As a child I believed there was one purpose for most books: to engender sleep. Why else did one read at bedtime? Most of the time, when a well-meaning relative would give me a book, my eyes would glaze over and page 3 was the end of it. Every now and then, however, purely by luck, I would stumble onto another type of book, and be electrified and frozen all at once.
The books in this latter category were by C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper and later Tolkien. I had no idea what made these books readable, or that they had been assigned to genres. (Best not to mention the Virginia Andrews Flowers in the Attic series which had a similar paralyzing effect…)
Nowadays I not only know what genres are, I embrace them. I’m a huge fan of the late Iain M. Banks, as well as Ursula Le Guinn, Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Jeff VanDerMeer and Robert Jordan, yet I would rather talk about their extraordinary world building, or discuss having my mind blown by the imaginative capacity of these extraordinary writers, than to debate what genre to shoehorn them into. Speculative fiction will do just fine.
‘What exactly is speculative fiction?’ you might be thinking.
It sounds intriguing, but it’s just an umbrella under which science fiction, fantasy, dystopian fiction (a version of which is climate change fiction, or cli fi), superhero tropes, and seemingly any story where you involve special powers, a guessed-at future, or a far-flung setting, can cluster.
When genre writers refuse to stay in their lane, we must widen the road and give it a new name.
The bi-annual Speculative Fiction Festival (July 22, 2017) at the NSW Writer’s Centre was a full-day program of panels and an informal chat, and was throughly inspiring, thoughtful and enlightening.
Happily, too, and this may say much about the appeal of speculative fiction, there was a healthy number of men at this festival, of all ages. I’m used to attending writing events where the women massively outnumber the men, if indeed there are any men at all, so the gender balance was refreshing.
When men are absent from the writing and reading community, it feels strange, unless of course it’s a celebration of women and gender variant writers, such as BinderCon in the US (which is a brilliant weekend festival that I’ve attended twice).
Driving to the grounds at Callan Park where the NSW Writer’s Centre has its headquarters, and where the festival took place on a glorious sunny Sydney ‘winter’ day, I found myself listening to a podcast from the Sydney Writer’s Festival (which I’d completely missed out on attending this year), which was an interview with Hannah Kent talking about her book, The Good People.
It’s an imagined version of historically accurate events, hooked around a reported story from 1820s Ireland, and involving beliefs in faeries, or “The Good People” as they are called by locals in that place and time.
And it turns out, a story like this would also shelter under the umbrella of speculative fiction, and one of the panelists recommended Kent’s most recent work.
The first panel was broadly about the resurgence of the superhero in mainstream culture, and how it’s no longer the realm of the comic book nerd (who was often male). Panelists celebrated the recent Wonder Woman film and the diversity of superheroes we’re enjoying at present.
The next panel was much darker — discussions of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, much of this written around a now-easier-to-imagine future where humans have destroyed the environment and must live with the consequences.
Next was a talk about myths, legends, fairy tales and how they still influence contemporary writing, particularly the fantasy genre.
After a lunch break, in which the mentally overloaded introverts all disappeared to the far reaches of the grounds to find their calm centres (or at least I did), there was a discussion from writers who look at artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, nanotechnology and the nascent technologies that invite speculation along ethical, and of course literary, lines.
Then we had small group chats with some of the authors, and I chose John Birmingham, who has written all types of work during his career but who is now a speculative fiction writer. One of his recommendations for other writers was the Pomodoro Technique, which I’m using right now, and which may prove to have been a life changing piece of advice, and if not, I’d say it’s definitely habit forming / habit re-conditioning! He also spoke of using dictation software and a stand up desk, but I haven’t trialled those bits of advice as yet.
It was a spectacular day for fiction in which I chatted socially to author Mitchell Hogan, bought 3 books from various panelists, and was introduced to, and thought about, much potential material that I hadn’t previously given the time or energy to.