Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Essay: One Speculative Fiction Story to Rule Them All

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

One common tendency for people is to over-simplify, to boil everything down into one neat formula. That's the appeal of black-and-white morals where things are clear-cut and easily defined. Unfortunately, it is not a place that encourages deliberation, discussion, or individual opinion.

My personal experience with this stems from non-fans of any genre or medium. For example, in college, I was often found sitting on the library's entrance, reading a fantasy or science fiction novel. In one instance, a friend approached me and wanting to start some idle chatter, asked me what I was reading and what the book was about. Now I have no qualms about answering the former but for me, the latter is a dead-end question. First of all, if an entire novel can be summarized in one sentence, or even in a brief discussion, why bother reading the book at all? Second, if I knew how the book would turn out, then I wouldn't be reading it in the first place. There are some situations where after reading the prologue, you know where the book is headed. But honestly, how can one make that claim until you've actually finished the book and talk about it with certainty? So my common practice was to hand them the book I was reading and let them make their own decisions. After a few seconds of looking at the book's cover and reading the back copy, they'd ask what genre it was.

"Fantasy," I told them.

"Is that like Lord of the Rings? Or Harry Potter?" Both books were at the time the craze, especially in light of Hollywood and the money the movies were raking in.

Not that I'm against Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter as the poster boys of the genre but there's more to fantasy than those two series. Dragonlance, for example, despite the Tolkienesque elements it inherited from D&D, is not Lord of the Rings. Lemony Snickett or Chronicles of Narnia or His Dark Materials may be young adult fantasy but they are different in subject matter and voice when compared to each other or Harry Potter. Here, we see a tendency to oversimplify, to encapsulate thousands, if not millions of books, under one neat category, as if they were all clones of each other.

To be fair, I've made the same mistake in the past. Fantasy and science fiction are my personal causes because I love them but when it comes to other genres, I am as ignorant as the rest. I think every non-romance reader has this idea that romance novels are these cheesy, simple stories of love, heartbreak, and sex. But what would I know having never read Mills & Boon or Danielle Steele or whatever popular romance literature out there? I'm sure even within the confines of the romance genre, there are various styles, techniques, and narrative forms that distinguishes one book from another.

These days, in terms of local lit, a friend is in crisis as a stranger asked him what the difference was between the various local speculative fiction publications (as if they were that many). I could rant about the difference in editors, publication objective, and featured authors but I'd be ignoring the obvious: the fact that the various publications feature different stories that all qualify as speculative fiction for I do not think there is any single story that encapsulates or defines the entire genre. Even if two stories share the same author, they will be different stories and simply not be identical to each other.

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