The Literary Merits of Speculative Fiction
Author: Damian Serbu
April 27, 2014
I’ll cut to the chase: This opinion piece is primarily a plea with everyone to stop the snotty, highbrow judgments against speculative fiction. Not everyone thinks this way, but enough do to warrant a conversation about the matter.
Speculative fiction seldom gets a break. The literary community relegates it to the stuff of penny novels, pop fiction, or a mere distraction for those who enjoy a good bump in the night from time to time. The same marginalization happens within the LGBTQ world, where no refuge from intellectual pretentiousness or pompous stereotypes protects horror and science fiction authors, or their vampires, ghosts, and goblins. It always seems a bit off to me that this community fails to embrace any and all genres, regardless of a person’s personal reading preferences, when so much of our lives depend on fighting for inclusivity and against the forces that divide and belittle.
Thankfully, a number of authors struggled against this tide to create a vibrant genre for contemporary readers. I remember coming out in the 1990s and desperately wanting my favorite category of fiction to come with gay characters. I searched for the few novels that existed to fulfill that desire, gobbling them up and reading them much too quickly in my excitement. Anne Rice gained popularity with so many gay men, in part because of the ambiguous sexuality of her vampires and because of the relationship between Louis and Lestat, at a time when a dearth of such demons existed for us.
So I want to set the record straight (but hopefully not too straight) on why I love speculative fiction and think it crucial that the LGBTQ literary community keep cranking it out. It has literary merit, no matter what its detractors think.
Sure, a little of my reasoning relates to the simple fact that people enjoy this genre. It’s an important niche. But more than that, it represents a fiction rich in possibilities, with important messages and themes that transcend and go so far beyond the mundane and simplistic idea that it exists simply to scare people or create imaginary worlds of magic and spirits.
Anyone who grew up loving a good horror flick or ghost story wants to queer it up. I want my vampire kissing another dude. I want my hauntings with a queer flare. Instead of creatively seeing the straight vampires as gay in my own mind or accepting that the straight woman longs for the hot male zombie, I want my gay or bi vampire to just openly go for the men, for the lesbian to long to turn a crush for a now zombie back into a beautiful woman. I refuse to make believe anymore.
However, more profound aspects of speculative fiction add a unique depth to it, and these realities called to me as a writer, too. At the heart of discrimination and the struggle for equality rests POWER. Power over women. Power over lesbians. Power over transsexuals. Power over gay men. The power of defining gender and its alleged “norms,” in the hands of society’s majority, in the hands of straight men, in the hands of whiteness. And so we find that so much of our community’s writing examines this power and its influence. Our characters fight against it or become repressed by it. The reason that the coming out narrative continues to hold such sway and finds its way into so much of the literature comes from this power dichotomy. The power of prejudice keeps people in the closet, so the coming out moment sets up an early, if not the first, combat against this power for our characters.
Back to speculative fiction and my love for it. Within this realm, a writer can become more creative with the power dynamic and the struggles against it. It leads to more profound characters and empowers them in a powerless world. My vampires of the past can manipulate the societies around them so as to embrace their sexuality. Living in the 1700s and 1800s, on the one hand, closets their sexuality and vampirism. On the other hand, they can acquire wealth, lovers, and live as they choose behind the scenes because no societal or historical rules bind their activities. No longer mere victims, no longer afraid because of the deadly force they possess, they become more dynamic historic players in a novel.
Allow me another example, and to introduce to you Alexander MacBeth. My main character in the newly released The Pirate Witch comes of age in the late 1600s, and as in all historical fiction, must hide his sexuality. Yet he longs for an aristocratic admirer sent to police him, and loses his mother and father after the town accuses them of witchcraft. He becomes a victim, right? He has little hope, right? But what if he really had magical capabilities? What if he inherited the witchcraft powers of his mother and could use them for good, or to defend himself, or to escape with a band of pirates? Suddenly the mundane yet realistic portrayal of a past figure takes on a new dynamic. I can manipulate the closet by setting him in the proper context for sexuality from that era but with the ability to escape and protect himself. Alexander fears other witches and forces that work against him, but not his sexuality. Now, I want to be careful, because there is nothing wrong with historic fiction that would dwell on a much more accurate and realistic portrayal. As an academically trained historian, I love reading both non-fiction and carefully researched fiction of that nature. As I writer, though, I love to soar above those limitations. Why not envision a scenario where men and women could have flipped this power dynamic to their benefit?
Instead of Alexander pining about his lust or lurking in shadows to snatch a male kiss, he dives more deeply into his psyche to discover more truths about himself in terms of his longings and desires, in terms of his actual capacity to influence the world around him. And why is this possible? Because he’s a witch! I don’t need to rely on wealth or status alone, and thus restrict the kind of people I empower in my writing. Give him a witch’s eye and away he goes!
In fact, all fiction at its heart and regardless of genre seeks to strip away reality and take readers into new realms. Authors decide the binding rules for their stories and characters, and then tweak it or change it to suit their needs. Even literary fiction of the finest quality, when imbedded in complete truths and with authors who seek hard reality and not fantasy, employ this tactic. The main character locates the missing ring at just the right moment. The lover walks in on a betrayal by chance in the middle of the night. The investigator uncovers a secret note to reach the story’s climax. Fiction by its nature picks and chooses the rules that contain the narrative. All authors serve as a god over their dominion, all restrictions and occurrences materialize at their behest.
Which brings me back to choosing speculative fiction. By stripping away binding reality, I start with a clean canvas in which I will write the laws, establish the power dynamic, and manipulate the forces at play. My characters face discrimination with less fear because of their ability to easily escape it or overcome it. Indeed, they often turn the tables on the oppressor by overpowering them or outsmarting them in a way only possible with supernatural abilities, especially given the period in which I set the story. Mere homophobia cannot defeat them, as it unfortunately conquered so many in reality, and still does today. The same holds true for disease or various human limitations. By unleashing the main characters, or at least some of them, from these constraints, speculative fiction dives deeper into the soul. Absent the need to protect yourself simply in order to survive, what motivates a person to act? What prompts either good or evil to emerge within an individual? And what might they do with this power? These questions become fodder for the speculative fiction author in unique and creative ways.
Another example from my vampires illustrates this point. I govern them through a Vampire Council that creates an ethic all must follow or risk imprisonment or death for disobedience. So true, to add tension and a bit of the everyday, I bind them to a degree. However, the Council consists of five vampires, who often must discuss the greyer areas of a ruling or potential punishment. Some of them even rebel against the rules and insist upon a more situationally based enforcement. Only in another realm – in speculative fiction or science fiction – could such a creation exist.
In this way, speculative fiction gives way to complete fantasy. Think of it as extreme escapism, which almost everyone seeks, whether in going out to the movies or curling up near the fire with a good book. If the reader can suspend their mind completely, then the power dynamic, new realms, and alternate realities of a ghostly world or hidden magical kingdom provide endless possibilities. Escapism of this sort not only relieves us from the daily turmoil and tensions we face, it inspires our imagination and creativity. Envision a world where readers and writers bring this inspiration back with us, into our own realities but then employ it to cope with this life or make it better, perhaps even create a new world for oppressed people everywhere right now.
Finally, if we can dispense with the dismissal of speculative fiction and merely see it as a different form, then we can also break down other boundaries. My work often includes historical fiction, romance, or extreme horror. It challenges me when I feel the need to categorize myself. So speaking of the binding nature of the world, why do writers thus bind ourselves? The market does, in order to categorize and target pitches to a particular audience. Libraries and databases do it, to bring order to chaos. But don’t we writers lust for the chaos? The freedom? And don’t we as the LGBTQ community fight to overcome any boundaries that artificially separate and discriminate?
LGBTQ speculative fiction contains metaphors as unique as anything in the more “literary” works by fellow authors. It offers just as profound a take on the materials, but in unique ways because it operates with a different set of rules. But different – not to mention the use of monsters, aliens, or witches – does not by necessity cast a book or genre into a lesser realm. Unless, of course, the community insists on such a genre hierarchy in order to keep us divided, separate, and thereby allow some to feel so vastly superior. Alas, beware, because we speculative fiction authors just may strip away your superiority and expose the truth by sending the creature of the black lagoon to visit you in your bedroom tonight.