We’ve talked about urban fantasy, and we’ve talked about the tropes of speculative fiction. We’ve even touched on how to flesh out a world and why it’s important that you create a compelling universe for your characters to inhabit.
Maybe, though, you’re one of the people sitting in the back, wondering why we care so much about this speculative nonsense, anyhow. Maybe you don’t see the appeal of vampires, can’t imagine a world under the subway, and would really not think about the myriad ways the world could go terribly, terribly wrong. Or, heck, what do I know—maybe you write speculative fiction, but you’ve never really thought about why it appeals.
Obviously there’s the escape aspect. Often times you’re reading about a world that’s very clearly not yours, however close it may be. Part of the appeal, for many people, is just that we like what-if stories. What if vampires tried to take over Los Angeles? What if the bombs came? Going a little deeper, though, part of it might be that this sort of story often allows us to look at our own world in a less threatening light. After all, who’s not afraid of things that go bump in the night, or of the idea that things might go so wrong with the world that it would cause humanity to mutate or die?
Even beyond that, I’d argue that what speculative fiction does more than anything else is open a dialogue. It provides a frame for social commentary and a way of illustrating and understanding viewpoints that are not necessarily one’s own. It is not, I don’t think, a coincidence that speculative fiction as a genre was very popular in the Sixties and early Seventies. Its popularity faded some after that point, but in recent years it’s resurged and gained an even broader fan-base than it had then.
It seems that the more politically charged the zeitgeist is, the more popular speculative fiction becomes. The reason is probably twofold: first, speculative fiction often gives us a way to cope with our fears. Reading about things makes them more real than just thinking about them, but it also allows us to talk about things, even if we’re doing so indirectly. Second, the nice thing about fiction is that it’s rare that the book ends negatively. Even tales of the most horrific possibilities generally end, if not on an up-note, than at least on the idea that there’s hope for some of the characters, hope for the future. Maybe these characters won’t be okay, but someone, somewhere, will. And sometimes we need that; we need to be able to think that eventually, somehow, things will work themselves out.
And maybe sometimes, thinking that things will be okay will allow us to work things out for ourselves. I’m not saying that fiction can change the world, but it might point us at somewhere to start.