Monday, July 20, 2009

Writing on Spec

speculative fiction--a novel or story that produces an alternate historical reality in which improvised or extrapolated events occur; a narrative that expands on an if-things-continue-as-they're-going theme; a story framed on the enhanced consequences of political, religious, scientific, or social consequences.

Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, takes as its premise the overthrow of the U.S. government as it now exists, replacing it with a totalitarian theocracy under which women are vastly subjugated to the point of being assigned the role of concubine. This alternate/speculative historical approach allowed Atwood to create a new country, Gilead, complete with different social classes and agendas. Think of The Handmaid's Tale and Michael Chabon's 2007 The Yiddish Policeman's Union as book ends, encompassing for the writers' reference a shelf of earlier works as well, many of them selling to readers who normally read science fiction (which, see).

While you are thumbing your way to science fiction, consider some of the titles between these bookends, all beginning with an author asking the famed What-if question.

Some memorable speculative novels include at least two by George Orwell, 1984, and Animal Farm. Aldous Huxley’s better-known Brave New World unfairly eclipses his After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.

Philip Roth and Saul Bellow have speculated to great effect, but one of the great speculative novels of modern times made its way tentatively, as a triad of short stories appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Having participated in the bombing of an Italian monastery during World War II, Walter Miller began setting down his account of a post apocalyptic world, starting in a Roman Catholic monastery in the American Southwest, spanning the regrowth of the civilized world. A Canticle for Liebowitz has been in continuous print since its 1960 appearance; it is speculative fiction writ large across the forehead of inventive creativity.

Michael Chabon’s 2007 venture, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which is an adept marriage of alternate history with mystery/suspense and political. In this textbook example of the speculative, Chabon demonstrates how such work can include characters of memorable dimension, provocative themes, and a brooding sense of plausibility.

Such is the flexibility of speculative fiction that writers from all genera may resort to it as a means of expressing fables or cautionary tales at the extreme edges of their convictions and imagination.

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