What is Speculative Fiction?
I’ve been listening to Sting’s third solo-album from 1991, The Soul Cages. There’s a tune, one of many great songs on the album, called “Jeremiah Blues, part 1.” I think it speaks to the “speculative tradition” as well as any other text. That’s what I’m working on—the notion that there is, what I’m calling, a “speculative tradition” in western culture. I think the title of Sting’s song is a good place to start—it sounds one of the dominant, re-occurring themes of the “speculative tradition,” that of the “Jeremiad,” the sermon style named for the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, who was—he claims–appointed by God to reveal the sins of the Jews and the coming consequences if they continued to worship false idols. He is considered one of the Old Testament’s “Major Prophets.” He would say things like, “Woe unto you, O Israel, for turning to false gods. If you don’t change your ways God is going to f–k you up!” It was, for him, an obvious case of theological “cause and effect.” Break God’s commandments and you would feel His wrath. Break God’s law and He reserved the right to punish the unrighteous impunity. Sodom and Gomorrah anyone?
Most people don’t want to hear anyone saying this sort of thing—it sounds crazy, self-righteous, and off-putting. So, as you might imagine, Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest as a false prophet, imprisoned by King Judah, thrown into a well by King Judah’s officials and generally ignored as a madman when he wasn’t being threatened with death.
Jeremiah rather reminds me of Cassandra, another prophet, but from the Greek side of ancient history. She also predicted the future, having been given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but in a jealous fit he cursed her so that no one would believe her predictions. Cassandra is a tragic representation of one of the fundamental qualities of the speculative tradition–vision combined with a powerlessness to change anything, but filled with a compulsion to prophetic utterance nevertheless.
From Plato to Pixar (think of Wall-E) the theme of apocalypse (now!) runs like a genetic code through western culture’s most basic beliefs about itself. It’s a thematic pattern that appears in our religion, our ideology, even how we wage war. Consider that it’s been said that war is simply politics by another means—if this is true, and I suspect that it is, then what does it say about our politics (and our civilization) that since 1945 thermonuclear annihilation has been taken seriously as a viable political and military solution to certain global problems? Lest you think I exaggerate, consider Jonathan Schell’s classic work, The Time of Illusion as a case in point. His description of a weapon of mass destruction is worth the read, by the way. The phrase has been misused and abused since 9/11. A weapon of mass destruction kills hundreds of thousands if not millions. Conventional weapons do not compare, nor do airplanes used as bombs. That’s why weapons of mass destruction are so unconscionable—because they cause mass destruction in the blink of an eye. Like Manhattan, or Chicago, or London, or Moscow destroyed, and an area within a hundred mile radius made uninhabitable. This is mass destruction. And consider the fact that a single Trident nuclear submarine could wipe out a continent. Now that’s a spicy meatball!
And so I think it’s worth worrying about the fact that Islam and Christianity are both bent on Armageddon—it’s built in to their beliefs—it’s a fundamental premise of their religious world views. It’s as if God Himself wants to destroy the planet—after all, He did it once before with the Great Flood, or so the story goes. Perhaps extinction is a part of His Master Plan?
Plato was no Christian, though he might have been had he been born five hundred years later. He thought something was wrong, even in jolly old Ancient Greece, and so he imagined a more perfect union in his great treatise, The Republic. Why engage in such speculative thinking? Well, it seems that he suspected that something wasn’t quite right in the way Greeks were living together. Plato wasn’t a big fan of democracy after all. And so he imagines a world in which order would be maintained by a strict caste system in which everyone would be taught their place and would be strongly encouraged to stay in it.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. It should be remembered that almost always the ancient speculative traditions were, in the end, optimistic–from death life would come, from the ashes, a phoenix, from the tomb, a savior, from the destruction of the world, a New Jerusalem. The Great City would rise and it would be ruled by a great philosopher king, or a god. Or perhaps the Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner?
Let me end here with a short list: themes of the “speculative tradition” include: prophecy and warning, destruction and re-birth, an implicit critique of the status quo, a warning and a promise of the consequences if things don’t change. A vision of how best to live, how to “regain Eden” or how to find Utopia. More often than not private property was forbidden in this new world order and a kind of radical socialism championed. Thomas More’s Utopia, for instance. The City becomes a central trope as well. And all of this would be taking place either in the future, or just off the edge of the map—either way new world was just over the horizon line. If we could only find our way, reach out, we could—in the end—reach it and perfect the human community.
Much of the Enlightenment grew out of this noble ideal—the project of Modernity—to finish the work God had left unfinished, but human reason would light the way, and science, and soon we could know all we needed to know, solve our problems, and end human suffering.
It never happened. Meanwhile Darwin came and Nietzsche declared God dead. Modernity failed. The Industrial Revolution blackened our eyes (and our lungs). War went on unabated. Science offered us more and more efficient ways to destroy ourselves. Our grand fate to recover Eden slipped away. And on this note entered the 20th century—and as we did the last, great dominant theme of the “speculative tradition” emerged. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century the “speculative tradition’s” theme of rebirth into Eden/Utopia gave way to dark visions of Dystopia–destruction without rebirth or hope for recover–a boot stomping on the face of humanity, forever. And as civilization was about to cast itself into its bloodiest century on historical record, it should come as no surprise that the hope in the future gave way to the existential despair of the present. And the “speculative tradition” in fiction—and film— like Metropolis and Modern Times and later, Soylent Green, I Am Legend, The Matrix, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, and Wall-E—to name only a few—represent 20th-century “speculative tradition” based upon the cautionary tale of the Jeremiad tradition, but this time it is a secular rather than a spiritual Jeremiad, but even so the stakes remain the same: we must change our ways or suffer the consequences. Unfortunately the curse of Cassandra is alive and well.