Eric T. Reynolds is Editor/Publisher ofHadley Rille Books, a publisher of fantasy, science fiction, and archaeology fiction. Hadley Rille just celebrated five years in publishing. Eric has edited over 30 books over the past five years, many of which have received critical acclaim. He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has had fiction published by small press and nonfiction published by science-related publications. Visit him on Facebook “Eric T Reynolds” and his blog,ericreynolds.livejournal.com.
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Several authors I've worked with and I recently had a long conversation that could have been titled: "What is speculative fiction?" We were focusing on what might be called the fringe of speculative fiction, that gray area where fiction strays close to the borders of mainstream.
What about stories that don't have any of the tropes of speculative fiction? Science fiction author James Gunn's definition of science fiction includes stories that deal with the human condition, and how humans interact with nature. Such stories might include castles and spaceships, but many stories may not be recognizable at all as speculative fiction.
At Hadley Rille Books, where I serve as editor/publisher, we publish a series archaeology-correct novels about common people who lived during ancient times. These are being written by archaeologists and anthropologists. So while we love the non-mundane, we have found a place for the mundane as well, which we think fits within the speculative fiction genre. The exploration of the ancient world is full of drama, discovery, and excitement, and involves the exploration of other worlds, worlds vastly different from what most of us experience today.
Take for example K.L. Townsend's Song of the Swallow (which we will release in December of 2011), a book set during the collapse of the Southern Song Dynasty in China during the 1200s CE. The story follows the struggles of a young woman who is taken from her home to serve as a concubine in the Emperor's palace. She has a horrible life there, but during that time she manages to befriend another woman, form a sisterhood, and grow as a person. She is subjected to a way of life that should never be experienced by anyone, but as a human being manages to explore ways to overcome and perhaps escape her predicament. Townsend explores many aspects of the human condition and her knowledge as an anthropologist allows her to speculate about human life during that time.
Another example is anthropologist Shauna Roberts’s Like Mayflies in a Stream, which although it’s based on the fantastic account, The Epic of Gilgamesh, it speculates (also based on current archaeological and historical knowledge) how people lived in ancient Mesopotamia. She took care to show us what their daily lives were like, how they performed ceremonies, how their society treated women, and what kinds of conflicts they had. She shows us the most accurate portrayal of daily life in Mesopotamia as it may have been over 4000 years ago.
In classicist Jenny Blackford’s The Priestess and the Slave, we follow the lives and deaths of common people who endured the Plague of Athens nearly 2500 years ago in ancient Greece. We learned how they cooked, how they mourned their losses, what their dwellings were like, what they believed in and how those beliefs drove their actions for coping during bad times. Again, Blackford worked from her extensive knowledge and study of that culture and from her efforts, we get to follow a very real and riveting drama of the people who lived through those times.
Taken individually or taken as a whole, novels such as these accomplish many goals of speculative fiction. The very word “speculative” is the basis of stories like these, speculation based on knowledge and discovery about different snapshots of the human past. What we find is that people are alike all over whether geographic or temporal.
To a casual browser in a bookstore, these books won’t strike him or her as speculative fiction. But when a story explores the bounds of human endurance and enters the realm of the distant past (which is a different world), it may be seen as mainstream. But we really know it’s a speculative fiction story. And it seems that speculative fiction has a much bigger audience than many of us realize.