Heartbreak and Vision: What Speculative Fiction Provoked In Me


“One of the liberating effects of science fiction when I was a teenager was precisely its ability to tune me into all sorts of strange data and make me realize that I wasn’t as totally isolated in perceiving the world as being monstrous and crazy” ? William Gibson

This past week I have been reading a series of blog posts over at Bookworm Blues with the title “What Speculative Fiction has  Taught Me.” As of the submission of this column three people have written posts in the series: the blog owner herself and guests Zachary Jernigan, Matt Gillard and Matthew Jenks. In each one the writer extols the virtues of Speculative Fiction and details the positive things the genre has bestowed upon them, ideas, wonders, and inspirations. I considered requesting a slot in the series myself, but as I thought about the subject I realized that my take was different, not just in content or experience but in the very framing of the statement. Speculative Fiction has not been a teacher so much as a field of provocative stories and imaginings that have both enlightened and scourged me.  What I have gleaned is not just some sense of identity or shared pleasure or the highly-prized sense of wonder; I have been led astray by speculative fiction, castigated by it, had my heart broken by it, been disappointed and outraged by it. For all of the positivist and progressive characterizations of Speculative Fiction, I have found something more complicated, bothersome, and challenging in the works I have read and re-read in the genre.

But here’s the important distinction: Speculative Fiction* didn’t teach me these things; I searched the literature for solace and enlightenment and entertainment and complexity, and often I did not find what I wanted,  found things I did not want to embrace, or found things in my head that were questioned or eroded or amplified by my readings. Speculative Fiction was not only some vale of marvels or a tribe of kindred spirits, but a vast and often tangled array of tales and concepts (and, as I got into fandom, social relationships) that were as faltering and incomplete as they were fulfilling and exhilarating. They provided alternatives to “the real world” but also confirmed some of that reality, reflected and amplified it, questioned it.  And it was the sometimes painful, sometimes ambivalent experiences of making sense of that array that kept me coming back to it.

The sense of belonging, the thrill of wonder, and the feeling of the literature as an agent doing something for you are echoes that reverberate throughout the literary field, but Speculative fiction is full of paradoxes for me. I have written in the past that it saved my life, that it buoyed me through the worst times, and that is true, but it didn’t do that by providing escape or progressive vistas or some transcendental comfort.  SF literature was what I could go to for meaning, not happiness (a distinction that Amy Sundberg made very clear in a recent blog post, for which I thank her). It was fun to delve into swashbuckling tales or dramatic space opera, but that only part of the experience. There were stories that attacked cherished assumptions and broke my heart, and stories that made me roll my eyes and seek out something better. There is so much more to the experience of reading Speculative Fiction than escape or edification, and I want to acknowledge and embrace the complexities and pitfalls of the genre because they have been as significant to me as the thrills and heady ideas.

I learned to be critical through my reading of SF, to the point where I realized I had to read a lot more than SF to enrich and interrogate my imagination. I went to college in part because I realized through my reading that I had a lot more to learn, that there were arguments I could not make and conundrums I could not resolve without knowing more about the world and about how humans think, behave, and communicate. It was the dissatisfaction I felt with a lot of social SF and high fantasy that motivated me to learn about anthropology and history and literature and political theory, and it was the healthy skepticism that I garnered from my encounters with the literature that impelled me to be a political activist during my college years. Speculative Fiction could inspire me, yes, but it often frustrated me at the same time, pushed me to look around and ahead and backwards to reconsider how the world worked and how I saw it. It helped me sharpen my critical thinking skills, often in spite of itself.

Often the term “critical” is conflated with being mean, petty, or negative. It can be, but for me criticism is how I find meaning in the literature that I read and in the world that I slog through every day. Reading Speculative Fiction  can lead to pleasure or disappointment or enlightenment or frustration; it can even sometimes mislead. But I read critically because that is what I learned from decades of reading Speculative Fiction: not just to dream, but to look deeply into what is said and thought, to be ready to defend or rethink a belief or conception, and to understand that any given  idea or assumption may need to change or be discarded. I found gorgeous impossibilities and tantalizingly incomplete solutions, outrageous ideas and profound insights, but this was not on a continuously advancing curve or even my beloved hermeneutic spiral. Readings, knowledge, even thought are not strictly linear or cumulative or spinning towards some ultimate revelation. We try to make sense of the world through every utterance and scribble, and Speculative Fiction is a palette for making sense through nonsense, through what-is-not or what-might-be. Such fictions can give us amazing, unlikely vistas to wander with our imaginations, but there is so much more than joy or wonder there, and for me it diminishes the full experience of reading them to focus on the moments of rapture and salvation. What makes the literature valuable to me is the struggle to find those moments, the wrestling with them, the revelation that they are more and less than they appear, and even the feeling of estrangement, petty or profound, that they can instill in my mind. What keeps me coming back to this literature is the combination of heartbreak and vision, provocation and futility contained in them, unfolding moments that I  struggle with and fall into, laughing and cursing as the words unfold.

*I am using “Speculative Fiction” as a placeholder for “fantastika” in this column because it is the term that the Bookworm series is using.

2 thoughts on “Heartbreak and Vision: What Speculative Fiction Provoked In Me”

  1. Thanks, John.

    An interesting reaction to Sarah’s guest series. I do think that Speculative Fiction can frustrate as well as illuminate and inspire a reader, and it might even be essential to the genre that it does so.

  2. Thanks, Paul. I think that’s true; estrangement is not just transport and reverie. Sometimes we’re pulled out of our moment incompletely or jarringly. And I think the frustration that engenders can create a hermeneutic tension, although sometimes it is just dissatisfying and annoying :-).

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