A discussion on speculative fiction, cosy-catastrophe and sci-fi

By Cat Fitzpatrick

The driving force behind Science Fiction is the exploration of possible futures. Are we becoming ensnared by too much repetition of well-worn themes or is there still scope for speculative thinking? Cat Fitzpatrick reports on a discussion between authors Simon Ings, Christopher Priest, Nina Allan and Joanna Kavenna on whether there is still a place for new thinking.

J. G. Ballard"For me, science fiction is above all a prospective form of narrative fiction; it is concerned with seeing the present in terms of the immediate future rather than the past,’ said JG Ballard back in 1969 when speaking on ‘the New Science Fiction’ to the Scottish poet George MacBeth. "I think science fiction is becoming something much more speculative, much less convinced about the magic of science and the moral authority of science."

The debate around what science fiction is, what the point of it is, and how it is evolving is still going strong, with Christopher Priest, Simon Ings, Nina Allan and Joanna Kavenna recently coming together in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Central London to discuss speculative fiction.

Nina Allan, Joanna Kavenna, Christopher Priest and Simon Ings

Ings’ recently released novel Wolves was the catalyst for the discussion – a dystopic thriller and murder mystery that he says "is a book about the end of the world. It’s about bizarre stuff, it’s about a catastrophe, it’s about the collapse of Western civilisation, or indeed all civilisation."

The cover of Simon Ings' WolvesIngs grew up near to where The Day of the Triffids author John Wyndham lived, and, it turns out, used Wyndham’s house as the sight of the possible murder in Wolves. British catastrophe fiction and the ‘cosy catastrophe’, a term coined by Brian Aldiss when referring to post-apocalyptic fiction such as Wyndham’s where an event wipes out a large percentage of the human race but the protagonists survive and thrive in the new world, was a strong influence in the book’s conception he says. "One thing I was always impressed by with British catastrophe fiction is that from the get-go it’s always understood that we are the disaster," Ings points out. "I wanted not so much to take the idea of catastrophe and do something incredibly new, but sort of celebrate the British catastrophe tradition, which is to say that things do not get better, they simply change, and the idea that we define what a catastrophe is – the world doesn’t."

In Ings’ novel there are two styles of ‘catastrophe’, depending upon your personal view of what a catastrophe constitutes, alongside varied other personal catastrophes that the characters experience – a Ballard-style flooded world being the first, which is the plot of a book within the book, and this is instrumental in generating the second ‘catastrophe’, as the lead character Conrad eventually sees it as being, of augmented reality.

"What I was interested in with the augmented reality is this idea of as we develop technologies they – to use Terry Pratchett’s expression – turn roundworld into Discworld, which makes so much more sense," says Ings. "You press a switch and the light comes on by magic. That’s how we experience the world. We don’t experience the world knowing how everything works."

The issue with augmented reality though, he says, is that "you can no longer trust visual reality when you’re steeped in this; you’re having to wonder what’s mediated and what’s real. That does strike me as being one of the most exciting and scary areas that we can talk about."

Why write speculative fiction?

So what is the purpose of exploring these future fears in a piece of speculative fiction? What do authors use speculative fiction, for?

Nina AllanNina Allan, a writer of short stories whose first novel The Race is due to be released later this year, says that she uses science fiction "as a way of illustrating a hyper-realistic view of the world."

"This idea that science fiction is an intensification of the now, that’s how I’ve always seen it and it fascinates me to do that as a lot of mainstream fiction simply replicated the surfaces that people are already familiar with, or think they are," she explains. "Speculative fiction gives you the permission to go deeper, both in psychological terms and imagining not just a possible future, but a possible present. [Psychological] horror fiction can do the same thing. I often use SF – which I would say is more speculative fiction rather than science fiction – as a mirroring of the truth as I perceive it."

"All fiction is kind of metaphor and when people write science fiction it’s a fantastic metaphor," adds Christopher Priest, known for, amongst others, his award-winning novel The Prestige. "We write about the whole world, but we write it in a way that appeals to the unconscious as well as the conscious mind and a lot of people don’t understand that. This is why I think ‘fantastic’ fiction will always be a bit of an outsider.

"Not everyone likes it, not everyone wants to like it," he says, but good speculative fiction (he references JG Ballard) appeals both at the conscious level of there being a good story, but also at the unconscious level, which leaves you thinking about a story that may at first seem trivial, but which sticks with you for years.

Joanna KavennaJoanna Kavenna, whose novel The Birth of Love is split between characters hundreds of years apart, considers all art to be crafted and all narratives to be contrived. "For me," she says, "there are certain kinds of forms where that contrivance is apparent and the author has ‘fessed up and said: ‘This is a fantasy’. What I like about speculative writing is that it’s all on the table. The writers I love fence off reality in a way that I find exciting and attractive and that’s the bond you have with the reader – whether they like the way you modelled reality or not."

Too many zombies?

Leading off from why these authors write speculative fiction, a discussion around the mainstream-isation and overuse of ‘core genre’ gave rise to questions of whether this had diluted the usefulness of particular common tropes such as zombies.

Nina Allan, who has recently started blogging at New Scientist spin-off magazine Arc about core genre, is unequivocal in her opinions. "It started with Star Trek and Star Wars and now you’ve got all of the superhero movies, and the postmodern superhero movies," she says. "What you get is a set of tropes that become more and more accepted, and through being more and more accepted, they become more and more derivative and defined."

There is a lot of science fiction that has become denatured, she says – trotting out the same old themes without there being a meaningful point behind it. She references Joanna Russ’ 1971 paper "The wearing out of genre materials", where Russ theorises that when old elements or ideas that once provoked a particular reaction are reused "the effect of the fantasy begins to wane". Even back in 1971, Russ commented that "as a film genre the vampire movie has been done to death, perhaps even prematurely."

"Take for example the zombie novel – zombies are an accepted trope," says Allan. "Nobody questions the validity of them any more as being a science fiction or horror idea, they are just out there. So the literature and films that results from them become less and less valuable as speculation because they are no longer speculation. Nobody is actually doing anything with the ideas, they are just re-treading it and in the end you get Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."

Christopher PriestChristopher Priest thinks that there is less of a trend now for science fiction writers to "try and deal with things that we all experience around us". Ings however sees science fiction as having evolved to a point where it now looks "at multiple narratives of progress – interrogations of what progress means, of what futurology could mean."

"I firmly believe that you can get information from non-fiction, but you get the truth from fiction because truth is a psychological thing, it’s not a factual thing," adds Priest. "Fiction speaks directly to the mind of the reader – seriously intended fiction gets through on a level higher than the words that you are reading."

To trashy for its own good?

Personally, I think some interesting questions were touched on in this discussion, particularly the overuse of core genre discussion when we have had wave after wave of the superhero films that Allan mentioned, along with vampires, werewolves, witches and indeed the trusty zombie still going strong in various incarnations.

However, I don’t feel that all is lost and new and interesting things can still be done with old ideas. Also, I don’t always want ‘serious’ sci fi. I want a bit of trash that isn’t taxing to read or watch – Priest being an example of a film I recently saw which doesn’t do anything particularly new, but which I nonetheless still found highly enjoyable. But are there varying degrees of ‘trash’ and a threshold below which something becomes completely worthless? I think it’s all a matter of personal taste. I have no interest whatsoever in Twilight, but there is a vast fan base who would consider Stephenie Meyer’s books to be incredibly important to their lives – she spoke to them in some way that I missed, so can I consider her books to be trash? I might read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and have a laugh, so though it is trashy, does that mean there isn’t still a place for it in sci fi?

I think the over-use of plot points and characters that have become stock are more a problem in fantasy fiction rather than science fiction myself, though you then get into a separate discussion of what the ‘point’ of fantasy fiction is and how it overlaps with sci fi. Should we be pushing for more innovation in these fields, or like the perpetual refrain that ‘rock is dead’ is it a myth that we are too busy recycling what we know works to take a chance on the new? I think if you try hard enough you will always come across new and interesting material, but there is also a place for more familiar work as well. Coming back to the idea of the catastrophe – things are not getting better or worse, just becoming different, but maybe that depends on how much you enjoy zombies.

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