What is Progressive Speculative Fiction?
"Progressive Speculative Fiction is a story told in any medium which has a “What if” at its core and is filled with hope for the future and promotes a sense of community (Project: Shadow Manifesto)."
Of all the things I wrote in the Project: Shadow Manifesto, that one sentence has proven to be the most controversial. Writers have emailed me asking if their work is Progressive SF or not. Let's approach the question slowly.
What is Speculative Fiction?
Speculative Fiction is any fiction that has at its core a "What if?" There are five main subgenres of Speculative Fiction:
What sets these stories apart from the mainstream?
All fiction asks the question, "Suppose X happened to this character, what would happen?" Speculative Fiction asks, "What if X were true about the universe, how would this character react?" For example:
Harry Potter: "What if magic existed in the world and it could do anything but bring people back from the dead?"
Lord of the Rings: "What is the prehistory of Europe where a mystic struggle between the powers of light and darkness over the nature of the world to come?"
Dune: "What if it were possible to alter consciousness enough for people to see the interconnectedness of all things"
Cthulu Mythos: "What if there were beings in the universe as powerful and incomprehensible as we are to an ant?"
The question is the heart of the story. You cannot have a ghost story unless you ask, "What if ghosts interfered with the lives of people?"
That is why it is called Speculative Fiction. It speculates about a world that is different from ours in some way.
What makes Speculative Fiction Progressive?
Hope for the future and promotes a sense of community. Some have taken this to mean that dark fiction cannot be Progressive. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Heroes and Battlestar Galactica
Image by Mostly Lisa via Flickr
Heroes is not progressive, but Battlestar Galactica is. Both of these stories are dark, and at times bleak. Why is one Progressive and the other not?
There is no hope in Heroes. Nothing inspires the characters forward. They looked into Kierkegaard's void and could not take their eyes off of the fact that the world is free from purpose and meaning. They embrace their meaninglessness, and robs the series of any lasting merit it could have.
Battlestar Galactica looked into the same void, and the characters chose to carve out their own meaning in the cosmos. They have hope for the future, even if it is challenged often, and they are continually struggling to build a viable community.
Hope for the Future
Hope is a necessary element of fiction that many post-modern writes/producers neglect.
Without hope, the characters have nothing to loose.
With nothing to loose, there is no tension.
Without tension, there is no reason to care about the characters.
If you don't care about the characters, there is nothing left but spectacle.
That is the primary problem with shows like Lost, Heroes, and Fringe. All they have is spectacle and shock value. They have no depth, and there is no reason for people to care about them. People watch simply to see what crazy thing happens next. They will be forgotten quickly.
A side effect of the hopelessness and ennui that fills post-modern SF is the focus on the individual to the detriment of the community. This factor alone was able to change my opinion of Battlestar Galactica. I didn't used to like the show, but after I marathoned the boxsets, I could see and better still feel the communities that were trying to maintain themselves.
A sense of community is integral to Speculative Fiction because most if not all stories present a world that is different from our own, and without a sense of community it is hard if not impossible to understand the nature of the setting. For example look at Legend of the Seeker:
The levels of mistrust amid Darken Rahl's soldiers
The submissive population of Brennidon
The reverence of the Confessors for each other and their outrage at sacrelige
The prevelence of hidden valleys and islands
All these and more add up to a better understanding of the world under Darken Rahl's control. Through these communities and the relationships between Richard, Zedd, and Kahlan defines the setting.
Hope and community are part of what Progressive Speculative Fiction is, but they are also Why Progressive Speculative Fiction is important, which we will talk about in the next post in this series.