Speculative Fiction: A Label for the Growing Spectrum of the Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction & Horror

*My 100th Blog Post!*

For the past year in which I have devoted more time to working on my blog, I have gained a larger audience—followers, readers and other supporters—than I thought possible. Remember, even the most successful bloggers and vloggers start out as “small channels” and are thankful for those who support them. I feel the same way. Knowing that you all have taken the time to read, to comment, to subscribe/follow, and to share my content is a great feeling. I’m extremely grateful for all of you, and it’s because of you all I know what I’m doing is being appreciated by the macrocosm. 

            One of several topics I’ve been discussing with other fans, readers, bloggers and vloggers is the concept of genre and the limitations its definition bestows upon it. The notion that genres can and should be placed within “fixed” classifications is similar to the concept that gender is binary—which, it isn’t! Over the last 100 years, the genres have become more ubiquitous and more successful due to books written by L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, T.H. White, J.K. Rowling, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, Shirley Jackson, Isabel Allende, Haruki Murakami, Alan Moore, Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc. And, due to movies such as: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, E.T., the Extraterrestrial, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pan’s Labyrinth, Akira, etc. Toward the end of the 20th century, other formats of literature and visual entertainment such as comics, graphic novels, manga, video games and music were becoming more popular and expansive. Imports from around the world—i.e. Japan, India, Spain, etc.—have presented popular works of these genres to fans as well. 

            Before the 2000s—I want to say around the 1970s—an emergence of works were presented and released to the public. Besides the Harry Potter Phenomenon and The Lord of the Rings movies, there was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Matrix, and the continued book releases by Stephen King, Anne Rice and Robert Jordan. In addition, video games were growing in popularity and in addition to Mario, Sonic and Zelda there were Final Fantasy, Resident Evil and Shin Megami Tensei. Even those who weren’t reading the books, watching the TV shows or movies, or playing the video games were exposed to fantasy, science fiction and horror. Yet, why did some people prefer Harry Potter over The Lord of the Rings? What was it about Laurell K. Hamilton’s books that had some readers prefer her books over Anne Rice’s? What is it about Shin Megami Tensei, which has several spinoffs—including Persona—that has more of a cult fan base that players find appealing? 

            What I’m getting at is: how would you describe a book like The Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the Dragon Quest video game series (besides Japanese role-playing games, or JRPGs), or even the Batman comics? Yes, one is a Young Adult novel, one is a JRPG, and the last is a superhero comic book series; but, aren’t there other genres to classify these works besides their marketing ones? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is a blend of fantasy, science (fiction), religion and philosophy—what did you expect from an Oxford professor? Dragon Quest is a JRPG with elements from the fantasy and adventure genres. Batman—one of the oldest and greatest superhero series of all-time—is a gritty and dark story about a traumatized man who uses his wealth and his wits to go up against the most dangerous criminals in his city. Nowadays, we would consider Batman to be a psychological thriller superhero series with elements of grimdark. Then again, with the recent success of the TV shows Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, there were many non-readers and fans who said things like, “I don’t like fantasy, but I love Game of Thrones,” or “I don’t like zombies, but The Walking Dead is a great show,” etc. Yes, those shows were media adaptations, which are examples of fantasy and dystopia books that “divert” from “traditional” or “familiar” tropes. However, there are fans of those tropes who are not interested in neither the TV show nor the books. So, why are those the exceptions? They are NOT!

            Speculative fiction is a term that is being used more and more in order to describe literature and media that fall under the “traditional” genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror and comics. According to Marek Oziewicz, speculative fiction, “includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales and more,” (3). In other words, speculative fiction includes: urban fantasy, mythological fantasy, zombies, paranormal, space operas, metaphysical, silkpunk, occult, military, historical, romance, etc., etc. Any and all of the genres and subgenres makeup this term.

            So why do some people—authors, writers, readers, critics, academics, fans—use this term? It’s because there are times when a medium either has more than two genres associated within it or displays aspects of speculative fiction that doesn’t fall under any of the “fixed” genres. For example, the Super Mario Bros. franchise is a video game series classified under both “action/adventure” and “platformer,” but could it be categorized in the fantasy genre due to the levels being in an imaginary world, or could it fall under horror or paranormal due to the ghosts and the skeletons, or even science fiction, especially in the context of the Super Mario Galaxy games? In this case, the term speculative fiction would fit best for this gaming franchise. I should mention that I’m not the one who should be recategorizing video games. Then again, this is proof that the term speculative fiction is becoming both recognizable and interchangeable. 

            Speculative fiction seems to become the more acceptable them to use when explaining works and forms of non-mimetic fiction without listing all of the many subgenres associated with it. Recent examples include The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. The first has been categorized under fantasy, science fiction, dystopian literature and magic realism (the last one was on Amazon); and, the second has been categorized under fantasy, mythology, magic realism and historical fiction. Which is easier: listing all of those genres and subgenres in a description, or saying speculative fiction containing elements of certain genres and subgenres such as: a story about the end of the world and Mayan Gods during the Jazz Age? While speculative fiction is an umbrella term, many of us have been using it as a shortcut to explain a collection of books, films and video games. 

            Another factor surrounding speculative fiction concerns education and academia. How many of you remember reading Edgar Allan Poe and/or Turn of the Screw by Henry James in school and in college? How many of you remember reading The House of the Spirits, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Haroun and the Sea of Stories in school or in college? And, how many of you remember reading one of the many dystopian books: Lord of the Flies, A Handmaiden’s Tale, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, Brave New World, etc., in school and in college? Now, how many fantasy, fairy tales, and myths and legends were assigned to you after primary/elementary school? Keep in mind, there are courses and electives about these genres in college, but not everyone gets to take those classes (I was lucky enough to do so). Without going into too much detail, I’ve had disputes about fantasy literature with a few academic professors. Some of them believe that fantasy has no place in higher education except for in Children’s and Adolescent Literature (i.e. teaching, library science). However, scholars are responsible for some of the most recognized works in fantasy. Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman were Oxford professors. In addition, there are academic scholars who study and write books and articles about fantasy, science fiction and horror such as: Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn, John Grant, Nnedi Okorafor, John Clute, Jack Zipes and Tzvetan Todorov. This history and the study of these genres are just as essential as reading the fiction. I hate to say it, but speculative fiction seems to be the “safer” and the “more acceptable” term to use when it comes to discussing these genres. 

            So, why do I use the term speculative fiction? My simplest answer is because it signifies all of the genres I enjoy to read, to watch, to write and to game the most. Saying speculative fiction instead of the longlist of genres and subgenres is the easiest and the quickest way to describe certain works of media. If a book can be categorized in more than one genre or subgenre, then why not save the breakdown for a discussion with others in a fandom, or with authors and publishers? Most important, using the term speculative fiction does not limit the story of any medium to one genre. It allows a fan of a metaphysical book to say that “there’s elements of fantasy in this story,” or “the religion in this book is based on the myths and the history of this ancient civilization.” Speculative fiction is a term that allows an audience to observe the broader spectrum of a medium with similar beginnings and interconnecting styles of storytelling. However, there will continue to be moments where a book is categorized as “hard sci-fi,” a video game is of the “horror” genre, and Disney continues to fracture fairy tales. This is the new Golden Age of Speculative Fiction so we might as well enjoy everything that is presented to us while opening the doors for an open interpretation. 

            Thank you for reading my post(s), following my blog and my social media pages! Here’s to many more posts in the future and to several open discussions! Please like and comment here or on my other posts; and, be sure to check out the following references about our favorite genre(s). 

                                                                        References

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy. Cambridge University Press, 2012.  

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 

Martin, Philip. A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment. Crickhollow Books, 2009.

Oziewicz, Marek. “Speculative Fiction.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, March 2017, p.1-22. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78

Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009.  

Why You Need to Read: “War Girls”

War Girls #1: War Girls

By: Tochi Onyebuchi

Published: October 15, 2019

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian Fiction/Historical Fiction/Young Adult

            Their resources. The blue minerals buried beneath Onyii’s feet and, farther out, beneath the ocean floor. This is what the Nigerians are killing Biafrans for. Not a morning passes that Onyii doesn’t think about setting charges to those things and blowing them into coral debris, (Chapter 1). 

            Everywhere in our world, there is conflict; and, unfortunately, some of these conflicts do not resolve but buildup until war breaks out. Once war begins, everyone and everything gets sucked into it, leaving no one and nothing unscathed. Some wars receive endless media coverage and propaganda gaining the attention of the world, while others are ignored until the war has ended and the warring sides are left to rebuild their homes with whoever and whatever survived. Tochi Onyebuchi retells the wars in Africa—particularly the Biafran War a.k.a. the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970—during the second half of the twentieth century. War Girls is a dystopian YA novel about family, identity and war. 

            The story follows two sisters, Onyii (16) and Ifeoma, or Ify, (10), who live in seclusion with other girls—both orphans and former soldiers—in the jungles in Southeast Nigeria in the year 2172. War has occurred for years between Biafra and Nigeria, and both sides are guilty of “recruiting” children for the war effort, so several surviving children and adolescents have banded together in camps in order to avoid the armies. They live off the land and off the grid. Onyii—who has darker skin—is a former soldier who stepped back from the war after she lost her arm in a battle. Ify—who has lighter skin—is a tech genius who dreams of attending university and traveling to one of the space colonies. She is the smartest student at the makeshift school at the War Girls’ camp and she is frustrated by the lack of resources they have, and she desires to have more for herself and her sister. At the same time, Onyii and the other former soldiers stay alert for any possible attacks. During an ambush, the sisters are captured and separated—Onyii by the Biafrans and its brigadier general, and Ify by the Nigerians and their soldiers, siblings Daren and Daurama—and for 4 years they live their lives believing the other one is dead. During the separation, the sisters develop into themselves as they battle their inner demons. Onyii struggles with how being a soldier has affected her and what that means for herself and her comrades: Chinelo, Kesandu, Adaeze, and Ngozi once the war is over. Ify witnesses the traumas and the propaganda surrounding war and its aftermath. She believes she is smarter than everyone else and wants to find a way to end the war for good. Onyii and Ify grow up as the war becomes an endless event, but it is their interactions with the other characters that push these young women into doing what they can to make sure their side wins. As the sisters develop, they become more devoted to their allies until unforeseen events leave them asking who they are fighting for and why. The war turns the sisters into propaganda for their “side” and they must find a reason for living beyond the war. 

            The plot of War Girls focuses on the war between two nations and how the war has lasted for so long that many people cannot remember a time when the war was taking place. As the story continues, so does the war and there are those who want a ceasefire and others who can only benefit if the war carries on. The subplot is the effect war has on soldiers and civilians, with the main focus on children: child soldiers, victims and survivors of raids, and those who’ve been subjected to experiments. Whether or not Onyii and Ify know it, they are both victims and perpetrators of the war. Children who know nothing but war unknowingly get involved in it and this is presented to readers over and over again. This subplot is essential to the plot because it enhances the plot as to how a region of the world ravaged by an incessant war affects the younger generation. These children grow up becoming familiar and numb by war and that is a dangerous and a disturbing factor expressed within the novel. 

            The narrative takes place over the course of five years from the points-of-view of both Onyii and Ify. Their stream-of-consciousness display their thoughts as they act and react to everything around them as the events of the war take place. Onyii’s point-of-view takes the readers into battles and missions she participates in and all of the victories and the losses she experiences—both physical and mental—and what being “the perfect soldier” does to her. Ify has the opportunity to live as a civilian in Abuja, but her new “status” gives her clearance to witness the long-term effects of war and the factors that keep it going. The mistakes and the changes in their desires present the sisters as reliable narrators, especially when both are given the choice either to end the war, or to be labeled as a traitor by their allies. Both narratives are written in ways that can be followed and understood by the readers. 

            The way Tochi Onyebuchi wrote War Girls was intended for a young adult audience and anime fans. Adult readers can read this book and explain the themes of war to the younger ones, while anime fans can compare this story to popular series and films such as Gundam Wing and Grave of the Fireflies. Writing about war with children and adolescents as the characters allow the target audience to relate to the characters and any refugees they may or may not meet one day in the future. The adults, who had to read similar narratives during their school days, gain an understanding of a war that received little attention by the news media because some conflicts had neither “benefits” nor “interests” to the rest of the world. The mood is the how Earth has been destroyed by climate change and nuclear warfare, which is then abandoned by the world powers for space colonies and leaving others behind struggling to survive on a planet that is unlivable with hostile inhabitants. The tone is how war turns everyone into participants, both willing and unwilling. War leaves no innocent victims. War consumes everything. 

            War Girls will appeal to science fiction and dystopian fiction fans of all ages. In addition, anime and manga fans will recognize the influences found within the battle sequences. Similar to Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale: The NovelWar Girls explores how war and internal hostilities influence and affect the younger generations. The novel provides an interesting look into the recent history of African countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, etc. and how the rest of the world either ignored or profited from those conflicts. While it is too soon to determine whether or not War Girls will be read in schools, it is already part of the YA dystopian canon alongside The Giver and The Hunger Games. There are rumors of a follow up book to War Girls, but there haven’t been any announcements (as of when this review was posted). 

            War Girls is a moving novel about sisterly love and how war denies people simple needs such as family and purpose. Tochi Onyebuchi composed a story based on actual events and witness testimony with mech technology and space colonies into a book for both adolescent and adult readers. The battles will put you in the center of the action and the characters become part of your literary family, which makes this a very poignant story of love, loss, family and war. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: Battle Royale: The Novel

 

Battle Royale: The Novel

By: Koushun Takami

Translated by: Yuji Oniki

Published: April 1999 (Japan); February 26, 2003 (in English)

Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian/Horror

 

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains spoilers from this novel. You have been warned.

Shuya took a moment to think before he received his black day pack, and he did the same as he approached Fumiyo Fujiyoshi’s corpse, shutting his eyes. He wanted to remove the knife from her forehead but decided against it.

            When he stepped out of the classroom, he felt a pang of regret, wishing he had removed it for her.

            40 STUDENTS REMAINING(Chapter 6).

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1924) by Richard Connell and Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding are two of the many required readings for schools in the United States and in other countries. Their plots are straightforward: protagonist(s) ends up on an island in which they have to survive on and survive from the individual(s) who are trying to kill him/them. Then, on September 1, 2009, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was published with a movie deal in the works. After the movie was released in 2012, a few critics of “independent” and “foreign” movies were mentioning Battle Royale. Some fans of the movie accused Suzanne Collins of “stealing” the concept of Battle Royale for The Hunger Games. And, that’s not true. Adults (and children) killing each other for no reason happen all the time, sadly.

It is said that the author, Koushun Takami, read Lord of the Flies and found it to be good, but “outdated.” Inspired by other books and action movies, Takami wrote Battle Royale.The text is an expansion to Golding’s book in that there are both male and female students, there are 42 of them, there are more point-of-view chapters from many of those characters, and the deaths are plentiful and gruesome!

In addition to the 42 students and two teachers, there is the “Team Leader.” While we don’t get the P.O.V.s of all of the characters, we gain both the personalities and the upbringings of all of them. And, since this is a novel about adolescents in a dystopian society, it’s not a spoiler to let you know that some of these students do NOT come from good homes. Plus, multiple P.O.V.s means that the readers will learn the reasons the students either participate, or don’t participate in the “program.”

The plot of Battle Royale is straightforward: an entire class of Japanese students are abducted and forced to participate in a deadly game of manhunt. Each student is given a duffel bad with supplies and a random weapon. All of the students are set loose on an island and the “game” remains active until one student is left alive. Additionally, someone must die every 24 hours, or a detonation device goes off, killing ALL OF THEM!

The narrative goes from 1st person to 3rd person over and over again. This is done when more than one student is around to comprehend the mood of the story. Plus, we learn the backstory of several of the students and we learn why, or why not, each of them participates in the “game.” Some of these students are damaged, some are entitled, and the rest are scared.

The style is action-paced with students dying throughout the “game” in numerous ways. Takami’s tone reflects what he’s attempting to pull off: a cringe-worthy and addictive story of kids who are forced to take part in what their broken society wants them to, without their—or their families’—consent.

The appeal—like any other story of this sort—was originally controversial. It turned out Takami was worried that his novel would be classified as “dark” and “violent,” and he waited two years to have it published! At first, critics in Japan were disturbed by the violence. Afterwards, it became both popular and a best seller. The quick-paced plot and the storyline and believable characters intrigued the public. Takami gave his readers something that William Golding did not: female characters. Battle Royale reminds readers that everyone has a dark and lethal side within themselves.

Almost immediately after Battle Royale’s publication, a movie was ordered and released in 2000. Directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku, the movie matches the pace of the book, and the death of the characters. The film adaptation was a success in Japan and was going through “the undergrounds” outside of its home country. You can watch it on Netflix. Of course, the movie has been called “one of my favorites” by Quentin Tarentino, and is labeled as “the story ripped off by The Hunger Games, which (again) is not true, but more on that another time (Read: “It All Started with…Lord of the Flies). There is a manga adaptation that I have NOT read, but will eventually, but the movie will NOT let you down!

I enjoyed this novel because the author took the concept of “fighting to the death” to a whole different level. Unlike The Hunger Games, the location is deserted, so the characters are allowed to reside inside the buildings. Similar to Lord of the Flies, the characters, these adolescents, run amok due to their emotional state. And, let’s not forget the influence from The Most Dangerous Game! A handful of these students are hunting down their classmates! Battle Royale is an update and an expansion to our school assigned readings. But, keep in mind you’ll need to read those three stories in order to appreciate this import from Japan.

My final rating: Enjoy It!

It All Started With…Lord of the Flies

           Before The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, many of us got exposure to dystopian fiction, which is a subgenre of science fiction, in high school. To those of us who actually read the book, Lord of the Flies provided many of us with a level of violence more extreme than in The Outsiders, which some of us read in middle/junior high school. We know what the story is about: a group of British schoolboys are evacuated to avoid a nuclear war when their airplane crashes onto an uninhabited island. With all the adults dead, these schoolboys—ages 4 to 12—must now work together to survive while they wait for help and rescue. We all remember what happens next, a war starts amongst them, a few of the boys get killed, and the island gets engulfed in flames. William Golding, the author, believed this to be a more realistic scenario as to when unfamiliar children end up deserted on an island with no adult supervision. The “human animal” emerges and life becomes a “fight or flight” situation.

            That novel, I am not sure whether or not I would classify it as groundbreaking, was published in 1954. Fast forward to the 1990s in Japan where a man reads Lord of the Flies and found it to be outdated. This man, Koushun Takami, wrote his dystopian novel with a modern society in mind. Battle Royale was published in Japan in April 1999. This novel made Lord of the Flies look like a child’s game; there were more students and they were older (around 15 years-old), they were given actual weapons (ranging from a machine gun to an ice pick), and their government is making them participate. There are similarities: the students are left alone on an island and they eventually begin to attack and to kill each other. There are differences: more of these students get killed off and you get the point of views of several characters, which provides each of their back stories and motives. Yes, there are also girls who are characters in Battle Royale and they are just as violent as the boys.

            The interesting fact about Battle Royale was the ironic reception it originally (and still) receives. Publishers in Japan found the content to be too violent and too inappropriate, and even the United States distanced themselves (or tried to) from this particular novel (look up the date of the Columbine High School Shooting). However, the novel became a bestseller and a favorite among young readers (the U.S. eventually translated and published this novel in 2003). This led to the film adaptation directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku in 2000, which was also controversial and successful. Even Quentin Tarentino stated: “I wish I had made this movie.” I would also go as far to say that Battle Royale is similar to Mean Girls in which there is more taking place within a large group of students than what is seen by everyone else.

            Some people, including children and adolescents, are willing to submit to their ‘naturalistic’ behavior. This sound like something you learned in biology and in psychology. And yet, we still enjoyed them all the same. Battle Royale took the time to look into why most of the 42 students were willing to participate or to opt out of the “game.” This meant that each student’s home life, school life, and life-changing moment molded them into how they “played”: the good, the bad, and the ugly. In fact, I would not recommend this novel to anyone until after he or she has read Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games trilogy. This is because I think a complete understanding must be obtained in order to seek out the hidden subplots found in this novel.

            I believe it is safe to say that the success of The Hunger Games in the United States matched the same success Battle Royale had in Japan. And, both went on to become global bestsellers. It can be said that The Hunger Games trilogy is a recent retelling of both Lord of the Flies and Battle Royale. The main subplot is that the resistance had already taken place and these “gladiator games” became part of the treaty. Plus, like the gladiator games of Ancient Rome, the public looks forward to watching them to the point where the games have been hyped up and televised. Sound familiar? The difference in this series is that Katniss is the only point of view readers get, and her post traumatic stress from the games is not understood until the next two books. Katniss gets fame, which she can never get rid of. And, her actions lead to a second revolution that intensifies the already dystopian civilization.

             By the time The Hunger Games was published in 2008, and the film adaptation released in 2012, many fans and readers have at least heard of Battle Royale, and some people even went as far as to accusing author Suzanne Collins of “stealing” the plot. However, in Collins’ defense, any well read person could spot how Greek mythology and literature (the Minotaur) and the reality T.V. shows found their way into the story’s plot. Battle Royale stands alone because even if you have not read the book, you could not deny the amount of tragic deaths mixed with the various ways each of the characters die. Plus, the fact that you get into the minds of each of the characters before they die makes each of their deaths more gut-retching than the characters in the other two books (sorry Rue). That is when you realize that except for the subgenre and the main plot, both stories are not alike.

            Within more than 50 years, the world has seen the publication and the popularity of 3 dystopian novels written for adolescents. In them we experience just how influential the world is to the younger generation and how they plan on acquiring their roles as adults. This reality is grim and fearful as well as realistic. If the adults in such places are not willing to find a peaceful solution to the world’s problems (please note: I am not a pacifist), then why should the children? The children in Lord of the Flies, Battle Royale, and The Hunger Games are put into their situations because of what the adults have or had been doing. Hence, these kids literally must fend for themselves, and the results are disturbing and tragic.

            I am sure that within the next 10 years another dystopian novel will emerge and become as popular as its predecessors. Just like before, we will compare one book with the other and wonder whether or not the latest novel ripped off one of the previous ones. But remember, the popularity and the success of this subgenre all started with Lord of the Flies