Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

March 10, 2011

“Spec Fic” & mimetic fiction

Filed under: essay — Sam @ 9:10 pm

There’s been rather a kerfluffle recently (well, in the last few months) over the term “spec-fic” or “speculative fiction”. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s usually treated by its adherents as an overarching category for SF, fantasy, sometimes horror, sometimes magic realism, sometimes mythology or fairytale retellings, steampunk, dieselpunk, mythpunk, fantastika, the Weird, and other stuff that doesn’t get reviewed in big glossy mainstream magazines. It’s also used in opposition to “mimetic fiction”, ie. the stuff which talks about places, people, situations that really do (or could) exist.

To others, “spec fic” is problematic. Sometimes this is because they don’t feel that “speculative” represents what’s important about the literature they write or read—it marginalizes imagery, archetypal stories, wonder, linguistic playfulness, and almost everything else in favour of rigorous what-if speculation. (It will come as no surprise to anyone that this is an extremely gendered bias.)

Others have pointed out, repeatedly, that “speculative” is a misnomer—all literature is speculative, in the sense that it postulates Something Which Is Not. “What if there were faster-than-light travel?” is not materially different from “What if a doctor married an heiress, and a social improver fell in love with an artist?”

My personal objection to the term is that the whole “rigorous speculation” element of SF is actually complete bollocks. It was never rigorous, it always involved changing multiple factors at once, it was almost universally full of unexamined social assumptions and prejudices, and it was universally wrong. If you value speculation, then ipso facto you must value accuracy, or else all you’re doing is opening people’s minds up to the enchanting possibility of a myriad different varieties of utter nonsense. The correct, sane, and rational response to the history of SF’s attempts to imagine the future, over the last century or so, is to do something else, and to their credit a lot of people are attempting to do just that.

As for “mimetic fiction”… well, it’s a truism so commonplace as to be completely ignored that the real world is stranger than we can imagine. Slime moulds, natural nuclear reactors, whale song, functionalised Langmuir-Blodgett films, light-harvesting dendrimer molecules, the government of Poland-Lithuania, early 19th Century British electoral theory & practice: all these are fantastically bizarre and amazing, and they’re just the examples that occur to me in a few moments’ thought. Science fiction, in its specifically “speculative” incarnations, rarely contains anything so amazing, and it (by definition) never contains any of the fractal detail and wonder that the real world does. But that’s OK, because that’s not what we’re reading SF for, is it?

…is it? What about the old sense of wonder, the mindblowing awe of seeing hugely phallic miracles of engineering plunging into suns and sending them into explosions the size of a galaxy?

The thing about the sense of wonder is, it’s a gateway drug when done right. Getting it from SF can be really useful in order to wean teenagers onto the hard stuff, ie. reality. I have helped to recreate Christopher Marlowe’s theatre in sound and light, using cutting-edge technology and a lot of swearing, on the original site on Bankside. I have held a vial of fullerene molecules in my hand, and turned it into something that had to the best of my knowledge never existed before. I have thrown away wire coat-hangers on a scale previously unimagined by man, and put the Buddha in a skip. I have swabbed down an entire laboratory with chloroform, and peered down a microscope at individual atoms. I have done a collaborative performance of the entirety of Paradise Lost, and taken residential poetry workshops with both the National Poet of Wales and the Makar of Scotland. I’ve seen explosions, and even caused a couple. Spaceship-based synthetic wonder substitute does not impress me.

I’m not dissing fantastika here, you understand. I love it with my heart and soul, because it’s a way to tell stories that cannot be told any other way, to echo and twist our oldest dreams, hold up a sea-rippled mirror to our myths… in its best form.

But so often, it’s so focused on setting and on story that it disdains its own textuality, takes its unreality as an unexamined given, and obsesses over internal consistency and realism within the constraints of its own rules. So we end up with carefully measured timescales, dramatic unities of time and place, careful explanations of anything that looks Unlikely, and (on the fantasy end of things) magic systems with all the interesting complexity and potential for innovation of a Kinder Egg.

When “it could really happen that way” is held up as an ideal to aspire to, that’s… about as mimetic as it gets.

1 Comment »

  1. I’m just going to sit here a bit and gawp at this, then read it again a few times over, then nod a bit.


    WELL said, sir.

    Comment by Kate @ Candlemark — March 11, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

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