Considering speculative fiction

A guest post from Alistair McNaught

In his review (for Vector) of the The Water Knife by Paul Bacigalupi, Anthony Nanson expressed the concern that speculative fiction dealing with the threats posed to the world by uncontrolled corporate capitalism may present such a despairing vision of the future that it risks becoming self-fulfilling prophesy. It was a pertinent argument that has become, if anything, more pertinent in the light of the US presidential election, and it got me thinking about what it is that I look for in fiction. I confess that I most admire fiction that is precise in description but ambiguous in intent, and which offers little in the way of positive outcomes.

It struck me that the hope I seek in fiction lies rather in the beauty of the style of the work, no matter the subject matter. Don’t get me wrong; it is too easy to report the horror of the world and mistake that for the only true reality, which was a fault of some writings by Zola, for example. On the other hand, I don’t like unrealistically optimistic endings, despite the fact that they can be very satisfying on an emotional level.

I believe that what I get from writers like Nabokov, Perec, Calvino, and contemporary writers like Roberto Bolano and Alejandro Zambra that I have recently read is a sense that, no matter how arbitrary the world is, and no matter what horrors are imposed by society and by the complexity of human relationships, they all offer me a sense of a world opening up beyond the constraints of human thought and society. That was what I so liked about the mysterious conclusion of the central relationship in Anthony Nanson’s novel, Deep Time, and that is why I like open endings so much. It is a sense they provide of some shimmering possibility lying beyond our understanding.

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