Why Speculative Fiction Isn’t About the Weird

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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.

Star Trek

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

Harry Potter

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?

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8 Comments  •  Comments Feed

  1. Steve Hutson says:

    I still think Spec Fic is weird. But what this article demonstrates well, is that it’s nothing to be afraid of.

  2. Sparksofember says:

    I agree. There’s a reason Spock is such a beloved character in Star Trek and it’s not his pointed ears. It’s because everyone identifies with his struggle to fit in and find a place for himself, to accept himself.

    For me, the best specfic stories inspire and focus on the positive, heroic aspects. Sam serving Frodo, Frodo struggling on with the quest, Eustace Scrubb transforming from a spoiled, selfish brat to courageous and kind, Edmund’s similar transformation – people I identify with and want to be like.

    • Carla says:

      I love that. You’re absolutely right. And I think the Star Trek reboot did a great job of digging into Spock’s character in that sense.

      I’m not a fan of the grimdark fantasy that’s kind of taken over in the last few years, but I think there’s something to be learned from the anti-hero as well. Every person has the ability to change and be more than the sum of their past decisions.

  3. Heather Day Gilbert says:

    Yes, exactly–the best spec fic won’t be so far out that we can’t make a correlation to human emotion, even in inhuman creatures. Like the Hive Queen in Ender (I think that’s what she was called). I’ve often thought the best specfic books do just that–give us some way to relate to these human/inhuman creatures in ways WE identify with. Otherwise it’s just garbled gibberish that does strike us as weird.

    • Carla says:

      Exactly, Heather. Which is why the anthropomorphic animal stories (like we’ve been discussing The Tale of Despereaux) are so effective and popular with kids.

  4. JKLeonard says:

    Great thoughts. World building is so important–it’s own character. Love Star Trek. Wasn’t too crazy about the Hunger Games, yes the world was cool, but I couldn’t get past the killing kids part…But it was probably due to the timing (death of one a teen that I knew) when I read it. I really enjoyed the Harry Potter series–so creative. I haven’t read the Island one, but will have to look it up.

    • Carla says:

      Island of Dr. Moreau is an H.G. Wells story from the late 1890s. It’s kind of fascinating how his concerns are still so relevant to us today.

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