Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction asks the question ‘what if’? What if Leonardo Da Vinci's inventions had not been kept secret in his notebooks but had become part of everyday life? Parachutes, subaqua diving, clockwork robots, wooden armoured tanks powered by pedal, and wooden bicycles, would have figured in paintings and literature stemming from the Renaissance Era, and human history could have taken a completely different road. 

Speculative Fiction Speculative Fiction

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Contents
Table of contents

    Speculative Fiction: Meaning and Genre

    Speculative fiction describes a world outside of our own - it does not try to imitate real life but rather to create another world where future possible versions of life are explored. It is a broad term that includes genres such as science-fiction and fantasy. Speculative fiction is a genre in constant expansion. Originally used to refer mainly to science-fiction, it has since become a broad term that includes genres such as horror, the supernatural and fantasy. It can also be used to explore alternative or future possible versions of life.

    Imagine every 15th-century family owning a wind-up android, and their children cycling to school on bumpy roads with their colourfully painted and carved oak bikes. This kind of speculation results in a genre called ‘clockpunk fiction’, usually pre-dating the 19th century, and therefore reliant on clockwork, perhaps also powered by wind or water or good old-fashioned magic.

    The Medici Guns (Martin Woodhouse & Robert Ross, 1975)

    The Discworld series (Terry Pratchett, (1983 – 2015)

    Speculative fiction has also expanded to include alternate historical and dystopian fiction.

    Speculative Fiction: Examples

    There are many types of speculative fiction. Among the most common are:

    • Science fiction

    • Steampunk

    • Magic realism

    • Fractured fairy tales (also parodies)

    • Weird fiction

    Science-fiction

    Science-fiction is concerned with science. Problems and obstacles are overcome by the use of scientifically designed equipment or machinery. Even if the science may seem to verge on the ‘fantastic’ (time travel machines, talking computers), it will still be based on a theory or evidence that such things might at some point be possible.

    H. G. Wells - The Invisible Man (1897) is about a scientist (Griffin) who discovers how to become invisible by mixing chemicals; however, he cannot turn back again, and gradually becomes increasingly unhinged in his desperate search for an antidote.

    Isaac Asimov - Caves of Steel (1954). Caves of Steel is a detective story set in the future world where robots are a part of everyday life. An apparently accidental shooting has to be investigated by both a human detective and his robot/android partner who is able to scan people’s emotions.

    Steampunk

    Another kind of speculation fiction hints at a world of technology that relies on coal and steam propulsion (hence ‘steam-punk’) - usually (but not only) set against a Victorian/Edwardian background (great for period costumes and manners!) it has been a source of colourful and imaginative novels, graphic novels, films, television series and conventions.

    There are multiple subgenres: aetherpunk (technology fuelled by magic), mythpunk (gods and myths, no technology), and Bronzepunk or Sandalpunk (set in Ancient worlds, usually Ancient Greece).

    The Anubis Gates by Tim Banks (1983)

    The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

    The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (1999)

    The Anubis Gates by Tim Banks (1983). Labelled as both fantasy and steampunk, the novel involves time travel to Ancient Egypt, the Romantic Age (involving Coleridge) and 19th century London. It won the Philip K. Dick award and is considered a defining novel of the Steampunk genre.

    The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990) is a mystery thriller set in an alternate Victorian world where computer technology has been brought forward by one century and is also regarded as having helped define the genre.

    The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (1999) is a series of adventure comics and graphic novels set during the 19th century and including many fictional characters from classics of the time such as:

    • H.G. Well’s Invisible Man (Griffin)
    • Oscar Wilde’s Doran Gray
    • Bram Stoker’s Mina Murray
    • H.Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain.

    A film version was made in 2003 (dir. Stephen Norrington)

    Magic Realism

    Magic Realism evolved as a rebellion against the Expressionist movement, and as a reaction to the grime and tragedy of the modern cityscape. It is a form of escapism, a means of viewing the world not through rose-tinted spectacles, but through a kaleidoscope of frequently changing colours. Magic realism exists in a dislocated kind of reality where anything magical might quite normally happen. For instance, someone might see a unicorn in the back garden or grow a monkey's tail and while it may be unexpected, these incidents will be treated as part of everyday life.

    The narrative style in magical realism does not follow a predictable line either: the first act is not necessarily followed by the second and third; there may not be an actual climax, or if there is, it won’t happen when you expect it to.

    The term was first used in 1925 by Franz Roh and the genre became popular in Latin America in the 1940s - 60s.

    Authors who contributed to the genre of Magical Realism:

    Franz Kafka is among the earliest authors of Magical Realism with his novella Metamorphosis (1915). In the novella, the unfortunate protagonist Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he has turned into a huge insect. His transformation, rather than arouse horror and pity, merely annoys his father and Samsa is confined to his room where he dies of neglect and despair.

    Jorge Luis Borges is Jungian in his philosophy, believing in the unity of the past, present and future and of all humanity as one. His short stories contain themes of labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, dreams and philosophy.

    Example titles:

    Ficciones (1944)

    The Aleph (1949)

    Neil Gaiman writes a wide range of literary works from fantasy through horror to surrealism and magical realism. His novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) is a combination of all four as the narrator returns to his hometown and begins to remember events from his childhood. The memories take on an increasingly improbable and surreal form of the hero’s journey and concern monsters in human shape and ‘hunger birds’.

    Fractured Fairy Tales

    A fractured fairy tale is a type of parody where a traditional tale is taken and re-written with changes in where, when or who: for example, is The Three Little Pigs about trial and error, or is it about crooked estate agents? Is the Sleeping Beauty under a spell, or is she actually a dope fiend? Red Riding Hood has been parodied several times. Here’s an early example by James Thurber:

    “One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. "Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?" asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood. When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother's house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead. Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”

    Thurber, The Girl and the Wolf, 1939

    The fractured fairy tale has become increasingly popular in film.

    Maleficient (2014, dir. R.Stromberg)

    Shrek (2001, dir. V.Jenson, et al)

    Maleficient is the tale of Sleeping Beauty who is fated to fall asleep, but told from the perspective of her wicked godmother who placed the curse. The role of the godmother switches from malevolent to caring and protective.

    Shrek: The Shrek franchise (loosely based on a book by William Steig: Shrek! 1990) takes various fairy tale characters and weaves them together, reversing characters and stories. For example, Shrek is not the classic savage ogre, but a sharp-tongued, sarcastic anti-hero who ends up rescuing the princess in the tower instead of Prince Charming.

    Weird Fiction

    There are, I think, four distinct types of weird story

    (Lovecraft, Notes on Writing Weird Fiction, 1937)

    Weird fiction was first defined by Lovecraft as containing five elements:

    • Underlying horror

    • Its effect

    • Its manifestation

    • The ‘fear-reaction’ to the horror

    • ‘Specific effects of the horror’ in a given set of conditions

    (Lovecraft, 1937)

    He also sought to divide these writings into two categories:

    • those in which the marvel or horror concerns some condition or phenomenon

    • those in which it concerns some action of persons in connexion with a bizarre condition or phenomenon.’

    While referring to himself as an amateur, Lovecraft listed authors as early as Edgar Allan Poe along with (nearer) contemporaries like M.R.James, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare as ‘being typical masters in this field’.

    His interest lay with the unknown - whether outer space, the land of dreams or a distant tower in an unexplored forest. He places emphasis on atmosphere rather than action.

    For Lovecraft, how the characters in the story feel is as important, if not more important, than the horror they confront. He also refers to this type of fiction as a ‘wonder story’ - one that inspires actual awe.

    More recent writers considered authors of weird fiction include:

    • Mervyn Peake Gormenghast trilogy (1946-59)
    • Neil Gaiman A Study in Emerald (2003)

    The Gormenghast trilogy has its setting mainly in a huge castle, isolated from the outside world and tied up in ritual and tradition. It contains characters of an almost fantastical eccentricity, several of whom perish in unconventional ways. The story follows the life of Titus Groan, heir to the castle, from birth to adulthood. Hailed as a masterpiece soon after its publication and has been adapted for radio, television and stage.

    Neil Gaiman’s A Study in Emerald is an inversion of the Sherlock Holmes world created by Conan Doyle combined with the Lovecraftian universe. In it, the reader is led to believe they are reading a story narrated by Watson about Sherlock Holmes investigating the death of a prince. As the story progresses, however, details of the Lovecraftian setting seep through, with the implication that the narrator is Moran (ex-military like Watson) who is assisting Moriarty. The suggestion is that in this world, roles are reversed, with Sherlock Holmes the fugitive after murdering a monster whose blood runs emerald green.

    Elements of Speculative Fiction

    The mixed nature of speculative fiction allows for multiple elements to feature including:

    • Magic
    • Science
    • Fantasy
    • Alternate history or worlds
    • The supernatural
    • Horror

    Many of these elements may be combined, or only one of them may be employed in a work of speculative fiction.

    Speculative Fiction - Key Takeaways

    • Speculative fiction describes a world outside of our own and is a broad term to include genres like science-fiction and fantasy.
    • Speculative fiction creates another world where future possible versions of life are explored.
    • Typical types of speculative fiction include:
      • Steampunk

      • Magic realism

      • Fractured fairy tales (also parodies)

      • Weird fiction

    • Science-fiction may verge on the ‘fantastic’ but will still be based on a theory or evidence that such things might at some point be possible.

    • Steampunk fiction involves technology relies on coal and steam propulsion usually set against a Victorian/Edwardian background

    • Magic realism exists in a dislocated kind of reality where anything magical might happen as part of everyday life.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Speculative Fiction

    What is Speculative Fiction?    

    Speculative fiction describes a world outside of our own and is a broad term to include genres like science-fiction and fantasy.

    What is the purpose of Speculative Fiction?

    Speculative fiction creates another world where future possible versions of life are explored. 

    What is an example of Speculative Fiction? 

    H. G. Wells - The Invisible Man (1897), Neil Gaiman -l The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) etc.

    What are the different types of Speculative Fiction?

    • Steampunk
    • Magic realism

    • Fractured fairy tales (also parodies)

    • Weird fiction

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