Returning to some of the various things touched in the first unlecture. Speculative writing. This is the fancy term given to things like science fiction, but it includes lots of other things too. What I glossed over are the qualities about speculative writing that I think matter. This isn’t about fandom Trekkie whatever, so if you’re a Trekkie, sorry. Like design fiction, or at least some of the claims made for design fiction, what I like about speculative fiction is the way that it offers writing as a way to think with and through things.
The example I used was China Miéville’s Embassytown. The point I made (lightly) in the unlecture was that you need to move from your own position of knowing towards it for it to work. It is then an invitation, and a demand. It has an imperative. If I don’t suspend my demand (“tell me, NOW, what a voidcraft is”) then the work won’t do its job, which is to describe and propose a possible world where I need to learn its terms. Not the other way round – I am supplicant, not master. This is, I think, a useful model to think about my relationship to knowledge and learning broadly.
The second point, which I didn’t raise, was that speculative fiction is a deeply epistemological way of writing. Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, so it is about how we know things. In Embassytown, for example, the main location is home to a species that has a very specific and literal method of speaking. So the novel actually becomes a long meditation on semiotics and linguistics, without actually saying so. But that’s just being clever. What I really mean is that on this planet there is something called “biorigging” which means the indigenous species grows its technology. Guns are living things. As are houses. There are farms that produce them. None are described in any great detail, they don’t really need to be. Now, let me be very clear. It is not the science fiction that matters deeply. It is the speculative thought. So, in the novel, without needing to justify it, it takes the terms of technology as biological literally, and just simply thinks with it. So you get a phrase like “He fired and the gun-animal opened its throat and howled.” Or the houses grow, which means they produce an atmosphere (since living things all breathe), but also they might listen since they as living things why wouldn’t they have ears. Later, they watch, because of course if they have ears they could as easily have eyes.
This is also why design fiction is a useful methodology. It establishes terms and then thinks with them. Not about them, which would get bogged down in why (“why can a light sabre cut through anything?” “why can a jedi do mind tricks?” “why is there a force?”) but takes them as givens and then develops ideas and propositions on this basis. It is speculative, imaginative, creative, playful, and serious.