Artistic or not. In the mold of Gene Wolfe or C. S. Lewis. Time travel or portal fantasy. Christian or general market. Traditionally published or self-published. YA or adult. Space opera or supernatural suspense.
On the surface speculative fiction seems fractured into a thousand pieces, which undoubtedly explains the numerous small enclaves of speculative writers and fans that exist in cyberspace. Some readers enjoy dwarfs and orcs and dragons, others hang on the stumbling gait of the undead or the baring of werewolf fangs. Still others clamor for stories set in the imagined wonders of the scientific future or in the future collapse of that society.
How is it, then, that all these divergent stories–from Princess Academy: Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale, Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, the Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson, the Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson, Beckon by Tom Pawlik–end up lumped together in the catch-all category, speculative fiction?
Clearly the stories all have a “what if” component, but as John Otte recently pointed out in his post “A Different Sort of Speculative Fiction,” Biblical fiction is dependent upon the same element. And so is historical fiction, and, it could be argued, all fiction.
Then what unifies speculative fiction. Fantasy has the feel of the ancient, urban fantasy, the edge of the contemporary, and science fiction the projection into the future. Christian speculative fiction suggests a Christian worldview or shows a symbolic representation of some Christian truth or the overt Christian gospel.
Fantasy employs quests and medieval tapestry, other worlds and other creatures, and of course magic!
Science fiction employs space journeys and futuristic tapestry, other worlds and other creatures, and of course science!
Supernatural suspense or horror employs the journey of life and contemporary tapestry, this world and other creatures, and of course the supernatural!
Am I wrong, or are the commonalities showing?
First is the word “other.” Speculative fiction employs lots of “other” whether that refers to places or people or both. In short, speculative fiction recognizes the existence of something beyond what we can see and know by our powers of observation.
Even science fiction. While extrapolating from present observation, sci fi must still turn the known into imaginative projections which inevitably lead to the unknown other–replicated persons, extraterrestrial creatures, sentient artificial intelligences, or perhaps some other “other” which no one has thought of yet.
Similarly, each contains a source of power extending beyond what we know and experience as “normal” today. Fantasy makes no pretense–the power is magic and the source often unknown or unexplained. Science fiction makes no pretense either–the power is science and the natural extension of the way technology is unfolding, including the ethical and moral questions which may arise along the way. And yes, supernatural suspense or horror makes no pretense either–the power is from the supernatural beings that people the world, unseen for the most part, by the majority of humans, but wielding monumental influence.
The real unifying force, then, seems to be the understanding that what we see and know in the physical world isn’t all there is. Our rational faculties haven’t uncovered (or haven’t yet uncovered) all there is, and some of what we can’t determine rationally is more powerful, more influential, often more dangerous, than we suspect.
As I see it, this element is the very thing that makes speculative fiction more true than its pedestrian cousins–even that written outside a Christian worldview. In many ways, speculative fiction is the proof that Romans 1 is true when it says
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Rom 1:18-21)
Speculative writers are simply acknowledging God or imagining the world in such a way as to explain the evidences of God they cannot ignore. Truthfully in our world there are supernatural beings with power we don’t have, and the direction we take today will influence our future destiny.
In other words, speculative fiction is the most truthful fiction of all–even that which seems staunchly opposed to God and His good news.