TEXT review


Writing in a genre where ‘nothing is out of bounds’: Speculative Fiction as a transformative force

review by Bronwyn Lovell

 

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Eugen Bacon
Writing Speculative Fiction
Macmillan Education UK, London 2019
ISBN 9781352006056
Pb 69pp AUD39.95

 

In Writing Speculative Fiction, novelist, short story writer and academic Eugen Bacon has produced a broad and accessible introduction to the genres, subgenres, and hybrid genres that fall under the contentious classification of ‘speculative fiction’ – including fantasy, fairy tales, dark fantasy, myths, legends, magical realism, science fiction, gothic, cyberpunk, utopia, dystopia, alternate history, steampunk, horror, and the paranormal. Speculative fiction is a genre ‘where nothing is out of bounds’ (8) – and overviewing its mercurial characteristics in one volume is quite a feat.

The book itself is hybrid in nature – it reads as much like a textbook as a writing guide, with example stories and poems illustrating different approaches and techniques, along with several illuminating and inspiring quotations from masters of the craft, as well as a series of creative writing exercises at the end of each chapter. Bacon also gives a breakdown of common literary and cultural theories such as autobiographical theory, postmodernism, postcolonialism, narratology, feminism, Marxism, and queer theory as critical frameworks for the reader to further explore and interrogate speculative fiction texts at greater depth.

Writing Speculative Fiction is permeated by an upbeat and playful tone that is entertaining and motivating. It is an informative and enjoyable read that will serve as a valuable resource for creative writing students and their teachers, and indeed anyone interested in the mechanics of writing and publishing dynamic and engaging speculative fiction. The book is packed with helpful advice for writers of any genre – covering diverse topics such as form, characterisation, voice, plotting, poetic expression, research, establishing a writing practice with discipline, and discerning reputable online publishing markets.

While outlining the generic ‘rules’ typically touted for writing in the realm of speculative fiction, Bacon rouses writers to challenge and contravene such prescriptive and predictable conventions. She convincingly argues that ‘genre labelling is no more than a device of commercialization’ (58) and encourages writers of speculative fiction to be inventive and disruptive – to blend and cross genres; to dissolve boundaries between different styles; to subvert tropes; to rewrite, revise and remix classic tales; and to eccentrically experiment with dissonant themes in order to ‘break from traditional thought and resultant binaries’ (113). Bacon incites us to commit writing as a radical act.

The most compelling aspect of the book’s rhetoric is its dedication to the andragogical function of writing. ‘As authors’, Bacon says, ‘we offer, in our stories, possibility. We offer insight’ (136). She advises us to ‘think of writers as heralds, as inclined to speak for social change’ (136) – noting that the worldbuilding inherent in speculative fiction provides us with ‘the foundations to cultivate inclusive worlds and characters’ (7). Bacon asserts that many speculative stories ‘carry underlying political statements’ (156), and that through such skilful literary activism, a ‘text can be more than it is’ (157) and a writer can be ‘a champion of change’ (135).

Bacon considers writers of YA fiction in particular as beholden to a certain duty of care when it comes to empowering today’s youth through storytelling:

The writer as a champion of change can first break the silence and then equip the young adult – and society – with awareness that destructive situations are resolvable with self-awareness and as simple an action as a call for help in the right direction. A productive YA novel will help combat helplessness. (135)

She maintains that books are a force for transformation and that YA authors should ensure that the narratives they weave for young audiences do ‘not penetrate vulnerability and derail self-esteem’, but instead ‘evoke hope, resilience, self-awareness, optimism, expression’ (135). This is the power, privilege, and indeed responsibility of writing for the next generation.

Bacon believes it is what we bring to a text as readers that will determine what we get out of it. She invites us to ‘consider reading as a quest for meaning, with the self as the source of value and interpretation’ (155). She advocates reading openly so that we might transcend our preconceptions. ‘Good literature’ she says, ‘irrespective of subject, style or theme – will offer a forum for open minds’ (136). In this way, Bacon promotes reading for more than pleasure. She champions literature as a tool for the constructive transformation of ourselves and society.

Writing Speculative Fiction is gunning for a writerly and readerly revolution. Bacon urges both writers and readers to do the intellectual work – to be aware of the ways in which we are culturally constructed beings, and to endeavour to write and read beyond ourselves. Bacon encourages us as readers and writers to think and create differently, to expand our normative ways of perceiving the world and humanity through the wonder of speculative fiction and its strange, fantastical, horrifying, and edifying ‘what ifs’.

 

 

 

Dr Bronwyn Lovell is a science fiction poet and scholar. Her poetry has featured in Best Australian Poems, Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, Antipodes, Rabbit, Verity La, Mascara, and Strange Horizons. She has won the Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award and the Adrien Abbott Poetry Prize. She has been shortlisted for the Judith Wright, Fair Australia, Newcastle, Montreal, and Bridport Prizes.

 

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TEXT
Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford
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