What is speculative fiction, and how do I write it? (Or, how to make sh*t up.)

The next of wave of what’s hot in the YA literary world looks like “speculative fiction.” Sound vague enough? For starters, think of it as a more advanced course in writing vampires and zombies. Or, of vampires and zombies as training wheels for your speculative imagination.

Speculative fiction is a term that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s to capture books that blurred the line between realist fiction, science fiction, horror, and other genres that typically came laden with readers’ expectations for what they’d find between the covers–be it aliens, ghouls, knights, or lifelike representations of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives. But remember, we’re talking about stories, here. Art. Like people, they’re hard to pigeonhole. In the whole history of storytelling, there is a vibrant history of borrowing, quoting genres, and referencing previous literary works–think of Dante’s Inferno, in which the poet wrote himself into his own story, with Virgil as his guide through layers of myth, history, and hellacious monsters. Speculative fiction has grown out of a long human history of making sh*t up, which you can see, for instance, in Ward Shelley’s astounding and educational cartoon creature that depicts the evolution of science fiction. (Click on it, but be warned: Plan on spending a good twenty minutes marveling at it.)

But since we’re trying to categorize our writing for agents, publishers, and readers, it helps to understand why a certain kind of “making sh*t up” produces speculative fiction, and why tossing a space ship battle into a novel about a lepidopterist is just gratuitous.

First, all speculative fiction requires world-building. World-building is a specific literary task. Orson Scott Card wrote an entire how-to book on world-building, and it’s a pretty good starter manual if you’re new to this kind of writing. Basically, you saw simple world-building in most vampire and zombie novels–the writer must create a context and explanation for her monsters. At the other end of the spectrum, you have a novel like The Hunger Games, where Suzanne Collins invented an entire world for her characters. If the world works, you suspend your disbelief. If it doesn’t, we start grilling the writer (e.g., “Waitasecond, how can a biological warhead explosion in Chicago infect everyone in America at the exact same moment?”), and voila, you’ve lost your reader.

Second, the speculative element must have meaning that shapes the story. This is the most important part, I believe, and it’s why I love the genre. It’s the “thought-experiment” that you are conducting in the pages of your novel. It’s why I include canonical and literary works such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Jose Saramago’s The Stone Raft, and Patrick Suskind’s Perfume in the speculative fiction category with writers who typically come to mind when we think of genre fiction, such as Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, Anne Rice, Ted Chiang, and China Mieville. If you look at the speculative fiction element in any of the “literary” works, you’ll find something meaningful, something thematic, encoded there:

The Handmaid’s Tale: Ofred’s enslavement is a critique of Christian fundamentalism.

Beloved: The ghost of the dead baby is a constant reminder of the impoverished, impossible circumstances that required her ex-slave mother to kill her.

One Hundred Years of Solitude: The isolation of the Buendia family and century of outsiders’ invasion and influence mirrors the colonial history of Latin America.

The Stone Raft: The rift that appears between Spain and Portugal mirrors the cultural divide between the two nations.

Perfume: The protagonist’s supernatural sense of smell and concomitant alienation motivate a series of murders whose goal is the manufacture of a perfume that will make people love him.

For an academic but useful perspective on how a novel’s speculative element is tied to its meaning, check out Wendy Faris’s book about magical realism, Ordinary Enchantments, and read Chapter 1. Or don’t. (I’m a lifelong bookworm who learns by reading. Maybe you aren’t.) In any case, you see the same principle at work in The Hunger Games, where the speculative world is a critique of a very familiar situation in American life: violence as entertainment.

No matter where on the literary spectrum you fall as a writer, if you set out to write speculative fiction, choose your novel’s speculative element before you make final decisions about your protagonist or plot line–because the character’s actions (and hence the plot) will be a response to the world in which she lives. This is really no different from Lajos Egri’s excellent advice to choose your theme before choosing your character or main conflicts.

Bottom line, in speculative fiction, the novel’s central thought-experiment is its theme.

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