This is an edited short talk I gave to the MFA Creative Writing class at Kingston University in November 2016.
So it says on the Unsung Stories website that we 'are publishers of literary and ambitious speculative fiction’.
I think it’s worth breaking down what we mean by that exactly.
There are two terms that get used almost interchangeably: genre fiction and speculative fiction – both referring to the very broad umbrella of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.
The idea is pretty simple: it’s fiction operating within the boundaries of a given genre, as opposed to literary fiction which, in theory, is unbound by such rules and constraints (although there are increasingly compelling arguments to treat literary fiction as a genre itself – a discussion for another time). I think it is fair to say that until relatively recently genre/speculative fiction was seen as very much lesser, in terms of intellectual worth, than literary fiction. This is changing now.
Of course there are other modes of fiction that are housed within their own generic rules – crime and romance are two of the most significant examples – but these, for me, feel separate to what I mean when I talk about genre fiction.
Unsung Stories, however, use the phrase ‘speculative fiction’, a term coined in 1941 by the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein.
Loosely defined, it again encompasses the three staple genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror: which breaks down into, among others, science fantasy, ghost stories, supernatural fiction and paranormal romance, superhero fiction, bizarro fiction, alternative history, magical realism, the various ‘punk’ genres (cyberpunk and steampunk being the two most famous) post-apocalyptic fiction, dystopian and utopian fiction; it incorporates elements of folklore, fairy-tales and mythology, and a there is an important literary sub-genre called weird fiction which has a tendency to mix up elements from all of the above.
Speculative fiction breaks down into a bewildering number of micro-sub-genres, which is often where we start moving into the realms of mashups and cross-pollination. The Unsung Stories novel Dark Star by Oliver Langmead, is a good example of this – despite what I said earlier about crime, it’s a hardboiled detective noir, it’s a science-fiction novel, and it’s also an epic poem.
Essentially all we are talking about is any form of narrative fiction that does not class itself as realist fiction, and this covers a huge range of writing.
We say we publish ‘literary’ speculative fiction, what we mean by that is that is different from commercial genre fiction, which is much more narrative-driven than character led. It is obvious that aspects of speculative fiction are currently hugely popular, and big business. Just look at the success of George RR Martin and the TV adaptation of his work, A Game of Thrones, of the Harry Potter series, of Twilight. All of these have their place, but Unsung are unlikely to publish a Tolkienesque epic fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time, or very hard sci-fi, or a paranormal romance series, or commercial horror. Which is not to say we are opposed to, or even dislike, these types of books.
The work we publish, and enjoy to read, tends to slip across all the aforementioned genres covered under the umbrella of ‘speculative’.
I’ll give you some examples of what I consider to be literary speculative fiction:
- The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
- The Jerry Cornelius books by Michael Moorcock such as A Cure for Cancer and The English Assassin
- The City & The City by China Mieville
- Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
- Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo
- The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison
- The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest
- The Race by Nina Allan
- Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti
- The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
- The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
- Anything by Robert Aickman
And some examples by writers who are considered more part of the literary fiction world that I’m going to go out on a limb and include in the speculative fiction category:
- Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
- White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
- The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
- The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
- The English ghost story - some Dickens, MR James and so on
- Haruki Murakami – especially works like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase
And a recent, and very interesting example is Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel The Buried Giant, a move away from his (excellent) novels like Remains of the Day and into the realm of almost-Arthurian fantasy. He was, wrongly, criticised by Le Guin, for ‘despising’ the genre of fantasy. His response was:
If there is some sort of battle line being drawn for and against ogres and pixies appearing in books, I am on the side of ogres and pixies.
And looking at some of our own books we have published helps flesh out this idea of what we mean by literary speculative fiction. The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, which came out earlier this year, is a great example of what I consider as literary speculative fiction. It is at once a science-fiction novel, an historical novel looking at the effects of post WW1 English rural society, a feminist novel, and all within 120 pages. It’s character led and asks some big questions, rather than offering a multi-volume swords and sorcery epic. It is not realist fiction, but is about very real-world issues.
Literary speculative fiction tends to be smaller in scope and scale than commercial genre fiction and like I said, more character focused. Not that is has to be – Gene Wolfe’s four-part Book of the New Sun, described as ‘science fiction’s Ulysses’, is epic in scope but all seen through the eyes of one deeply unreliable narrator (who happens to be a torturer) and definitely falls into the category of ‘anti-hero’. Our own upcoming novel by Oliver Langmead, Metronome, is a real epic burst of imagination, fantasy that resists the tropes of what we consider commercial fantasy to be
As creative writing students, I think it is worth considering not what the limits of speculative fiction are, but rather what are the possibilities it can offer you.
With literary speculative fiction, there is the opportunity to grab established tropes and generic conventions and do something really very interesting with them. The Arrival of Missives can create a powerful piece on women’s place in society made all the stronger by the introduction bizarre sci-fi element.
Horror, removed from its simple shock and gore titillation, can be a hugely effective means of addressing society’s anxieties. There’s a compelling argument for the ghost story, at its best, as a way of dealing with buried trauma, be it on a personal or society-wide level. I have found in an effective mode for my own writing when I was trying to address such current anxieties as the London housing crisis.
Science-fiction, especially the work by writers like Le Guin, is a genuine way of exploring how own societies work, or do not work, and believing in other possibilities than the ones we feel we are stuck with.
Fantastic fiction allows us to explore our own imaginative lives. It is safe to say that monstrous or fantastical beings, ghosts, spirits (and yes, even dragons) all began life on a metaphorical level. I think a lot of commercial fiction forgets that and gets bogged down into a kind of ‘monsters are cool’ mentality and little more.
Correspondingly, I also am not fond of writing – often ashamed to call itself genre or speculative fiction, the thing that Ishiguro was accused of by Le Guin – that presents its monstrous or fantastic elements as purely allegorical. I’m not interested in someone having a fight with a metaphor.
For me the best speculative fiction does both, or more, at the same time. The ghost is really there; the ghost is a metaphor for the past we desperately want to forget; the ghost is the product of our narrator’s fractured mental state. The ghost is all three.