Every good story is an act of rebellion. Indeed, I believe that this is at the core of why we write; a defiance of the world as it is, our stories give voice to our frustration and anger. And because I’m politically obsessed, I am exceedingly fond of stories that include the political, especially those with an (un)healthy dose of byzantine scheming 1.
My own writing reflects this; while most of my stories start out as strictly personal journeys, eventually, some political reality intersects with the characters' lives, and their struggles are transformed. Their conflicts come to have a significance not only to their own fate, but also to their world's. And this, as it is with most people who write Speculative Fiction, is a central theme. For in Speculative Fiction, not only does the world affect the characters, but the characters also fundamentally affect the World, be that outcome heroic or nihilistic.
I’m endlessly fascinated in how this process plays out with my own characters; in my stories I've created rebel fairies, subversive machines and a post-punk engineer, all of who play a significant role in shaping their world.
Nor am I am alone in this - one of my favorite examples is the Vlad Taltos series by Stephen J. Brust. His central character is, initially, simply struggling for survival in a feudal society, but as he succeeds, he comes to see - hell, has his face shoved in - the systematic injustice of the system he lives in. And, despite his best efforts, he is drawn into the earliest stages of resistance. But even as he sidesteps the conventions of a ruling elite, that courts and despises him in equal measure, he is equally uncomfortable with the 'cause' that defies the system of injustice that surrounds him. Consequently he never lets go of that space between the two worlds. For Vlad, this is part of what constantly places him near the fulcrum of decision, even though he is not a major player in the politics of his world.
Now, this theme - that of being torn between two world views - is scarcely exclusive to Spec Fic; it is found in many genres, including Literary Fiction, from authors the likes of Mordecai Richter and Anne-Marie MacDonald. But the idea of conflict and choice plays out very differently in Literary Fiction than it does in Speculative Fiction, due to a fundamental difference between them. And that is the role of the World in the story.
Literary Fiction presents the world as, well, the world. A setting that is socially and physically immutable, a force of nature; something that the characters must deal with or work around, but never truly change. By contrast, Speculative Fiction presents the world as World. Another character in the story2 - one that can both affect, and be altered by, the other characters as much as they are altered by it.
This simple shift in perspective yields profound differences. Without the World as a character, Literary Fiction must focus on the personal, and the world lived in is accepted as fait accompli. Consequently, while the story may expose and explore society's attitudes and injustices, it does not offer characters who can change their world. Instead it explores how the world affects those characters. And when there is a shift in the world, be it societal or technological, the characters are buffeted by those winds of change.
There is a great advantage to this approach to writing; because you do not have to explain the world, you can focus more on the relationships between the characters and their relationship to a world that we all understand. Not to say that Speculative Fiction doesn’t explore these relationships, but these explorations must take a different direction because they involve the defining of the World as a character.
In Literary Fiction, one of my favourite examples of this is Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which explores the profound changes occurring during Henry VIII’s reign. It is a world we all know, to some degree, and she familiarizes us with it further as we go into the story. But all in all, it is still familiar ground. Because of this familiarity, Mantel's focus can shift, minutely, away from the profound changes in Henry’s England and towards the people and processes that made those changes possible. She does this through Thomas Cromwell, a fascinating character in his own right, but one who also acts as a powerful lens with which to examine the world. This ability of a character to act as a lens is one of the hallmarks of Literary Fiction. We understand the world differently, due to the perspective of the person observing it. But some aspects of this perspective are only possible if the world does not look back.
In Speculative Fiction the world must be explained, and while a character can act as a lens, almost invariably, there has to be a place where the reader can learn more about the world. In this case, a character must become less like a lens, and more like a simple pane of clear glass - transparent.
The use of a familiar world in Literary Fiction also, to my mind, creates an inherent bias in the novel. For if the reader already understands the fundamentals of the world, then that world cannot change. The story may show an aspect of the world that the reader has not previously explored - the seedy underbelly, the academic grind, or the rat-race, these are all are tropes we already have some rough familiarity with, and we expect the author to provide us with greater insights to these, already existing, places. But fundamentally it is the world we know, and it remains the world we know.
This means that the world in Literary Fiction, inherently, endorses the status quo. Look at the novels of Jane Austen: we cheer the heroine's happiness in a world built on inequality. Nor is Austen's work a historical artifact - consider A Suitable Boy, The English Patient, A Complicated Kindness. All books I love, but their worlds are immutable, as far as the characters are concerned. Indeed, part of the core message of these books is the very fact that the world is fundamentally beyond the characters control. That the idea of control is almost absurd.
In contrast to this, Speculative Fiction is based in a world where there is a core assumption that there will be change in the world - and that this change happens as a consequence of the choices and actions of the characters in play. That is not to say that Speculative Fiction is inherently progressive; often it is not. One only need to take a look at the underlying messages in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, especially Return of the King.
Nonetheless, the underlying message in Speculative Fiction is that the world can be changed, often by surprising people. People who take risks. It is the kind of story where the rebellion isn’t simple defiance, but a defiance that ends in an outcome that actually addresses the source of that frustration.
I think that it is this, not the odd names or the technobabble or the invented worlds, that makes the literary establishment contemptuous of Speculative Fiction. It is the very idea that the world is as changeable as the characters who inhabit it.
And they are called the literary establishment for a reason. These are the chattering classes, the gatekeepers of culture who define what kind of culture has ‘value.' They are tools of the publishing industry, judging what is ‘good’ literature and what is not. And by attempting to ghettoize Speculative Fiction, to relegate it to the realms of pulp, they are able to accuse Speculative Fiction of being mere adventure stories, rather than contemplations of society. They are frightened of good Science Fiction and Fantasy, because those stories tell a new truth, that now, we are like gods - capable of changing the world, simply by choosing to. It is a reality that few recognize, and even fewer want us to.
Is it any wonder they prefer stories of helplessness and despair?
1 Those who know me would be profoundly unsurprised given that I'm always arguing (and occasionally lecturing the hapless) about politics.↩