I was in a bar with some work friends. The lights were dim. The music was loud. Our mugs were full of beer. We talked books. Aren’t those the best of times? Oh, were they ever.
A coworker of mine leaned over and said in his mild voice, “I just don’t get science fiction, Nicole. I don’t get it. I want poetry. Where’s the beauty?”
“Sci-fi is about ideas,” I responded. “We’re in it to see how far we can push our minds.”
The thing about ideas is that they’re worth a dime a dozen. Unfortunate, I know. But how many ideas have you had in your life that never came to fruition? More than the hairs on your head and the sparrows in the sky, I’d bet.
When it comes to good literature, it matters that you can create notions unique enough to capture interest. It matters that you can make it believable and realistic. But what matters more is that your idea sweeps wide and deep enough to bury a whole world and still retain its structure. It needs to be enough to change the life of a real person (the character). It’s their experience and wonder combined with your ability to keep your concept tightly knit that will make it linger with a reader for days.
Regular fiction is a made up story set in a time we already know about in a place we’ve already heard of. It is the people and the conflicts that are new. Speculative fiction is a whole different breed. It’s occasionally set in eras or places we know but the non-negotiable is the presence of elements that are pulled straight from the finicky ether of the imagination. Those elements are what define a piece as speculative rather than conventional. Their beauty lies in the way they consider possibilities that currently cannot habit the same realm as you and I.
That type of creativity has so much untapped potential it ought to make you squirm.
There is a difference between the way science fiction thinks and the way fantasy thinks. The oldest speculative titles didn’t aim to be one of these or the other, their purpose was to invent and contemplate. But there was a gradual split that developed into the two separate genres.
Fantasy came into play first with works like Gilgamesh and Beowulf all the way up through Utopia. It hasn’t really changed that much over the centuries. The components are very different, sure, but the foundation is the same. Fantasy never strived to be scientifically correct, but mythologcially so. These stories are derived from the metaphysical—from embellished lands, supernatural beings, curses and spells and unexplained phenomena.
Science fiction is almost the opposite of that, but still plucking the strings of the same web. Science fiction is driven by the same need to put something in the world that isn’t already there, but with self-imposed limitations. It is an endeavor to see how far mechanical or chemical inventions can be stretched until they no longer make sense. It is a quest for logic.
The difference between the two genres isn’t in how reasonable the innovations are, it’s about which boundary you want to explore. Both of these genres build themselves off fresh, untested ideas and both of them also have a huge influence on our culture.
Details that become popular adopt the label “trope.” A trope is a literary device that reoccurs in multiple works. Anything you’ve seen happen more than once in a work of fiction can be called a trope. It can be rhetorical language, a character type, a dues ex machina, or a plot technique.
Let’s look at time travel for example. Back in the days of HG Wells and Robert Heinlein, time travel was a novelty. It was used simply for the sake of traveling through time. As literature has progressed, the buzz of time travel by itself has worn off. These days, a time travel book consists of time travel, yes, but it’s used as an undercurrent that moves greater themes. We don’t close the book content just because there were electric sparks that sent someone thrashing through decades like they were trying on new fashions at the mall. We gather heat from the story because of the way time travel affects the greater plot.
What about a book where the use of time travel brings us so far into the future we find sentient weather patterns? The moment another author says, “Wow, a villainous tornado? Now that’s a story,” it becomes a reappearing premise.
Did we just… create a new trope?
A more fantasy-prone example is the wizard. We’ve written wizards into the ground, don’t you think? But when a writer comes along and uses a wizard in a new way, say a wizard who is already dead and uses his staff as a bridge to pull things between worlds, well, we don’t have a wizard any more do we? We have something new.
Concepts birth more concepts. Tropes spin off more tropes. That’s what sci-fi and fantasy have in common and that’s the greater ambition of speculative fiction. This genre, this glorious, visionary genre, exists to see how far ideas can be stretched until they form entirely new thoughts.
The thing about ideas is, they evolve relentlessly. That makes speculative fiction the one vehicle in which we may watch mankind expand and contract a hundred times before we actually have to live it ourselves. The capacity of this kind of foresight is incomparable. It is our power as humans.
Speculative fiction exists to amplify our perspectives. And in the gap between what is and what could be, our civilization follows.