The Uses and Value of Realism in Speculative Fiction
I’ve just gotten back, having spent a wonderful long weekend at Readercon, where it was great to see old friends and meet new ones. Alas, my brain is too full of valuable insights to really do a single comprehensive con write-up. Instead, I’m going to write about something that came out of one of the many panels I attended: how realism can be valuable to speculative fiction.
Judging solely by the panel title and description, this was an issue that I expected one panel in particular to explore. Alas, I found that it bogged down in a discussion of the value of fictional memoirs versus true memoirs, and thus didn’t really explore the question I had hoped it would. But with a long drive home from Boston on Sunday evening, I had a lot of time to think about it myself. And I’m curious to know what everyone else thinks of these ideas.
The Aesthetic Purpose of Fiction
To be effective, fiction must communicate or reveal something true. That truth is a slippery concept, precisely because fiction by definition is so patently false. In this case, that truth is not necessarily factual (such-and-such happened), but is rather more nebulous and insightful (such-and-such could have happened). The particular action in those sentences may itself be event-oriented (such as a sequence of actions), or it can be character-oriented and thus speak to the inner experience of either specific individuals or to a more general community. In either case, effective fiction must communicate or reveal some truth about the human experience, either as lived, imagined, or perceived by its readers.
We use resonance to gauge a fiction’s truthiness, which is why the experience and appreciation of fiction is so subjective. Our response to the truth in a particular work of fiction is informed by our past life experiences, our previous reading, and by our neurophysiology (which itself has roots in our genetics). Your mileage may vary, and our tastes and appreciation may differ.
But if the aesthetic purpose of fiction is to communicate or reveal some deeper truth, then how do we accomplish that? What are the techniques that we use to produce resonance in the reader? Answering that question gets us to the heart of the aesthetic debates that over the years have given rise to so many aesthetic “movements”.
Realism Is Not Real
Where I think the Readercon panel got side-tracked lies in a – perhaps subtle – realization about the concept of realism: realism need not be factually true. It must instead give the appearance of utter plausibility. As a philosophical movement with its roots in the 19th century, realism lauded the portrayal of the plausible and valorized the inclusion of extensive detail and minutia to heighten the verisimilitude of the text. In other words: realism need not be real, but it needs to give a convincing portrayal of reality.
The realist movement was itself a response to the more fantastical romantic era, and rejected the latter’s heavy-handed symbolism and implausible adventures. When we think of classically realist works, the kind that get thrust upon us in school, there are no works of speculative fiction on the list. Instead, we get the likes of Eliot, or Dostoyevsky, or Balzac: authors who specialize in the portrayal of the mundane and quotidian.
With this historical baggage, it is understandable why a term like “realism” might be a dirty word to some who write in genre: after all, many of us (myself included) trace a direct line of descent from the romantics to contemporary speculative fiction, and the realists were at the opposite end of the scale to our illustrious artistic ancestors.
And yet, we actually rely on their techniques to tell our fantastical stories.
Superficially, Realism is the Lens Through Which We Relate to the Fantastic
Speculative fiction relies upon the fantastic, the unreal, to tell its stories. We use dragons and faster than light space travel to entertain and actualize the metaphors we employ to communicate our deeper truths. Our job is to make the implausible and the imaginary real to our readers. And we use the expository techniques of realism to achieve this. If we were to take our imagined constructs, unpack their underlying metaphors, and explicitly discuss them in our stories, they would cease to be stories: they would become philosophical tracts (and those don’t tend to be as popular with readers, alas).
Rather than write such tracts, we carefully describe our dragons or spaceships (or dragons on spaceships) using realistic terms. We need that degree of realism to relate to the text, to understand it, and to internalize it at any number of levels. On the purely descriptive level, we want to know how something utterly fantastical looks so that we can imagine the story’s action. On the deeper philosophical level, we want to know how something utterly fantastical works so that we can better internalize the story’s subtext. I might not need to know a dragon’s place in a secondary world’s ecology, but if the author hasn’t at least considered it, then the verisimilitude of the text will be damaged, and I will find the story less engaging (perhaps fatally).
These are the techniques which realism applies, and they are an incredibly useful tool that authors of the fantastic can gain deep insight from. Want a model for portraying an oppressive urban environment where the individual is subsumed by the city? Check out some Dostoyevsky. His descriptive methods – perhaps modified somewhat for contemporary stylistic sensibilities – can be applied to any secondary world or primary world urban fantasy, and work wonders. While I haven’t seen China Miéville reference Dostoyevsky specifically, I would be greatly surprised if the latter did not influence the former’s Bas Lag novels.
Similar lessons can be learned from more contemporary authors, who while likely eschewing the realist label, tend to write mimetic, mainstream literary fiction. I have, for example, often heard that the difference between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction is that the former prioritizes characters, while the latter prioritizes plot. And while I am sympathetic to this statement, I see no earthly reason why speculative fiction cannot do a better job with character by adopting the techniques of mainstream literary fiction.
But a more difficult question, perhaps, goes below the superficial level of verisimilitude in our prose: does the philosophical aesthetic of realism have value for those of us writing in the speculative vein?
Daily Life Aboard a Spaceship: Real Realism in Speculative Fiction
The realists’ true contribution to art, I believe, isn’t their prose techniques or expository methods. Instead, I think their true innovation lies in their focus on the quotidian aspects of daily life. This especially relates to the classic realists with which I am most familiar: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Crane, etc.
By focusing on the mundane (I use that term advisedly, more to come in a second!) aspects of daily life, the realists were able to address a different underlying truth than their romantic predecessors. These were not, as in so much of the romantics’ work, aspirational truths. Instead, they were observational ones about the lives of regular, otherwise unremarkable, people. This is a truth that has tremendous value, and it is a truth which quite frankly I often find lacking in a genre which tends towards larger-than-life heroes.
I think this lack of quotidian speculative fiction has its roots in two issues: none of us has ever lived aboard an interstellar starship, or had to defend a village from dragon attack (…or had to defend a space ship from an advancing fleet of space dragons). As a consequence, we must imagine the fantastical environment in which a character’s daily life unfolds before we can imagine that daily life. This produces at least two levels at which we must imagine, and thus two levels of remove from our own experiences. It is difficult (though I suspect not impossible) to make a story engaging enough for the reader to do that work.
I also suspect that there is philosophical opposition to this aesthetic amongst speculative fiction readers. Many (myself included) like our fiction to be fun and exciting. Many don’t consider Middlemarch or Anna Karenina a fun read. Much as I might disagree, I can acknowledge the point: we often read speculative fiction to distract ourselves from quotidian life, so why should we subject ourselves to more of the same in our fiction?
The Future of the Quotidian Fantastic?
A topic that came up now and again at Readercon was the Mundane SF movement, which strives for greater realism in science fiction. But much as I am sympathetic to the values of the Mundane SF movement, I suspect that by focusing on the realism of the science fictional elements themselves, its stories often miss the bigger, more important picture: the deeper truths that lie below the surface of our daily existence. That was realism’s true innovation, and its lasting contribution to literature. Across the aisle in fantasy, I find that the magical realism movement (which itself often gets categorized as “literary fiction”) does a better job of this.
I believe that quotidian speculative fiction has its place in the genre. And that is precisely because it speaks to different truths than most speculative fiction: it speaks to the little heroisms of daily life, and to the practical challenges that arise from our human and social natures. These are not greater truths, nor are they more important, or even more relevant than those which speculative fiction most commonly explores. But they are categorically different, and so require different techniques to realize. And models for those techniques, I think, can best be found in realist fiction, and its mainstream literary descendents.