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  • Writer's pictureKaren Langston

NEW PATHS TO FAMILIAR PLACES: Speculative Fiction and Why I Write It


Vapour trails and speculative ficiton

When people ask me what type of books I write, my reply is most often met with a bemused

incomprehension. Then the follow-up question invariably comes: “And what is speculative fiction exactly?”


As a reader, I understand the function of genre to set up certain expectations about a book that may or may not compel me to pick it up and read it. As an author, I acknowledge the importance of genre to agents, publishers and booksellers, for product positioning and promotion in an intensely competitive market. However, as a writer, I find genre to be a complex beast – an unwelcome crate of conventions that form rigid shapes into which stories are encouraged to fit.


So, I arrive at genre from the opposite direction.


I write stories. They happen to be speculative fiction, because that is the name of the shape that best fits the stories I write.


In (not so) simple terms, speculative fiction refers to a diverse group of sub-genres that share a core characteristic: they are all stories that take place outside of reality, or beyond our known ‘world’. Sub- genres within the category of speculative fiction include: science fiction, fantasy, horror, cyberpunk, steampunk, weird fiction, urban fantasy and magical realism. The list goes on. However, not all works in these sub-genres are necessarily speculative. Hence, the complexity of the beast.


In my view, it is more useful to drop the names of the shapes and focus, instead, on the contours they share. In the case of speculative fiction, this is the ‘what if’ scenario that invites the story, imagined in a space free from the constraints of what is real and what is, presently, real-world possible. It is non- realist fiction that explores some aspect of reality within the creative freedom of an imagined otherworld, another time where the impossible is possible and feels plausibly real. And in that otherworldly space, the ‘what if’ question is unpacked and played out in such a way that feels real enough that you believe it could happen, even if it is not yet possible in the here and now.


My novel, Klova, is technically science fiction, but only narrowly so. It is also a mystery and,

fundamentally, it is speculative. What if our perception of the world depended on the language we have to describe it? What if all language is artificial? And what if our artificial language has started to fail? Science fiction is the context. Speculative fiction is the story - everything that I want people to read into, and take away from, Klova.


I love reading speculative fiction because it combines escapism with relevance, in a way that feels fresh, inventive and, sometimes, profound. The result: transportation to elsewhere, then an invitation to reflect on aspects of reality in a thought-provoking, relatable and deeply human way.


I write speculative fiction because I’m inspired by the anything-goes freedom inherent in non-realist fiction, whilst exploring something meaningful and relevant in the real world. The non-reality offers a vast canvas and infinite medium with which to create. It also enables a separation from the everyday – a distance that carves a new path to an ultimately familiar destination.


Postscript:

Speculative fiction that I have particularly enjoyed and found inspirational include: The Scar, by China Mieville; The Windup Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami; Exhalation, by Ted Chiang; American Gods, by Neil Gaiman; Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood; Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, and Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.

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