in a private university of only 4,500 students to decide to audit the English majors’ senior seminar course in World Literature?”

To which I say, yes. Yes it is.

I don’t remember the name of the student-auditor, or any telling details such as his own major. I do remember that he was approximately our age, and he was argumentative. About everything. I think it was, however, Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia that finally broke him. He disliked the juxtaposition of the two time periods; the presence of anachronisms; the “debate” between chaos and order; the use of math as metaphor. These factors stewed about in the auditor’s mind until it boiled over into his condescension-laced declaration: “All of it [meaning the works of fiction we’d been perusing the entire semester] just seems silly to me. What’s the point in discussing this stuff, when it never really happened?”

He was met, initially, with a fraught silence. Keep in mind, the rest of us were English majors, and our median age was twenty-two. Even if we, in the final semester of our undergraduate years, had come to regret our chosen field, we’d at least enjoyed it enough at some point to consider the poor amount of jobs available to English graduates and think, “Screw it; I like books and reading anyway, so I’m gonna do this thing.” The auditor’s declaration of literature as “silly” did not compute.

Oh, we eventually recovered and had a lengthy discussion about “human condition, the” and “literature as vehicle to represent.” And in hindsight, I wonder if the auditor might have had a low-level of Asperger’s, as many with Asperger’s tend to dislike fiction and metaphor. And to the auditor’s credit, he said he decided to take the course because he wanted a better understanding of literature in general and, I suppose, a better understanding of why anyone likes to read about books and people that are made up. The world in general would be better off if people made the attempt to better understand things and they don’t like and opinions they don’t agree with.

But sometimes, when I tell people what I write, they get this tight look to their face, one that says I don’t get the thing that you just told me. They may like books, even fiction, but only the “real” kind with none of that speculative, other-world stuff. Or not even other-world, but our-world-with-weirdo-differences stuff. I figure, if I get that look again and I have this post written, I can say, “Hey there, tight-face. If you’d like to try to understand something you maybe don’t like much, I have this thing you could read.”

And so:

Why I Write (and Like) Speculative Fiction: A Partial Manifesto

  1. First off, let’s establish that to a certain extent, all fiction is speculative. All fiction asks a question: what will this character, with his/her particular background, personality, and goals, do when presented with this certain set of circumstances? All fiction is based on what-if. What if this guy likes that girl? What if this girl doesn’t like that guy? What if this dog can play the piano? What if this cat has a cheeseburger? They’re all what-ifs, or speculations.
  2. In my opinion, the best fiction–speculative (as genre) or otherwise–is about character. And if it’s about character, it’s about the human condition. Personally, I don’t care much about hard science and extrapolating where we’ll be in ten years, or fifty. I think it’s cool that science fiction has historically predicted a lot of the technological advances we’ve made. But if the character through whom I’m experiencing these technological advances is flat, unreal–unhuman*–then thanks, sorta, but we’re done. And while yes, it can be really interesting to read about an economy built and dependent upon dragon eggs, if I don’t see how this economy affects the people involved in it, then just quit teasing me with your dragon egg talk because what’s the point of reminding myself I can never be like Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher if I don’t get to vicariously live it through a person human enough that they feel like they could be real?

But those points are really just lead-ins to my main reason for writing spec lit, which is, in the words of Emily Dickinson, to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Regarding spec lit, “telling all the truth but telling it slant” applies to revealing genuine human experiences, but through the filter of shiny awesome SFnal world-building. Sometimes I just like my existential angst with a side of cyborg or dragon, yanno? That’s the aspect I touched upon with my two points above.

However, there’s a deeper aspect in that sometimes, truth has to be told slant in order to be told at all. The whole of the Dickinson poem is applicable here, and it’s fair use and all, so I’ll just go ahead and post it:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

“The truth must dazzle gradually,” meaning, sometimes we really can’t handle the truth (usually when it’s something to do with ourselves).

Case in point: In the most recent SF Squeecast, Episode 30, Catherynne Valente shared The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov wrote it in the 1930s but the book wasn’t published until the 1960s, after his death . I’ve not read the book, but one thing Valente mentioned was that the book is an indictment against Stalin’s regime, and the only way to have something like that published in Soviet Russia was for the book to be clearly “not real.” So you throw in a giant, talking demonic cat.

There’s more to it than that, of course–as there should be, with satire–but again, I’ve not read the book, and so don’t feel I should go on about it too long.

Another example is the relatively recent movie Elysium. It’s pretty obviously a statement about unfair wealth distribution in America (though one must set aside the irony of how much it must have cost to create the film) through a veneer of cyberpunk. In its first weekend, it made $3.5 mil (source). Using $8.38 as an average ticket price (source), that means over 3 million people saw the movie in its first weekend.

Now, compare that to The One Percent, a documentary on YouTube about wealth distribution in America. It’s been viewed about 1.2 million times.

No, this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. I doubt The One Percent had anywhere near the same level of publicity as Elysium. But even if a documentary on wealth distribution in America was produced through one of the big Hollywood production studios and narrated by, oh, say Matt Damon, I doubt it’d do as well as Elysium, which itself is only a moderate success, if a success at all (I haven’t done enough research to see whether it actually broke even).

In general, I prefer my fiction to be message-free. (Which is much different from “theme-free.”) I prefer to be given something to think about, rather than told what to think. I’d say most people share a similar view. But apparently messages go down easier with cyberpunk.

So that’s why I write (and read) spec lit. I come for the escape; I stay for the slanted truth.


*I don’t mean that I dislike nonhuman characters. But when a main character is of another species, AI, or a normally inanimate object, there still needs to be some sort of baseline human-like quality upon which to build a connection. Or else, yes, “it just seems silly.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • M. H. Boroson December 11, 2013, 6:58 pm

    I’ve always loved Emily Dickinson’s writings on truth and lies. In one of her letters, she says, of her seven-year-old nephew, “Ned tells that the Clock purrs and the Kitten, ticks. He inherits his Uncle Emily’s ardor for the lie.”

    _Ardor for the lie_. If that isn’t a fiction-lover’s manifesto in four words, I don’t know what is. And she even fictions her gender while saying it. It’s a fantastic line.

    I completely agree with you about “something to think about,” as opposed to message-based fiction. I’m a fan of a lot of non-speculative genre fiction as well, like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series of hard-boiled detective novels. The first ten or so of them were fabulous — the dialogue really brings them to life. It’s often people arguing different points of view on an issue, say, women’s lib (these books are from the 70s and 80s), and Parker really does manage to breathe life into multiple sides of every issue. (As long as we’re on poets, Keats, writing about Shakespeare, called this “negative capability” — an author’s ability to hold completely contradictory notions at once, so the characters can become real). Somewhere after maybe the tenth Spenser book, it changed, and Spenser became the mouthpiece for everything the author believed was true. The series diminished from there.

    Thanks for the insight into your thought process, and thanks as well for your compassionate interpretation of that auditor’s possibly Aspergers-related perspective.

  • Amanda December 12, 2013, 5:36 am

    I admit I’m more familiar with Dickinson’s poetry than her prose–and even in terms of poetry, I’ve not read much of her since college. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” stuck with me, however.
    I would say as a fiction fan and one who loves a good metaphor, I have “ardor for the truth in the lie.” But hey, sometimes I do read just for the escape, and then I suppose it’s all ardor for the lie.
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

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