Literary fiction has been forever in conflict with its sibling and nemesis: genre fiction. In general, the literary world sees literary fiction as “highbrow” works that cannot be defined by their relationship to any specific genre.
Genre fiction, on the other hand, is often considered more commercial and is generally meant to appeal to specific audiences, relying more heavily on tropes, archetypes and formulas. Genre fiction can be anything from fantasy to romance to mystery to horror to sci-fi to western.
This distinction, like any attempt to classify writing, unfortunately fails to account for the nuances and complexities of storytelling. Genre labels often say more about the companies that promote and sell books than they do about the actual stories being told.
“A lot of these genres are just kind of made up by bookstores,” YA (young adult) fantasy author S.M. Beiko, who lives and works in Manitoba, explains. “They just want to know where to put you.”
The distinction between literary and genre fiction sometimes feels hard to pinpoint and certainly doesn’t mean that “genre” works cannot be highly acclaimed in literary circles. Take the popularity of Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Shirley Jackson and even Mary Shelley, who are all technically writers of genre fiction.
Today, we have N. K. Jemisin, Stephen Graham Jones, Cherie Dimaline, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King – all renowned, brilliant world-builders who use certain generic elements to tell their stories. And guess what? Audiences love them.
The rise of speculative fiction
Though there has been some debate about the term “speculative fiction,” in general, it is a form that allows genre authors to define their work more flexibly, waving down certain boundaries that feel arbitrary and restrictive.
The term “speculative fiction” was introduced by Robert Heinlein in 1947 and was initially associated with the science-fiction genre. Since then, the term has expanded to include fantasy, horror and dystopian literature. Broadly, it refers to stories that use eerie, uncanny, supernatural or futuristic elements to explore a narrative or question.
“I would describe it as the most inclusive and engaging form out there,” Adam Petrash says. Petrash is the co-editor of the Manitoba and Prairie-based speculative fiction anthologies Parallel Prairies and Alternate Plains alongside Darren Ridgley. “It can be literary, it can be horror, it can be fantasy, it can be sci-fi. It can have these things co-exist beside each other.”
Beiko defines speculative fiction as a form concerned with “what ifs” – like realism, but with no constraints. “I have a question, and I keep asking questions, and a story comes out of that,” she says. “It’s still an investigation of what it means to be human. It’s just in a different environment ... maybe it’s in space or underground.”
Ghosts and gods on the Prairies
Beiko’s first novel The Lake and the Library is set in a small, fictional Manitoba town. “It really drew on the landscape,” she says. “The endlessness, how in those kinds of landscapes there isn’t much going on, so you retreat inwardly and build these fantastic worlds.”
She explains how a rural Prairie setting, ridden with ghosts and abandoned buildings, allowed her to raise questions about the power of reading and the way people – especially young people – get sucked into their own fantasies.
Chadwick Ginther, a fantasy and speculative-fiction author based in Winnipeg, says Manitoba has a rich history of mythology and folklore, which inspired his fantasy series Thunder Road.
Ginther, who is from Morden, became interested in Norse mythology and began to make connections between these myths and Manitoba’s Icelandic communities.
“Gimli is the name of the place after the end of the world in Norse myths ... there’s all of these connections right there,” he says.
When Ginther initially submitted Thunder Road to a larger American publisher, they said they liked his writing but couldn’t sell his book. Eventually, he went with Ravenstone Press, an imprint of Turnstone Press. He explains that if he had tried to translate “small-city Canada into small-city America ... it wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same book.”
The second book in the series is more of an “urban fantasy,” drawing on Winnipeg’shistory as a “reputedly haunted city.”
“Winnipeg has a lot to offer in a fantasy setting,” Ginther says. “I doubt I’ll ever be done telling stories in Winnipeg or on the Prairies.”
Beyond sword and sorcery
Beiko, who has written a trilogy called The Realms of Ancient, which she describes as “commercial fantasy,” explains that, at this point, high-stakes fantasies with swords, sorcery and huge mythologies aren’t what she’s most interested in.
Instead, she’s been challenging worn-out tropes in the genre, both as an editor and as a writer. Gothic Tales for Haunted Futures is a YA graphic-novel anthology series that has seen two editions, spinning stories that re-imagine romantic connections in futuristic, technological and time-travel settings. As the sole editor for the second edition, Beiko wanted to ensure the anthology was representative of real teenagers and their experiences.
Gothic Tales includes stories in which “trans vampires’ lives intertwine in cybergoth Paris” and “a non-binary chaplain serving a haunted space station becomes enamoured with the ship’s AI.” She explains that the call for submissions was worldwide. “It was completely wild what people came up with, the mythologies that people explored.”
Beiko also produces a webcomic called Krampus is my Boyfriend!, a “teen comedy-fantasy about a fat 16-year-old girl who is going to school in a made-up Prairie town in Manitoba ... (who) accidentally summons a monster named Krampus at a slumber party as a joke to defeat all her bullies.”
As both an editor and a writer, Beiko strives for representation. “It just tells the reader, ‘hey, you exist, and you’re allowed to be the hero of the story.’”
Some other key components to good fantasy writing are hopeful narratives and believable characters, Winnipeg-based web-fantasy writer Don Nguyen says. Nguyen publishes long-form fantasy on a platform called Tapread.
“I find great joy and passion out of seeing a character, despite their flaws, try to push themselves to be better,” he explains.
Nguyen is concerned about the tendency of some authors to represent BIPOC characters as “unflawed and paragons of virtue.”
It goes farther than simply undoing harmful tropes like the “noble savage” and “prostitute with a heart of gold” that tend to be found in fantasy writing, he explains.
According to Nguyen, characters need to be believable, humanized and relatable. “In my works, BIPOC characters are just that: characters.”
Creatures that show us things
Petrash says one of the most common themes he noticed in the short, speculative fiction that was submitted to the anthologies he co-edited was trauma. “Trauma manifests as a ghost or as some kind of creature,” he explains. “We use these creatures to show the darker sides of humanity.”
Another common theme was the climate crisis: narratives that speculated “about the possible futures now that the world is looking the way it is.”
“Speculative fiction has more of a potential to tell stories that people wouldn’t want to digest in a realism format or that might be too heavy, because it’s too real,” he continues. Sometimes, “people use monsters, but the story isn’t really about the monsters. It’s about the people.”
Meghan Malcolm, the writer behind WillowPress, is a self-published Winnipeg-based fantasy author and bookseller. Malcolm writes stories that re-imagine characters from fairytales, myths and folklore, such as Medusa and Delilah, complicating their narratives and exploring themes of selfhood and identity.
“They’re struggling with their identity, with harm done to them and finding themselves,” she explains.
For example, Malcolm writes Maleficent – known as the villain from Sleeping Beauty – as a victim of mental and emotional abuse.
“Her story is quite fragmented, because she doesn’t realize yet the ways that she’s been gaslit ... so she sees herself as the villain,” Malcolm says. They use this narrative structure and the mythology surrounding Maleficent to explore the internalization of abuse and how people struggle to believe their own stories.
Malcolm says fantasy has fallen victim to some unfortunate and uncreative tropes, when what it really should be is a “tool used to highlight things that we need to deconstruct.”
‘This isn’t just an imaginary world’
Malcolm adds that it’s important to remember that things that seem otherworldly, horrific or apocalyptic to people from privileged backgrounds have sometimes already happened to marginalized people.
“This isn’t just an imaginary, terrible world. I think fantasy can highlight things we wish the world could be like and the way the world has been for people who aren’t white or who aren’t super privileged,” they say.
From Treaty 1, David Alexander Robertson and Katherena Vermette have been working innovatively with speculative forms, using time travel and supernatural occurrences to tell Indigenous stories and explore Indigenous histories.
Anthologies like Love After the End, a collection of Indigiqueer speculative fiction edited by Joshua Whitehead from Peguis First Nation, and This Place: 150 Years Retold, a YA graphic-novel series exploring “how Indigenous people have survived a post-apocalyptic world since Contact,” have contributed to a wave of Indigenous voices challenging assumptions made by traditional speculative fiction across the continent.
“We have already survived the apocalypse. This, right here, right now, is a dystopian present,” Whitehead writes, powerfully, in the introduction to Love After the End.
Setting people free
Speculative fiction is a genre that can be both bound and unbound. It seems to gesture both forward and backward in space and time, to a place unhindered by colonial boundaries and historical truisms. Perhaps this is why it lends itself so well to online platforms with wide readerships.
Nguyen, who writes web fantasy, is aware that online publishing has a bad reputation, since “anyone can publish, and there are a lot of incomplete and unpolished stories.” However, he knows many local people who read and publish web fiction.
“I don’t think escapism is a bad thing,” he explains. “It lets people find relief from their own lives.”
Other writers express similar sentiments. Escaping isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it can help readers better understand their own worlds.
“I think it has a lot to do with setting people free from their own perspectives and their own preconceived notions about things,” Beiko says. “Speculative fiction really resonates with people when they are surprised. You have to ask yourself: ‘why did that surprise me? Why did that move me?’”
“It allows readers to escape their mundane reality and dare to imagine something different,” Nguyen says.
And when winter is six months long, and it hits -40ºC, some imagination can go a long way.
The book launch for Alternate Plains, the sequel to Parallel Prairies, took place on Oct. 30 at McNally Robinson. Both anthologies are available for purchase in-store. For information about subscriptions to Meghan Malcolm’s project, WillowPress, see willowpressco.com. Read Krampus is my Boyfriend! online for free on webtoons.com. Check out the podcast that was created to accompany This Place on CBC Podcasts at cbc.ca.
Published in Volume 76, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 4, 2021)