The popularization of the term speculative fiction represents a positive progression in the admittedly dangerous realm of literary categorization. It can cover all manner of categories, from fantasy and science fiction to subgenres of mystery, horror, and anything else with that hint of something unusual. Ultimately, speculative brings to mind worlds more possible than probable, and it’s the genre that’s arguably best equipped to answer that most important of all literary questions: What if?
The Windup Girl
More so than in most other genres, building memorable worlds—and filling them with all myriad of detail—in speculative fiction is imperative. But it can be a hazardous exercise; those that too closely resemble our own or those representing cautionary-tale futures run the risk of invoking that frequent adversary of good writing: heavy-handed moralizing. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi adeptly avoids such proselytizing and still describes a fascinating future that is maybe not quite out of the realm of possibility. The book takes place in the 23rd century; the cumulative forces of global warming and devastating plagues have resulted in widespread food shortages. So-called calorie companies specializing in genetically modified food ruthlessly compete with each other, all against a backdrop of devastating diseases and pest invasions.
Thailand seems to be weathering the circumstances better than most, which is what brings Anderson Lake, an agent for one of the calorie companies, to Bangkok. (“The Thai Kingdom is clever where others are not,” he observes. “It thrives while countries like India and Burma and Vietnam all fall like dominoes, starving and begging for the scientific advances of the calorie monopolies.”) Lake is searching for the Thai seed bank, which contains viable stock that is invaluable considering the global circumstances; as a cover, he manages a factory that makes kink-springs (manually wound devices that store energy, in common use since most other fuel resources have been depleted), where massive genetically modified elephants called megodonts are used as labour.
Also figuring into the story is Emiko, the windup girl—a Japanese-designed genetically modified human—suffering because of both intolerance for her kind and the unfamiliar climate: “If her physical movements are all stutter-stop flash-bulb strange, her skin is more than perfect. Even with her augmented vision she barely spies the pores of her flesh … So optimal. But made for Nippon and a rich man’s climate control, not for here. Here, she is too hot and sweats too little.”
Although it has numerous elements common to the harder varieties of science fiction (genetically altered creatures, artificially engineered humans, large and debatably evil corporations), The Windup Girl is a solid story with themes evoking concerns that remain relevant and rooted in our world. It was published in 2009, and is perhaps only becoming more relevant over time, considering the disturbing frequency and severity of food recalls and contaminations appearing in the news.
Perdido Street Station
One of China Miéville’s first novels, Perdido Street Station, is well served by the classification of speculative fiction—although he prefers the term weird fiction, and that’s certainly an appropriate adjective. In Bas-Lag, a world where 19th-century technology coexists with magic, lies the city of New Crobuzon. The setting is vividly realized and incredibly populated; it is a fever dream of a metropolis in which humans live with all manner of other species with names like khepri, vodyanoi, and cactacae. (Cactacae do indeed resemble walking, talking versions of the desert flora.)
Miéville’s descriptions spark and give life to this improbable cityscape despite—or because of—such weird elements. New Crobuzon is a filthy, slum-filled conurbation, a “dusty city dreamed up in bone and brick, a conspiracy of industry and violence, steeped in history and battened-down power.” The various districts reflect their inhabitants and their respective degrees of unsavouriness: “New Crobuzon’s architecture moves from the industrial to the residential to the opulent to the slum to the underground to the airborne to the modern to the ancient to the colourful to the drab to the fecund to the barren.” Jutting up out of the city are the colossal ribs of some ancient skeleton, the remains of a gargantuan creature the likes of which nobody remembers. And in the centre of it all is the train station of the title: “The architect had been incarcerated, quite mad, seven years after Perdido Street Station was completed. He was a heretic, it was said, intent on building his own god.”
The story concerns a scientist named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, who is asked for help by a flying creature, a garuda, whose wings were removed as a punishment. The garuda enlists Isaac to help him fly once again, and the scientist—something of an academic outcast—begins work on a number of different experiments, the unexpected results of which could have dire consequences for the city. The early parts of the book are sort of a tour of the bizarre environs, with gradual introductions to the various species and technological concepts (which include steam-driven robots). And by the one-third mark, as the plot thickens and quickens, we can fully appreciate how it all comes together, and how remarkably the world is built.
World War Z
A world slightly closer to home is the horrific setting of Max Brooks’s World War Z. If there is a horror trope more overdone these days than vampires, it must be zombies—which is ironic, considering that, as antagonists, they are intrinsically uninteresting; they have no personality. That is part of why World War Z is so engaging, concentrating as it does on the survivors and widespread societal consequences of a zombie apocalypse. As the narrator notes in his introduction to the interviews, “In the end, isn’t the human factor the only true difference between us and the enemy we now refer to as ‘the living dead’ ?”
This is not your typical slapdash cheesy horror novel. Brooks was influenced by Studs Terkel’s The Good War, an oral history of the Second World War that focuses on interviews with those who experienced it. The framing device in Brooks’s novel is a researcher who, 10 years following the end of the Zombie War, travels the world to meet with dozens of survivors for the United Nations’ Postwar Commission Report. Each chapter is an interview with a different individual, organized roughly chronologically, with the first being the account of the doctor who may have originally discovered the phenomenon (in Brooks’s world, zombies are caused by a disease).
There are a few things that elevate this book from its rather pulpy origins to greatness. The first is how it is played, which is straight, with no degree of campiness. Describing a book about zombies as realistic might seem inane, but Brooks has taken the zombie apocalypse scenario to its zenith, delving into everything from the geopolitical ramifications to discussions with soldiers about optimal combat tactics (the U.S. military is routed early in the war, accustomed as they are to using shock and awe tactics that prove useless against an enemy that, as one survivor notes, “will never, ever be afraid”). So straight is the tone that there are footnotes. Yes, footnotes—in a book about zombies.
But World War Z is more than just an academic/horror crossover thought experiment. Brooks writes well, and the framing device works, so that whatever might be sacrificed by not having a central character weaving throughout the narrative is certainly made up for in the diversity of the stories that are told. These include a teenager in Japan who was so obsessed with the Internet that he only realized the extent of the devastation when the power shut off (“My mind was finally clear, maybe for the first time in years, and I suddenly realized that I could smell smoke and hear faint screams”), a fighter pilot who was forced to eject over zombie territory and navigate her way to safety; and a deplorable individual who early in the outbreak marketed a “cure” called Phalanx, which never worked (“When I first heard about the outbreaks … I saw the opportunity of a lifetime”). Most are quite thrilling, several are terrifying, but they’re all effective in making an impossible scenario so very real.
Ken Grimwood’s masterful Replay presents a much more personal tale, albeit with a similarly high-concept tagline, which can be described in just a few words: a man relives his life over and over and over. It was published in 1987, six years before the release of that immensely popular work of time-loop fiction, the film Groundhog Day.
Replay is one of the very few books in which the main character dies in the first chapter, let alone the first line: “Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.” He was not entirely happy; in his final moments, he notes that “maybe he had secretly welcomed the end of his life,” partly because of “the dissatisfaction, the grinding loss of ambition and hope that had either caused or been caused by the failure of his marriage, he couldn’t remember which anymore.” After succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 43, he wakes up 25 years earlier in his old college dorm room, fully cognizant of his previous experiences. “So far as he could tell, he had arrived back at this point in his life with every circumstance intact,” and with an entirely new life ahead of him.
Jeff at first handles the impossible situation how I think most would: he uses his knowledge of the future to get very, very wealthy, initially by gambling (capitalizing on his memories of the Kentucky Derby and the World Series) and later by investing in high-tech companies. In such a manner Jeff Winston makes the most of his second chance, but once again, at the age of 43, he dies. And once again, he reawakens.
Replay is a remarkably and unexpectedly emotional read; there is something about the repetitive nature of life and death that brings the reader closer to Jeff, making it easy to commiserate (although he enjoys it at first, by his third replay, Jeff’s experience of having his families repeatedly reduced to nullity is heartbreaking). Most importantly, it does what all speculative fiction should; it fills us with wonder, sticks in our minds, and perhaps gives us new respect for, or a desire to pay more attention to, the world around us.