Why speculative fiction compels us: place, time, and the imagination

Near the end of my journey north, the bus drove onto a ferry crossing the Sogn Fjord. I disembarked and went to the boat’s edge. Beneath me, the motor sounded deep and long, like a brilliant foghorn sweeping out over the water. Mountains jutted up on either side of the fjord, and swirls of gray cloud clamped the world in from above. My mind soared out. The place shifted. I remember thinking, in that moment, that I understood where Nordic mythology came from. The place teemed with magic, carried out on the deep bellow of that motor—

This was my first day in Norway. Bound for a job interview that until three days before I believed I hadn’t been selected for, it was easy to fall in love with the land’s majesty. It was easy to believe in trolls wandering those hills, in mysteries waiting just on the other side–in short, my imagination found such fertile ground on that jet-lagged journey because of its novelty, the possibility of a future life here, and my own eagerness, I suppose, to follow it.

On the Sogn Fjord, May 2017

That magic didn’t stay for long. My husband’s and my first year in Norway was good by all accounts. We got to know colleagues and students from around the world, bought a lot of IKEA furniture and spikes for our shoes, hiked by the fjord, and baked a lot of bread. Yet, as time wore on, the waterfalls became somehow less remarkable. The Norwegians were difficult to get to know. Transferring our driver’s licenses proved an unqualified nightmare, and the paltry selection of fresh produce made us weary.

I felt ridiculously ungrateful. Here we were in a place of incredible natural beauty, surrounded by a thriving international community, living out a dream we never expected would come to fruition–yet, where was that magic? Why did the ferry’s song now sound more like a motor? Why was this mythic place beginning to feel so suspiciously like… real life?

The ferry again, embarking across the Sogn.

A few months after arriving in Norway, my school sent me to an IB training workshop in Barcelona, and my husband and I flew south. Barcelona was the antithesis of Norway: bustling markets, the streets thronging late into the night, restaurants beckoning, and the Mediterranean glowing. The week we were there happened to be just leading up to Catalonia’s unsanctioned independence vote, and political fervor in the city was palpable. The previous spring I had read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, and as we wandered the trails of Montjuic where some of the book takes place, I felt a similar magic to what I had felt on that first Norwegian voyage: a place of possibilities, mystery, intrigue, conflict.

A side-street in Barcelona

There are a lot of problems with tourism as it exists in today’s world: it is so often frantic, superficial, can reinforce stereotypes more than it challenges them. It can disrupt cultures and degrade the environment. Yet there is an undeniable magic that exists when we visit a place for the first time. Our minds are trying to fill in the gaps, and we find unexpected possibilities there that challenge our ways of thinking.

Speculative fiction as tourism

Much of literature’s magic lies in its ability to transport us. Removed from our everyday worlds and exposed to something new, all fiction has this power to incite the imagination. This quality is perhaps most visible in science fiction and fantasy literature, where the worlds it depicts are new by definition. Part of what readers enjoy about these genres is their worldbuilding that, if carefully executed, gives just enough detail to build new structures in the reader’s imagination while leaving enough unsaid to allow readers to construct the details.

When an imaginary world captivates me, it is picking up on some of the same psychological experiences as tourism: because of gaps in knowledge (there must be gaps in knowledge, and far more, in fact, than most tourists experience, because of the invented nature of the worlds), readers’ imaginations are activated and put to work. This is the feeling that might keep us awake at night as we cannot get a story out of our minds. This is what keeps us reading more.

Setup for a Catalan independence rally, September/October 2017.

Wonder in the everyday

In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes his and Wordsworth’s process for developing their poem collection Lyrical Ballads:

In this idea originated the plan of the “Lyrical Ballads”: in which it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth on the other hand was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

Coleridge describes two fundamental paths much of literature takes: first, that resembling speculative fiction, in which “characters supernatural” are given “semblance of truth.” This is the imagination come to life, so much so that readers can believe it. The second is Wordsworth’s direction: to explore “things of every day” with such careful attention that we perceive “the wonders of the world before us.” This, perhaps, is a kind of realism, or at least something not explicitly speculative, but which nevertheless uncovers mystery, imagination, and beauty in the mundane.

If I’m honest, and maybe this is less than believable coming from a science-fiction writer, I prefer the second. For the truth is, we live in the real world, and to the extent we can find joy and wonder in our real surroundings, the less escape becomes necessary and the richer life becomes.

Throughout our first year in Norway, I pondered deeply this idea. When I lived in Minnesota, I think I was good at discovering the magic in my everyday surroundings. My favorite walk at Rice Creek Park I had visited easily a hundred times. It was so familiar, so known, rendered so un-discoverable, and yet it bursts with magic for me still. Why is that? How could I find so much meaning in a simple Minnesotan oak tree and then look out on the fjord before me with dispassion?

Rice Creek Park, January 2015

I think it has something to do with time. The longer I spend in a place, the more the magic reawakens, and it is a deeper, more subtle kind of magic than appeared the first time. Minnesota, I had a lot of my heart there. With Norway, I’m getting there. This second year along the fjords, it has begun to come to life again. I’m looking forward to the day I see the trolls.

This too, I think, is a lesson for us as writers. There is something about the sustained attention to characters and story that brings them to life, and this, I think, is part of the beauty unique to novels and series. Short stories might thrive on a different kind of engagement. That is yet another question for the pondering.

It’s a bit like love, when I think of it: the burning infatuation with a person that fades with time, then blossoms again into deeper, kinder, truer love. Let’s try to write like that. Let’s strive to be more than tourists.

How could I not find this beautiful? The mind is a strange and varied thing.
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