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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Do Your Legwork… the Proper Way

Lately I seem to be coming across more and more authors who thumb their noses up at the thought of doing research, which makes me scratch my puzzler. Not only is it a fundamental part of the process, regardless of the type of fiction you write, it is also a chance to learn and grow as a person as well as a writer. The simple fact is, if research truly is the bane of your existence, then you’re not doing it right.

Yes, you are most likely creating an entire world from scratch, in your own image and the laws of reality obey whatever rules strike your fancy, but even the most fantastical setting must have a sturdy foundation. And that foundation must be built with bricks of solid facts in order for your story to have any sort of credence.

I personally enjoy the research stage almost as much as the construction stage, but I understand how daunting a task fact-finding can be, so I’ve jotted down a few of the steps I tend to use when I’m in that researching frame of mind:

1. Pinpoint the right questions. The assumption is that you either have a strong interest in or possess a rudimentary knowledge of the story you’re attempting to pen. And that’s all you need in the beginning when you’re plucking the idea from the ether and committing it to the page in the form of an outline. But as you rearrange the story sequentially and create scenes to flesh the idea out into proper story form, you should be asking yourself how you’re going to make the story mechanics work. If your story is a period piece, you should be knowledgeable of that era, if your main characters hold down specific jobs, you should be familiar with the basics of their occupations, if the story takes place in a different part of the world… you get the point. Your research begins when you write your outline because that’s where you’ll find the questions that need answering.

2. Locate your resources. You’re probably thinking this part’s a cinch as long as you’ve got internet access, and I can’t really argue the point. As I’ve stated in a previous post, the internet is the wise sage of our virtual village (see: Applying Life Lessons To Your Writing) but, as is true with a great deal of online content, the reliability of the source material found therein can be erroneous, so verify, verify, verify as best you can in order to avoid unnecessary embarrassment at a later date. Myself, I tend to be a bit old-fashioned in my approach to research and armed with my trusty dusty library card I visit ye olde public bibliotheca in search of books pertaining to the various subjects in my story. I only rely on the internet as a back-up resource if I come up empty at the library.

3. Make a treasure map for your gold. What good is that golden nugget bit of research that you’ve discovered if you can’t lay your hands on it when you need it? If you own the book, sure you can bookmark or dog-ear pages, underline or highlight passages–but only if you own the book, please, marking up someone else’s tome is utter book sacrilege. If the book isn’t yours to mar, you can create your own index system by jotting down the book title, page and paragraph numbers, and a few keywords on the passage’s content. Then when you’re done info-gathering, you can transfer the text to your computer (arranged by subject headings) or to a notepad if you prefer to write longhand.

4. Create a vision board. Sounds hokey, I know, but pictures have that magical ability to transport your fertile imagination to all the unfamiliar aspects within your story and adding a visual component to your research and writing can help to serve as inspiration for time periods, locales, era clothing, vehicles, weaponry, etc.

5. Walk around in your story like you own the place. Nothing worse than a writer who lacks the confidence to strut their stuff within the world they’ve created. Even if that world is rife with utter nonsense, your job is to sell that nonsense as truth. There’s a saying that used to be popular when I wore a younger man’s clothes, but I haven’t come across it in a dog’s age, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Now, this doesn’t mean you should out-and-out lie to your audience, but if the moment arrives when research fails and you need to invent something in order to make your story work, you should endeavor to portray it with as much authenticity as possible.

All the rest of the time? You live up to the trust that your audience places in your hands by checking and double-checking your sources and making sure your facts are as accurate as they can be. Also, you need to keep in mind that despite your best efforts, you aren’t ever going to get the facts correct all the time, but that doesn’t give you a reason not to do your due diligence. And should you ever deliberately decide to ignore the facts, you should alert your audience either in the author’s notes or afterword.

One of a writer’s biggest attractions to the written art form can be best summed up as, ex nihilo omnia fiunt–from nothing, everything is created–but we owe a duty to our audience to make the lie of fiction as truthful as possible.

Sally forth and be researchful.

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©2014 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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