Genre-Bending: Just Barely Speculative Fiction

I’m fascinated by edge cases — genre-bending, cross-genre fiction, works that don’t fit neatly into categories. Today I’d like to talk about fiction that, for one reason or another, just barely qualifies as speculative fiction. Doesn’t mean it’s bad — often quite the opposite. It’s just doing something different.

First of all, I don’t mean literary fiction using genre tropes. That’s a whole ‘nother animal (one that I also enjoy). Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, for example, obviously uses the convention of time travel, but it doesn’t read like a genre work — it reads like women’s fiction or literary fiction, and it’s interested in the same sorts of ideas and themes. It’s using time travel to speak a non-genre language. Same for Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

What I’m interested in today is the reverse. What happens when a book is “speaking” speculative fiction, but it doesn’t use much or any technology that we don’t have today, or employ magic, or use any settings in imaginary worlds?

Passage by Connie Willis.I just finished Passage, and what struck me is that it’s a book about science. It’s not a techno-thriller, because it’s not paced like one. But I wouldn’t call it science fiction, exactly. Without going into spoiler territory, the vast majority of the book could have happened in 2001, the year the book was published. It’s full of answering machines and pagers and late-90s movies. Yet it’s all about solving a scientific mystery — something that’s central to science fiction. At the same time, literary and historical references play almost as large a part as the science (a delicious combination if you’re a fan of all three!). On Goodreads it’s shelved most often in science fiction, but it also shows up in fantasy, speculative fiction, and even historical fiction. On the other hand, it was nominated for, and won, some of the biggest speculative fiction awards around, so what do I know?

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. This novel is explicitly a thought-experiment: what if San Francisco suffered a terrorist attack tomorrow? All the technology in it exists today, even if some of it isn’t yet being used in the same way. The pop culture references, the dialogue of the teenaged protagonists, the political climate are all very familiar and up-to-the-minute. It’s the near-future subgenre taken to an extreme, and that makes it a most effective cautionary tale.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I, by M.T. Anderson. My third example is a little different. Octavian Nothing is YA historical fiction — it takes place during the American Revolution, and it’s explicitly about those events. But it’s also about a young man who is being raised as an experiment — a very science fictional trope. Again, all the science in it is real and period-appropriate; it just didn’t happen. But it could have. I’d almost label it as historical science fiction.

Your turn. What do you think of “edge cases” like these? Have you run across any others?

If you liked this post, you might also like Exploring Science Fantasy.

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5 responses to “Genre-Bending: Just Barely Speculative Fiction

  1. Not sure if it counts, but the first thing that comes to my mind is The Great and Terrible Quest by Margaret Lovett. I’d always read it as YA fantasy, what with the knights and missing princes and so on, until I realized there isn’t actually any magic or supernatural elements in it. More like The Prisoner of Zenda than The Princess Bride, I guess. But Amazon currently categorizes it as historical, so maybe that was just a failing in my youthful assumptions. (Still, it’s a good book, and is extra special for being the first book my mom ever bought for herself. ^.^ )

  2. Kay Qy, that’s an interesting point. I’ve read some YA historicals that fill the same niche, or at least satisfy the same neurons. Marguerite de Angeli (The Door in the Wall, Black Fox of Lorne) and Eloise Jarvis McGraw (Master Cornhill, The Golden Goblet) come to mind — all set in olden times, all with a certain amount of adventure, but they’re unquestionably historical. Hmm, I sense a blog post coming on…

  3. I love things that push boundaries around and stretch pre-conceptions in general, so this post was a nice intro to some books that do just that. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick for so long I’m way out of the loop of knowing what\’s in what genre… seriously, you’d think I was caught in some sort of time hiccup. Can I blame it on not having easy access to an English-language used bookstore or library? :) Therefore I can’t add much to your conversation other than to say, ”genre-bending spec-lit? Ooo, shiny!” And a question – where does fairy-tale based stuff fit – it’s speculative but…? Is that it’s own genre?

  4. Wendy: I’d generally put fairy-tale based stuff in fantasy. Though I did see a retelling of The Frog Prince that took it out of the fantasy world– set it in WWI, made the “prince” a soldier who grew up in swamp country. I think it was part of a series of retellings, though I don’t know if all of them were “real world”. Anyway, I’m not sure where those would fit… hey, that makes them perfect for this topic, woo! \o/

  5. Wendy, I know the feeling of being out of the loop, though not for lack of access. So many books, so little time! Glad you found the post useful!

    I’m with Kay Qy — most fairy-tale retellings I’ve read would fall under fantasy or sometimes magic realism, though I’ve seen a few transplanted into science fiction settings. They seem to be undergoing a surge in popularity. Who knows what genres they’ll pop up in next?

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