Crossroads: “Literary” Speculative Fiction and Literary Sensibilities

As I mentioned last week, trying to draw general conclusions about the relationship between mainstream literary fiction and speculative fiction is difficult at best. For every “general” hypothesis, a slew of counter-examples can be raised which undermine its veracity. If, however, we think about both genres as falling somewhere on various probabilistic spectrums, then generalizations become simultaneously easier to identify and more defensible: after all, we’re only dealing with probabilities.

Given such a spectrum-based approach, what are the techniques that set borderline cases apart from their mainstream or speculative neighbors? There are many works which were published as science fiction or fantasy, but which simultaneously incorporate techniques more commonly found in literary fiction. When we look at works like John Crowley’s Little, Big, Gene Wolfe’s Peace, or Jo Walton’s Among Others we can spot at least three characteristics typically associated with literary fiction existing alongside the novel’s fantastical conceits:

Focus on Composition

As Peter pointed out in the comments to last week’s post, “literary” works tend to employ more complicated sentence and paragraph construction. While there is nothing wrong with purely functional prose (and a lot of great novels keep their prose and structures straightforward), those speculative fiction titles which get classified as “literary” tend to use rich language, evocative metaphors, and complex structures.

Consider the opening paragraphs from three very different novels:

Peace by Gene Wolfe

The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge’s daughter, fell last night. I was asleep and heard nothing, but from the number of shattered limbs and the size of the trunk there must have been a terrible crashing. I woke – I was sitting up in my bed before the fire – but by the time I was awake there was nothing to hear but the dripping of the melting snow running from the eaves. I remember that my heart pounded and I was afraid I was going to have an attack, and then, fuzzily, thought that perhaps the heart attack had wakened me, and then that I might be dead. I try to use the candle as little as I can, but I lit it then and sat up with the blankets around me, enjoying the candlelight and listening to the sound of the dripping snow and to the icicles melting, and it seemed to me that the whole house was melting like the candle, going soft and running down into the lawn.

Little, Big by John Crowley

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo

Michael O’Neal was a junior associate web consultant with an Atlanta web-page design firm. What this meant in practice was that he worked eight to twelve hours a day with HTML, Java and Perl. When the associate account executives or the account executives needed somebody along who really understand what the system was doing, when, for example, the client group included an engineer or computer geek, he would be invited to the meeting to sit there and be quiet until they hit a snag. Then he opened his mouth to spit out a bare minimum of technobabble. This indicated to the customer that there was at least one guy working on their site who had more going for him than good hair and a low golf score. Then the sales consultant would take the client to lunch while Mike went back to his office.

Debating which paragraph is “better” or “worse” is not constructive, and offers us no insight into the narratives or genres in question. However, we can clearly see certain stark differences in compositional method.

Wolfe and Crowley each rely on longer sentences, composed of a greater number of sub-clauses, and with a far greater number of passive and transitive verbs than does Ringo. Ringo’s prose, by contrast, is direct: straightforward and conversational in tone. Wolfe in particular litters his opening paragraph with a large number of vivid metaphors (the drip of melting snow, the melting icicles, the melting candle – noticing a pattern here?) which tie back into the overall emotional arc of the story and to his narrator’s inner experience. Such complexity at the sentence and paragraph level – and its relationship to the themes and emotional focus of the narrative – is more reminiscent of structures frequently found in mainstream literary fiction (whether fantastical or not).

Exploration of the Character’s Inner Experience

Much speculative fiction is centrally concerned with the characters’ influence on their environment. The hero saves the world, the heroine defeats the monster, etc. But when we look at those works which stride the borderland between speculative and literary fiction, their central concern is with the characters’ influence on their own inner experience.

While characters like Jo Walton’s Morwenna Phelps (Among Others) do affect the environment around them, the narrative focuses the reader’s attention on their internal journey, as expressed by their values, emotions, or relationships. The reader’s perception of the external consequences of characters’ actions is heavily occluded (or at least overshadowed) by the internal significance of these actions to the characters in question.

This is not to say that “conventional” speculative fiction eschews or otherwise diminishes its characters. I for one think that all great fiction requires great characters, and great characters stem from an exploration of their emotions, relationships, and values. But “less literary” speculative fiction differs by focusing the reader’s attention outward from the characters.

Consider Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games). Her narrative arc throughout the Hunger Games trilogy is heavily tied to her emotions and values, however the narrative directs the reader’s experience of those emotions and values by portraying Katniss’ emotional and moral arcs mediated through her physical conflict. Katniss’ struggles in the Hunger Games (and in her world’s politics) are a concretization of her inner struggles. This is a powerful and compelling narrative technique, which relies on deft control of pacing and narrative tension. Yet it is also a technique which is rarely found in literary fiction.


The third characteristic often found in borderline cases is ambiguity of interpretation, which is often tied to the story’s narrative focus on the characters’ internal experiences. In Megan Lindholm’s classic Wizard of the Pigeons, the reality of Wizard’s “powers” is kept crucially ambiguous. Lindholm draws (and maintains throughout) a careful line between madness and magic, letting the reader decide for themselves which “reading” of the narrative they wish to subscribe to.

In Gene Wolfe’s Peace, we are never given clarity or closure as to the narrator’s condition. The story is presented through Alden Dennis Weer’s disjointed and scattered memories, and we are never explicitly told/shown how the narrator relates to those memories in either time or condition. The reader is left to infer this information from clues scattered throughout the text. We are left to with a book which is difficult to pin down, as it can only be pinned down by an individual reader’s idiosyncratic prioritization of the significance of particular images.

Such intentional ambiguity is absent in more plot-oriented narratives, which focus the reader’s attention on events of a more binary nature: either the heroes succeed in their goals, or they fail.

Does the Door Swing Both Ways?

These are all characteristics of literary fiction which can and do happily co-exist with speculative devices, whether those conceits are fantastical in nature (e.g. faeries, magic, ghosts, etc.) or science fictional (e.g. space ships, FTL travel, time travel, etc.). And the door swings both ways: The techniques of speculative fiction can work well alongside literary fiction’s typical conventions.

Next week, I’ll be wrapping up this month’s exploration of literary fiction and speculative fiction’s intersection by taking a look at how works of literary fiction make use of the techniques of speculative fiction. I hope you’ll join me next week, but until then, what do you think sets “literary” speculative fiction apart from “the rest of” the genre?

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  1. Excellent post, Chris. I think you’re right that even when genre works explore the inner experience, they also often externalize it; whereas literary fiction is often content to let it remain in a state of reflection. The Hunger Games is a great example of this. So are Brust’s Taltos novels, which have literary characteristics but with a strong genre core.

    I think that ambiguity is why China Miéville’s works are such interesting litmus tests. Readers with strong genre preferences may be frustrated by the ambiguity; readers with strong literary preferences may be frustrated by all the SFnal elements. Now, that doesn’t excuse the fact that sometimes he has ending issues. And not all of his works end strongly in ambiguity (Railsea doesn’t, for example). One of the things I like about his work (even though it frustrates me) is that he isn’t afraid to go full throttle with both the genre and the literary elements. I adore Little, Big, but all of the elements in it could be drawn out of the literary canon and precursors (including magic realism). You can’t say the same for something like Embassytown or Perdido Street Station.

    One text I find fascinating (and admittedly a bit frustrating) in relation to spec-fic and literary sensibilities is Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I even went so far as to outline a series of literary and genre endings for it. Ultimately, I felt that it ended up with a genre ending. But I also suspect that it did so to set up the genre deconstructions that are going to take place in the sequel (which I haven’t yet got to).

    1. You’re spot on when it comes to Brust’s Taltos novels and The Hunger Games: both have strong literary elements, but they tend to externalize themes through their action in a way that mainstream literary works tend not to (though, to be clear, that’s not a bad thing: I love the Taltos novels and The Hunger Games trilogy – they’re just using a technique less common in literary fiction and more common in SF/F).

      China Mi&eaville’s a very interesting case. Some of his works (Embassytown and Kraken in particular, to a lesser extent Iron Council and The Scar) are heavily rooted in a genre tradition. But I’m less certain when it comes to Perdido Street Station. On the one hand, he deploys secondary world world-building extremely well, using genre techniques and elements smoothly. Yet simultaneously he focuses the narrative on the character’s internal experiences and their inner journey throughout the story. The overarching narrative is only partially externalized (I’d argue that only two or three of the main plot threads are externalized), which on the whole gives it a much more literary feel. The devices used in Perdiso Street Station may be alien to the literary fiction tradition, yet the ways in which they are portrayed/utilized are not.

      I definitely understand your frustration on The Magicians (cool post, BTW – it’s an interesting set of endings to consider for the story arc – I haven’t gotten to the sequel yet, so I don’t know how it plays out). For my tastes, I thought that it was a worthy attempt to balance literary and speculative sensibilities, but I think that the particular combinations of conventions deployed from either tradition constrained the story to one another’s detriment (i.e. the speculative plot conventions limited what could be done with the literary character conventions, and vice versa). I’ve still got The Magician King on my TBR – haven’t gotten to it yet, either, I’m afraid.

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