A Conversation, In Speculation
This is part of a series of essays co-commissioned by the SRB and non/fictionLab that foreground experimental approaches to the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature. ‘A Conversation, In Speculation’ is a companion piece to ‘Inhabitation – Genni and I‘ by Eugen Bacon.
This conversation took place over the summer of 2020/21. We were looking for a new way to discuss, to essay about, speculative fiction. Should we write each other letters? Emails? We talked on the phone and started writing/overwriting a shared googledoc, extending our edits into a conversation that teased out ideas – asking and answering, testing and challenging each other. Wow, we thought, is that what you think. Okay…
CM: So we are going to converse –
CM: – together.
RM: Talk and write about what speculative fiction is, what it does, and why.
CM: How we started reading it.
RM: Why it may be of particular value now. And try and do this in a speculate-y way.
CM: Discuss boundaries.
RM: Yes! And how speculative fiction might be particularly well-placed to engage with, and comment on, highly topical and extremely charged issues.
CM: Our climate catastrophe.
RM: This one-world experiment. The extinction of species.
CM: The acute crisis of the current pandemic. As well as crises that are ongoing – dispossession, discrimination. Violence.
RM: The lack of acceptance, or understanding, of difference.
CM: And also how speculative forms mix wonder and horror. Engage our imaginations. Generate empathy. Educate.
RM: We’ll write about what we’re reading –
CM: – and writing –
RM: – now, and in our ‘before’ times.
CM: Can I start? With daydreaming? When you were a child, Rose, did you daydream about the future? Do you think there’s a link between daydreaming about the future and falling – because it is a kind of falling – for speculative fiction?
RM: I now see the speculative fiction I compulsively read and reread as a child – CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–56), Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1965–77), Alan Garner’s Tales of Alderley Edge (1960–63, 2012) – not as an escape from my everyday reality (although obviously, to some extent, it was) but as stories that allegorically mirrored my immigrant experience. Not an escape from, but an engagement with. I had fallen through the back of the wardrobe, into an antipodean Wonderland, in much the same way that Will Stanton, in The Dark is Rising, wakes on his eleventh birthday to a changed world. I, too, had woken in a new country that felt positively post-apocalyptic – in its heat, with its strange habits (of addressing everyone by their first name, for example, which seemed so pointed that my reserved English mother found it aggressive).
CM: That’s funny! So these are all English authors?
RM: British! And I think that’s key actually, in the work of Cooper and Garner particularly – but also for Lewis, who was born in Northern Ireland – the influence of ancient Briton cultures.
Such classic ‘portal’ fantasies, where children, initially unwittingly, are pulled into an ‘other’ world, also echoes the act of reading, and writing, itself. I lost my self – and my sense of being ‘other’ – in these books. I didn’t realise then that the Englands those characters escape bear little resemblance to the country I had left. From Australia, their British worlds seemed like the same one, from where I was, despite being separated by time. It was a place where children went to boarding school, and were sent away to the country to convalesce. Worlds within worlds within worlds. It was only once I went back to England, as an adult, that I saw how much the gritty cities of those ‘real’ worlds were already nostalgic, already a re-creation of another, older world. Re-reading these books now I re-visit that pre-teen new-Australiangirl’s world, alongside the fantasy and ‘real’ realms nestled within my dog-eared pages. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I re-encounter the world I was so desperate to get away from, as much as those I was running to.
I see this so clearly now that I feel quite uncomfortable with how obsessed one of my children is with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise (1997–2007). They are the same age now that I was then, when I used to set myself up on the weekend with a book, in my beanbag – a sandwich and glass of milk by my side; a snack that wouldn’t be out of place in one of those adventures. I don’t want my child to internalise the class distinctions my parents left behind. I don’t want them to fetishise architecture we don’t have, to use language that isn’t ours. I worry there may be some kind of residual contagion of their, our, imagination though, where everything ‘north of the wall’ (to use the expression made famous by Game of Thrones and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1996–2011) is cold.
Could it be the other way round? That we don’t – or didn’t – read ‘spec-fic’ because we were dreamers, but that the way we dream now might be because of what we read then? Do you think the speculative fiction you read in your formative years was offering you something you didn’t necessarily realise at the time?
CM: I think there are connections between the landscapes and situations you grow up in and where your reading and writing takes you. We all spend a certain amount of our thinking-time in the past, present or future. When I’m writing a character I always spend time reflecting on what might occupy a character’s thoughts. Inner worlds play a part in shaping outer worlds, and vice-versa, but they are not the same place. And inner worlds are full of dreams. Lately, I’ve been wondering if daydreaming about the future encourages a penchant for speculative fiction, but you have put that particular theory to bed before I even had a chance to wake it up. So yes, maybe it can be the other way around.
My early reading offered me a way to imagine other ways of being. In books that embrace other worlds I could have strange adventures, like Alice does in Lewis Carroll Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Curiosity is such an interesting part of being a child and sometimes things don’t make sense. Or I could climb through a wardrobe and be somewhere entirely different, like Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). Lucy has to solve problems and think on her feet.
Are we okay with being loose about speculative and fantasy distinctions; will some reader out there pull us up and say, stick to defined boundaries?
RM: I am! But someone might – which is why I often use the term ‘non-realist’. But ‘spec-fic’ is broader than, say, fantasy or science fiction. It includes them, but also the literary aspect that is such a big part of both our writing.
CM: It’s the crossing of borders and breaking-down boundaries that I love. Reading, writing, watching stories that use these techniques always sharpens my focus, makes me alert; like watching Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s Westworld (2016–) and engaging with the way the narrative moves from the so-called ‘real’ world into the theme-park world where androids act out scripted narratives (until they don’t) – or re-reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography (1928), where the protagonist leaps across time and changes gender. Westworld questions what makes us human – and also asks us to consider why humans are drawn to violence: violent action and violent narratives. Orlando questions gender definitions. In the future I don’t think we will have binary labels for gender. Perhaps the idea of gender will disappear altogether.
One book that had an impact on me when I was a teenager was Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) which ‘time hops’ between Connie (Consuelo) Ramosin in a psych ward – a world of rules and restrictions –
RM: – set off from the ‘real’ already, like those YA fantasies’ ‘first’ world settings –
CM: – and Connie in a future world, 2137, where there is a freedom of sorts. This place, called Mattapoisett, is classless, and children learn to deal with each other without using force or domination. They are encouraged to meditate and reflect. Connie is guided there by the time-traveller Luciente, an androgynous woman. People use ‘per’ as a non-gendered pronoun. The story suggests that the future Connie experiences is only one of many possible futures, and that she has an important role in creating the future. It’s a speculative fiction classic and a feminist novel.
RM: This makes me think of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). It’s such a great example of how speculative fiction can lead a reader. China Miéville talks about this on Between the Covers: speculative fiction – by (his) definition – ‘oscillates’ between an abstract idea, and the ‘pulpy’ pull of popular storytelling.
CM: I love The Left Hand of Darkness! It’s such a unique dreaming of a world. The long trek across the ice, the experience of the protagonist; they are so utterly other and completely absorbing. It’s a survival story that foregrounds the difficulties of negotiating difference.
RM: Le Guin has said how much she wanted to write that line in The Left Hand of Darkness, ‘the King was pregnant’. And that’s the problem really: she tries to imagine a world without gender but uses gendered language to do it. I love ‘per’! We are all a per-son – unless we are a per-daughter of course …
CM: I reread Piercy’s book a few years ago, and I remembered the excitement of reading it for the first time; a buzzing in my body, a visceral sensation, not just an intellectual one. I realise as I’m writing this that one of the ideas I’m drawn to, often explored in speculative fiction, is this sense that an ordinary everyday person – whether a writer or a book-keeper or a salesperson – can, in fact, affect the future.
RM: Can I return to your first question? I don’t think I ever dreamt about the future: not mine, not the world’s. My childhood reading was always a way of looking back – to a country I’d left, and what I now see as an imagined history of that country: Arthurian England, Celtic folklore. Even more than Lewis and Cooper I loved Garner’s stories. Whereas Lewis and Cooper wrote portal fiction that had children going from some ‘here’ to over there, Garner wrote more ‘cross-hatched’ fantasy, where something of that other world was liable to leak through. I see that as a precursor to the literary speculative fiction I seek today –
CM: – yes, I can see that in what you write –
RM: – where an ‘other’ world bleeds into this one. It was so disturbing. Disturbing in the same way coming of age was, or immigrating: having the ‘real’ grown-up world impinge on one’s childhood universe – in much the same way that you describe Alice’s adventures as similar to your experience of childhood. For me, particularly, the idea of a deeper magic, of older ways – literally, roads in The Dark is Rising (1973) – is incredibly powerful and still appealing. The idea of a knowledge that is not lost, but (temporarily) forgotten. A knowing that may return. Like the (hidden) meaning of words.
CM: Is the knowledge temporarily forgotten? Can it return, or is it lost? I’m thinking of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2003), and the loss of knowledge that occurs in one of the future worlds he creates in that book. One of the tenets of Cloud Atlas is that the grand march of progress is a lie. Knowledge is not fixed; we can lose knowledge. In a chapter in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process (2017) Mitchell outlines one way to approach writing the future. He suggests that writers think about what is taken for granted in their life now — regarding rights, the State and its obligation to citizens, or issues to do with ‘ethnicity, gender, sexuality, work, God’ – and then think about what might be taken for granted in the future time being considered. Mitchell uses the iPhone as an example. Many of us take it for granted that we can use our iPhone to call Iceland, or Africa, at any time of our choosing, but when there is ‘no more oil to power the system of power stations, which power the electric grid, which we power our devices on – we will no longer take it for granted that we can do it’. If we don’t find another way to power such items, then kaput! It will all be in the past. Mitchell’s example is about depleted forms of energy and lost technical knowledge. We can also lose cultural knowledge.
RM: Science fiction is often described as fiction explicitly concerned with new technologies and their potential consequence – whether the technologies are some way off, like the mission to Mars, or more near-future developments, such as artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, current trends in social media, surveillance and ‘smart’ speaker usage. I see ‘hard’ science fiction authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Cory Doctorow as public intellectuals, respectively offering up blueprints for utopias and dystopias. Speculative fiction is a platform to ‘blue sky’ ideas. A way to write the world: to imagine the future we want, and also the ones we don’t want. Le Guin’s short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ (1973) is the perfect case in point, explicitly ‘telling’ in order to teach.
I like the idea that a – our – genre can stage an intervention!
CM: I’ve never thought of myself as an interventionist, although that’s interesting to consider. I think of myself as a storyteller, a story maker. There are principles involved, craft, but also desires, fascinations. I’m not afraid to imagine the future, ever. On paper, and on the average day, I’m not afraid of death. In fact, sometimes I consciously conjure it. A few years ago I read Learning to Die in the Anthropocene; Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015) by Roy Scranton. Scranton writes about his experiences of being a soldier in Iraq. He explains his daily ritual: each day he’d wake up and, before going on patrol, he’d contemplate his death. It was a method he took on after reading Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, an eighteenth-century Samurai manual. Scranton proposes this practice for all of us living in the world now. In order to do something about the climate crisis, we need to meditate on our own extinction. ‘For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization’. This is what dystopian fiction can do – or perhaps, if we want to narrow it, we could say this is what climate fiction does.
A dystopian story imagines what could happen. It poses a challenge to the reader, and asks (explicitly or implicitly): what will you do about it? I disagree with those who say there is no hope in dystopian narratives. The hope is often in the characters, rather than the plot. Dystopian stories are not always predicting the future so much as imagining one kind of future, a future that we can change if we pay attention now.
RM: Like Connie. I think the same is true of utopian stories too – all ‘topian’ tales perhaps.
It’s often said that science fiction and fantasy speaks to the experience of growing up and the physical, and emotional, changes teenagers experience. As someone who is very concerned with ‘wicked problems’, such as climate change, I see such narratives as not only reflecting a growing self awareness – of readers emerging into adulthood – but also a readership’s growing awareness of other perspectives, as we open our eyes to the wider world around us. Other people’s perspectives, but also other species’. In a New Yorker interview Le Guin said she was ‘not just trying to get into other minds but other beings … Somewhere in the nineteenth century a line got drawn: you can’t do this for grownups. But fantasy and science fiction just kind of walked around the line.’ Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018) does this, getting grownups into the minds of other beings. This is absolutely realist writing, except that the story – stories – start before human protagonists come on the scene: ‘The tree is saying things, in words before words.’
Can I change ‘climate change’ –
CM: – Go for it –
RM: – to read ‘climate crisis’. Climate catastrophe. Change is, obviously, something that is always happening, and not necessarily bad. Which is not how I feel when it comes to the ecological and environmental disaster we face.
Le Guin’s Earthsea series (1968–2001) may have been the first place where I read the power of wordsbeing made – literarily – literal, but there are many great examples of spec-fic’s interest in language, from Max Barry’s laugh-out-loud Lexicon (2013) to Miéville’s high-concept Embassytown (2011).
The genre is famous for creating the language of the future: William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) gave us ‘cyberspace’; from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (1949) we have ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Thought Police’; ‘robot’, popularised by Isaac Asimov’s series of the same name (1948–90), was a Czech word for forced labour first used by Karl Capek in a 1920s play.
This interest in words, and their pervasive effect on thought and culture, was picked up by literary author Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest genre foray The Buried Giant (2015) – though in his case it is the consequence of forgetting them, or what that forgetting reflected, that drives his novel. What happens when we lose old words, along with old ways? Such fiction is hardly an escape from reality is it?
CM: Perhaps it is an escape into reality, encouraging readers to imagine the future. Fiction has always helped us understand the past, navigate the present and comprehend the future. But speculative fiction can do more than that. Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009) has had quite an impact on me (despite the fact that I hate the title). McGilchrist writes, ‘the kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation’. It’s an incredibly hopeful thought for a novelist, because novelists attend to the world through story. Anyone who writes about the future – fiction or non-fiction – is drawing attention to some aspect of it. Through their writing they are part of creating the future.
People often ask, why write in this time of global warming? What is the point? Yet stories are powerful. We are deeply affected by the stories we tell and those we are told. Stories seep into us and shape our actions. The future is not fixed, and if we want to have a hand in shaping it we need to imagine our way into it. What we write matters. You and I both teach writing, Rose, and I’ve found this idea that we can affect the future through attentive writing a hopeful way to approach our writing work.
RM: I agree. The practice of writing, and reading, is, for me, an act of listening. A respectful, risky imagining. And when it is transformative, it is a way of listening and imagining differently. Seeing – re-seeing – the world; from the slow-growing catastrophe of climate crisis to escalating extinctions of species and the acute crises of our ongoing pandemic. Fiction is the prism through which I filter this world. It’s my way of being present, though it can seem like the opposite. I am not escaping; I am tuning in. Turning up. I’ve been thinking about this while working on my current novel, which is climate fiction explicitly concerned with environmental disaster, as well as issues of inheritance and consequence. The writing is sadder than I would like. Intellectually, I believe in hope, in optimism, and I am working hard, technically, to create a sense of that. But because books are porous, because books absorb as much as they are absorbed, it’s riven with sorrow. Grief, I guess.
CM: Imagination is how we empathise, how we understand; we need to imagine ourselves into the body of another – whether animal, human, or plant. But as a global community, are we limiting what we imagine? Back in 2015 I read an article by Margaret Atwood, ‘It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change’, which referenced Barry Lord’s book Art and Energy: How Culture Changes (2014), which I then read. Lord has an interesting theory about how the energy systems that shape a society infect not only the beliefs and values of that culture, but also the art it produces. Coal and oil bring us different sets of values, as do renewables, but also different approaches to art that reflect those values. Atwood explains it really well, she writes that the energy of coal creates a culture that gives primacy to jobs, resulting in a belief – ‘I am what I make’ – while the energy of oil and gas creates a culture of consumption – ‘I am what I buy’. And we are now transitioning into a renewable energy that creates a culture of ‘I am what I save and protect’. I’m repeating this because of what it might mean in relation to speculative fiction. Maybe the emergence of the cli-fi novel is a reflection of this energy transition?
Dan Bloom, a journalist and climate activist who lives in Taiwan, first coined the term cli-fi and then commissioned a cli-fi novel, Jim Laughter’s Polar City Red: A Novel (2012), to promote the term. So it is interesting to think about how this connection between energy and art might be shaping the way we write novels. Powers addresses the problem in The Overstory:
To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one and to mistake life for something huge on two legs. No, life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
Powers takes on this ‘contest for the world’ by creating a book that is many things: a book that we learn from, we learn about trees and plants and forests, we learn about the bystander complex; a book that rings out the alarm for the consequences of human-centred thinking, of not attending to planetary needs, so a call for action; and a book that celebrates story. This is climate fiction and literary fiction, is it also speculative fiction?
RM: I love the idea that realist literary fiction is the aberration – which may have even had its time in the sun – and the fantastic is the wellspring that (as Anthony Wolk writes, paraphrasing Doris Lessing) has never run dry and still flows freely.
CM: Are we seeing different techniques used to write about the future? Have you noticed, in recent years, more braided novels? I don’t mean a story with subplots. For me, in a braided novel, each story has its own unique protagonist, storyline and narrative drive (although in some the climactic moment is shared rather than distinct).
RM: That sounds like classic ‘high’ fantasy (as opposed to those we were discussing earlier, which are not set completely in fantasy worlds but have a fantasy world intrude on a ‘real’ first world): multi-verse novels often have parallel narratives told in alternating chapters.
CM: David Malouf says that ‘it is the writing that shapes and leads the writer, not the other way round’. It’s through the act of writing that we untangle the subject we want to explore. For me form arises from the writing and from the subject. (Although it is also true that sometimes writers experiment with a form simply to explore it.)
RM: Like this conversation!
CM: Yes! Braiding may be prevalent in this time of climate crisis for a couple of reasons. One is that the singular protagonist tale is replaced by a multiple-view, multiple-protagonist story. This multi-perspective suggests there is not one tale to be told, not one truth to be understood, but varied and contested points of view to be negotiated. The other thing that braiding can do is encourage the reader to be aware of narrative gaps. The form can suggest that other stories – secret stories, or repressed or hidden stories – reside in those gaps. There is more to know.
Fragmented narratives also do this. The fragmented form is like a cousin to the braided form. Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020)uses short paragraphs, fragments, to tell the story of the difficulties protagonist Lizzie has dealing with daily life – raising a child, living with a partner, attending to a brother whose mental state is precarious – while witnessing a changing climate. The novel asks, how does one negotiate planetary disruption, something that involves billions of people across the globe, while also dealing with the confusion and disorder that arises from troubling family issues? I think novels call to us, almost as if we are going down a road and we hear a voice and turn around. And in that turning there is the possibility of changing direction, or taking a new road, or returning to the same direction with some new information. Rose, I know you like Weather too?
RM: In Weather big issues sit alongside lost Lego. That is my life. I love the way form can interrupt the artificial construct of the novel-as-(coherent)-narrative. Causes don’t always have (expected) consequences. Everything isn’t logically connected, and yet everything is connected. To my mind, fragmentary and braided stories more accurately, more artfully, reflect not just how we experience the world, but how the world actually is. Which may not have ‘us’, or even our experience, at its centre. It isn’t just the distinctness of the parts, or even the gaps between them that does this, but the way those pieces sit next to each other. Sometimes speaking to each other, and sometimes not. We, the reader, hold all these strands. Some profound, some trivial. Some connected, some disconnected. This is what it is to live in the world. I am incredibly drawn to stories that play with structure –
CM: – a way to order, understand, comprehend –
RM: Yes! How to tell, to make sense of events and emotions, the surreal and fantastic and strange, as though it’s one story. Which, of course, for each of us individually, it is. That’s why I love the time travel tales of Ted Chiang, which are philosophical speculations, as well as physics explorations, and straight-out science-fiction thought experiments – like the brilliant gems in his latest collection Exhalation (2019). I heard him geek out on a podcast about how science was as riveting as fiction, when the interviewer asked how he made it sound so interesting.
Structure is a huge pleasure of reading and writing for me. I’ve heard Kate Atkinson talk about structure as the skeleton of story, and plot as its muscle. Her 2013 Life after Life is absolutely a speculative novel, written realistically, concerning the multiple lives of Ursula Todd as she makes tiny, butterfly changes that have huge flow-on effects – not only in her life, but the future of the (our) world. The structure is so simple, and utterly compelling. Your own device, in Storyland (2017), of connecting sections by having one sentence trailing off at the end of a part and then land at the start of the next is an excellent example.
CM: The fragmented form, like the braided one, is not new. Walter Benjamin uses it and, according to Nigel Krauth, ‘Benjamin perceived that we think in fragments consistently, and that we recall only disparate bits which we subsequently refashion together to form a mosaicked personal narrative’.
RM: I loved Offill before Weather. I was blown open by Dept. of Speculation (2014) – which was not at all the speculative fiction I thought it would be when I bought it for the title. I read somewhere that she cut out and pinned up all these paragraphs, those sentences, around her room and then scratched out anything – everything! – that didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
One of the values of speculative fiction is that not only can it model other worlds, but it can also show other ways of being in this one. I have a neurodiverse child (not the Harry Potter fan), and parenting them has challenged me in ways I couldn’t imagine … except that I had, when reading the books I mentioned earlier. Because those stories are about being different; not fitting in to this limited, limiting, world. Through my reading I had experienced what it was like to live in two worlds at the same time. To be doubly different: as myself, an immigrant and bookish child, and as Will Stanton, an eleven-year-old boy and ‘Old One’. Mitchell has talked about the importance of recognising the richness of his autistic son’s inner world. My child is not like his, but through reading – and writing – I have imagined what it was to have knowledges that are unrecognised. Access to worlds that can’t be communicated. It seems to me a particular value of spec-fic is both its diversity of form and characters (valuable for readers whose horizons need expanding) and its inclusivity (valuable for readers who may identify as atypical).
My students second this, bonding over their shared connection with characters such as Pug, from Raymond E Feist’s epic ‘Riftwar Saga’ (1982–86).
CM: It’s true, so many readers and writers say they found their home in speculative fiction, when they couldn’t find it in the community around them. The genre not only helps shape our imaginations of what the future could be, but encourages our belief in the possibility of change, or the need for change. Do you think the difficulty we have with coming to terms with the warming climate is that many have lost the ability (or the will) to imagine the future?
RM: I think thisis a value of storytelling – whether it’s multi-generational realist cli-fi novels, or SFF (an inclusive term often used for science fiction and fantasy) worldbuilding. It’s no coincidence that so many of the children’s and young adult titles that come to my mind are series, the mainstay of fantasy writing. I think it’s this expansive scope that enables the reader, and writer, to imagine consequences played out over generations. To engage with crises and culture clashes that are hard to see close-up.
Think of the tower in the first instalment of Jeff Vandemeer’s ‘Southern Reach Trilogy’ (2014), Annihilation, the one that most characters ‘insisted on calling… a tunnel’. It looks nothing like a tower! Yet that is the word that’s used, repeatedly, by narrator and author. Every time we, the reader, ‘see’ the structure we get the description of a tunnel and the word ‘tower’. That’s physics, philosophy and taxonomy all bound into an impossible image. Is there a contemporary spec-fic classic that has pulled you into its world, out of y/ours, like that?
CM: The first one that comes to mind is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). The story is, at a plot level, about survival.
RM: Oh, what a cool parallel to Genly Ai’s trek across the ice!
CM: The world has completely changed. There is no sense of order or civilisation, as we have come to know it. A father and son are travelling along a road. The father is heading for a particular place, because he wants his son to be safe. Along the way both father and son have to confront the violence, greed and selfishness of others but they also have to confront their own violence, greed and selfishness; aspects of human life important to maintaining neo-capitalist societies. Yet the novel also pays attention to the value of love, and the sacrifice one human being makes for another in the name of love; aspects of human life important to maintaining life on the planet. Recently I read The New Wilderness (2020) by Diane Cooke. It’s about a group sent into the last wilderness (a large area of land set aside) as a science experiment. The group have a set of rules they must follow and one is that they must never settle in one place but must instead live a nomadic life. They do this while the rest of the world, outside the wilderness, goes to shit. Like The Road it is about survival: what will we do and what won’t we do in order to survive? But it is also about a mother–daughter relationship and the difficulty and pain involved in negotiating who we love and why and how we love in a ravaged world. It’s an interesting counterpoint to McCarthy’s The Road. Both writers are drawn to write about a future dystopian world, but also to discover and unravel and call our attention to the intimate relationship that occurs between parent and child.
RM: That’s another thing I love about Annihilation: a team of four women are sent to explore Area X. They’re the twelfth team but the first all-female mission. They are never referred to by name, only by profession – the biologist, the anthropologist, psychologist and surveyor. I’ll leave you to imagine what effect that has on the reader!
McCarthy is often castigated as a literary author taking up, taking over, a classic SFF story in The Road. Joanna Russ writes about this practice in ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials,’ (1971) describing the way original ideas go through three distinct phases: from innocence, where the idea is novel; to plausibility, where it is logically explained; to decadence, when it appears in something else – like a metaphor in literary fiction. Which, I guess, is one way of describing ‘spec-fic’. And why wouldn’t you, as a literary writer, take up such brilliant, and often ancient, ideas? Is it even something you choose? As you and Malouf so rightly say, we are led by the writing. Storytelling is the first artificial intelligence isn’t it? It has a life of its own. I say I write speculative fiction, though it is often only subtly set in alternate realities or future worlds. And I say I do it because the non-realist mode seems more able to reflect the world around me, or my experience of it, than the Modernist, interior, self-conscious ‘straight’ narratives that Miéville stamps ‘realist litfic’. But Modernism’s trademark stream-of-consciousness point of view is hardly that ‘real’, even for a privileged White minority. The way Woolf moves beyond the human is inspirational for speculative writers everywhere.
CM: You’ve said that you think spec-fic is related to Woolf’s stream of consciousness. I love that idea because I think her inner worlds were other worlds.
RM: My point is that for writers, as well as readers, the fantastic form – wherever you find it, whatever you call it – offers opportunities that realist modes, mainstream media and traditional historical records do not. Stories that tangle time, that disturb cause and consequence, run multiple races, seem to me to be the story of our lives – to echo the title of the tale of Chiang’s that the film Arrival is based on. The science fiction conceit (aliens! precognition!!) at the heart of that story is not what it is actually, really, about. As with great literature The Story of Your Life (1998) explores love, and loss. Desire, and destiny. The only difference is the role of future visions, which enable Chiang to explore his twin obsessions: free will and fate. The novella is actually very traditional, satisfying conventional short story traditions and using quite nineteenth-century techniques. The science fiction idea, or ‘novum’ as Russ would say, is simply – except that it is not simple; Chiang is never simple – an allegory for time-honoured philosophical, existential speculations.
Am I saying that speculative fiction is better than realist fiction at engaging with and commenting on the issues we are both drawn to explore? I don’t think so. Only that reading and writing non-realist fiction seems to be increasing in popularity. The best literary fiction I love does this just as well. Stream of consciousness is such a speculative conception. The perfect description for Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), which is about an entity that passes into, through and between people from different ‘real’ worlds. I like Bruce Sterling’s approach. Back in 1988 he claimed a long list of great literary novels as actually speculative – or what he called ‘slipstream’. He argued that literary fiction – Booker prize-winners too, despite what Miéville says – were doing ‘the job’ of science fiction. And did it better than books categorised as SFF. Does it matter what we call it? As long as we value it: know that it works, why it works, and how to make it work better.
CM: Hannah Arendt once said that stories have a special value in our world because there is never one interpretation. ‘Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it’. Stories, fictional stories, as opposed to political theory or, say, newspaper reports, provide readers and the wider community with a terrific way of debating the world we live in, of negotiating differences, of comprehending the inexplicable. One of the things speculative fiction does really well is re-imagine structures and systems and beliefs.
RM: James Bradley is a great example of an author who does that, across genres: writing an early, multi-generation climate novel in Clade (2015), ranging from YA to nonfiction since then, and now exploring the ethics and consequence of cloning and re-introducing extinct species in Ghost Species (2020).
CM: I love that Bradley is always thinking ahead in his fiction and his non-fiction.
RM: Lucy Treloar’s dystopian cli-fi Wolfe Island (2019) is closer to home than we might wish. I read it as ‘over there’, and then realised: this tech is here, these issues are ours.
CM: It’s a great book. The rising sea level was distressing, it was a terrifying imagining of border crossings. Treloar also created a gruff older woman protagonist, appealing (to the reader) precisely because she is not appealing to the other characters. An excellent book that deals with how things break down in the aftermath of a catastrophic storm is Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout (2019).
RM: Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Order of Things (2015) is another example of systems and structures re-imagined … not that much! Re-presenting aspects of this world, really.
CM: Yes, that bush prison was a unique kind of imagining. From Here On, Monsters (2019) by Elizabeth Bryer is like a riddle you need to work out, and has something to say about art and ethics, set in a fractured climate-warming world. Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (2017) looks at how future technology might shake up our beliefs about identity, gender, sexuality.
RM: Jane Rawson experiments with interspecies points of view in From the Wreck (2017) –
CM: Her shapeshifting entity was such an original character. Joshua Lobb’s The Flight of Birds (2019), is a wonderful and original cli-fi novel that plays with form and thinks about our relationship to other species in a way that is both thoughtful and deeply disturbing. Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light (2014) I’ve returned to a few times.
RM: Other experimental plays, puzzles really, include Jen Mills’ Dyschronia (2019) and ‘harder’ SF such as Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink (2013) and Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik (2017).
CM: Your novel, Rose, that warps time, The Art of Navigation (2017), which shifts between Melbourne in 1987, and the court of Elizabeth I in 1587, and Melbourne in 2087. The time-travel makes us think about the world around us in a new way. The time shifts not only entertain, but also prod, challenge, stimulate.
Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius (2017) does something really interesting with time and racism and violence. As readers, we start out thinking we are in a colonial Australian world, one where we expect certain behaviours, and then a third of the way through the book the reader realises this is a future world. Coleman uses this past/future confusion to expose colonial biases and racist violent actions and attitudes, not only violence that can be seen, the brutal physical kind, but also the violence that is hidden – hidden in language, hidden by bureaucracy – and deeply embedded in Australian culture.
RM: Patrick Allington’s satirical Rise and Shine (2020) reminds me of the Dada movement, arising as a reaction to the brutality of World War I …
CM: I agree with Ben de Bruyn’s claim that cli-fi is also tackling what he calls ‘Hot War’ issues: stories that deal with the wars and security problems arising from a warming planet. I have hopes that COVID will change the global response to the climate crisis, because now we have experienced how quickly systems can fall apart; how quickly lockdowns can occur; how quickly borders can close and death can arrive.
RM: And not just how quickly change can come, but how quickly big changes – that we never would have thought possible – can be made. Enabling us, guided by scientists, to realise a really abstract idea of ‘flattening the curve’. And act (in the interests of others) to avoid, or achieve, a particular future.
In an interview with Electric Literature the month the World Health Organization declared COVID a pandemic, Chiang wrote that ‘traditional ‘good vs evil’ stories follow a certain pattern: the world starts out as a good place, evil intrudes, good defeats evil, and the world goes back to being a good place. These stories are all about restoring the status quo, so they are implicitly conservative. Science fiction stories, such as those we are discussing, follow a different pattern: the world starts out as a familiar place, a new discovery or invention, crisis or catastrophe, disrupts everything, and the world is forever changed.
CM: There is no returning to ‘normal’; there is perhaps a sense of stabilisation, but yes, things are different.
RM: The invitation these speculations extend to the reader is to identify what we – they – want to go back to because it was good, from what we wish to return to simply because it was.
In Le Guin’s wave-making speech for the 2014 National Book Foundation she said ‘we’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality’ for the ‘hard times coming’. She was not wrong.
Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (London: Penguin Books, 1970).
Patrick Arlington, Rise and Shine (Melbourne: Scribe, 2020).
Isaac Asimov, ‘Robot’ series (1948–90).
Kate Atkinson, Life after Life (London: Little, Brown, 2013).
Margaret Atwood, ‘It’s Not Climate Change: It’s Everything Change’ (2015).
Max Barry, Lexicon (Melbourne: Penguin, 2014).
James Bradley, Clade (Melbourne: Penguin, 2015).
James Bradley, Ghost Species (Melbourne: Penguin, 2020).
Elizabeth Bryer, From Here On, Monsters (Sydney: Picador, 2019).
Ted Chiang, Exhalation (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2019).
Halimah Marcus, ‘Ted Chiang Explains the Disaster Novel We All Suddenly Live in’ Electric Literature (31 March 2020).
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (London: Macmillan, 1865).
Lewis Carroll, Alice through the Looking-glass (London: Macmillan, 1871).
Sarah Crown, What the Booker Prize Really Excludes,’ Guardian (8 October 2011).
Claire G Coleman, Terra Nullius (Sydney: Hachette, 2017).
Diane Cook, The New Wilderness (Oneworld, 2020).
Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising (United Kingdom: Random House, 1973).
Susan Cooper, ‘The Dark is Rising’ series (United Kingdom: Random House, 1965–77).
Ben De Bruyn, ‘The Hot War: Climate, Security, Fiction’, Studies in the Novel, 50.1 (Spring 2018), 43-67.
Thomas Disch, ‘The Embarrassments of Science-fiction,’ (1973) In On SF: A Last Judgment on the Genre from Science Fiction’s Foremost Critic (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2005) 3–15.
Briohny Doyle, The Island Will Sink (Melbourne: Brow Books, 2016).
Jennifer Mills, Dyschronia (Sydney: Picador, 2018).
Raymond E Feist, ‘Riftwar Saga’ (New York: HarperCollins, 1982–86).
Alan Garner, ‘Tales of Alderley Edge’, 1–2 (United Kingdom: William Collins, Sons, 1960–63).
Alan Garner, ‘Tales of Alderley Edge’, 3 (United Kingdom: Fourth Estate, 2012).
William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984).
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (London: Faber & Faber, 2015).
Jim Laughter, Polar City Red: A Novel (Deadly Niche Press, 2012).
Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace Books, 1969).
Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters: Short Stories by Ursula K Le Guin (US: Harper and Row, 1975).
Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Earthsea’ 1-8.
Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Books Aren’t Just Commodities’, in the Guardian (21 November 2014).
CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (United Kingdom: Geoffrey Bles, 1950).
CS Lewis, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ 1–7.
Joshua Lobb, The Flight of Birds (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2019).
Barry Lord, Art and Energy: How Culture Changes (American Alliance of Museums Press, 2014).
Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, Westworld (2016–), (based on Westworld, Michael Crichton) HBO.
Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2017).
Nigel Krauth, ‘Fragmented Narratives: Minding the Textual Gap’, Text Journal, 23.3 (2019) 1–21.
David Malouf, The Writing Life (Australia: Vintage Books 2015).
George RR Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series (New York: Bantam, 1996–2011).
Cormac McCathy, The Road (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2006).
Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
Catherine McKinnon, Storyland (Australia: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2017).
Rose Michael, The Art of Navigation (Perth: UWA Publishing, 2017).
China Miéville, on ‘Between the Covers’ (21 July 2011).
China Miéville, Embassytown (UK: Pan Books, 2011).
David Mitchell, Ghostwritten (London: Sceptre, 1999).
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (London: Sceptre, 2003).
David Mitchell, ‘Neglect Everything Else’ in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).
Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2014).
Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2014).
Jenny Offill, Weather (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2020).
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949).
Julie Phillips, ‘The Fantastic Ursula K Le Guin’, The New Yorker (17 October 2016).
Richard Powers, The Overstory (London: William Heinemann, 2018).
Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1976).
Jane Rawson, From the Wreck (Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2017).
Alice Robinson, The Glad Shout (Melbourne: Affirm Press, 2019).
JK Rowling, ‘Harry Potter’ (London: Bloomsbury, 1997–2007).
Joanna Russ, ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials,’ College English, 33.1 (1971), 46–54.
Roy Scranton, Roy, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015).
Bruce Sterling, ‘Slipstream’ Electronic Frontier Foundation (1989).
Elizabeth Tan, Rubik (Sydney: Brio Books, 2017).
JRR Tolkien, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ 1 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937).
JRR Tolkien, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ 2–4 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954–55).
Lucy Treloar, Wolfe Island (Sydney: Picador, 2019)
Jeff VanderMeer, ‘The Southern Reach Trilogy’ (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014).
Anthony Wolk, ‘Challenge the Boundaries: An Overview of Science Fiction and Fantasy.’ English Journal 79.3 (1990), 26–31.
Charlotte Wood, The Natural Order of Things (Melbourne: Allen & Unwin, 2015).
Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography (London: Penguin Books, 1928).