Why Read Speculative Fiction

The term speculative fiction (aka spec fiction) covers many genres, including fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, and horror. In a world that already feels so surreal — where we can’t distinguish truths from lies — we must ask, why read spec fiction? 

Fantasy and science fiction are two of my favorite genres. From ancient mythology that I grew up on as a kid like the Chinese epic Journey to the West (Amazon) to the modern-day high fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire (Amazon) to space operas such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Amazon). When seeking out a story, I usually gravitate to something that takes me to a place far away from the realms of reality. 

Yes, I love it for the escapism, but I also pick up spec fiction for the same reason I’d read a sad drama, I want to have a cathartic experience. There’s nothing like a post-apocalyptic or dystopian story to put things in perspective. These stories make me feel the numbing dread of existence and remind me that this little life I have is fragile, and therefore, should be handled as such. 

Speculative fiction is fake, but only in the way that looking in a convex mirror is fake — it distorts the image back at us. That’s not what we actually look like, but in the wide-angle reflection, we see more than our naked eyes could. We see the consequences of our actions and it broadens our view in a way that realism or biographies cannot. 

The following are four reasons why I think you should read spec fiction. 

An Intro to History

One way to learn about history is by reading textbooks. You can learn all about Ancient Rome or the Great Wars this way. You can learn about the dates and times, and other trivial details. Odds are, if you were introduced to a topic via a textbook, the likelihood of you getting super interested in it is low. After all, how many people claim that it was in school that they lost their passion for reading? 

Alternate history and fantasy can be a gateway to diving deeper into real-world events. 

The Leviathan Trilogy (Amazon) by Scott Westerfeld made me want to learn more about World War 1 through the lens of steampunk and biopunk. By creating a fictional depiction of the Allied forces versus the Central Power, where war machines battle genetically modified beasts on the European battlefield, I grow more curious about the actual events. 

Watchmen (Amazon) got me interested in the politics of Richard Nixon, A Song of Ice and Fire introduced me to the War of the Roses, and Slaughterhouse-Five taught me about the bombing of Dresden. Spec fiction sparks your curiosity as a well-marketed history lesson that hooks you and asks, “if you’re interested in this, guess what craziness really happened.” 

Prepare Us For The Future

Genres such as science fiction and dystopian give writers license to share their worldview in the most empathetic way they can, through the perspective of a protagonist. This allows us to see their version of the future, whether it be startling, hopeful, or pessimistic. In doing so, we’re forced to question our own values: how will we defend them and how will we react when our familiar world is put to the test. 

The Road (Amazon) by Cormac MacCarthy asks, “How will we survive at the end of it all?” The Stand (Amazon) by Steven King asks me which side I’d choose when I’m forced to pick. 1984 (Amazon) by George Orwell reminds me that we can be controlled by fear. A Brave New World (Amazon) by Aldous Huxley reminds me that we can be controlled by pleasure. 

Every modern-day question we have about our values could be put to the test when we read spec fiction. No, these books don’t contain the answers we need to fix our current realities, but they are apt warnings, a little fire drill within ourselves that prepares answers for: What will you do when the time comes? What will you do when you need to act? 

Confront Our Fears

From censorship to monsters to the afterlife, spec fiction creates an arena in our imagination where we can confront our fears like a gladiator against a spaceship of aliens. Like the boggart from Harry Potter in our brain, we conjure up what terrifies us, so that we and the protagonist can face them in a world where we won’t get hurt. Win or lose, when we read spec fiction, we do it bravely. And with that bravery, we can bring it to the real world where we have to face overcomeable fears such as taxes, stubborn bosses, and missile launches from North Korea. 

Whether you’re reading about the end of the world or a battle against a giant spider, spec fiction brings you to the shadow realms, so you can gain the confidence to stand strong in the face of real challenges. 

Exercise For The Mind

While a mystery novel can be a puzzle, spec fiction can also test the mind by forcing us to paint an image in our head that we reference from reality. This is especially true for spec fiction that has yet to be adapted to film or television. 

Reading a spec fiction book where you haven’t seen any concept art, and the only visual you have is the cover, you as the reader become as much the creator as the author.

As you read, your mind expands to a scale that cannot fit within any confines of the real world. You dive into the heads of characters and out into a fantastical land with mountains, rivers, and oceans, and then further out to galaxies far far away. 

You gain the empathetic skills to communicate better and you increase your curiosity to explore deeper and further in any direction. The more you read, the stronger your mind gets, and like going to the gym, you get what you put in. 

By reading speculative fiction, we learn about the environment, human nature, politics, technology, and the supernatural all through the protective filter of fiction. Sure, on the surface it might just seem like wizards, aliens, and battleships, but when you turn the pages, you realize that there is so much more. 

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3 Reasons to Be a Generalist

If you want to succeed, you have to be a specialist. That’s a common belief, isn’t it? 

After all, if you’re calling someone to fix your toilet, you’d want a professional plumber. You don’t want a plumber/novelist. You want to make sure this guy knows what he’s doing and not simply using your bathroom to research his next urban fantasy

Certain roles demand specialization – like surgeons, pilots, and plumbers. However, most people can benefit from having a breadth of knowledge, acquiring more skills, gaining more experiences, embracing detours, and experimenting with their craft. 

We used to believe that in order to succeed, you must get ahead and stay ahead. Commit and never waver. But I have three reasons why you should avoid the traditional trap and expand your range so that you can be a high-functioning generalist.

1. Skill Stacking: 80% is Already Really Good

If you were an ambitious Asian kid like I was, at some point in your life, someone would’ve pressured you to be the best. Number 1. The gold medalist. A+ student. The undisputed champion. 

The likelihood of me or anyone reaching that pinnacle is very slim. There are over 7 billion people in the world, so it’s going to be hard to reach the top and achieve a perfect 100%. However, we don’t need to be the best. We only need to be proficient. We can be 80% and still be better than the majority of people. Being 80% means that you’re capable of accomplishing your task and you are completing it way above average. To rise beyond 80%, other factors need to come into play such as genetics. That’s why even under the best conditions, specialization can only get you so far. 

I love the concept of skill stacking, which is the idea of combining all your skills together so that even if you’re not a 100% performer in any of them, collectively they still give you an advantage over a majority of the world. 

Let’s say you are 80% good at writing, 80% good at marketing, and 80% good at photography. You become so much more effective in starting your business – a process that requires many skills – than someone who is 100% good at writing and 0% good at the other skills. 

For more on skill stacking, check out How to Be Better at Almost Everything by Pat Flynn (Amazon)

2. Breadth of Knowledge: You Can Solve Bigger Problems

When we’re focused on our own work, in our own team, in our own department, we learn to solve one problem and one problem well. It’s when that problem changes that traditional methods and tools become ineffective. Failing to be agile results in wasted efforts. These siloed operations are flaws in the system, preventing innovation from taking place.

If you only consume information from a narrow field, you shrink your world. When you’re exposed to fewer experiences and ideas, you’re less likely to make new connections. These connections are potential solutions to new problems and creative ways to use old tools. 

It’s true that learning a breadth of knowledge can be inefficient. This is often the case in trades and science, where specialization is expected. However, by gaining a range of skills and broad knowledge, we can solve bigger problems and be nimble. In the modern world, a sudden disruption can make your specialized skill obsolete and leave you completely lost. It’s good to go deep into a subject, but be sure to go wide as well, just in case.  

To learn more about how being a generalist can help solve bigger problems, check out Range by David Epstein (Amazon)

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

3. Find Your Unique Style

Creativity is all about making connections, and connections come from experiences. The more people, environments, genres, and artforms you expose yourself to the more connections you’ll make. 

There’s too much out there these days and replicating a classic will only get you so far. However, it’s a good place to start. In order to stand out, you need to bring something new to the table. The best way to do that is to understand what has worked in the past and mix it up in a novel way. As you replicate these established styles, you’ll discover your own. 

Take the idea of “swimming upstream” and discovering a family tree of your influences. Try this exercise: Find one thinker — a creator, writer, artist, role model — you admire and whose works you want to emulate. Study that person. Become a specialist and go deep. Then find three people that that thinker admires and follow them as well. Learn everything you can. Go deeper still. Once you’re done with that tree, begin again with another thinker, and go through that same process of swimming upstream. See how each thinker is a culmination of many others. See how one influences another. 

I love the saying: if you steal from one artist you’re plagiarising, but if you steal from many, you’re developing your own style. 

For more on developing your own style and stealing like an artist, check out Steal Like An Artist by Austen Kleon (Amazon)

More than ever, being a generalist can be a key to your success. Organizations are depending on team members that can communicate between departments. Generalists are counted on to call out discrepancies and make connections that might not be visible to specialists who are too deep into their field to notice. 

So forget about the old misconceptions, traditions, and pressures of picking a lane and staying rigidly within it. It’s time to learn, it’s time to explore, and it’s time to do more. 

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please sign up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, they’ll only include my proudest works.

For more videos about writing and the creative process, please check out my YouTube channel here!