Good Speculative Fiction: Truth-tempered Imagination

And we’re back with another thought or two about what sets good speculative fiction apart from bad.  Two weeks ago, I looked at how good speculative fiction really requires a massive imagination in order to account for all of the various strands of pseudo reality that the author must first create and then keep in mind.  There is, however, a significant check on that imagination:  Truth.  Without that check, we are in serious danger on both a practical and a personal level.  All of the best speculative fiction seems to have some grounding in the larger truths we see around us and experience on a daily basis, but at the same time those truths are cloaked deeply enough in speculation and myth that they seem entirely fresh and new.

Using Tolkien as an example–of course–we can think of the One Ring.  On the one hand, the Ring is obviously completely fictitious, purely speculative.  It is a semi sentient band of well-nigh indestructible metal with massive but generally undefined powers (beyond making someone turn invisible) that can somehow corrupt people’s moral fiber just by being in their vicinity.  The fate of the entire world hangs on whether or not it can be destroyed.  No such item ever has existed nor is it ever likely to exist.

On the other hand, almost everything in the story that gives the Ring its terrifying power and authority is built not just from familiar physical items (i.e. a gold wedding band) but more importantly from broad and significant truths.  The Ring is the ultimate expression of the desire for and abuse of power through an idol.  It violates the first of the ten commandments, becoming the bearer’s idol, and that in turn leads the bearer to violate many, many other moral prohibitions.  All of this is something that is very real and very understandable.  It strikes us on a primal level and we react to it strongly.  We know what Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum face because many (most) of us deal with the same brand of temptation on a lesser scale, and we know that giving in is just as wrong in Middle Earth as it is for us here.  So, in a sense, we understand the plight of the Ring Bearer because we carry rings of our own.

If we forget to ground our speculative fiction in truth, then we risk running afoul of one (or both) of the following points:

  • Speculative fiction that is too alien gives us no point of commonality from which we can speak to our readers.  What makes the One Ring so powerful, so ominous is that is speaks directly to a part of us that understands the desire for it far too well.  We put ourselves in Frodo’s shoes and ask if we would have had the strength of character and purity of mind and spirit to hold up under the burden as he did.  What we fear most is the answer to that question, not the Ring itself or Tolkien’s depiction of it.  If you don’t keep truth in view, you lose all of that.
  • Speculative fiction that ignores larger truth also ignores our responsibility to our readers.  As I discussed in my post on moral escapism, I truly believe that what we write can have direct, specific consequences for real people in the real world.  By setting up a speculation that encourages people to test their moral boundaries, we can also be encouraging them to flirt with disaster.  We need to take care that if someone decides to take a step that would be harmful–physically, emotionally, or morally–it is in spite of us and not because of us.  (You really should read the fuller explanation linked above and below, if this catches your attention.  I can’t do the idea justice here.)

Without a proper grounding in truth, speculative fiction can be meaningless and even dangerous.  Tolkien’s mastery of it is one reason why he is numbered among the true greats of the genre.  I think we would do well to follow his example.

__________

Other Posts in This Series:

  1. Speculative Fiction:  A Brilliant Opportunity
  2. Moral Escapism:  Speculative Fiction’s Evil Twin
  3. Good Speculative Fiction: Honesty and Self Awareness
  4. Good Speculative Fiction:  Facing the Consequences
  5. Good Speculative Fiction:  Substantial Imagination
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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on February 23, 2012, in Brian Melton, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I sincerely appreciate your last point in this article about our responsibility to our readers because what we write has the power to affect them directly and concretely in their real lives. And I could not agree more. If there is one thing that makes me sad about this generation’s literary contributions, it is that so many authors today seem to have forgotten that truth. You have done an excellent job of reminding all of us. Thank you.

    • Sandra,

      Thanks! I know I’ve been to a number of conferences and in various conversations where people make the argument that the author has no responsibility to anyone other then their characters and to anything other than their story. That’s always struck me as simply wrong–it’s a very selfish way of looking at the world. No one–certainly not authors with egos, myself included–likes to hear that, but I think its true nonetheless.

  2. Great post, though I think speaking the truth goes beyond the speculative fiction genre. If there’s no truth in your writing–any writing–it’s fairly useless. I do agree though that speculative fiction has a way of showing truths sometimes more vividly than other genres. Perhaps it’s that it comes to the truth by way of characters and settings that appear unfamiliar, but still show us that we are all very much the same, with the same desires, shortcomings, and needs.

    • Tracey,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I agree completely. If truth is truth, then it must be all encompassing and affect every relevant area of thought and life. That idea was an early casualty of postmodern culture and I think we see the results all around us. I think that speculative fiction, done right, can be an effective method for communicating truth too because it can get things a hearing that would otherwise be simply shut out. There’s a fine line there, though–generally the only people who want to read fiction that shoves an agenda are those who already agree with it!

  3. Hi Brian, fantastic post on speculative fiction. This isn’t my genre, but I have read the Ring Trilogy. I would like to see more elaboration on why speculative fiction not grounded in the truth is dangerous. You left me with a cliffhanger.

    • Patricia,

      Thanks for reading! I’ll give the question some more thought, but I have an entire post on that topic, though not under that specific name. If you’re interested, you could start there: Speculative Fiction’s Evil Twin. I’d be interested in hearing what you think, if you decide to share.

  4. This was great. There is something so much more powerful and appealing to a reader when a writer chooses to make connections to real life, to keep a story relateable. And we still often nurse a penchant for the grand and epic so to bring the two together really does make the difference. Excellent insights!

    • Audrey,

      Glad you enjoyed it. It never ceases to amaze me how much “grand and epic” we overlook every day in small things. The best authors, IMHO, are often the ones that can show us. 🙂 Or something like that!

  1. Pingback: Good Speculative Fiction: Further Thoughts on Honest Imagination | Lantern Hollow Press

  2. Pingback: Good Speculative Fiction: A Variety of Imagination | Lantern Hollow Press

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