What If?

What If?

by Paul Witcover, TWC Sci-Fi/Fantasy Instructor

Are you a speculative fiction writer?

Speculative fiction is distinguished by a sense of wonder. Entire books of critical theory have been written about the term “sense of wonder,” but what it means in practice is a willingness to ask “What if?” and follow with obsessive, naïve sincerity wherever the answers may lead. True, all fiction poses this basic question. But few other genres pose such basic What if? questions or take those questions to such outlandish lengths of imagination.

Speculative fiction writers are like children when it comes to What if? questions. Admittedly, that has a tendency to make us somewhat annoying. But we mean well. And unfortunately, too many writers, critics, and readers are akin to those grown-ups who, when asked by a child, “Why is the sky blue?” respond “Because.” And when asked the follow-up, “Why can’t it be green?” respond, “Because it’s not.”

There is the stern voice of realism. We have all heard it. Even today, it’s unusual to get through a writing program or class without being exposed to that smug, superior, dismissive, condescending voice. Really, it’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for realism, so wrapped in certitude, yet so blind. Realism is a tool that all writers should have in their kits, but it’s not the only tool. Literature is more than realism. Much, much more.

A speculative fiction writer would respond to that question about a green sky differently. “Hmm… Why can’t it be green? Great question!” The science fiction writer would go on from there to write a story about a world whose atmosphere renders the sky green, or perhaps a story in which some global catastrophe turns our atmosphere green – and explores what effects that would have on cosmic radiation, climate, society, and so on. A fantasy writer might instead postulate a world where a dragon has cast a spell to turn the sky green for some wondrous purpose or malevolent design.

What if you were to cast aside the stern voice of realism and let your own What if? questions spur you to follow wherever they may lead? My first novel, Waking Beauty, began that way. I was trying to riff on the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” when suddenly a small voice piped up inside my head: “What if Beauty isn’t a person at all? What if it’s a thing? What if . . . it’s a scent . . . a scent that only men can smell—a scent that drives men insane?”

That novel was short-listed for the James Tiptree Award.

Of course, your own What if? question might not lead to a published novel, or an award nomination.

But what if it did?

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