Today I would like to start a look into something I think Christians claim to value highly, but don’t always use well: speculative fiction. Done right, it can produce significant works that have a lasting impact. It educates without teaching and witnesses without preaching–in short, it is just the sort of thing to reach out to a post Christian world.
“Speculative fiction” is a notoriously broad term. It applies to the genres of fantasy, science fiction, science fantasy, apocalyptic literature, alternate history, dis/utopian fiction and just about anything else that crosses the speaker’s mind. What all of these things have in common is that they are “speculations” on how things might be in this world or another, if we take thus-and-so as our starting point. Obviously, since there are an infinite number of possible “what-if” combinations, we end up with a dizzying array of sub-genres that all more or less fall under the larger umbrella. In the next few posts, I intend to use the term in the very broadest sense: fiction based on “what if?”
If you think at all like I do when I write, then you have to be honest and say that there is usually more than one authorial motive floating around inside your head. First and foremost I want to write a good, interesting story. Nothing moves me more than to hear that my characters are connecting with people and that the stories they’re in wrap people up in their lives in my creative world.* At the same time, I also want there to be something bigger and deeper in my tales. I’m not looking to cram my ideology down anyone’s throat, but I want them to make a difference to people. I want someone to walk away from my stories having become a better person–Christian or not–as a result of having spent time with my characters. I find this to be the case with many, if not most, Christian authors.
Unfortunately, I’ve also found that many of us respond to this dual urging with shallow, knee-jerk metaphor. I suppose this makes sense: we take the story that has made the most difference in our own lives and we dress it up in “new” clothing and try to slip it into someone else’s hands, hoping it will do for them what it did for us. As I’ve discussed before in the start to another series, that results in uncreative, predictable repetition. It also also means that anyone who doesn’t already agree with you will likely toss your book/story in the trash without a further look at the first whiff of metaphor. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for that sort of writing, but it is becoming increasingly rare in the modern world.
One significant alternative is a proper understanding of speculative fiction. When you create a world, that world becomes your sandbox. You can take all sorts of very real, very meaningful points from what you see around you and combine them, with a good dose of imagination, into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It allows you to play with ideas and actions that, frankly, would be disastrous for people to toy with in real life. It let’s you put the story first, but at the same time, that story can have very real meaning to how we live our lives in the real world.
That of course means that speculative fiction, just by focusing on the story, can convey all sorts of truths–truths powerful enough to radically change people’s lives. In it we see the results of good and bad decisions, good and bad ideas, without having to face the truly disastrous consequences in real life.
To give a brief example, consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.** Orwell took the very dangerous ideologies he saw around him, the basic parts of an imaginative political future, and combined them into a terrifying story that struck with such impact that people still routinely use it and it alone as the justification for making real life personal and political decisions. Who knows what stupidity we’ve been saved from by heeding the implicit warnings contained in that final line, “he had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” It might be interesting enough to speculate about what our civilization might look like if Orwell had never lived.
Over the next few weeks I want to take a closer look at the opportunities good speculative fiction can offer us and what sets the good apart from the bad. Much of this is only just now developing in my own mind, so I’ll welcome comments and even consider guest posts on the topic, if you can’t cram them into a comment and I like what you have to say. 🙂 Feel free to contact me at tumnusTT.email@example.com (remove the “TT” before you send it–I misspelled it to avoid spambots), if you like.
*The day I see successful merchandising based off of something I wrote, I’ll know I’ve arrived!
**Of course, one should not neglect Animal Farm, either.