You know that person who once they start talking about a topic, they don’t shut up? That’s me when it comes to speculative fiction. I love it. New worlds, situations impossible in our current existence, imaginative exploitations of tech – it’s fantastic (no pun intended).
But it is essentially a lie.
That’s not to say it’s inherently dishonest, but as fiction authors we are telling a story that never really happened. Tyrion Lannister, the Halfman, is not a real person, Isengard doesn’t exist, and kids that run into train station columns don’t get transported to a magical platform – they get a concussion.
As writers of the genre, we tell of things that never happened. We tell lies, and that’s ok.
Now a bit about me.
As a history grad, a published author in the field of intelligence and ethics, and formally employed as a fraud investigator and military officer, my tolerance for such lies might seem counter-intuitive.
However one of the other things I love about speculative fiction is that good spec fic uses those lies to distil and examine a single truth. By framing it in a world of lies – creative, imaginative, and wonderful lies – works of fiction can focus themselves on a distinct and simple truth, and if done well, can show the debate leading to such a truth from both sides.
Take Tracy M. Joyce’s Altaica and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor for example. Both imagined worlds, imagined threats, and imagined cultures. How then, using characters that still are not real people, can such novels connect with its audience?
The only way it can do this is by representing something that resonates with readers. In this case, the experience of the outsider, of the refugee, of defining their uniqueness, and how they are treated even in the most dire of situations.
That, along with a few other thematic concepts, are the truths that Joyce and Townsend begin with. By framing it all in fictional worlds, the authors can mould theme places and situations to emphasise these truths. In the end, it is not the fictional components of the characters, or a mysteries of a newly created world that hook us as readers, though they certainly help. To get a reader hooked properly, there needs to be a connection that the reader relates to. That can only be done is through a concept from our own world, through a thematic truth.
Plenty of readers would have experienced what it’s like to be seen as different, and known something of the effort and journey to be accepted or to get to the point at which acceptance no longer matters. That journey towards finding your tribe, so to speak.
Had these stories been set in Sydney, and about a similar struggle brought on by the Global Financial Crisis, aside from being a very different story.
Don’t get me wrong, these stories have their place and in the end many readers will prefer such stories. After all, reader enjoyment trumps all. But for me, the ability to manipulate an entire universe to inform and focus on the thematic truth is an amazing and powerful way to shine a light on something that may otherwise get glossed over. For me, it makes that truth more powerful and makes the novel far more meaningful. When the protagonists’ worlds – relationships, culture, and magics – are all geared to make them an outsider, this is what I connect with.
I think part of this comes from my own worldview as well. We are in a highly politicised era at the moment. This means that no matter what side people are on, there is often a focus on not being wrong, rather than being right. That means pointing out the other person’s mistake rather than admitting our own, reconciling our position with the facts, and moving on.
We are also in a time in which the media, our public fact presentation and checking engine, are focussed on being first rather than being accurate. This is not an attack on the media either, as they are under immense pressures to produce articles and content with fewer resources and tighter time frames. There are some very good journalists out there, but a simple check of the spelling in news articles these days will show that pressure. The ‘need it now’ push means less fact-checking and editing. Mistakes are made, not just in spelling (which really doesn’t matter as much as the story), but also in the very ‘facts’ presented.
Add to this the information glut we live in, where there is so much information available to us, there is usually enough ‘evidence’ to support multiple, contradictory options.
To use the needle in a haystack metaphor, if digging to the truth a few decades ago used to be just like that – finding a needle in a haystack – then now it is searching a thousand haystacks for a thousand needles. Except it isn’t a matter of one needle per haystack. And there are located in a thousand different locations. And there are fake needles among them too. And the haystacks are on fire.
What fiction does, particularly speculative fiction, is basically cut out the crap. When the plot, characters, and setting are all fake, the only thing left to connect to the readers is to get some sort of truth in the themes. Even better, by knowing that most of it is a lie, the only question the reader really gets to ponder at the deeper philosophical level is that truth. Get rid of the haystacks, essentially, and instead of looking for the needle, have it presented to you.
It might be pushing the metaphor a little to discuss it any further as a needle, but the beauty of great fiction, be it speculative or otherwise, is that it will present the truth to you. Not as an absolute believe-or-you-burn kind of way, but as a debate, consistently showing the virtues and weaknesses of all sides, and leaving it up to the reader to decide which is the best interpretation.
Plenty of people will still enjoy non-fiction and other forms of fiction, and in the entertainment industry of which we are a part, this is paramount. But for me, I enjoy the exploration of concepts and distilling of truth that is critical to the spec fic world. It challenges us by throwing a truth directly in your face and creating a world and story specifically designed to challenge the reader. I have a passion for learning, and for distilling truth. So these ‘lies’ used to emphasise a truth? That is why I love spec fic. That is why it matters to me.