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The Uses and Value of Realism in Speculative Fiction

Bounjour, Monsieur Courbet by Gustave Courbet

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.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. sftheory1 #

    I certainly hope quotidian sf doesn’t become the next hegemonic force (or even next big thing) in the genre.
    I won’t deny that some realist, modernist, and postmodern literary techniques are useful for speculative fiction writers. But wholesale adoption is, in my opinion, going in the wrong direction.
    I, personally, am increasingly moving towards an interest in the role of myth and myth-making in speculative fiction.

    July 17, 2012
    • Fair enough! I absolutely agree that too much realism in the fantastic would probably get old fast. Yet paying closer attention to both the superficial and subtextual techniques may lead to some interesting work, even if it doesn’t fly off the shelves.

      July 17, 2012
  2. Ye old Hard vs. Soft sci-fi. I am a big beliver in consistency over realism. You can introduce whatever implausible concept you like and if it passes my suspension of disbelief then I am on board. But if you break your own rules at the drop of a hat, I will drop you just as fast if not faster.

    July 17, 2012
  3. An excellent post. One that presents a view on realism and sf that I am inclined towards. It would maybe be obvious to suggest that many of M John Harrison short stories such as “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring ” is more in the tradition of Richard Ford than Ursula Le Guin.

    July 19, 2012
  4. I like the design refresh, Chris.

    What I struggle with is how to make the SFnal elements of a quotidian approach to SF&F (especially secondary world fantasy) matter to the story while keeping them from overwhelming it so that the emphasis can be on developing character. While I don’t wholly buy the notion that there’s no point to a SF&F story if the same story could be told with the same impact without the fantastic elements, I do think there’s always the risk that the effect ends up being so mundane that both the realism and the fantastic-ness come across as flat.

    Of course, as you note, one persons flat is another’s fascinating. I think that’s why K.J. Parker gets a mixed reception (and also makes me shake my fist because she got to the space I want to play in first).

    July 31, 2013
    • I think that (if they’re done right: that’s always the tricky part) the primary use of quotidian elements in any story (whether fantasy or mimetic realism) is to enhance characterization. The act of making a cup of tea itself is meaningless, but the character’s relationship to that process imbues the act with power and meaning.

      Parker’s actually a great example of that at play: her characters tend to be quite firmly rooted in their quotidian experience, especially where the experience of/aspiration to the quotidian is central to her themes (e.g. The Company). We gain a much deeper connection with her characters by experiencing mundane actions through their eyes. But as you say, YMMV: I love Parker’s work, however much the bleakness and brilliantly-executed thematic nihilism depress me.

      There’s a fair point to be made that some readers come to SF/F and specifically look for a rejection of the quotidian: that we want monsters and gods and spaceships being fantastic, and quotidian details aren’t germane to that experience. I find that I’m not entirely comfortable with that line of reasoning. Mainly because every time I’ve seen folks cite examples of work which eschews the quotidian, on closer examination the text is actually pretty well seasoned with it. It may be more of a background flavor, to extend a metaphor, but it’s definitely an important component of the meal.

      Like so many things in writing, perhaps it’s a question of spectrum and degree?

      August 1, 2013
  5. “As a consequence, we must imagine the fantastical environment in which a character’s daily life unfolds before we can imagine that daily life.”

    Yes. On the reception end of this difficulty, I would love for the critics of SF&F to come up with a vocabulary/schema* that helps us think through and talk about the degree to which the fantastical environment is integrated with quotidian life, that is, the degree to which it is mundane to the characters in the story. Much of the work in fantasy solves this either by making the truly fantastic elements rare or by focusing on anomalies that crop up within the environment. Both can be good solutions, and I can kinda roughly categorize specific works. But I find my mind going blurry when I try to think in detail about works in relation to each other as well as how location on that scale affects character development.

    *It may already exists. I’m not widely read in SF&F criticism.

    July 31, 2013
    • Hmm…that’s a really interesting proposition! I’m not familiar with any sort of schema / theory that takes a stab at it, but it sounds like it’d be a fascinating tool for analyzing fantastical works. I’ll need to think about it some more, but it seems like it would need to take into account:

      • the degree to which the speculative environment is removed from the *reader’s* reality,
      • the degree to which the *character’s* perceptions are focused on their environment (i.e. the degree to which the environment occupies the descriptive foreground), and;
      • the degree to which speculative elements are central to the plot (i.e. the degree to which the environment occupies the narrative foreground).

      Hee – I love theoretical frameworks. 🙂 I’ll need to give this one a bit further thought.

      August 1, 2013
      • I like it. One of the common ways in fantasy to create a speculative environment that is removed from the reader’s reality and have them not central to the plot yet still foregrounded is to use the artifacts/structures of lost civilizations trick. At the very least it adds some flavor and cool-ness, but it also can eventually turn into something more central to the plot as the book (or more likely these days — the series) continues.

        An example that jumps to mind is the Elderglass towers and bridges of Camorr in Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s a way to make a more fantastical Venice without having to reckon (yet — who knows how the series will progress) with the technology behind the creation of the elements that go beyond the familiar. I suppose, especially in fantasy, that’s another thing to consider: how active or inactive the various technologies (magical or scientific, etc.) that have at one time been operative in the world still are. When such are hidden or lost, the character’s knowledge is brought closer to that of the reader. But also, depending on how common the features of the lost civilization/knowledge is, the odd details can become part of the quotidian of the character even though latent fantastical-ness may still exists.

        August 1, 2013

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