Wil­liam Sut­cliffe on the power of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion

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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.

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