Speculative Fiction


            The term speculative fiction has a wide variety of usages and meanings. In the broadest sense it is described as a literary meta-genera that subsumes science fiction, fantasy, magic realism and horror within a single category. As the writer Margaret Atwood (2004, p. 513) explains, ‘speculative fiction may be used as the tree, for which science fiction, science fiction fantasy, and fantasy are the branches. The beast has at least nine heads, and the ability to eat all other fictional forms in sight, and to turn them into its own substance.’ Aliens, ghosts, vampires, cyborgs, hobbits, spaceships, gods and minotaur all belong to the same fictional pantheon by this reading of the term. Atwood prefers to distinguish between science fiction as ‘books with things we can’t yet do or begin to do, talking beings we can never meet, and places we can’t go’; and speculative fiction ‘which employs the means already more or less to hand, and takes place on planet earth’ (p. 513). Robert Heinlein (1947, p. 3), however, referred to his own and others’ science fiction of the day as speculative fiction, using the terms interchangeably.


            Atwood goes on to identify fiction as the key word, by distinguishing both science and speculative fictions as literary forms distinct from the novel. Fictions, Attwood explains, can do things that novels just can’t do. She provides a comprehensive list of such allowances (p. 515):


1. Explore the consequences of new and proposed technologies in graphic ways.

2. Explore the nature and limits of what it means to be human in graphic ways, by pushing the envelope as far as it can go.

3. Explore the relation of humanity to the universe in graphic ways, an exploration that often takes us in the direction of religion and can meld easily with mythology.

4. Explore proposed changes in social organization in graphic ways, by showing what they might be like for those living under them.

5. Explore the realms of the imagination in graphic ways, by taking us boldly and daringly where no one has gone before. 


            These five principles of speculative fiction provide a strong framework for its development in this inquiry. It is interesting how Attwood refers continuously to the exploration of worlds, and also to the ‘graphic ways’ in which those worlds are described.


            Bogue (2008, p. 78) explores speculative fiction through the Deleuzian concept of fabulation, which is the ‘invention of a people to come.’ The work of philosophy, as Deleuze and Guattari explain in What is Philosophy? (1994, p. 99, italics in original), is ‘to summon forth a new earth, a new people.’ For these authors, fabulation is the point at which art and philosophy converge: ‘the constitution of an earth and a people that are lacking as the correlate of creation’ (p. 108). It is the creation of possible worlds through the arts, in this case speculative fiction, in which the lack of the present can be filled. Fabulation, in this sense, is considered a superior concept to utopia because it is not proscriptive; it is an opening, a space to be filled rather than a problem to be solved. There is no ideal to be pursued or ideology to be refuted through fabulation; it has no external goal or motivation. ‘It is its own end, an irreducibly temporal process of becoming-other that is open-ended, and if it is a process of summoning forth a future people, it is one that cannot move beyond itself without involving the participation of a collectivity in its action’ (Bogue, 2008, p. 81).


            Deleuze and Guattari (1994, p. 110) further suggest that ‘to create is to resist’, meaning that the act of creation is always political. Yet, ‘if it is a resistance to the present in the hope of a better future, that future cannot be predicted, nor can its superiority to the present be assured’ (Bogue, 2008, p. 82). Fabulation, again, is not a solution or a prediction but an opening up of spaces for resistance. But it’s also not a blind opening to resistance, but an opening that is ‘contingent and specific’, with particular points of inception and sets of coordinates that ground its becoming (ibid). In States and Territories, the cubes and their fixed locations are the coordinates for fabulation, a topology that extends from the present into the future, and back again. The cubes become the ‘reference points for an experiment that exceeds our capacities to foresee’ (Deleuze & Parnet, cited in Bogue, 2008, p. 83). It is through these reference points in a network, these reticulated protocols and coordinates, that pathways of fabulation are extended from the present, into the future, and back again in a loop. Guattari (1995) refers to this as the extension of existential territories through creative practice, which corresponds with the production of new forms of collective subjectivity. The creation of fictional worlds, in this sense, automatically creates a social order, with a politics defined not outside but inside that community (Bogue, 2008, p. 90).


            All of this is to say that speculative fiction is a method of re-imagining the present through an ethnography (graphic description) of the future. In this inquiry, the method is also used to blur the lines between fact and fiction in the context of social research. As described above in the interview subsection, participants are instead invited to become collaborators in a fiction by creating archives for future people to discover. The archives are contained within digital correlates of the actual cubes that are being installed in the learning environments of the university. The story takes place a thousand years from now when the cubes are rediscovered by a future race of bio-engineered humans called Dwellers. The Dwellers live in ecological biospheres called ‘worldhouses’ controlled by artificial intelligences, which are actually social and technological experiments overseen by off-planet humanoids known as the Watchers. For the Dwellers, all of our current knowledge has been lost long ago and they have developed a collective oral history and a vivid dreamscape. When the Dwellers rediscover the cubes, the knowledge of the Modern disciplines is rekindled which leads to the inevitable breakdown of their collective and violent social upheavals. The story serves to question the sustainability of academic knowledge and practices into the future, as well as the role of the university campus itself as the site of knowledge production and conservation.


            A detailed background and premise for this story is still being developed, but at this point I want to focus on the specific use of speculative fiction as a method in this inquiry. Speculative fiction is used in four different ways in this inquiry: 1) as a way of creating collaborative spaces for philosophical speculation around issues associated with sustainability in the Anthropocene era; 2) as a way of doing research, in which research questions are addressed through fictional scenarios which then become part of the story, part of the artwork; 3) as a way of giving voice to multiple others which is consistent with a flat ontology and a participatory epistemology; and 4) as a working empirical model for the development of eco-aesthetic pedagogy as an educational framework. All of this is dependent on the final method of inquiry, which links the cubes, the data archives, the participants and the fictions together through a GPS responsive hypermedia application.