IN ALMOST EVERY BATCH OF MANUSCRIPTS WE RECEIVE at On Spec, there are always a few stories that aren't speculative enough. They are often well written, but the SF element fails to empower the story.
So, what makes a story speculative? How can you know if your story isn’t speculative enough?
Speculative fiction is an umbrella term that encompasses a number of genres including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and magic realism. These genres also have numerous sub-genres embedded within them: science fiction incorporates about fifty different sub-types ranging from Alien Invasions to Xenofiction, the fantasy sub-genres can range from Bangsian (or afterlife) pieces to to Steampunk to Urban, horror or dark fantasies span Dystopias to Splatterpunk work. Magic realism has fewer distinctions, with some literary experts considering magic realism as a type of fantasy sub-genre.
Each of these genres has an inherent nature. Science fiction may be based on current hard science or plausible futuristic or alternative life models. Fantasies of all types, offer magical or supernatural elements. Horror builds anxiety and delivers shock through physical or psychological violence. Dark fantasies toss supernatural elements into that mix. These are general definitions. Individually, each speculative fiction story, no matter what its sub-genre, should also have at least one speculative element that drives the plot. How to tell if that element is strong enough? If removed, the plot disentegrates.
For example, in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, the speculative elements include non-human characters – hobbits, dwarves, elves, orcs, trolls, wizards, and dragons – but these characters alone are not enough to make the story strongly speculative. (They could as easily be cast as humans in costume.) More importantly, the story includes a magical ring of power that bestows invisibility upon Bilbo Baggins. If the crucial premise of the magical ring of power is removed, the story falls apart. Without the ring, Bilbo would likely fall prey to Gollum. If he manages to escape him, he would be incinerated by Smaug. Either way, the dwarves fail to reclaim their ancestral home.
Editorial bias also plays a role in whether a story is considered speculative enough, and this is certainly true at On Spec. What one editor considers a reasonable measure of SF in a story, another will reject. My personal bias is that if the inherent elements are removed from a speculative fiction piece, and the story can still survive as a piece of general or literary fiction, then the speculative elements are too weak. Therefore, stories that rely solely on metaphor or symbolism for their speculative premise will not survive my share of the slush pile. Focus is also important; the SF element must take precedence over other aspects (like personal relationships between characters, solving mysteries, etc). If it doesn’t, then the piece is a love story or a mystery and the SF element is treated as an afterthought.
That said, I would probably reject the following stories as speculatively weak:
- In a bizarre setting, every member of a family wears a mask to hide their true emotions from one another other. In the end, the masks fall away, only to reveal a different set of masks. My note: The symbolism of the masks doesn’t push this world far enough. The story and the masks are metaphors. This piece can still stand alone as general fiction.
- A couple can read each other’s minds. Despite the intense and unhindered criticisms they have of one another, they manage to weather their mutual honesty and their devotion grows. My note: Although the psychic ability is a convenient way for getting into each other’s heads, the emphasis of this story is on relationship. Although this story is thinly speculative, it is more of a love story and might work better for a different magazine.
- On a port planet, a street vendor loses his goods to off-world con artists. Through a con of his own, he tracks them down, recovers his property and receives a handsome reward. My note: This story could have taken place in a large port anywhere. Setting it on a planet other than Earth isn’t enough to make it a good speculative piece.
- North America is undergoing a rabies epidemic, so much so, that pet owners must kill their animals. We are shown a day in the life of a young boy who hides his stray kitten from prying eyes. My note: Remove the epidemic premise, and we have a boy and his pet story, complete with parents who don’t understand. The speculative element is easily removed.
- Because he is so perfect, a woman wonders if her boyfriend is an angel. Unfortunately, his charitable nature also makes him compassionate to others, causing her some jealousy. My note: Simply wondering if her boyfriend is an angel doesn’t make him one. Make him an actual angel, and the story becomes stronger.
- As she dies from pneumonia, an elderly woman relives early memories of her husband having an affair with their maid. After throwing the girl out of the house in the dead of winter, she later discovers that the girl died of pneumonia. My note: Although the karmic twist is interesting, the death by curse is coincidental. The speculative element isn’t developed enough in this story.
How does any of this apply to our upcoming Punk theme issue? In any story I'm likely to choose, I will be looking for a strong speculative element that drives the 'punk' premise. Character (true punks, outcasts, aficionados, enthusiasts, society types, etc.,) will be important, but even more so, I will be looking for a sense of 'invention'. If this inventive element is removed, the story fails. Furthermore, I'd like to see the limits of the sub-genre pushed. If you're penning what you think is a new punk sub-genre, then make sure it's clear what that novelty is.