Speculative fiction is all about the world that could be. It takes cues from science fiction and fantasy. From H.G. Wells to Margaret Atwood, authors have been following the trajectory of technology and cultural trends, turning their fictions into predictions and in some cases warnings. On Monday, Dartmouth College is hosting the first Neukom Literary Arts Awards ceremony, which celebrates new works of so-called ‘spec-fic.’ Dan Rockmore is director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science. NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with Rockmore about the four winning authors.
[This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Before we get into the winners and what they were writing about, let me ask you to talk a little bit about speculative fiction and its predictive abilities. You have written in other venues, for example, that Winston Churchill had a high opinion of H.G. Wells because he was able to see into the future, so to speak, with his fiction. What about that predictive power of speculative fiction?
As a mathematician, I have to tell you there's a little bit of a sampling bias here, because we remember all the people who got it right and we forget all people who got it wrong. So you have to be a little careful there.
I mean, what I love about the genre is simply that it's basically all of these hypotheses about the future. It's almost like an evolutionary model. You have all these great minds, great artists, exploring their ideas about the future. Some of them will take hold. Some of them will be realized and some of them won't. And so the more people working in it, I think the more that we see what life might hold. On the other hand, there's a sense in which you'd almost want most speculative fiction to be wrong because a lot of it is so dark
Let’s hear about some of these works. Tell us about Central Station by Lavie Tidhar.
This is a very interesting book. Central Station is one of the main transportation centers currently in Tel Aviv. This book is set in Tel Aviv and Central Station becomes the nexus both for all kinds of interplanetary travel as well as a whole range of new takes on what humans could be in the future. Everything from a completely digital presence, ranging down to weird biological mechanical combinations of robot-human sort of things, to complete robot or regular old biological human, and some genetic engineering in the middle.
In this convergence of all these different kinds of being, the actual theme is one of love and connection. All these different kinds of people, all trying to find their way in terms of finding relationships, connections with others, dealing with their personal histories, worrying about their futures, which in this post-modern world can extend past actually the life of the simply physical.
How about On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis?
Duyvis' novel is one you might call YA literature, young adult fiction. The hero of this book is an autistic girl of color. The important event here is, and this is written in the first pages so I don't feel like it's a spoiler, that there's a comet that's going to hit the earth.
So people have to prepare for it and then deal with the post-impact world that's there, which is not unlike what many people think the destruction of the climate, or climate change, will ultimately affect in the world.
Tell us about Best Worst American by Juan Martinez.
It's a collection of short stories, and they are kind of weird stories, but it's a weirdness that's just on the edge of naturalness in the world. They're set in kind of desolate places. Again, there's a theme of connection in there and the world is a little bit magical. It takes the possible and pushes it just a little bit toward the impossible. It's not heavy on the technology, but there's a great theme of loss and dislocation and much of it one could trace to the prevalence of technology. There's a real sense of loneliness, a sense of people wanting more.
There was a playwriting component to this award. Who won in the playwriting division?
Jessica Andrewartha is the inaugural recipient of the Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Playwriting for her play Choices People Make. It’s a kind of farce that has some really interesting philosophical questions underneath it.
There is a robot that is impregnated by one of its creators and there's a question of what it means to terminate this pregnancy, if that's what you want to call it, in the robot.
What does this process say to you about the state of the genre of speculative fiction?
Well, it's super strong. Subsequent to reading all the entries that we received after the announcement, I continued to read widely in this genre. And there's just so much interesting work.
Unfortunately, a lot of it is dark and a lot of the work which is really near-future feels like it touches so strongly on the current state of the world and the current political situation, to be honest, in the United States, that you often put these books down once you finish them, or sometimes just stopping in the middle, and you just take a breath and think “Wow, it could really go wrong.”
It’s kind of scary, isn't it?
It's totally scary. I have kids, and it's not even an exaggeration to say that it keeps me up at night to think about the world that they're entering. And that we have artists who can see entire futures in such a realistic, believable way that can suck you in to make you feel like you're living them as you read them is, I think, both a testament to the creative powers that have been brought to the genre but also to the weird place that I think we're in now given the pace of society and conflicts that are throughlines in our history.
The award ceremony is open to the public, starting at 4 p.m. on Monday, October 1st. The panel discussion with the winning authors will begin at 4 p.m. followed by a reception from 5-6 p.m.
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