Speculative fiction is my favourite kind of fiction for two reasons. Firstly, if I am lucky, I get to read about wizards. Secondly, spec fic is a fascinating way of analysing the world around us—from the perspective of fictionalised characters, yes, but characters that are informed by a very real writer’s very real engagement with a very real world. I love picking apart what a writer takes for granted when they deconstruct and reimagine their reality, and in turn identifying the kinds of assumptions that we all take for granted.
I recently finished rereading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a classic from my childhood that I definitely should not have been reading as young as I was. It’s a book about power squabbles, following a war between the old gods of a thousand stories and pantheons, of war and nature and storm, and the new gods of Internet, TV and highway. I haven’t watched the TV show (my friend assures me that the first two seasons are good, but then it goes wildly downhill from there) so my only interaction with the story is its original novel version, shittily bound and cheaply bought on a family trip to the Philippines from years ago. My only engagement with America has been through the online 24-hour news cycle and a brief holiday my family took when I was four, where someone asked if I wanted to be a child actor in a commercial (to the polite horror of my parents).
As such, America is an abstraction, a nexus of cultural power that I still haven’t quite grasped as real. Beyond the mystique of America and the fantasy of a godly war, the whole story of American Gods is suspended in 2001. Turn-of-the-century anxieties about what it means to be American drive much of the book’s obsession with national and cultural decay. Social media is a glaring absence in the pantheons of modernity. It’s pretty uncomfortable to read the female characters—the vast majority of the women are written with their desirability to men foremost to mind, and are all almost exclusively concerned with the wellbeing of the men around them. Excellent though a lot of Gaiman’s work might be, writing women has not historically been one of his strong suits.
Generally speaking, authors are in the business of depicting reality—and if not, they are depicting alternate realities intended to shed light on what is already true. American Gods attempts to universalise realities of belief (religious, spiritual, both, or neither) in a way that is ultimately very white, cishet, and male, and presents this reality as a self-evident truth. There is a disquieting sense of spectacle in the depiction of people of colour being brought, often forcibly, to America, just as there is an uncomfortable lack of meaningful engagement with Native American religion in a book that is, at its core, about America. Efforts are made to globalise and generalise, which paradoxically only make it more obvious that Gaiman is writing from a perspective of privilege that flattens the topographies of social disenfranchisement.
I’ve started going to a book club recently (a book club! How cultured of me, how active-and-intelligent-reader of me!), and one of the more memorable books we had to read last month was an anthology of short stories entitled Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. It’s a bunch of queer feminist spec fic that isn’t afraid to get experimental, sexy, and downright bizarre—one of the stories is a hundred pages of Welcome to Night Vale-esque Law & Order episode recap rewrites, which nobody at the book club table really seemed to like and everybody had something to say about. The sex in particular was a welcome reprieve from Gaiman’s uncomfortably male gaze. The site of pleasure is explicitly queer, rooted refreshingly in the female body, and with sexual gratification often being pursued on a woman’s own terms. At the same time, the women in Her Body and Other Parties are minimised, reduced to their material forms and even less, oversexualised and abused and rendered (sometimes literally) invisible. Machado walks the edge between female sexuality and female sexualisation in a way that Gaiman doesn’t. She is hyper-aware of the queer female body as a policed state, which is what her speculative fiction seeks to challenge.
This also raises the question: what is the ‘female body’? Machado seems confident in her definitions. Many of her stories revolve around obscure horrors that only the women of their respective worlds face, such as girls turning to ghosts or women being born with mystifying ribbons that cannot, under any circumstances, be untied. Certainly, the female body is a charged political arena, one that bears analysis and deconstruction. At the same time, Machado belies bioessentialist roots that are out of place with the queerness that fundamentally informs her anthology. Where do trans people fit into her worlds? What would transphobic gendered violence look like? If gender is a physical embodiment of the self in Her Body and Other Parties, then what does this mean for people whose genders are fluid, whose genders change over the course of their lives, whose genders are incongruent with societal interpretations of their bodies? The queerness that Machado takes for granted does not actually extend beyond the realm of sexuality, which in turn affirms normative assumptions of gender. Speculation (and fiction) can go far, but without the attention of perspectives beyond your own, they may not go as far as one might think.
Of course, then there is fiction that is painfully prescient, spec fic that is keenly aware of the anxieties of specific intersections and does a stellar job at teasing those out with the frightful and fantastical. I’ve been steadily working my way through Ling Ma’s Severance, a dystopian zombie apocalypse novel that jumps between the pre- and post-fevered world. The reader follows Candace Chen, a Chinese-American immigrant grappling with millennial ennui. Ma unweaves the complicated nostalgia of an immigrant cultural identity against the backdrop of the zombifying Shen Fever, exploring the longing for old lives and old worlds even as they destroy us. Much of Severance (which was published in 2018) is alarmingly similar to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees are advised to wear N95 masks in the workplace, a suggestion that later becomes mandatory. People make memes that dismiss the growing concerns surrounding the fever. Characters assume that it’ll never happen to them, and then are surprised when they are proven decisively incorrect. The book reminded me of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which explores similar concerns over art and the maintenance of the past. Unlike Gaiman and Mandel, however, Severance has been sharpened by its foregrounded positionality. There are no assumptions of universality obfuscated a white, Western focus—indeed, it is painfully clear that much of the story is shaped by Candace’s specific cultural experiences, which in turn allows Severance to hit all the harder.
Shen Fever causes its sufferers to mindlessly repeat mundane actions from their old lives— folding clothes, trying on dresses, setting the dinner table—a far cry from the behaviour of traditional slobbering, bloodthirsty zombies that hunger for hapless survivors’ brains. As such, Ma uses the conventions of Shen Fever to engage closely with late-stage capitalism. Candace is constantly in a state of repetition before the End, going to work and going home every day with as much personal direction and outward displays of agency as the fevered. ‘Capitalism turns us all into zombies’ is the obvious message to take from Severance. Yet there is also a disarming soothingness to the monotony, a reliability to be found in the dozens of unchanging shopping mall brands or cookie-cutter work days. As far as I can tell, Severance is a storied critique of capitalism, but it does not forego or disregard the paradoxical comfort of a mindless and inconsequential job that has increasingly come to define Western cultures and workplaces. What people seem to want more than anything in Severance, as Terry Pratchett suggests in Feet of Clay, is that ‘tomorrow will be very much like today’. Indeed, when the End comes, Candace continues to do the same thing, day in, day out. She waits for the men to finish stalking the fevered, she loots houses, she conducts rituals, remembers the past and makes journeys towards supposed safe havens. It is only that the details and context of her actions have changed. For much of the book, the repetition remains.
In the process of reimagining, recontextualising, and reconceptualising the world, the edges of personal beliefs are thrown into sharp relief. Speculative fiction thus continues to be a powerful tool. Not only may new worlds be explored, but spec fic allows for incisive analysis of prevailing realities, a way for us to reflect on what is, what can be, and perhaps most compelling of all, what ought to be.
Aries Gacutan is a writer, reader and editor with a vested interest in experimental digital poetry and the complexities of gender. They are a member of Voiceworks EdComm, and have been published in Layabout, Baby Teeth Journal, #EnbyLifeand more. In 2022 they received the Fitzpatrick Award for Best Online Column for contributions to Farrago and Myriad’s Editor’s Pick for Fiction and Poetry. They also like wizards.