Crossroads: “Speculative” Literary Fiction and SF/F Techniques

Last week, we talked about how works of speculative fiction deploy techniques commonly found in literary fiction. This week, we’re going to flip that coin and look at how mainstream literary fiction employs techniques developed and refined in science fiction and fantasy.

There are many theories as to what constitutes the “core technique” underlying speculative fiction. Cognitive estrangement, prediction, world-building, the nebulous “sense of wonder” – speculative fiction most often is what we point to when we say it. At the same time, the genre is heavily tied to certain tropes – devices which show up time and time again as central conceits in the narrative: space ships, dragons, time travel, apocalypse, magic, etc. As we look at today’s literary landscape, it seems that both the narrative techniques common to speculative fiction and the devices used by the genre show up with increasing frequency in “speculative” literary fiction.

Estrangement in Literary Fiction

Many people think that estrangement lies at the heart of science fiction, and while I think that’s an over-broad claim, there’s no doubt that it is one of the key techniques used by science fiction and fantasy. And it is a technique which has begun showing up very frequently between the pages of mainstream literary works.

So what is estrangement and how does it work? Probably the easiest way to explain it is to use a classic example: “The door irised open.” That sentence uses a word (“irised”) that is more-or-less recognizable to an English-speaking reader in a context or fashion that is divorced from its traditional/expected usage. Most readers will be able to intuit/understand its meaning in context, but that very act creates a cognitive gap in our perception of the text. It puts our brains on alert that we are dealing with a fictional environment different from our own, where words, concepts, and events may appear that are incongruous to our real-world experiences.

World-building and estrangement are broadly two sides of the same coin, since one can argue that world-building is the technique by which an effect of estrangement is achieved. But the difference between them is that world-building is a device (a method), while estrangement is an effect experienced by the reader (a result).

Perhaps one of the best examples of estrangement at play in literary fiction is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro employs a textbook example of Darko Suvin’s novum, using real words with mundane meaning in our existence to fantastical effect. In particular, his use of “carers”, “donors”, and “guardians” serves to fundamentally alienate the reader. Each of these words is recognizable to an English speaker, yet it is immediately clear from their context in the text that their usage is slightly off-kilter.

This initial sense of estrangement gradually mounts as Ishiguro unveils the details of his fictional world. The world-building technique he employs to this effect is subtle and powerful. By eschewing neologism and slightly tweaking the meaning of actual words to fulfill the estranging function of the novum, Ishiguro establishes a fictional environment made all the more plausible and evocative for its verisimilitude.

The (Personal) Consequences of Time Travel

As a trope, time travel has long been a staple of the speculative fiction genre. One can argue that H.G. Wells’ 1895 The Time Machine established a model for how speculative fiction explores wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff and set the stage for the genre’s central focus on broad global consequences and the implications of paradox.

In most time travel stories published as speculative fiction (e.g. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, Blackout/All Clear, or Doomsday Book, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, Mary Gentle’s Book of Ash novels, and many others) the reader’s attention is directed to the philosophical, historical, or societal implications of time travel. Such consequences are by their nature impersonal: Whatever characters we follow will have feelings on the subject, but the central theme of the story is larger than the protagonist’s inner experience. Those SF/F stories that focus their attention on the character’s inner experiences (notable examples include Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long stories and Ken Grimwood’s Replay) are somewhat rarer.

Yet when time travel appears in the literary fiction aisle (e.g. in Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, or via reincarnation in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), it tends to focus the reader’s attention inward, on the personal consequences as experienced by our perspective characters. When these works touch upon the paradoxes inherent to time travel (particularly in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and Cloud Atlas), they explicitly tie these paradoxes back to the semantic, semiotic, and meta-fictional play beloved of post-modern literary fiction.

Extrapolation and a Post-apocalyptic World

Science fiction and fantasy have often been used as a cautionary, extrapolative tool. Classic speculative fiction dystopias like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia are all based around an extrapolation of contemporary concerns into a distant future.

This same extrapolative/cautionary tendency informs much of the post-apocalyptic tradition in speculative fiction. What are works like George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, David Brin’s The Postman, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games if not extrapolations of environmental/social/political concerns reconfigured to either show us the collapse itself or the consequences of such a collapse?

Such narratives are powerful, precisely because of their ability to articulate dangerous truths about the world and society we live in. Considering the power of such themes and devices, it should come as no surprise that they are becoming increasingly popular devices and tropes in literary fiction. Consider Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Both posit the collapse of civilization, but they take their respective narratives in different directions using entirely different techniques – some science fictional in nature, and others more literary.

In the case of The Road, McCarthy plays with both composition (through his selective use of punctuation), and with character identification (refusing to give his two perspective characters names). Both of these are devices which tie into the emotional and thematic arc of the novel, and as a narrative technique can be labeled as more “experimental” than is often found in speculative fiction.

In terms of science fictional techniques, McCarthy takes the device of a post-collapse civilization and paints a bleak, ash-covered world replete with symbols of civilization’s bankruptcy. One can criticize the depth of his world-building, or the plausibility of his science, and such questions do constitute valid criticism. However, they are the types of criticisms typically reserved for works that are solidly within the (fuzzy) boundaries of the science fiction genre. Does The Road qualify? Yes, I believe that it does. However, a complete analysis requires an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses as both a work of speculative fiction and literary fiction.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake marks an interesting counterpoint. In it, Atwood presents a warning extrapolating from current social and political trends. She posits a future (post-collapse) world where bioengineering is rampant, and where online interactions and modern media have been taken to logical extremes, and attempts to explore how those factors affect her individual characters (Snowman/Jimmy and Oryx, particularly).

Of the literary texts that I’ve discussed here, Oryx and Crake may be the least “literary” of them all in that it is simultaneously the least oblique and the least experimental in its construction. There is relatively limited ambiguity, and very little compositional experimentation. In this, the novel reminds me of some of the more explicitly philosophical utopian/dystopian novels published as speculative fiction in the ’70s, in particular Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia or Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia. Considering that both works feature a significant degree of structural experimentation, compositional complexity, and thematic ambiguity, I wonder, were they published today, if they wouldn’t be welcomed in the literary fiction aisle?

Two Genres, both Alike in Dignity

Over the last several weeks, I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the overlap between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction. I hope you’ve had fun taking this journey with me.

What do you think of the mash-up between literary and speculative fiction? Are there techniques that you think don’t work in one (or the other) genre? I’d be interested to know if anyone is familiar with literary fiction that features secondary worlds. In my reading, I couldn’t really find one. Anyone know of any?

Next week, I’m going to be kicking off a month of Police Procedural, exploring some of the ways in which speculative fiction plays with this fun mystery/thriller sub-genre. I hope you’ll join me!

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Chris Gerwel is a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer. Raised in New Jersey, he spent ten years in Central & Eastern Europe in the market research industry, and today when he isn’t reading or writing speculative fiction, he works in the software industry. He lives in northern NJ, with a beautiful wife and a rambunctious puppy, and also writes the weekly blog The King of Elfland’s 2nd Cousin.

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  • Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

    But I don’t know if it would have had the same impact if I’d known it had speculative elements going in.

    I picked it up blind because it was Ishiguro, so got the full effect of the cumulative revelations.

    Its full effect depended on me *thinking* I was about to read a straight literary novel. Marketing as a metafictional writer’s tool!

    • Ha! When I read it, I knew to expect something (somewhat) science fictional, so I suspect my reading experience was slightly different from yours. I still loved the book immensely, and think it is one of the best novels (let alone science fiction novels) I’ve read in years.

      Also, that idea of marketing as a metafictional writer’s tool is a really interesting one, and might be worth unpacking further. I wonder if it’s a tool that the writer really has any control over, especially considering the vicissitudes of the publishing process.

  • This is an excellent article, Chris. Not only a fabulous survey, but your analysis and questions were well-reasoned. I’ve always believed that fiction is often the best means of revealing a truth. And…loving science fiction, I think Science Fiction does it better than most genres. Keep it up.

    • Thanks, J. Jay! I definitely agree that fiction should reveal something true. I’m less convinced that any one genre does so “better” or “worse” than any other, but they definitely use different tools and techniques in their attempts. For my tastes? I happen to derive the greatest enjoyment from the tools and techniques of SF/F. But I always think it’s worth looking at what other genres are doing.