What Speculative Fiction Taught Douglas Thompson

About the Author

As well as numerous short stories in magazines and anthologies, Douglas Thompson is the author of seven novels: Ultrameta (2009) and Sylvow (2010) both from Eibonvale Press, Apoidea (2011) from The Exaggerated Press, Mechagnosis from Dog Horn (2012), Entanglement from Elsewhen Press ( 2012), and Volwys and Freasdal from Dog Horn and Acair Publishing respectively, both due in late 2013/early 2014. He is also chairman of the Scottish Writers Centre, based in Glasgow.

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SFF: Dreaming The World’s Mind

Thanks Sarah, for the chance to provide a guest post for your blog. Your enthusiasm for SFF sounds boundless, rightly so for its capacity for unbridled invention, but you also make some excellent point about good Science Fiction and Fantasy really being about the here and now, not escapist nonsense as some ill-informed detractors seem to think. I didn’t even realise I was writing Fantasy (or ‘Slipstream’, a surreal branch of it) until the London writer and editor Allen Ashley unexpectedly accepted one of my short stories for his “Subtle Edens” Slipstream anthology (Elastic Press, 2008). Up to that point, I thought I had simply being writing the only kind stories that made sense to me as a way to deal with the world. I don’t as a rule conform to any rules (paradox!) for anything, if I can avoid them, so it was a big surprise to find I fitted into a ‘genre’ I had never read…. Or almost. In fact I’d read Slipstream classics like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy before the term was known to me. I’d read some Sci-Fi like Greg Bear’s Blood Music and Fantasy like Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, but had thought my own fiction was just eccentric mainstream.

Now what I’ve learned, five years and five books further on, is that Speculative Fiction (to use the shy Margaret Atwood’s more politely prophylactic term for it all) is in fact the best vehicle, perhaps the only one, that can enable a writer to tackle complex social issues in a way that can convey an effective message along with humour and without heavyweight melancholy.

I mean try writing about rape or domestic abuse in purely realist literary terms and you might create a work of great power, but it is going to be a harrowing read that leaves the average reader morose and despondent. Tackle the same subject in a magic realist mode and you may shed light on the imaginative inner lives of the victims of those situations, and the hopes and dreams that keep them going.

The story I’ve just had published in Hic Dragones new anthology “Impossible Spaces”, called “Multiplicity”, tackles a heavyweight subject (or several): the meaning of individualism in the face of the cycle of birth and death and sex in a mass society. Encountering the outer regions of a black hole, the crew of a large space-going vehicle experience a dramatic distortion of space and time in which multiple versions of themselves each age backwards and forwards at accelerated rates, turning into children then babies, old people then dying, and so forth. As new babies appear to take the place of the dead, the DNA of the new arrivals is a random mix gathered from people nearby, so that by the time the effect ceases each crew member has become a descendant of themselves whose DNA is polluted by his fellow crew members. Taken literally, this alarming scenario just seems frightening, but taken as an allegory it can be seen as a microcosm of the lives we are all living here right now on Earth. It’s just the fact that time is moving forward and slowly that blind us to the weird and miraculous reality we’re moving through each day.

Try tackling those same issues in a straightforward literary way and you would need a much longer story and a patient audience willing to listen to your sociological diatribe. In speculative fiction, a much more concise game can be played that is (hopefully) both humorous and insightful.

Another example would be a short story of mine called “Narcissi” that will be published this summer in the British Fantasy Society Journal. Among many other things, this is a story about rape. A man writing about rape? Dodgy eh? But in the story I have an alien creature (whose sex cannot be known in our terms) being raped by a terrestrial man, who then finds out months later that in fact the alien was raping him back and his body has been seeded with hundreds of tiny alien larvae who paralyse him and start hatching out all over his body. Sounds horrific? Well, it’s meant to be, because the experience of the man in the story is intended as a metaphor for what it feels like for a woman to be raped: i.e. paralysed, abused, demeaned and terrified. I don’t think it’s easy to convey that to people in a straightforward realist story because the subject is so emotive and distasteful. But through speculative fiction, what Jung would call “repressed material” can be dragged out into the light and examined. It’s the same mechanism by which our subconscious minds create dreams and nightmares I suppose. In fact, I would define the speculative fiction writer as the ultimate lucid dreamer, with a pen in his hand (or a keyboard at her fingerprints).

I’m sorry for being so presumptuous as to use my own work as an example in the above, but it seemed the best and most direct way I could think of to demonstrate to readers the nuts and bolts of how Science Fiction and Fantasy can tackle the major social and psychological issues of the real everyday world.

Each to their own, but personally I think the editors and critics who are currently asking for “realistic” science fiction are spectacularly missing the point. If you want to find out what happens in the future just hang around long enough and you will see it will happen. But if you want to change the future (and the way our planet’s going, I would suggest that we should) then you need to write (and read) good science fiction. Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Orwell’s 1984, Shelley’s Frankenstein and Zamyatin’s We –books like these were not about the future but about the society’s of their time, societies which in some small but critical way they helped to change. Governments may spy on us, but now they will always be open to charges of being “Big Brother”. They may lie to us, but their neologisms will now always be pilloried as “Newspeak”, and the head office their lies come from as “The Ministry of Truth”.

Words are important. Good words can usher in golden ages. But words also kill, because bad ideas kill. Nazism took hold of the misunderstood ideas of Nietzsche (regarding the ‘superman’). Communism misunderstood Marx and Trotsky. Sadly, many of the world religions continue to cause conflicts and death today because of zealots misinterpreting well-meaning ideas designed for societies centuries and millennia into the past.

The internet, surely the most dramatic paradigm shift of most of our lifetimes, has created what I would call “The world’s mind”, a mind in the constant process of dreaming and imagining its own possible futures, through the media of books, film and politics and so forth. The good writers of science fiction and fantasy are like psychoanalysts, able to examine the traumas and neuroses of that huge, somewhat deranged mind. Politicians might think they are in control of the thoughts flying around in that brain every day, but increasingly they are not, we are: a vast fluid consensus of millions of educated and reasoning minds. Ideas are the gold of the twenty-first century and writers are the lonely prospectors, panning through the murky rivers on those distant hills at the edge of our known worlds.