As some of you might have figured out, I write in two genres, fantasy and romance. So I spend a lot of time around writers who have never read any speculative fiction, or if they have, they didn’t like it. When the topic comes up, the thing I hear most often is: “I don’t read fantasy/science-fiction/space opera/dystopian. It’s too weird.”
And here’s the thing. A lot of it is “weird.” Because I love the genre, I’m often hooked into buying a book by a unique setting, an unusual form of magic, or an interesting society. But what keeps me reading it is not how many forms of life other than humanoid that the author can devise, but the characters.
You see, the beauty of speculative fiction, what makes books enduring and inspiring, has nothing to do with the foreign elements and everything to do with the familiar. The stories that resonate with us the most are people overcoming challenges while struggling to maintain their humanity (even if the characters aren’t specifically human). Consider these books and TV shows as examples.
Weird factor: Deep space in the far future, with many other planets and races
Why it’s interesting: The strong ethical framework of Star Fleet and its members; the human challenges they face when surrounded by others who do not share the same values and ethics
The Island of Dr. Moreau
Weird factor: Man-beasts, vivisection, mad scientists
Why it’s interesting: The exploration of the nature of humanity and the veneer of civility that separates man and beast
Weird factor: Magic, a secret wizarding school, you name it
Why it’s interesting: Orphan Harry’s search for identity and a sense of belonging; the universal feeling of being an outsider
The Hunger Games
Weird factor: Kids killing kids… and how ‘bout them crazy Capitol fashions?
Why it’s interesting: It tackles the question of whether or not free choice endures when personal freedom is eliminated, besides other moral and ethical questions
When speculative books fail, I believe that sometimes it’s because the author has not put the same care into character development as they have into world building. If an author can make the reader care about the characters, if they can reflect the “real world” in the protagonist’s challenges and moral dilemmas, it almost doesn’t matter what the setting is. That’s not to say that speculative fiction can’t discuss bigger issues that might be sensitive or divisive were they placed in a primary world setting. Fantasy and science fiction has always been a wonderful vehicle to address issues such as bias, social inequality, governmental abuses, and religion. But without a character with whom we identify, through whom we can experience that world and those problems, the story can come off dry, difficult to understand, or overly philosophical.
I think that’s one difference between stories that break out into the popular consciousness and those that remain niche. Their success has less to do with the “big ideas” or the uniqueness of the premise (let’s face it, The Hunger Games is pretty derivative) and more to do with how the themes and characters speak to us as human beings in a modern context. In fact, the “weirdness” of many speculative settings serves to highlight the humanity of the characters, and therefore draws clearer parallels to our own lives as readers.
It’s your turn now… what do your favorite speculative stories have in common? Do you think spec is about the weird?