Elizabeth Tan’s ‘Coca-cola birds sing sweetest in the morning’, published in Overland 222, is a melancholy story about an inquisitive woman with a troubled past, the dichotomy between technology and nature, and the inundation of branding and consumerism in society. The protagonist, Audrey, works at the reassignment plant where she repairs or repurposes the mechanical animals, branded as Panasonic or Cadbury, which have replaced their organic predecessors.
The idyllic yet sinister future, mysterious disruption to everyday life and curious main character are all elements familiar to speculative, more specifically science, fiction readers. Tan’s story is not a predictable narrative; like the best literary fiction and spec fic, it challenges the reader to find meaning in an alien yet relatable world.
Articles on the genre wars can be found all over the internet, from Electric Literature to the Guardian to The New Yorker. The debate around what constitutes literary fiction (and the cultural and intellectual value placed on it) versus what is now known as speculative fiction has been long-running: Mark Todd dates its origins to the 1940s, with the rise of the New Critics scholarly group who emphasised intellectuality; before that, in 1934 in his Discourse in the Novel, Mikhail Bakhtin divided genres into ‘low literature (penny dreadfuls, for instance) or … the genres of high literature’. Speculative fiction, encompassing sci fi and fantasy, has often been denigrated as popular, formulaic escapism. Nowadays, the distinction seems to be the divide between intellectual literature versus entertainment and/or commercial literature.
Nonetheless, the boundaries between these two kinds of fiction have been breaking down for some years. More recognition is being afforded speculative authors such as Emily St John Mandel, whose novel, Station Eleven, was nominated for the American National Book Award (a literary award) and won the Arthur C Clarke Award (a genre award). Long-dead authors such as Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, Angela Carter, always acclaimed within their genre, are receiving broader appreciation and respect as contemporary authors cite them as influences; their work is also being given considerable scholarly attention, elevating its ‘intellectual’ value.
Of course, speculative fiction is a debated term in and of itself, with Margaret Atwood saying, ‘Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.’ This distinction muddies when considering subgenres like magical realism or allegory, or works such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. These are works in which events clearly could not happen, yet the writing is considered literary rather than fantasy. In this light, speculative fiction becomes a vague term, open to interpretation to the point that it could apply to all fiction, given that the very creation of fiction requires speculation. Before fiction is born, every author must ask ‘what if?’
In all fiction authors experiment with style, form, technique and, naturally, genre. As seen in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, fiction is frequently a hybridisation of multiple genres rather than classifiably only one. Even Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Thing bears some resemblance to the dystopian genre and easily fits into Atwood’s idea of speculative, if not sci fi. The binary is dead; genre exists on a spectrum.
Yet, genre fiction has often been tarnished as the lowest of low culture. Peter Hunt wrote in the 2001 book Alternate Worlds in Fantasy Fiction that ‘Fantasy Fiction is either taken seriously (and enthusiastically), or seriously rejected.’ In the case of fantasy, Hunt relates this to the connection the genre has long held with children’s fiction and fairytales. Russel Davis suggests the commercial viability of genre fiction might have something to do with the disdain, saying ‘because money is generally better writing for genres, the perception comes off that you’re a sellout or you aren’t concerned with the art and craft of [writing].’ The stigma may also come from academia: when I studied both literature and creative writing, the content was decidedly literary, with my first reading list consisting of Booker Prize nominees, and my first assignment being to write a specifically literary short story.
In the past fifteen years, the literary landscape has changed somewhat. Where once there was a great divide, ‘speculative fiction’ has made a blurry border. The genre has journals dedicated to it, more and more of which (Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Beneath Ceaseless Skies) are describing themselves as having ‘a literary bent’ and they publish genre and literary writers side by side. Today, many genre authors – Ursula le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Terry Pratchett – are respected as paragons, not just of genre writing, but writing in general.
The term ‘speculative’ can serve to either erase or merge genres. In some cases it is used as an umbrella term for sci fi, fantasy and at times horror – but it is also allows writers or publishers to classify works as fantasy or sci fi without the history of negative associations. If we embrace the term, speculative fiction is a genre given, by its very nature, to exploration, imagination and possibility and as such it has been a safe haven for unique and challenging ideas. Frankenstein responds to paranoia surrounding rapid scientific developments of the time, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde explores the duality of human nature, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale critiques the use and abuse of woman and their bodies.
Literary journals, too, are the homes of exploratory and challenging literature. It is for them to publish this output of radically diverse genre fiction. ‘Coca-cola birds sing sweetest in the morning’ defies expectation seamlessly blending elements of traditional sci fi with those associated with high literature. Julie Koh’s ‘The Sister Company’, published in Seizure last year, is a sinister sci fi reminiscent of some of Neil Gaiman’s short stories. Initially appearing to be a realist story about a depressed woman it becomes more and more unsettling with every neurobud or android introduced, and yet remains an intimate look into the prevalence of anxiety and loneliness in a hyper-digital world. These stories are not escapist fiction but challenging on an intellectual level and stimulating on an emotional one. Perhaps that is the only prerequisite literary fiction need have.
Image a crop of the cover of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.