William Sutcliffe on the power of speculative fiction
William Sutcliffe ruminates on the nature of unreality. Is this page even there?
Speculative fiction and realism may seem like opposites, but when you sit down to actually write speculative fiction, you rapidly discover this isn’t the case. Whatever world you have created, if it doesn’t feel real to the reader, you won’t hold their attention. When a character steps out of an ordinary 21st century home and hops on a bus to work, the author doesn’t have to do much work to make this believable. If your character steps out of their house into a place that doesn’t in fact exist, or into a substantially altered version of a real location, every word you write has to perform that task of seducing your reader into believing you.
How do you do this? Paradoxically, what you need as a writer in this situation is the full toolkit of realism. You have to make every vehicle, every street, every building seem solid and plausible. If Ian McEwan writes the words “Oxford Street” in one of his novels, little more has to be said to make a reader visualise the place. In speculative fiction, something extra is required from the prose.
Parts of my novel, We See Everything, are set in central London, but it is not the London any reader might have actually visited. This is a city that has fallen victim to a full-on 21st century aerial bombardment. My novel asks the very simple (yet incredibly complex) question: what if this kind of warfare didn’t strike Baghdad or Aleppo or Gaza, but London? What if it wasn’t them, but us?
The question is fantastical – implausible, even, in political terms – but it is a valuable moral and philosophical exercise. I haven’t stepped outside the bounds of realism as an act of fantasy or escapism. I’ve done it to confront a deeper truth that cannot be explored any other way.
All of us, watching the news from Iraq, Syria or Palestine, ought to ask ourselves, “What if that was me?” All of us, witnessing streams of refugees fleeing war-torn nations to seek sanctuary in Europe, ought to wonder what we would do in their situation; yet the suffering is so appalling, the tragedy so bewilderingly huge, it is hard to truly empathise.
The news, with its goals of balance and dispassionate objectivity, gives us the facts, but very rarely communicates human suffering in a way that engenders empathy. In other words, factual realism has limitations. Speculative fiction, which can invent a world in which the question, “What if that was us?” is given a plausible and serious answer, can go beyond what any literal representation of the real world might achieve, to unearth a valuable and important emotional truth.
This, after all, is the true currency of fiction. This is why we read: not to learn facts, but to experience emotion; to walk in the skin of another human being and find out how the world looks through someone else’s eyes. Whether your setting is the here and now, or 16th century Paris, or some invented universe conjured up in the imagination of the author, the essential goal of the writing is the same: to draw your reader out of their everyday life and plant them into the body of someone else. For authors to make this work, they have to make their invented world as plausible as the world around us.
Every author, in every genre, is essentially doing the same thing: striving to make the unreal real.
“Writing fiction isn’t fantasy. i do it to confront a deeper truth”
When war really did come to London in the Blitz.