Ryan Vance

I think I can sum speculative fiction up in one word: adjacent. It’s a wonderful, somewhat clinical word I’ve noticed shooting up the last few years. It tends to describe a thing that is like something else, but not alike enough to pass without comment, and not unalike enough to merit a full description. I don’t know how it made the leap from mathematics to common usage - if I was to guess I’d say via political discussion, to describe ideologies that’re distinct in their own ways but in the wider context blend into each other. Left-wing and left-adjacent, right-wing and right-adjacent. It’s such a useful shorthand, because if you know the context of the discussion, you know exactly what it means, while still allowing for vagueness. I use it constantly now, and rarely with a straight face. My fries are burger-adjacent. My network of friends of friends is friends-adjacent. Speculative fiction is as if instead of facing North, South, East or West, you turn your mind in a completely new direction at right angles to how things really are and ah, well, oh no, oh dear. Something’s happened. Things are exactly as they were, only they’re very exactly not; they’re reality-adjacent.
The flexibility you have when you’re a writer dealing with speculative fiction is tremendous. Because the reality-adjacent is by default more vague than genre writing, which comes with its own genre conventions and tropes. That’s not to downplay genre writing, by the way - conventions and tropes lay down familiar ground so the writer can take the reader into unfamiliar territory, but they can also border off that territory. You can write a horror story with an unexpected hero, but the unspeakable monster must always be the antagonist. You can write a classic sci-fi alien invasion, but without enough hard science to back up your fiction, you break the strong and credible ties to reality that gives that genre its appeal. Whereas with speculative fiction, the unspeakable monster can also be a regular joe going through a rocky relationship break-up, and what ties your story to reality isn’t necessarily going to be how likely it might someday be, but how the sheer unreality of the situation allows for new approaches to familiar emotions.

What is an example of this genre that changed your way of thinking?

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series rewired me from top to bottom. Many people would argue it’s too blatantly part of the fantasy genre to fit into what I think of as speculative, and it certainly has its fair share of traditional fantasy tropes: trolls, witches, dwarves, duelling gods and quests, all the rest. But Pratchett’s first dabbling with the Discworld idea took place in his sci-fi novella Strata, an irreverent piss-take of space operas, and the series proper began as an irreverent piss-take of dungeons-and-dragons fantasy. So right from the beginning he wasn’t necessarily writing reality-adjacent work, but he was definitely writing genre-adjacent work. And as the series progressed and the recurring characters broke free of their trappings, the Discworld became more and more like our own world, narrowing that gap between reality-adjacent and genre-adjacent. Near the end, it was even possible for him to write the Science of Discworld books, in which a group of wizards accidentally create our reality, and in doing so learn about the hard science that governs our universe - effectively reversing how Discworld was created in Strata, without once breaking the internal rules of this world he’d created. So the wonderful thing about the characters in Discworld is, they’re all ridiculous fantasy aliens with increasingly human minds and hearts, governed not exclusively by science, magic or gods but ultimately by the stories we tell ourselves. That fluidity and flexibility with genre and our subjective relationship to reality cracked open what I thought storytelling was. And at such a young age. Far too young, probably.

Explain how speculative fiction has informed your own work.

It’s nigh unreadable. I jest! But it does alienate some folk (hi mum!) who prefer their fiction on the believable end of the spectrum. But for others, I hope it expresses and connects feelings or ideas they’ve not seen expressed quite so, elsewhere. For me, I guess, it makes it fun to write. If you asked me to sit down and write a three-thousand word story about a love triangle, I wouldn’t make it beyond the first page without fucking with it somehow, a supernatural mystery or a parallel dimension or a literal sentient triangle looking for The One. Or if you asked me to write a trilogy about elves, by the end of the first paragraph they’d be ditching the swords and sorcery to run a scammy start-up selling their mystical jewellery on the dark web.
And they’d all be queer. That has less to do with the genre and more to do with me, but you bet if I wrote a story about ordinary humans living their ordinary lives and every single one of them is queer, you’ll get people complaining that’s unrealistic when it’s really not, it’s just a decision of where the writer wants to direct your focus. Whereas if those scammer start-up elves are all queer, well, they’re fairly fey to begin with, so you’re more likely to slide queer themes under the radars of folk who might be unresponsive to that.

Ultimately, speculative fiction lets you do whatever you want, in whatever genre you want, and the only restriction is you have to take the reader with you. It’s difficult, it’s risky, it’s often very ludicrous, but that’s the most important thing about this sort of storytelling - using reality-adjacent ideas to push at the edges of what we know we can feel, and feel we can know.

What examples of speculative fiction would you recommend to readers of The Call… or to anyone else for that matter?

Terry Pratchett, of course - if you don't fancy devouring the entire Discworld series, his standalone book Nation distills all his ideas on fantasy, theology, science and storytelling into an alternate reality shipwreck story, and what I consider his best work. And anything at all by Ballard, who was such a genius he invented his own personal tropes and figured out how to recycle them across all of his works - but The Drought is perhaps my favourite because of a particularly wild turn at the midway point. All the classic dystopias - 1984, Farenheit 451, Brave New World - are fine but as time goes on they're increasingly a bit fuddy-duddy, like your uncle with the questionable politics going on a rant after reading too much Reddit. So as a counterpoint I'd recommend Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, Anna Smaill's The Chimes, The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston and Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing. Every single one pushes at what's possible within genre writing, whether ideologically or emotionally.

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