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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