Reading Speculative Fiction/Science Fiction/Fantasy with a Different Eye
by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Date: 01 September 2008 /
Mary Rose-Shaffer will be writing a series of informational articles about speculative fiction. Hopefully, we'll all learn to read with a new understanding of the literary underpinnings of the our favorite works. [GS]
As a reader of speculative fiction when in conversation with non-speculative fiction readers, I get a variety of responses that usually reveal their ignorance of spec fiction as literature: "Really? That's nice" followed by a hasty retreat; "Oh, I used to read that, but then I grew up;" "Isn't that all about magical creatures, witches, warlocks, and spells and such? That is too demonic for me;" "Well, that isn't real literature. I mean, there isn't a science fiction Crime and Punishment or Great Gatsby." That last one usually stated by my otherwise well educated and well meaning fellow English teachers. Because we often read it for "fun" spec fic is usually not acknowledged as an intellectual pursuit.
In the coming months, I will present a number of frameworks for reading speculative fictions. This article approaches the broadest framework of main plotlines. Future articles will address many of the conventional subgenres frequently occurring in science fiction and fantasy in order to present a framework for discussion as well as a springboard for further understanding and a deeper enjoyment of speculative fiction as a literature.
Sure we read speculative fiction for fun and, at times, escape. We read it because we like it and because it touches us in some way that other fictions do not. We also read it for the challenges it presents. Ignored by the non-speculative fiction readers is the all too common need for some background scientific knowledge in order to understand a good deal of science fiction and some need for a background in mythology for grappling with fantasy. Also ignored is the level of craftsmanship that is required in order to create believable alternate worlds of any kind – far future, other planetary or fantasy. I propose that reading speculative fiction requires more intellectual effort than reading many other kinds of fiction.
Robert Heinlein proposed that there are really only three stories that are told. These are: the man/person Who Learns Better (Stranger in a Strange Land); boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back – or the Relationship story, gender or species notwithstanding (Dragonflight); and the Little Tailor, wherein an unknown/common person must face and overcome several layers of challenge – physical and spiritual usually – in order to win the final prize (many fantasy stories and most fairy tales use this). In his essays on fiction, "Reflections: Toward a Theory of Story," published in three parts in Asimov's in 2004, Robert Silverberg perpetuates the idea that these three story frameworks really are the basis of all fiction.
It is a sound premise and generally holds true, though there is the assumption of a positive ending to the plot. As any experienced reader knows, the opposite of the presumed positive ending is also popular: the character doesn't learn better or does so too late (Childhood's End); the relationship is not resolved or the characters wind up apart (Left Hand of Darkness); the character goes through all the trials and the reward at the end is not worth all s/he has sacrificed or is an illusion (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Most readers of speculative fiction are aware of these broad frameworks without too much conscious thought. Reading for analysis is for school, right? Not really. Enjoyment without thoughtful reflection is escapism. While reading for escape is a valid pursuit it is not, and should not be, the only way to enjoy speculative fiction. Readers of speculative fiction are an intelligent lot. Many are scientists, researchers, doctors, political leaders, authors, and otherwise well-educated humans reading for a variety of purposes. These three main plotlines are the essence of the human story. The key to the continued success of these elementary plots is that they touch on what it means to be human, how humanity expects to interact with itself and others in the future, how we will meet the challenges presented and what rewards may be possible.
Readers of spec fic often use their fiction choices to increase their knowledge and understanding of the world. In discussing all stories as one of the three main ones, it may seem to be a limited conversation, restricting one's worldview. It is in the determination of which of the three, or even which combination of the three, where the discussion becomes interesting and at times heated. For instance, look at some of the classics of speculative fiction. Do all of them fit neatly into one of the three storylines? Which of them has crossover or a blend of the three in some way? Do any of them not fit ANY of the three categories?
These three main plotlines for stories have their origins in ancient mythology. Repeating through literary time, it is in the telling and trappings that the stories become unique and fresh and new. That is the ultimate challenge for an author, isn't it – to make the old new again? Authors writing speculative fiction have advantages that authors of more traditional fiction envy – or should envy. Speculative fiction allows the author literally limitless possibilities for characters, settings, and the other "trappings" of fiction. Isn't that a major reason to read speculative fiction in the first place?
In speculative fiction there are a number of conventional subgenres used by authors to examine these three human stories. Breaking speculative fiction into subgenres enhances ones' reading experience and understanding. By discussing the basic formulas of the various subgenres, a reader can better discern whether the author has truly succeeded in making the basic plot, and the subgenre s/he has chosen, an original work or simply a repetition of all that has come before.
In the coming months, many of these major subgenres will be outlined and discussed. Initially, time travel conventions will be discussed: Why create a time travel story? What is the motivation for the character(s)? How does one accomplish the travel? How does the author get around the physics of time travel – if s/he does? What impact does the time travel story have for the reader?
Future articles will address and will open the discussion for other conventions of spec fic by focusing on the basics of stories approaching the following: the end-of-the-world and what happens next; gothic fiction and early fantasy; hard science fiction and cyberpunk; social science fiction; utopias and dystopias; alternate history; space opera; and high and other fantasy. I do not presume to know everything there is to know about the entire literary history of each of these subgenres, or even all there is to know about all the possible subgenres. I am simply presenting a framework for discussion as well as a springboard for further understanding and a deeper enjoyment of speculative fiction as a literature. Join me for the conversation.