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Leaping the Chasm of Imagination: Verisimilitude, Historical Fiction, and Speculative Fiction


The borders of genre are famously porous. Devices that start in one genre will get adopted, subsumed, and then modified in another. Then the cycle starts again, with the “new” device trickling back to its original progenitor. This tendency is why asking whether realistic or speculative fiction developed first is meaningless: anthropologists and fans can probably debate this ’til the heat death of the universe, and even then the answer won’t matter. But I’m curious as to how and why certain narrative techniques make this leap and others don’t.

Verisimilitude is the Heart of Storytelling

Every single genre – regardless of how speculative it is – relies on some degree of verisimilitude to enable comprehension. Sure, it’s theoretically possible to write a science fiction novel entirely in a made-up alien language with concepts for which there is no human analog…but who on this planet would actually read it? At the most basic level of language, we rely on mutually comprehensible words to communicate. This is the point where I call shenanigans on the pseudo-linguistic (read: intellectually irresponsible) school of critical theory that argues that text/words/language are inherently meaningless. If that were true, then we would not only never have fiction, we would also lose all written correspondence and spoken conversation. Community relies on communication: note their similar roots.

The sentence “John opened the door.” could appear in a hard science fiction story, an immersive secondary world fantasy, or in mimetic chick lit. Sure, we might need to replace the character’s name, and call John “Blaghosan” or something to maintain the illusion, but the act of opening a door can apply in any of these fictional modes. The richness of our lexicon and its corresponding flexibility enables us to assemble more complex, interesting, and layered sentences. But fiction (and any communication) relies on a shared ontological foundation.

At Viable Paradise (which I attended a couple of weeks ago), the amazing Teresa Nielsen Hayden said something utterly profound: “The subject verbed the object, and it was good.” The particulars might vary, but at the sentence level that basic principle underlies all communication, regardless of its realism. The fancy stuff (metaphors, similes, neologisms) that speculative fiction authors love is really a set of clothes hung on this incredibly flexible frame.

The Basic Devices of Fiction: Simile, Metaphor, and Neologism as Genre Markers

All writers use a certain basic arsenal in an infinite variety of combinations to communicate and manipulate their audiences. The most basic tools are such an indelible part of language, communication, and thought as to be near inseparable. But how we use them can actually be one of the markers of speculative fiction.

When we employ a simile (“John scuttled like an ant”) we are establishing a sense of apparency. The use of “like” indicates that John is not in actuality an ant. He merely acts with characteristics more commonly associated with one. Such a use of apparency can take place in any genre and is likely as old as language. Metaphor (“John was an ant scuttling across the floor.”) and neologism (“John the antyman scuttled”), however, are a little more complicated.

If we’re reading a work that is by definition realistic, then we recognize metaphor as a stronger way of evoking apparency. If we’re reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, we know that John hasn’t actually become an arthropod. But if we’re reading something speculative than lacking other markers in the text, our hero John may have suddenly literally transmogrified into an insect (hey, it worked for Kafka, right?).

When we come across a neologism (“antyman”) we now have to decode the new word and incorporate it into our lexicon. Its semantic meaning may be unclear, and needs to be gleaned from context. In speculative fiction, that context may support fantastic concepts (antyman – the hybrid of a human and an ant) or merely extend our realistic lexicon (like Shakespeare coining terms like “assassination”).

This decoding process is part of what we love about science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Decoding where a given work’s fantastic borders are is an intellectual puzzle that gives us no small degree of satisfaction (whether escapist or otherwise). Traditionally, literal metaphor has been the plaything of speculative fiction writers. Realistic writers might have dallied in it a bit, but it is only with the relatively recent rise of magical realism and literary fiction’s “discovery” of science fictional devices that this technique has been fully appropriated. A similar process has happened over the centuries with narrative structures.

The Many Structures of the Novel

While many hardcore genre fans might disagree, I would argue that most innovative novel structures first appeared in “realistic” fiction. Whether it is the epistolary novel, the framed narrative, stream of consciousness, or non-linearity it probably appeared first in the realm of realistic mimetic fiction. There’s a good reason for that: like speculative fiction, innovative structures require effort on the part of the reader to decode and process them. To expect the reader to decode an innovative structure and process the speculative elements is likely expecting too much.

Consider the history of the epistolary novel. When it first grew to prominence in the seventeenth century (check out Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister), we had to learn how to consume realistic epistolary novels before fantastical interpretations could flourish. As far as I know, it was not until 1818 that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus successfully introduced early science fictional elements into the epistolary structure, and not until 1897 that Bram Stoker’s Dracula did the same for the nascent genre of horror. I suspect these novels owe much of their continued longevity and relevance to being early examples of speculative stories that made the imaginative leap and successfully appropriated a mimetic/realistic structure.

The pattern is quite similar for other innovative narrative structures. Could Delaney’s Dhalgren have appeared without the innovations of Kerouac? Or would Effinger’s When Gravity Fails have the same resonance without Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett? As readers, we don’t need to have read the realistic taproot texts to experience and enjoy their speculative descendents. Because their structures are successful, they spawn a multiplicity of children: they become part of the cultural zeitgeist that soaks into our awareness.

This pattern actually holds even for the most basic taproot texts of literature. At the start of this post, I asked whether realistic or speculative fiction came first. And the answer is that they both appeared at the same time in the form of historical fiction. Wikipedia dates the first piece of historical fiction back to the 20th century BC. In those ancient days, there was little distinction between what today we characterize as “myth” and what they called “history”.

Even the earliest historical fiction had the same world-building challenges as speculative fiction. History is a foreign country we can never visit, and ancient Greece or Regency Britain are as foreign to our twenty-first century sensibilities as Middle-Earth or the Sagittarius Arm. The world-building techniques for the two genres are identical. Look at how Patrick O’Brian pulls us into his Napoleonic-era nautical understanding in his Aubrey and Maturin books. Then compare his methods to how Arthur C. Clarke introduces us to space-age technology in Rendezvous With Rama. The challenge is the same, and the craft to address it is the same as well.

Does the Pendulum Swing Both Ways?

With the rise of the modernists in the early twentieth century, we saw the fantastic get relegated to a pulp ghetto that we still struggle to escape. Yet even then, there were some “mainstream” authors who looked to fantastic fiction as a source of inspiration (Kingsley Amis and Shirley Jackson both come to mind). The last several decades have seen fantastical techniques gain acceptability within the realistic fiction community (provided they’re labeled “magical realism”). With post-apocalyptic texts like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or blatantly science fictional novels like Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe: A Novel being published as “mainstream literary fiction” we may be living through the pendulum’s reversal as we speak.

Which are the fantastical devices that will now hop back over that imaginative chasm? What are – and what will – contemporary “realistic” writers learn from their speculative peers? That the cycle will keep going I have no doubt, but I’m curious what lessons realistic authors are learning from those of us who like to mess about with elves and space ships and zombies. Regardless of the genre, my own predilections suggest that writers who want to innovate structurally should read widely and extensively across genres to internalize others’ innovations wherever we come across them. T.S. Eliot nailed it when he said “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.”

What should we be stealing nowadays?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. sftheory1 #

    An interesting post that I agree with mostly. But there are some issues I have. While some critical theorists may posit that language is meaningless, that is only a fringe trying to make a splash in academia. Another issue I have is the sudden jamming in of historical fiction towards the end of the piece. It doesn’t really quite fit in with the rest of the argument (nor does it impact much beyond its few paragraphs).
    Overall, a pretty good essay.

    November 2, 2011
    • Thanks! And while I realize the “language is meaningless” camp is an academic fringe, it never fails to get me really incensed. But I suppose by getting riled I’m just giving them what they want..

      November 2, 2011
  2. That is another reason why the Pulitzer winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is so importan. While overtly referencing genre fiction, particularly The Lord of the Rings, and juxtaposing it with the real world monster of Trujillo and his endless tryranny over the Dominican Republic, he make the fundamental point that no matter how much imagine an imaginary evil, it can’t match what real evil has wrought upon people in the mundane world.

    Love, C.

    November 2, 2011
    • I haven’t yet had a chance to read much Diaz – but The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is now definitely on my to-read list. Thanks for mentioning it!

      November 2, 2011

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