An Introduction to Speculative Fiction Theory

The term “speculative fiction” is relatively new. As such, it is important to begin this dissertation by defining speculative fiction, arguably the most important term that will be used throughout the following chapters. In term of genre, it is purposefully broad, using R.B. Gill’s definition of speculative fiction as “works presenting modes of being that contrast with their audiences’ understanding of ordinary reality” (Gill 71-73). This definition includes science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal literature of all kinds; of paramount importance to this mode of being is that it includes “explorations of human imagination and values” (Gill 71-73). The epistemological value of work of speculative fiction is in the distance from reality provided, removing some biases toward or against some people groups and decisions, while still being engaging in context, unlike philosophical thought experiments. The broad definition of speculative fiction used within this dissertation is to ensure that imaginative literary works appearing different from each other by superficial means are included as they explore topics important to the human experience using similar methods. A common trope in speculative fiction is the character or character group of “the other” or “the outsider” which lives in a different land to begin with, but moves to another land. As is often the case, this migration is the source of perceived problems, such as in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones with people across the northern border depicted only as barbaric raiders, ignoring their poverty and impending supernatural doom; or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods where the expectation of immigrants to assimilate is represented by war between gods from their former nations and “new” gods of secular capitalism, causing a struggle of national and personal identity; or Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga in which an interracial couple is forced to flee an intergalactic war as asylum seekers. The issues around migration explored in each of these texts depicts realistic aspects of the workings of culture and the plight of the outsider as they immigrate; as the culture within the novels are examined and challenged, so is the American cultural context they were written in.
There has been considerable academic work in terms of defining fantasy, science fiction, and other kinds of paranormal literature, including horror, as separate literary genres; this work is by no means diminished by cohesion in speculative fiction. According to Brian Attebery, whose analysis of fantasy is invaluable to the study of speculative fiction, there were historically only two literary genres: history (things which were true) and romance (things which were not), but “Once the realistic novel was invented, it claimed kinship to history and denied its ties to romance” (Strategies of Fantasy x). Notation of the similarities between what has been termed “fantasy” and “science fiction” recognizes a historical origin and enhances the understanding of the texts under speculative fiction through the common methods of world building due to their interrelation. Often, the question of whether a text is a work of science fiction or fantasy relies on two questions. The first of these is “Does the work appear to take place in the past or the future?” while the second, arguably more important to the definition, is “Is the central problem magical or technological?” These questions are by no means the only way to define science fiction and fantasy, but they do provide a quick heuristic for categorizing works. While science fiction novels almost always involve technology and fantasy novels almost always involve some sort of magic, the problems discussed and the methods used to discuss them are often the same. Part of the analysis in the following chapters seek to show that the similarities between science fiction and fantasy make them related genres. Gill, in an attempt to reconcile genre and speculative fiction, labels the terms “fantasy,” “science fiction,” and the others as “micro-subjects” with superficial differences. While much of Gill’s theory on speculative fiction is useful, some terminology is not. In this dissertation fantasy and science fiction will be still be termed as “genres” under speculative fiction, which will be termed a “super-genre.” In addition to this, more specific generic terms, such as science fiction’s “space opera,” will be called “sub-genres.” These definitions are to maintain common terminology and a scope of broadest to most specific in organizing genre, similar to how biologists organize species. The relation of these imaginative works necessitates the structure of speculative fiction as a super-genre to facilitate an understanding of commonality through the use of its broad generic structure.
Often, speculative fiction texts are dismissed, ignoring the insights they have to offer. Speculative fiction, like any other fiction which may be considered “literary” for the insights it holds, is created within the context of culture. According to Rosemary Jackson in her analysis of literary fantasy as a whole, “a literary fantasy is produced within and determined by, its social context. Though it might struggle against the limits of this context, often being articulated upon that very struggle, it cannot be understood in isolation from it” (Jackson 3). The struggles within the literary works of speculative fiction, no matter how fantastical, are predicated on the struggles within the real world context they are written in. Jackson argues that works of speculative fiction not only exist within a social context, but that they seek to “subvert” culture; recognition of the insights of literary speculative fiction contradicts the dismissals of the genre. Much of genre fiction is considered “popular fiction,” a term which appears to be used by scholars as a slur against such works. However, David Glover and Scott McCracken define popular fiction as “those books that everyone reads, usually imagined as a league table of bestsellers whose aggregate figures dramatically illustrate an impressive ability to reach across wide social and cultural divisions with remarkable commercial success” (Glover and McCracken 1). One of the authors in their anthology of critical works is Roger Luckhurst; Luckhurst begins his essay with the assertion that popular literature is indicted from all sides, including such authors and theorists as Evelyn Waugh, Richard Hoggart, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Their arguments conclude that the literature in popular culture “debases appropriate public representations and discourse” and is “a destruction of the critical capacities of serious art” (Luckhurst 68). Luckhurst argues that not only is this not true, but that “popular fiction can be thought of as a significant arena for cultural commentary” (Luckhurst 74). Each of the following texts to be discussed are best-selling, award-winning works; two of the three have been turned into television shows due to their popularity. It is popularity, wide-reaching fame, which causes the narratives of subversion within each text to reach a large audience. As readers engage with each text, they examine the created culture and, therefore, question their own.
But, how can a work resist the culture it is produced in as Jackson attests? Gloria Anzaldua, a Chicana author who analyzes being a part of both American and Mexican cultures in her work Borderlands/La Frontera, says that “Culture forms our beliefs. We perceive the version of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that exist as unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through culture. Culture is made by those in power” (Anzaldua 1018). These dominant paradigms are expressed in stories through “metanarratives,” overarching stories answering questions a culture uses to define itself. Examples of these metanarratives include the Marxist metanarrative of “who owns?” and the liberal metanarrative of “who has rights?” (MacNeil 40). According to Anzaldua’s statement, people in power, wanting to stay in power and amass more of what makes them powerful, answer these questions in ways which are beneficial to their goals. Those in power, in theory, can finance popular culture, and the fictions within it, to spread messages which perpetuate their power.
If speculative fiction is “fluff,” then it can do little work than be used by those in power to placate those without. However, this does not appear to be the case; many works of speculative fiction create worlds with questionable authority to work as subversive narratives of power. Ursula K. Le Guin, speculative fiction author, recognizes a distrust which stems from the subversive messages of speculative fiction, “In wondering why Americans are afraid of dragons, I began to realize that a great many Americans are not only antifantasy, but altogether antifiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect or as contemptible” (Le Guin 32). It is possible that because these works of imagination contain counter-narratives that they are treated with suspicion.
The differences between the created world within a work of speculative fiction create a dialogue with the real world, most notable in the values of the created culture,
“The alternative reality created by speculative fiction is the outward manifestation of implicit values. This foundational structure could be called its world view, a term hard to pin down but helpful nevertheless. A world view is a value-narrative or underlying account of actions that explains and validates them; it is a paradigm of values according to which events are judged” (Gill 78).
The power of the speculative is this dialogue between the “world view”of text and the metanarratives of our reality. This dialogue is what elevates certain speculative fictions from being “fluff” to “literary” as in any other genre fiction. The reader of literary speculative fictions sees where the world view is in agreement with the metanarratives of culture and where it is in conflict. This dialogue is asserted using four methods common to speculative fiction, which will be used to analyze the texts in the following chapters.
The first of these methods, often the first available to the reader of fantasy through a map, is a different setting. Each created world has a sense of time and place different from the reality of the reader. A map allows the reader to know, before reading any of the text itself, that the world they are about to enter is separate from the reality they are used to. The change in setting, whether there is a map or not, is the first step for the reader in transportation, defined here as taking the reader into a believable world they can emotionally invest in; these settings can act as mediations for the people who live there. Additionally, there is a different sense of history. While there is not always a time line of events dictating the new history, the best works of literary speculative fiction have a sense of a past, both recent and historical. In the appendix of Game of Thrones, each of the great houses is outlined with a brief house history and the members of that household. This attempts to cross the barrier into realism as another source of evidence that the world the reader has been transported into could be real, on its own terms; “the more history-like a novel seemed, the more highly it was regarded” (Strategies of Fantasy x). The histories within fantasy in particular often use the myths of the culture they are written in to fill their own histories, creating the sense that the created world is related to the real world. “Nearly all modern fantasy has made such raids on the recorded inventory of traditional narratives” (Strategies of Fantasy 8). This has traditionally caused speculative fiction to draw primarily from Scandinavia and Western Europe, a fact which is challenged in American Gods, which has deities of other origins. These changes in setting can, according to the work of Johan de Smedt and Helen de Cruz in “The Epistemic Value of Speculative Fiction,” transport the reader into the new world and “allows for a richer exploration of philosophical positions than is possible through ordinary philosophical thought experiments” (de Smedt and de Cruz 59). Where the usual thought experiments of analytic philosophy lack context and emotional investment, speculative fiction creates relatable characters living in a world where different possibilities and ideals exist. This transportation allows the reader to experience these changes with a distance from reality, providing a distance from biases for or against real people groups and the ability to see outcomes which they may not have another means of experiencing.
The second method in speculative fiction is the representation of culture within the text. This culture, existing in a different setting, has a different world view from reality’s metanarrative. As Jackson suggests, “Presenting that which cannot be, but is, fantasy exposes a culture’s definitions of that which can be: it traces the limits of its epistemological and ontological frame” (23). Exploring an invented world view points out the benefits and negatives of the created culture and, therefore, explores the real world culture through assessing similarities and differences. If a speculative world hates immigrants so much that it builds a wall (or the Wall) to keep them out, or seeks to eliminate differences to the point of creating new, modern deities which eliminate the ancient, inherited ones, or hates another race to the point of genocide, the reader will see the problems inherent in the created culture and examine the problems of their own.
The created culture leads to the third method: “evil” as defined by culture. Jackson recognizes relativity in culture’s definition of evil when she says, “The concept of evil, which is usually attached to the other, is relative, transforming with shifts in cultural fears and values. Any social structure tends to exclude as ‘evil’ anything radically different from itself or which threatens it” (Jackson 52, my emphasis). Perceived difference being labeled as evil is present in each of the following speculative works.
Necessarily in each of the chosen texts is the fourth method: the challenge. The character, either a protagonist or someone closely connected, represents a counterargument to the defined evil. The freefolk of A Game of Thrones are called “wildlings” and are depicted as violent, greedy raiders who are a threat to the culture of the Seven Kingdoms; rhetoric challenged by Osha, the free folk woman who integrates with society after being captured fleeing the dangers beyond the Wall. The old gods of American Gods are being eliminated or rebranded by the new gods due to a scarcity of worship, symbolic of the expectation for immigrants to assimilate and lose their old identity for an “American” identity; problematic as the character of Shadow struggles to understand what his, or America’s, identity is. An intergalactic war is fought in Saga by the technological “wings” and the magical “horns” out of deep racial hatred; a racism undermined by the love of an interracial couple and their child. This last method is the most important for assessment due to its transformative power for the reader. “Fantasy in this sense links desire and imagination, utopia and history, but with a more pronounced edge intended to redeem, or perhaps even create, a new moral and social order” (Saldívar 587). Through the viewpoint of the “other” who has been declared evil, the reader examines the argument from the position of the outsider.
The “others” in the following texts are all in a process of migration, offering a way of engaging with the ongoing discussion of migration in the US. Publishing his extensive research on the US-Mexico border in 2013, Seth M. Holmes explains, “danger and death along the border are not, as commonly portrayed in popular and public health media, results of individual decisions” but often the result of systemic issues (Holmes 154). These three novels reflect the existence of systemic problems toward migrants which considers them as “other” to the culture within the texts, world views mirroring metanarratives of US culture which label migrants and refugees as outsiders deserving of terrible fates. This dissertation seeks to examine US speculative fiction as a discourse on migration, particularly why migration may be viewed as negative. The following chapters analyze popular genre works of speculative fiction from different sub-genres published within the last thirty years for elements of culture which define the migrating “other” as evil and the way in which the work subverts that message.

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