The Reason I Love Speculative Fiction

I do not mean to say other genres suck or are inferior. I mean only to celebrate what I love in my own field, shameless optimist that I am.

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Alternate History. Together, these genres form the pillars of what is called speculative fiction. There can be lots of blending and subgenres that don’t quite belong to any one group (just look at steampunk and dystopia), but together they give an image of worlds that, as far as we know, don’t exist. Yet that’s not all they do. They can accommodate any other theme or motif, perform any other task, that characterizes fiction of other stripes.

Speculative fiction is a field of storytelling that specializes in “What if?” and “Why not?” It probes, challenges, questions, and explores in ways that no other kind of fiction is capable of. Yet it can take whatever has been produced by other sorts of fiction and give it more flavor, more chances for originality and finding what has been overlooked. Science fiction can probe as deeply into human nature as any literary novel you can think of. Alternate history can be as pulse-pounding as any spy thriller, or as romantic as a bodice-ripper from the checkout line. A fantasy can be a murder mystery, or even a slice-of-life tale (though it may be a slice of life from a magic student or an apprentice dragon-breeder).

Admittedly, there is a reputation which says speculative novels are not as introspective or deep or profound as “literary” novels. There are indeed thousands of shallow, hackneyed tales in all three genres, with little thought behind them.

However, one-dimensional stories do not remove the capacity for profundity or depth from any genre. Though fantasy may have its Twilights and Eragons, it also has its Name of the Wind and Song of Ice and Fire. Science fiction may allow The Fifth Element or Transformers into its ranks, but it boasts of  Star Trek, Fahrenheit 451,  and Dune. A million terrible novels could not extinguish even one book that doesn’t just ask “What if?” but also provides the best answer it possibly can.

I think bad fiction is usually bad because of untapped potential. The writer did not squeeze hard enough, or didn’t look in enough shadowy corners, to see what could nourish their characters, story progression, pacing, or anything else writers need to consider about their work. But when they do, they should be recognized for their incredible achievement.

In summary, this is why I love to read and write speculative fiction: It can always find a new place to go, and there’s nothing other fiction does that it cannot do.

Advertisements

“John Carter” Review, Part 1

Many people love to gripe, bemoan, scoff, whine, and otherwise complain about the state of Hollywood. And they have good reason. Superfluous reboots and unneeded sequels give the movie industry the vibe of a broken record, special effects and marketing campaigns repeatedly supplant great storytelling, and audiences are increasingly jaded and cynical.

Then there is the rare film that obliterates your pessimism. A diamond among the veins of common rock. A film that effortlessly draws you in and shows that all is not lost, a film that “gets it right” — you feel that the movie lived up to its full potential and deserves to be treasured. You sense that it will be a part of you until the day you die.

As far as I’m concerned, John Carter has accomplished that. I cannot remember the last time a movie captured my imagination so completely, or tugged so hard on my emotions, or left me with such an overpowering sense of triumph and optimism. True, it wasn’t very successful when it came out earlier this year. But neither were Firefly and Serenity. That Disney bungled the marketing and critics sneered at “another silly adventure film” shouldn’t matter. This film deserves to be given a chance.

You might know the story by now, but just in case: the movie is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars novels, works of pulp science fiction that have ignited the imaginations of just about everyone from Steven Spielberg and Frank Frazetta to Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. The film revolves around a Civil War veteran who avoids human contact and prospects for gold, to try and forget a heartbreaking tragedy in his past. When he encounters an otherworldly being inside a cave, he is accidentally transported to the planet Mars, finding other humans, tall aliens, and all manner of high-stakes adventures.

This is not only the Mars of Burroughs, but of Percival Lowell and H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury, the romanticized Mars everyone wishes we discovered in the space age, with elegant civilizations that cling to life on a dying planet. John Carter arrives as a fish out of water who becomes a hero to these people, in the process regaining his humanity and a cause to fight for.

When I finally got a chance to watch this film, I knew that it was something special. This isn’t just two hours of entertainment; it’s a blessing. Unpretentious, charming, full of genuine thrills and sympathetic characters, and timeless in the best way possible. Only Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings have had a similar effect on me. Having only read partway through Burroughs’s first novel (A Princess of Mars), I can’t yet say how it stacks up against the source material, but this is one movie I know will stick with me for the rest of my life.