When the Speculative Can Surprise


Let’s talk about stealth for a second. While I don’t doubt that readers whose primary choice in books falls under the heading of literary fiction are more open to excursions into genre than they were in the past, it’s interesting to find science fictional concepts flying under the radar. I’m not talking about works from writers who got their start on the genre side of things (Jonathan Lethem, Karen Joy Fowler) or writers who’ve used science fictional devices to further explore their preferred themes (Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon.) It’s in subtler ways: the use of what is, at its core, a science fictional concept to explore Big Issues in an otherwise realistic novel.

At the center of Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine is a revolutionary approach to reconstructive surgery that allows subjects to alter their race. At the center of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is a miracle drug that prolongs life and fertility. We’re not in space opera territory here, true, but neither are we in the realm of kitchen-sink realism. Neither of these novels would work without that one speculative element, though they otherwise work in a realistic mode. This isn’t a case where a writer goes, say, full-on post-apocalyptic; these two novels are set in a world that is very much our own.

I could just as easily cite the novels of Richard Powers, whose work often riffs on modern advances in technology to explore contemporary society in intriguing and challenging ways. These novels beg the question: are we seeing an internalization of the lessons learned from New Wave science fiction? Are the devices popularized by one literary movement decades ago now part of the toolbox of a number of wise writers, even as some of the other elements are jettisoned? Either way, as a reader who enjoys the unconventional, I’m happy to see science fictional ideas show up in unexpected places on scales both massive and subtle.

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