Consider what the words “speculative fiction” mean for our purposes.
Speculative = conjectural, suppositional, theoretical, hypothetical, academic, abstract, risky, hazardous, unsafe.
Fiction = novels, stories, creative writing, prose literature, narration, storytelling, romance, fable, imaginative writing, works of the imagination.
Put together, speculative fiction takes risky abstract ideas and expresses them through prose.
Those words give an author permission to leave the boundaries of our known world and go off to explore profound and meaningful concepts through a fictional environment.
Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a speculative fiction novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairytale told with beautiful prose in an unhurried fashion. Lean prose can be leisurely, poetic, and still pack a punch.
Fairytales always offer us morals, and in Stardust, Gaiman shows us truth. He lays bare the lies we tell ourselves through the simple fairytale motif that real love is not gained through prodigious deeds. All through the narrative, we see the difference between desiring a person and loving them. By the end, we know that love requires truth if it is to survive.
Neil Gaiman trusts his readers. That is something we all need to do. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well.
There is room in the bookstore for books with a less urgent story to tell, as well as those that ambush the reader and beat them bloody with non-stop action.
In 1953’s Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov took us into the future, a time when humanity had divided into two factions—spacers and earthmen. The Blurb:
Like most people left behind on an over-populated Earth, New York City police detective Elijah Baley had little love for either the arrogant Spacers or their robotic companions. But when a prominent Spacer is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Baley is ordered to the Outer Worlds to help track down the killer.
The relationship between Baley and his Spacer superiors, who distrusted all Earthmen, was strained from the start. Then he learned that they had assigned him a partner: R. Daneel Olivaw. Worst of all was that the “R” stood for robot—and his positronic partner was made in the image and likeness of the murder victim!
In 1953, racism was endemic, institutionalized. When Asimov wrote this novel, he took on bigotry and equality in a palatable way by showing us a civilization where androids are denied equality. To murder a human is a crime, but in this society, many otherwise good people doubt that robots are sentient beings with a right to life. Yet, in R. Daneel Olivaw, we meet a sentient being and feel compassion for him.
Isaac Asimov trusted his readers too.
We write because we have a story to tell and concepts to convey. To that end, every word we put to the final product must count if every idea is to be expressed.
Asimov showed us that tight, straightforward prose works.
Gaiman shows us that sometimes you can just have a little fun with it.
The genre of speculative fiction grew out of the the repression of the 1940s and 1950s, and has always been the literary field in which ideas that challenge the norm were sown. Radical concepts could be conveyed when couched fantasy and set in fictional worlds.
Dedicated authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture. The rest of the education is within each of us, an amalgamation of our life experiences.
Whenever I come across an author whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes me out of my comfort zone, I go back and reread it. The second time, I take notes. I study how they crafted their work, look at their word choices. I ask myself why it moved me.
I do the same with those whose work left me feeling robbed—where did they go wrong? What can I do to avoid this in my work?
I always learn something new from looking at how other authors combine and use words to form the moods and emotions that drive the plot. For me, writing is a journey with no finite destination other than the satisfaction of making small steps toward improvement.
Sometimes my work is good, other times not so much. But when I look back at my early work, I see improvement over time, which is all we can ever hope for.
Don’t lose heart, and don’t give up just because you think you can’t write like your favorite author. Write for yourself and write because you have something to say.
And don’t quit until you arrive at the place where you write “the end” on the last page.