The Gedankenexperiment of Speculative Fiction

“Funny, they made this new genre called Speculative Fiction, I thought all fiction had always been speculative.” ― Teri Louise Kelly

Once upon a time, science fiction fell into disrepute. The genre once considered the literature of ideas that explored the consequences of scientific innovations and discussed the philosophical ideas of identity, morality, and social structure became little more than a dumping ground for poorly written stories bereft of creativity. When readers began griping about content and authors sought a means to escape the mainstream critics’ prejudices associated with the genre, an older, forgotten term was plucked from obscurity, dusted off, and put into play:

Speculative fiction.

Largely thought to have been coined by Robert A. Heinlein in a 1947 issue of The Saturday Evening Post as a synonym for science fiction, the term can actually be cited as far back as 1889. But in the 1960s, it helped classify the New Wave movement stories that were characterized by a focus on soft science and a high degree of experimentation. Sadly, the term fell into disuse around the mid-1970s.

When it reemerged in the 2000s, it became a convenient collective term for a set of genres including, but not limited to science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, superhero fiction, supernatural fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history.

And with that bit of history in our rear-view mirror, let’s get on with the crunchy bits, shall we? Understanding that what works for me may not work for some, submitted for your approval, here is my short and uncomplicated list of suggestions to help you wrap your writerly noggin around the rules for creating a solid spec-fic piece:

1. Your story foundation is comprised of two ingredients. First up: Plot aka Worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is a term popularized at science fiction writers’ workshops in the 1970s, and it does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s the process of constructing an imaginary world and/or entire fictional universe from the planet up, or the universe down, or a combination of both. Consider it the ultimate backstory for your piece as you develop history, create geographical maps, and define ecology.

Building from the planet up is the devil in the details approach, where most of your attention will be focused on local geography, culture, social structure, government, politics, commerce, and history.

When you’re building from the universe down, you paint your creation with broad strokes such as the overview of a world, its inhabitants (civilizations, and nations), technology level (key for determining cities, and towns), major geographic features (such as continents), climate, and history, adding the appropriate level of detail as you go along.

2. The second plot foundation ingredient: Characterization.

The protagonist, in a spec-fic setting, generally tends to either be a phenomenal person in banal circumstances or a normal person in bizarre circumstances, and the reason should be obvious as their very presence causes a disruption in their respective environments.

Should you decide to go the phenomenal person route, realize that perfect characters are boring. You should always feel the need to infuse your characters with the juices that makes them tasty to your audience. Yes, we’re talking about giving them flaws–or weaknesses–that come in either one of two shades:

  • A Psychological Weakness: A character trait (pride, cowardice, vengeance, distrust, etc.) within the protagonist which is destroying their life.
  • A Moral Weakness: A character flaw that harms the protagonist and those around him/her.

Characters can have more than one flaw and may even possess psychological and moral weaknesses at the same time, but you should try not to overdo it. Although your audience loves seeing broken characters struggling with their flaws, they may walk away if you push the envelope too far.

3. Be mindful of your speculative element.

Whenever you create a world from scratch, even if you’re basing it on the one in which you live, it will feature an element of unreality, or something that wouldn’t be possible in the real world as we know it. Whatever this element is, make sure it’s the context for your story, that it provides a foundation for the plot.

This speculative element is your gedankenexperiment, your hypothesis, theory, or principle that must be thought through to explore its consequence. When you’ve done that, you’ll have created the theme of your piece.

This should be done before you finalize your protagonist and plotline.

4. Keep an eye on the believability gauge.

In truth, this shouldn’t even be on the list because you should know better. How many times have you read a story when something absolutely ridiculous happened that yanked you right out of the moment? Yes, you entered into the story with the knowledge that it was a work of fiction, but every story has a set of rules that should be established upfront and when those rules are broken, your suspension of disbelief shatters along with it.

This especially applies to the laws of physics. Even if your piece contains magic or the technological equivalents of it, you should attempt to explain it as scientifically as you can manage with modified real-world physics. The closer it is to reality, the more believable it becomes.

5. Experiment and test the boundaries and limitations of genres.

I despise the term think outside the box, really I do, so what you should try to do instead is believe there is no box. No box. No limitations. No boundaries. Cherry-pick elements and tropes from other genres. Tell the story from an unusual point of view. Paint yourself into corners and use that brainbox of yours to finagle a way out.

The key here is to get out of the mindset of giving people what you think they want. Not only is that a dangerous game to play, but in all honesty, people who claim to want something new don’t actually know what they’re looking for because they can only judge new by what they’ve had before. Focus instead on giving your audience something unique to chew on, but not hard to swallow.

Number Six is unofficial, but important nonetheless: Have fun.

It’s extremely important that you enjoy the process of writing, as it’s a time-consuming endeavor and let’s face it, that time could be better spent doing something you truly love. And never mind if your writing isn’t great yet, all that matters is that you’re having fun. So just keep pushing that pen and writing your heart out until you put your story on paper.

Sally forth and be gedankenexperimentally writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Related articles:

The Three Characteristics of Successful Fiction

The Short and Short of Flash Fiction

I Question Your Character (and so should you)

Your Writing Says More About Your Character Than You Realize

Suggested speculative fiction reading list:

Strange Wine by Harlan Ellison

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Slightly behind and to the left : four stories & three drabbles by Claire Light
The Stone Raft by José Saramago
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
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2 responses to “The Gedankenexperiment of Speculative Fiction

  1. Pingback: The Long Haul to Fifty Short Stories | Mired In Mundanity

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