Remember in Battlestar Galactica when the 4 hidden Cylons assembled unwillingly in that out-of-the-way utility room for the first time? On Wednesday evening the 14th of June, four – count’em four – speculative fiction authors assemble willingly(?) right in the middle of our store – and they have a lot to discuss. Two of those four guests – Carrie Patel and S.B. Divya (two totally normal humans [wink]) were nice enough to answer a few of my questions and give us a foreshadowing of Wednesday night’s completely unprogrammed event. [wink].
Eric Larkin – What are the differences, if any, between speculative fiction and science fiction? How do you define science fiction? (Looking for ammo in an ongoing debate with that one.) Why even have this fancy-pants term “speculative fiction”
Carrie Patel – I think of “speculative fiction” as a broader term that encompasses subgenres that don’t fit neatly within either science fiction or fantasy–New Weird, science fantasy, etc. It’s also nicely divorced from a lot of the tropes and expectations that people tend to have with science fiction, fantasy, and their best-known subgenres, and I think it’s healthy and freeing for readers and writers alike to approach genre with an open mind. Personally, I define “science fiction” as a genre in which the setting and story depend on technologies and/or social developments that have not happened but might be feasible. But I think the definitions of science fiction has changed a lot in recent years, so I would be curious to see how others answer this one!
SB Divya – I use ‘speculative fiction’ as an umbrella term to encompass all genres that explore beyond our known reality. This would include science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, magical realism, and everything in between. A lot of stories cross or blend speculative genres now so it’s useful to have a more inclusive term than “science fiction,” which now describes stories that focus on science and/or technology. Working with the Escape Artists family of podcasts, we need to make that kind of distinction when we’re considering short fiction submissions. For example, at Escape Pod, we publish science fiction, but we’ll allow some elements of fantasy or horror as long as the core of the story is rooted in a scientific concept.
EL – This touches on your upcoming discussion, but why is speculative fiction important and relevant?
SBD – Speculative elements have always held an important place in fiction and society, going all the way back to the earliest known stories. This is how we explore the unknown and bring it to a familiar context. It also helps us prepare for different eventualities or avoid terrible fates. Speculative fiction can also inspire, especially science fiction that’s idea-driven.
CP – It’s important because it’s the one genre where anything is possible. It isn’t tied to any particular plot type or formula, so you can write any kind of story set in any time and place. And the flexibility to construct stories with some elements that are more familiar and others that are more removed from our present context allows writers to examine relevant conflicts and questions without being tied to a direct commentary on Current Issue X (whatever that may be). That’s not to say that the only purpose of speculative fiction is tackling big questions–entertainment value is important, too. But even in escapism, I think there’s value in imagining worlds where other things–both dire and wonderful–are possible.
EL – What are the first spec fic books you read and/or the ones that had the most lasting impact?
CP – One of my first was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I loved the world of Narnia, with its magic and talking beasts, the story of children finding adventure, and also the warmth in Lewis’s voice. And I think it was that last thing that probably stuck with me the most and impressed on me that one of the great pleasures of reading was finding an author with whom I enjoyed spending time and whose wit, style, and perspective were as much a part of the book as the story, setting, and characters.
SBD – The very first spec fic book I read (at age 10) was The Green Book by Jill Patton Walsh. It’s a science fiction story about a family escaping Earth to a colony on a new planet, and it launched my lifelong love of science fiction. I tried The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, soon after and (unlike Carrie!) I didn’t care for it. Tolkien won me back to fantasy years later, but science fiction is still where my heart lies. Other books that I loved: Psion, by Joan D. Vinge, which was the first book that made me cry, and its sequel, Catspaw; Dune by Frank Herbert; A Rose for the Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny; Cyteen by CJ Cherryh. I also read Analog Magazine regularly through the 1990s.
EL – When we look back at the classics of sci fi, whether it’s really old school, like Jules Verne or more recent, like William Gibson, we see things that eventually became reality. What’s the craziest thing being written about right now that you think could eventually become real?
CP – One series I grew up reading was David Brin’s Uplift books, and the big idea was that species can be evolved into sapience through selective breeding and genetic manipulation. I don’t think it’s coming any time soon, but I’d be surprised if people didn’t try it at some point in the future. Given our fears and concerns about AI, I could see people turning to this as a safer way to create and experiment with consciousness and human-like intelligence.
SBD – Some fun ideas that I’m playing with right now (because I believe they could happen) include tabletop genetic engineering, block-based furniture that can reconfigure itself, and clothing that can remake itself. I’m a believer in post-humanism – that human bodies will merge with machines and bioengineering – and that this kind of directed evolution is how we’ll ultimately colonize space.
EL – Carrie, besides being a writer, you also design games. Games used to feel completely separate from any kind of storytelling, but they seem to have been merging for awhile. Can you talk about that a bit? Are games absorbing stories or are stories absorbing games — or are they just in the process of becoming the perfect sandwich?
CP – I think games are experimenting with what kinds of stories they can tell and the various ways in which they can tell them. Games take on a greater variety of formats than do other storytelling media–novels, film, etc.–so we’ll continue to see stories as distinct from one another as Her Story and Mass Effect. Additionally, there are lots of questions about how to best reconcile interactivity–which is what makes games unique–with the various beats and arcs we expect from linear stories. There are games like Uncharted, in which the player follows a predefined character through a three-act story interspersed with combat and puzzles, and then there are a whole host of MMORPGs in which much of the story experience is about building up a character and carving out a niche in a large, open world.
EL – Any advice for writers who want to write spec fic?
SBD – As with any writing, read a lot, especially new publications in the type of speculative fiction you want to write. Be sure to read some short fiction, too, where people tend to push genre boundaries. As an editor, I see two common problems. One is stale ideas, where the prose and characters are good, but the story brings nothing new to well-explored themes. In other words, know what the tropes are and avoid them. The second is too much world-building and exposition at the start of the story. Trust your spec fic audience to be comfortable in a world where they don’t understand everything. The joy in reading speculative stories often comes from discovery, and as long as you make the plot and characters engaging, the readers will be happy to let the explanations unfold gradually.
CP – Find the fun stuff, whether it’s magic or monsters or space travel, but dig into what it means for your world, story, and characters. Consider the implications of the speculative elements you’re introducing and mine those for more depth and conflict. Also, read widely, and not just within the subgenre you’re writing. One of the strengths of spec fic is that it can pull from so many inspirations and influences.
In-store Wednesday night at 19:30: S.B. Divya, Carrie Patel, Arianne “Tex” Thompson and Paul Kreuger – I am not making this up. You might want to be here to see what happens..