Q1: Why Speculative Fiction? Throughout this quarter, through various pieces of literature, we have discussed the value of stories this quarter even if they are fictional. What are ways in which speculative fiction holds value for us as readers beyond what realist fiction offers us? Why do we read and write the fantastic, the impossible? What does this impulse say about us as a species? Do you personally prefer realist or speculative fiction? Or perhaps both equally? Why? Be sure to incorporate at least one unique example from our texts in this unit to support your claim in your answer.
Q2: Lenses Lecturer Polly Buckingham gave us three connected lenses with which to study speculative fiction: psychological (us as individuals), socio-political (us in communities), and spiritual (us and the universe—or dealing with the “great mysteries of life and death”) (“The Aims of Speculative Fiction,” Course Docs). Choose any piece of the pieces from this unit’s reading (other than “The Enormous Radio”) and analyze it through at least one of these three connected lenses. Identify how the element of the lens (psychological, socio-political, and/or spiritual) is present in the piece and how it connects to the other elements/lenses to move us as readers. Be sure to incorporate at least one unique example from our texts in this unit to support your claim in your answer.
Q3: Inexplicability Choose a short story from this unit, anything other than “The Enormous Radio.” With that story, discuss what is inexplicable in the story, and analyze how this inexplicability affects the story itself. Does it hinder the story’s action, plot, character development, or theme? Or does the inexplicability help one or all of these? Be sure to explain how is does one or the other. Remember to use unique evidence from the text to support your claims.
Speculative Fiction: a partial list
Magical realism Supernatural literature Trans reality
Feminist fabulation Fabulism New Wave fabulism
Surrealism Fantastic literature Folk tales
Fables Fairy tales Futurism
Ghost stories Vampire stories Werewolf stories
Monster stories Alternate History Fantasy
Cyberpunk Dystopian Utopian First Contact Horror/Dark Fantasy Science Fiction Slipstream Steampunk Modern myth
Coming of Age (as a species) Apocalypse
Mystical Realism Supernatural literature
The Aims of Speculative Fiction
Speculative fiction refers to any piece of fiction that departs in any way from the real or that incorporates fantastical elements. Speculative fiction is a catch all term that typically includes both literary and genre (or popular) fiction. Here we will concern ourselves with literary speculative fiction. This includes but is not limited to magical realism, fabulism, folk and fairy tales, surrealism, fantastic literature, and modern myths. Looking at definitions of some of these subcategories can help us define the heart of speculative literary fiction and its role in literature. In the preface to Black Water: the Anthology of Fantastic Literature, Alberto Manguel writes, “fantastic literature deals with what can be best defined as the impossible seeping into the possible, what Wallace Stevens calls ‘black water breaking into reality’. Fantastic literature never really explains anything. Like the ghost train at the fair, it takes us through the darkness of a real world” (xviii). In the introduction to Magical Realist Fiction: an Anthology, David Young writes, “When we have finished a good magical realist story we cannot say which is the real and which the magical, where fact leaves off and fancy begins…In a magical realist story there must be an irreducible element, something that cannot be explained by logic, familiar knowledge, or received belief…Perhaps, it is not only that magical realism makes you hesitate between possibilities; it makes you value that hesitation. Not only does it withhold answers, but it teaches you to enjoy the questions as well.”
Discussions of all of the above listed forms of speculative literary fiction have one thing in common: a certain inexplicability at the heart of the fantastic elements and therefore at the heart of the stories themselves. I would like to suggest that this inexplicability can be examined through three distinct lenses and that the inexplicability comes from the fact that all, not just one of these elements, are at work at the same time.
• The psychological: in many stories, it’s easy enough to explain dream visions and bizarre events as manifestations of the psyche. For example, the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who imagines a woman slouching behind the wallpaper, is clearly hallucinating. Though what the woman imagines is fantastical, it is clearly imagined. It is not inexplicable. It is a realistic rendering of the psychological state of hallucination. The story is fully realist in this respect and not speculative. In speculative fiction, however, while we can view the story through a psychological lens, the fantastical elements are clearly not hallucinations and cannot be explained away as symptoms of madness. Take for example Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Unless the town has sipped some magic tea, there is no realistic explanation for what they see. Still, much can be gained by examining the ways in which the fantastical elements reflect the psyche of the characters or the psyche of a generation.
• The socio/political: at the heart of speculative literature is a revolt against the real. This very notion is a political one. Thus, in magical realism we hear reverberations of the magic and myth of indigenous belief systems as a push against the colonizing forces that sought to modernize them. Speculative fiction is perhaps most common among marginalized and oppressed populations, in countries that are heavily colonized, in women’s literature, and in queer literature. It often reflects identity politics, a revolt against the ways the mainstream culture forces its values on those who don’t fit.
• The spiritual: At the heart of any spiritual system lies something inexplicable, something mysterious, something that cannot be explained. Matters of love, death, and birth are ultimately matters of the spirit. These three things are intimately linked and should be defined broadly—for example, love not just for a single person but all encompassing love, a love without boundary. Our connectedness with a single person should open us up to our connectedness with everything, though that connection can be found through the love of nature of through any religious system. Love is the essence of our connectedness. It is no accident that love can lead to sex which can lead to birth, the next of the three spiritual categories. (Thus, matters of sex, as in “Innocent Erendira,” are spiritual matters.) The best way to explain the ways in which birth is spiritual is to point to its synonym, creation. Creation has much in common with, could even be considered synonymous with imagination. And, again, while some aspects of imagination can be explained by psychology and science, many will argue that at the heart of imagination is mystery. Art, therefore, is often seen as a spiritual endeavor. The role of the artist in many cultures is that of a visionary because the art, the product of the imagination, sometimes foretells events that have not yet unfolded. We might speculate that imagination can create reality or that the artist is actually prescient, or at least highly intuitive, but ultimately, we have no real answers regarding the power and workings of the imagination. The third category in the spiritual realm is death, which is ultimately 100% mysterious. We can explain the process by which the body breaks down, but what happens after death can only be foretold in the realm of myth, belief, and folklore.
We move through these three categories in our own lives again and again. We examine ourselves (psychological) and then ourselves in relationship to our communities (socio/political) and finally ourselves in relationship to the great mysteries of life and death (spiritual). The role of the speculative (the things unanswered that we can only guess at) in literature, too, aims at such lofty goals. At its heart is something inexplicable, something unreal meeting the real, integrating the imagination with reality, and therefore revealing, as any great art does, the human condition.
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