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Misadventures in Speculative Fiction

21 October 2009 One Million Watts 5,064 views 3 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

As I understand it, stories written in the speculative fiction genre — “spec-fic” for short — are set in a reality that’s parallel to, but not entirely different than, the one we live in. Basically, it’s the world we know, but with one thing different — mermaids, perpetual motion, a surviving Hitler. Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is spec-fic, as is Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” Max Brooks’ “World War Z” and Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” One could even argue that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is spec-fic, but only if one wants the late Kurt Vonnegut — who once compared being tagged as “a science fiction author” to being filed “in a drawer (commonly mistaken) for a urinal” — to rise from the grave and kick one’s impudent ass.

I love speculative fiction. In fact, I love the genre so much that for the past few years I’ve labored to resist the temptation to write it. I’ve actually been asked to write spec-fic on a number of occasions — most recently by Seattle author Caren Gussoff, a co-editor of the wonderful “almanac of speculative fiction” Brain Harvest —  but I’ve resisted time and again for fear of tracking mud all over Chabon and Murakami’s nice, clean genre.

As a result, I have an ever-growing catalog of story ideas that will never bear fruit (or, more likely, produce an excess of allergenic pollen). I don’t have the confidence to make these ideas into stories, but conversely, I don’t have the ego to not tell you about a few of them, and what did them in.


While listening to The Cure’s “Pictures of You” one day, I realized that Cure vocalist Robert Smith occupies his own frequency — that he owns a wholly distinctive sound, like bird calls, babbling brooks and jets taking off. He makes a Smithsound. If anything sounds like him, it’s because he or she or it is trying to imitate Robert Smith.

Inspired, I wrote out a character sketch of a Cure superfan who becomes so obsessed with Robert Smith’s voice that she comes to tune out every other sound in the audible spectrum. All she can hear is the Smithsound, which means that large portions of her day are spent in utter silence — save the occasional “ooo” or “ahh” sound that corresponds to Smith’s range. Maybe there’s a bit of “Just Like Heaven” in the call of a wild goose; perhaps “Why Can’t I Be You” can be heard in car horns.

Why I scrapped the idea: Having imagined this girl, I had no idea what to do with her. And every time I thought about the story, “Friday I’m In Love” would get stuck in my head for hours on end.

Untitled Sexy Museum Story

What if museums became the new nightclubs? What if America’s hipsters suddenly realized that they couldn’t get enough of fossilized remains, Mesopotamian artifacts and Rembrandt van Rijn? What if we lived in a world where Paris and Brittney throw nightly shade at the Bilbao Guggenheim and heretofore useless emo musicians gather in awed bunches at the Field? Well, I tried to imagine a “Bright Lights, Big City” type of story playing out against such a backdrop — the sex, the drugs, and oh yes, the “suggested donations.” You know what I mean.

Why I scrapped the idea: As soon as I wrote the words “Bright Lights, Big City” in my Moleskine, I quite involuntarily punched myself in the groin. I still like the idea of a museum fad, though. You ought to visit a museum today and start the trend.

In Phrase

The title and concept for this story came to me in a dream: The government created a program that celebrated one randomly-chosen person a day — someone nominated by friends, family and neighbors as being “undervalued” — and would give them a huge ticker-tape parade in a gigantic oval-shaped arena designed to look like a metropolitan street. In my dream I came upon the “parade” and asked what it was about, and a reveler told me that someone had “exploded in rabumous phrase.” That’s what they would call it when someone was feted for being slightly better than ordinary.

Why I scrapped the idea: Several reasons. It felt like a component of a larger story, not a story in itself. There’s an excellent reason that peoples’ eyes often glaze over when you tell them about your dreams. I lost interest in the city-stadium concept after I saw “Synedoche New York.” And the non-word “rabumous” sounds like something Phish might have come up with.

Untitled Seger Project

Through an understandably convoluted set of events, Bob Seger is made emperor of the universe. His inoffensive bearded face stares down from propaganda posters, “Like a Rock” is made the international anthem, and his flannel-and-jeans-clad imperial guard put agitators in their place with the chilling admonition “Only cowboys ride against the wind.”

Why I scrapped the idea: It’s unbelievably stupid.

Atomic Girl

Inspired by this photo, I imagined a champion for Las Vegas — a nuclear-fueled superwoman who would only use her powers to fight sprawl and bad zoning choices. She’d go to city council meetings to argue her case — she was the city’s best legal mind — but the council members would merely ogle her mushroom-cloud swimsuit and give in to all her demands without really hearing what they were.

It should be noted that I dreamed up Atomic Girl when I still lived in Las Vegas and traffic was becoming pretty brutal. It took me an hour to get home from work some days. Also, I was between girlfriends.

Why I scrapped the idea: Um, I actually did write this one.  Mr. Murakami, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Geoff Carter


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  1. I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know that Speculative Fiction was what this genre is called, when my second novel was written in this very genre. It was always “kinda sci-fi fantasyish except only thirty years in the future with no spaceships or vampires.”

  2. I enjoyed your article but I’m afraid I have to tell you that Haruki Murakami and Michael Chabon have no special claim on the term “speculative fiction” which was popularized by New Wave science fiction writers of the 1960s before either Murakami or Chabon had published anything. The New Wave movement felt the term science fiction was too limiting and they needed a broader term that would include what they were writing. Because “speculative fiction” has the same initials as “science fiction” they just called everything SF and let it mean whatever people wanted it to.

  3. I agree with Caren. You should write more.

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