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The Heart Of Speculative Fiction Is Not Weird

These stories, some believe and others may assume, are for the few, the proud, the niche, and not for everyone.

Stephen Burnett presenting CSAUnable to attend Realm Makers, the first ever Christian speculative fiction conference, I’ve been following with a great deal of interest online. Thanks to our webmaster and weekly contributor, Stephen Burnett, we could follow live Twitter feeds. He also posted an array of conference pictures that spoke volumes about the goings on in St. Louis.

Other conference attendees, such as Morgan Busse, have also begun to report their experiences and to share pictures. From someone on the outside looking in, I’d say the event was a huge success, with all the potential of becoming bigger and better moving forward. I am so happy about that and look forward to the day I’ll be a part of it.

But something has been niggling in the back of my brain–something I’m not comfortable with. I don’t know if it’s a perception I fear or an actual inaccurate belief I want to contradict, but at the heart of my discomfort is the idea that speculative fiction, and Christian speculative more so, is weird. These stories, some believe and others may assume, are for the few, the proud, the niche, and not for everyone.

First, I don’t find that perspective to be true to experience–otherwise speculative fiction, whether in print or on film or via television, would not be so successful in the general market. In addition, I don’t find it to be true philosophically. Let me explain what I’m thinking here.

Both fantasy and horror, or supernatural suspense, if you prefer, are built upon the struggle between good and evil. Science fiction doesn’t stray far from that premise either. I’ve heard mystery writers say the same thing, but not romance writers or historical or contemporary. In other words, speculative fiction centers upon a Biblical truth–a spiritual war exists between God and those rebelling against Him.

This battle is not something assigned to a small group of religious fanatics. The struggle at the heart of speculative fiction is common to humankind. This fact came out for all the world to see last week in a 60 Minutes spot by Lesley Stahl in which she reported the findings of a Yale study involving babies as young as three months old.

baby_meets_stuffed_animalThe study concluded that humans are born with an innate sense of right and wrong and of justice. At the same time we have a built-in propensity to hate. We’re wired, as one of the researchers said, for selfishness and bias.

Something good in people. And something evil.

Surprise, surprise! Lesley Stahl certainly found these results to be revolutionary. The whole “blank slate” concept is completely, scientifically proven to be false.

Of course the findings are absolutely consistent with what the Bible has said about human beings all along. We are created in God’s image, part of what He looked upon and found “very good.” But we are fallen. We have the implant of Adam’s rebellion against God wired into our being.

Good. And evil.

And this is the human condition. It’s why society creates great art and music, builds hospitals and schools, reaches out to help the needy and the suffering while at the same time establishing prisons and police forces, armies and governments, courts and judges.

All of humankind deals with the conflict at the heart of speculative fiction. Why would we ever think our stories are for a niche? Why would we label them as weird or separate ourselves from other readers and other writers?

We are among those who see the world and us humans in it, with clarity. We understand what’s really happening, what we’re all up against. As Christians, we not only see the facts, as the Yale researchers now do, we also understand the cause. In other words, we have the truth–not a truth or a theory or a religious idea.

Truth is universal. It is not for a niche. It is not weird. Consequently, stories that show truth ought not to be considered weird or for a specialty audience. Truth is for everyone. Hence speculative fiction is for everyone.

The sooner we unlock the closet in which we voluntarily reside, the sooner our stories will have the impact Truth should have on our culture.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

I don’t know if it’s a perception I fear or an actual inaccurate belief I want to contradict, but at the heart of my discomfort is the idea that speculative fiction, and Christian speculative more so, is weird.

Thank you, thank you, thank you sister for readdressing this.

On occasion, when I heard this sentiment hinted at the conference, I rebutted.

But I wonder how deeply this niche thinking is embedded in our thinking. It may not be enough for conference attendees to think more casually about the broad appeal of speculative stories. Instead we must actively mortify the niche mindset.

Bethany J.
Guest
Bethany J.

I only realized within the past couple of years that I was what the world would call a “geek”. I just thought everybody appreciated these speculative stories that I loved! My mom is SO not a “geek”, but she read us Narnia and The Hobbit and The Prydain Chronicles and many others growing up – we just thought that was a universal experience and everyone was familiar with and enjoyed these stories, albeit to varying degrees.

This “speculative fiction is weird” mindset seems almost like the literary world’s version of hipsterdom. “I read speculative fiction BEFORE it was cool.” Haha. People like to think that they are special and different in some way, so painting what they do as unique feels like giving themselves an edge. (And the funny thing about hipsters is…they’re not all that unique anymore because hipster style is everywhere!) There’s almost a kind of arrogance to that attitude, a pride of being “in the club”. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about the genre you love and sharing that excitement with other fans! But if we paint ourselves as a special category we have a tendency to alienate others who are interested in the genre.

True, not everyone appreciates “geekery” to the same degree. But I completely agree with you, Rebecca, that lots of people read Narnia, love Star Wars, or the newer Doctor Who, but distance themselves from the speculative genre as a whole because the people who live and breathe speculative fiction like to say it’s “weird”, and perhaps the more mild fans feel they don’t qualify. Not everyone’s a geek, but you don’t have to be a geek to appreciate spec-fic! 🙂

Kristen Stieffel
Guest

Yes, and if you think about it, everyone is weird in their own way. OK, I stole that from Seth Godin.

The point is, we think readers of Amish fiction are weird, and they think readers of literary fiction are weird, and …

The thing that sets SpecFic fans apart is that we embrace our weirdness instead of trying to pretend we’re just like normal people.

But if there is really no such thing as “normal,” then there’s no point in brandishing the “weird” banner. I think there is value, though, in celebrating a niche that embraces the fantastical.

Phyllis Wheeler
Guest

Somebody at the conference (Jeff Gerke?) pointed out that the biggest titles in Christian fiction have been speculative: Narnia series, Left Behind. This is also true in the culture at large, for example Star Wars. Nothing weird about Star Wars!

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Amen times ten, Prof. McGonagall.

When Jeff said that, I rejoiced.

This bestseller status is also more proof that we needn’t rant so much about “don’t be preachy.” After all, “Narnia” is overtly Christian in its themes (if not all the allegories that Christians wrongly perceive each story is), and to be sure, Left Behind goes completely overboard with the preachiness because that’s what the story is based on: evangelism and end-times.

Adam Graham
Member

I see your point, that there are universal truths that are the base of speculative fiction, but there does seem to be some disconnect when we look at pure sales numbers. Speculative Fiction does well at the Box Office and some can do well as books. However, the average speculative title doesn’t do quite as well as the average of many other genres. Romance, romantic suspense, etc. are bigger sellers in general than speculative. It’s not the only genre that suffers. Westerns are in big decline, though I suspect that’s because of the decline of the Male reader.

The difference between watching science fiction and reading science ficton is key. It does suggest that there is a portion of the population that will see a film like Iron Man, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, or The Hunger Games but have little actual interest in picking up and reading a science fiction book.

My suspicion may be that it has to do with world-building. You can gather what’s going on in Star Wars in five minutes, but there’s authors who can take forever to establish this world and you’re one hundred pages in before truly grasp what’s going on. It may also be that science fiction books get associated with fandom. Liking Star Wars is normal. Having memorized all the facts about the series, the related novels, ties ins, etc. and getting in long debates about continuities, and dressing up like the characters are not. I’m not saying its bad, but normal, it’s not.

I’d love to know for sure what speculative fiction writers do that makes their books less accessible to the average reader and how to avoid it.

notleia
Guest
notleia

It’s less about male vs female reading habits than that romance is much more flexible as a genre than westerns. Setting plays a huge part in westerns, with sparsely populated, lawless frontiers to give the characters room for independence and challenge and general non-civilization, and we have fewer and fewer frontiers. Romance can pretty much happen anywhere there are people. Space westerns might have legs enough to go somewhat further, but I don’t see any new ground (pun accepted) for westerns to go.

Kessie Carroll
Member

The big selling genres right now are paranormal romance (romance + anything is big). Dystopian is hitting its saturation point, at least from the publishers’ point of view.

A lot of Christians have stuck themselves writing epic fantasy. Nothing wrong with that. As Stephen King said, “They are trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Gray Havens because Tolkien is no longer around to do it for them.” But epic fantasy is a tough market to break out in. (Although right now, Game of Thrones has made it a hot market, if you hawk your book like mad.)

But if we had folks branching out into the hungry YA market, especially the paranormal romance area, that’d be a great. I’m always shocked to bump into the occasional moral. It’s refreshing and there needs to be more. (It’s sad that the strongest moral opinion I’ve run across has been the words of the demon Brimstone in Daughter of Smoke and Bone, in giving the heroine rules for how to live. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t sleep around–wait for the right one.)

The YA market isn’t opposed to weird. In fact, the weirder the better. Same goes for middle grade. If only Christians would tackle those genres! I’d love to see the Splashdown stable of authors tackle it, for instance.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Maybe it’s just my postmodernism kicking in, but it seems more effective to convince people to accept the weird rather than convince them that something actually isn’t weird. Weird is subjective, after all. Once they get used to it, their definition tends to shift on its own. Or at least that’s what’s happened to me, and by now I watch shows like Adventure Time and Xxxholic.

Henrietta Frankensee
Guest
Henrietta Frankensee

I have a sign in my studio: Normal people worry me. I hope it prepares my students for a wider mental landscape, the unpredictable, the unexpected, the unscripted.
This tension between normal and weird vividly describes the present human experience, caught between good and evil, capable of both at the same time as Rebecca mentioned. Humans desire to be unique and separate AND tribal and innate to relational dynamics.
To sell a story we are required to ‘stand out from the crowd to be noticed’, ‘have a brand,’ yet those who stand out too far freeze in the chill of upturned noses. I, for one, am grateful to those who stay true to the story they are given to write, stay true to the Story Teller God who intensely loves our dichotomy and loves those who dare to LIVE where good and evil meet, that unpredictable, unexpected, UNSCRIPTED land of POSSIBILITY!

Phyllis Wheeler
Guest

Another one: map, or no map. I like maps. I’m reading a fantasy story at the moment that could seriously use one, but there isn’t one. Did the author decide this was a turnoff to some people?

Galadriel
Guest

My brother always calls me weird, and I say “thank you.” But I think the necessary world-building is too much for a lot of people. My mom feels a need to understand everything that’s going on, which makes it really hard when the show itself has ambiguity (the identity of River Song until GMGTW, for example)