This episode Is all contemporary fiction speculative fiction? was recorded live at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on Friday 25 October 2019. It features Claire G. Coleman, Krissy Kneen, Pitchaya Sudbanthad and Michelle Tanmizi.
Speculative fiction has lurked in the shadows of the literary scene for years while realism hogged the limelight. Now, as the natural and political spheres crumble around us, speculative fiction’s dystopian worlds don’t seem so different from our own. In this timely conversation, our panelists ask whether we’re now at the point where all contemporary fiction is in fact speculative fiction.
Claire G. Coleman is a Wirlomin Noongar woman whose ancestral Country is in South Coast Western Australia. Her novel Terra Nullius won a Black&Write! Fellowship and a Norma K Hemming Award, and has been shortlisted for The Stella Prize and an Aurealis Award. The Old Lie is her second novel.
Krissy Kneen is the award-winning author of the memoir Affection and five novels including Stella Prize shortlisted An Uncertain Grace. She is also the author of Thomas Shapcott Award-winning poetry collection Eating My Grandmother. She has written and directed documentaries for Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Special Broadcasting Service television.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad is the author of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain, published by Riverhead Books (US) and Sceptre (UK). He has received fellowships in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony, and currently splits time between Bangkok, Thailand and Brooklyn, USA.
Michelle Tanmizi is Chinese-Indonesian and international. She is an author, leadership coach and trainer, and a motivational speaker. Michelle’s first work was a poetry book, Truth. Late Dawn is her first speculative science fiction novel inspired by the conservation crisis we face today.
ASTRID: Thank you very much. It is my great pleasure to be here. My name is Astrid Edwards. I'm from Melbourne, Australia. I host The Garret: Writers on Writing, which is a podcast where I interview writers about their craft and I also teach writing at RMIT University. And before we get started, I'd like to say this is a great pleasure. Speculative fiction is my favourite genre to read. So firstly, I'd like to introduce our panellists. Michelle here, Michelle Tanmizi is an Indonesian writer based in Singapore and she has just released her first work of speculative fiction, Late Dawn. Claire Coleman is a Noongar woman whose ancestral country is in Western Australia. She's written two works of speculative fiction Terra Nullius in 2017 and just recently The Old Life. Here we have Pitchaya Sudbanthad who grew up in Thailand, Saudi Arabia and the American South. He now splits his time between Bangkok and Brooklyn. And Bangkok Wakes to Rain is his first work and I describe it as literary speculative fiction which was a beautiful surprise. And finally, we have Krissy Kneen also from Brisbane Australia. Krissy has written five books and the most recent of those Wintering and An Uncertain Grace are works of speculative fiction. Welcome all. Speculative fiction is a very broad genre so I'd like to kick off asking each of you on the panel how you think of speculative fiction. Michelle, would you like to start?
MICHELLE: Why does it have to be me. Speculative fiction is anything that is speculative. So, it's actually quite a large genre. But there is that element of of looking into the future to see how it looks like. So that's how I see speculative fiction as. It needs to incorporate that that futuristic look at the world or the that there is a timeline thing.
PITCHAYA: I think I have a very free definition of what speculative fiction. And the writer George Saunders says that you can write pretty much about anything you want as long as it's a communication of the urgent and that urgency is based on our present reality. So, to me speculative fiction is a kind of a deep familiarisation of the world that we live in. And even though it's about alternative lives and societies and even worlds, they still reflect back on us and builds on our own world.
KRISSY: I am a bit free thinking about speculative fiction as well. I think that fiction that speculates is fiction that is of the imagination in some way. And I like to think that almost everything that is written nowadays is going to be including our very speculative future.
I think that to speculate about our future is really just being realistic. And anybody that is not taking into consideration the fact that technology is racing ahead faster than we can think about the ethical implications and that climate change is upon us now and that we don't know what's going to happen on the long term. And anyone who is ignoring that is really just writing fantasy. So, any of those literary fiction authors that are completely ignoring the future are just writing fantasy.
ASTRID: I love your feistiness.
CLAIRE: I think going last in this is actually harder to go first because so many good answers have been said already. But to me, the essence of speculative fiction is that at the core of… there's always some sort of variation to the world in speculative fiction – you have to change the world at least a little bit. But there always has to be a what if question that's asked somewhere in the way the world is understood. So, you could think of ‘what if time travel’ or ‘what if it's stopped raining’. You just have to have a what if idea and that to me is the essence of what builds speculative fiction.
ASTRID: Claire, I feel like I should ask you to come and teach speculative fiction at RMIT after that answer. So, everybody here has written very different books interpreting the future speculating on the future differently. I would like to start with you Krissy, before Wintering and An Uncertain Grace and you were known for writing memoir and literary fiction. Why did you move into the speculative realm?
KRISSY: Well I wasn't aware that I was until I'd done it. Which is one of the interesting things. I actually was trying to take a year off writing. I'd written – I’d had a couple of books published in a year and actually funnily enough I think that the book before An Uncertain Grace was also a speculative fiction book because although I didn't think about it in that way either. But it was a bit of a sexual superhero book. And so that's speculative in its own way and I was trying to take a year off because I'd been doing a little bit too much touring and for pleasure I read New Scientist magazines and so I would be reading New Scientist and it would just be sparking all these ideas. And so, I started writing fragments of things just sparked by the essays about real things that were happening now. And then at the end of the year I looked back through my notebook and realised they were all fragments of the same book and it was just a matter of really piecing it together and at the end of it, I thought, I've written this book about you know technology and our intersection with it. And I was thinking of it as literary fiction and then a friend of mine read it and said, ‘It's fantastic that you're firmly embracing speculative fiction’. Oh, that's true. I have written this science fiction book.
ASTRID: Oh, I think we should all embrace that speculative fiction. So, unless I've done my research incorrectly, you're the only author here that has moved into, theoretically selling in the kind of speculative fiction space. Everybody here has published all of their novels so far in that space. So, for Claire, Pitchaya and Claire, why did you choose the genre? What can you do in the speculative fiction that maybe you couldn't in general fiction? You’re first this time Claire.
CLAIRE: Well I really appreciate the ability of speculative fiction to really – to write within speculative fiction and build an entire world, to tackle a topic that might be not be what you wanted to tackle. So, you don't just have your plot in which to tell your story, you can tell the story with the entire world building from the very beginning and that appealed to me. And I always read science fiction and I’m the opposite of Krissy, she was writing literary fiction and ended up with speculative fiction. I thought I was writing science fiction until a publisher said it wasn't, said it was literary spec-fic to which I replied with what the hell is that. I've never heard of it.
So because I set out to tell a story using science fiction tropes because I thought it was gonna be an effective tool to say what I wanted to say and then it turned out to have a kind of a more literary standpoint than I expected it to have. So, I just love…I just love being able to do whatever the hell I want. And as long as it's consistent and makes sense doesn't matter what you do.
ASTRID: So, you said you were looking at the tropes of science fiction because they would allow you to tell – to say what you wanted to say.
ASTRID: What tropes are you referring to?
CLAIRE: The classic overwhelmingly powerful enemy trope is a classic one. A lot of the sci fi tropes deal with the question of ‘What is a person’. And that is a… for me as an Indigenous Australian woman that is a very, very fertile ground because women were considered human once. So being able to tackle the question of ‘What is a person’ is very powerful to me. Which I mean, it makes me think of that interview that Ian McEwan did when he said ‘I'm interested in something that has been done before, science fiction about what is a human and what is a person’. I thought that was ridiculous because it's all we write about – what is a person. That was what most interested me.
PITCHAYA: So, for me the parts of my book that is more speculative fiction came about because it's like, someone who’s trying to, in a way create a portrait of a city, Bangkok over time. So my book goes as far back as the 1850s, gets into the 1970s and then the early 2000s and by extension looking forward I can see the same world that I know existing, that the same city, that is Bangkok, existing in the next however-many-years because of a very real issue of the climate crisis. And it's one of those things where realism is inadequate and in touching on that truth. The writer Amitav Ghosh if you've ever read his essay book The Great Derangement, pretty much rails against the larger body of like recent Western literature as creating a fantasy in many ways that centres on bourgeois predictability in a capitalistic world. And that is what's dominant. And that was giving us a very different kind of world. That is arriving… that the distance between the improbable and the what we think of as the everyday normal is collapsing.
ASTRID: The Great Derangement is a beautiful book and I have questions for you about how you wrote the near future Bangkok, particularly in relation to climate change. But before we get there – Michelle, why did you choose speculative fiction?
MICHELLE: Okay actually to start with that, I actually chose science fiction originally. I'm a I'm a Star Wars baby. I love Star Wars. I love anything with science fiction. I grew up with Star Trek, Star Wars, all that stuff. So, when I wrote my book I didn't… I thought it was science fiction until I realised it’s more spec-fic. But I like…I'm very imaginative. If you knew me as a child, I am always talking. I'm always imagining, and I have I have stories for everything. So, I think it was natural that when I wrote, I speculate. I like to see how the future would look like and now of course with all the things that is happening with the world with climate change and with, you know, environmental with people cutting down trees and killing off animals. It was, it was a natural… It was a natural… It was natural for me to write about it and to speculate how it would look like if we continue doing this because I am a tree and animal hugger, by the way, just to let you know. I join everything.
ASTRID: After reading all of your works in the last few weeks, one of the main things that came out to me was your use of time. Now you set Late Dawn very far in the future. So, I'd like to start with the three other writers, and Pitchaya, perhaps you first, you set Bangkok Wakes to Rain in the near future. You are…Bangkok is flooded, Bangkok has sunk, Bangkok is largely or less inhabitable than one would like a major city to be. How did you go about making that real even though it hasn't happened yet?
PITCHAYA: Funny enough to make Bangkok real... Oh that Bangkok real, I actually just had to study history and way back in the 19th century Bangkok grew out of the product of Colonial era trade. So, like many coastal cities in Asia and in or around the world it was located, where it is amenable to ship transportation making these areas like low lying. So, Bangkok used to be a very aquatic city. People navigated mainly through these networks of canals and through the river. It was actually called the Venice of the East in those days. And what's happened is the shape of the city has been paved over and deformed so as to create you know, the real estate speculation that has created the Bangkok today. And in the future in a way, like Bangkok is returning to its place and the aquatic life resumes and they only had to look at how…. back in the day like the Siamese as Thailand had been called, as Thai folks were called then and lived.
ASTRID: Every time I turn on the news, I see a different story about climate change and the changing environment. Did you look at any of the reports about Bangkok's future or did you just go with it?
PITCHAYA: Experienced some of it actually. In 2010/2011 through strange abnormal weather patterns and also human mismanagement, an entire swath of Thailand was under water. And I was back in Bangkok helping my parents basically fill sandbags, just in case the water reached us. And meanwhile to the north factories were underwater, schools, entire towns, rice fields. There was just untold damage to the nation at that time and it is very real to see that…how powerful nature is. So, I drew from my experiences, my own observation of those times and also a little bit of research to see how far and how close I am off the mark in terms of the science. And the scary thing is, I based that book on maybe like the worst case scenario and thinking oh you know this is just not going to get there but the new updates to the reports are just scary as to the extent of damage that we have done to this world.
ASTRID: How have your readers received this near-term forecast of Bangkok's future?
PITCHAYA: I think that the responses that I've heard that's related to that... People are… people identify with it mainly because of the flood in 2010/2011. And because more and more anecdotally, it does seem as if with just a little bit of rain entire intersections returned to like the conditions of the canal that they might have displaced. So, I know not far from my house ot rained earlier this past year and I was just writing somewhere with my family and was just like I was, I feel like I was in a boat with wakes coming out of all the cars and the motorcycles somehow braved it. Yeah it it's so interesting to see that city transform in that way. After just not a whole lot of rain.
ASTRID: Interesting but also confronting.
ASTRID: Krissy, you also write in the near-term. You focus… in the background of An Uncertain Grace there is environmental degradation, there is extinction, there is you know, the planet is not healthy. But you also focus a lot on technology and what technology might do to us being human. And in my reading, it was how technology might change our sexuality, our agenda, how we approach relationships, how we age, or choose not to age. Where did all that come from?
KRISSY: It really just all came from magazines. It really came from reading for pleasure. I kind of… to escape the kind of stresses. I get quite anxious and to escape that anxiety I really do like to read about science, mainly because thinking about the universe and how insignificant we are makes me feel calm. The idea that you know you have a deadline tomorrow just when you're starting to think about you know, what's going to happen in 100 million years’ time it really just makes me go ‘Oh well you know over deadline tomorrow but you know that the sun's going to explode at some point’. So, I was reading these magazines just to kind of put everything in perspective and to stop me thinking I was you know, the centre of the universe. And as I was reading them the technology stuff was really jumping out at me because I'm a writer. I read an essay about virtual reality and how that could replace the idea of memoir; that we could actually put someone literally in our shoes. You could experience their perspective of the world by jumping into their story. And because I'd written a lot about sexuality in previous books and I know that sex is the thing that drives technology – every time. You know it drove the printing press. It drove photography. As soon as we have a new technology people who make pornography use it first and use it well and they create this and they make leaps and bounds that then you know NASA can come in and take the innovations that the pornography industry has actually basically made. It's really fantastic and so I thought ‘Okay what's going to happen if we make a VR machine and they can experience something.’
What if you wrote a sexual memoir which put someone into your sexuality? And then I thought how could you use this technology for good rather than just for pleasure, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but you know how could you advance humanity? And I thought well if somebody could… somebody who had hurt you, who had sexually hurt you, could see that through your perspective surely it would make them understand what they had done and it would make them change their ways. So that's where I started with it was to actually look at a lecturer who is a serial abuser of his students and who thinks he's God's gift to these young women and to actually have one of his students give him this memoir where he can step into her body and experience himself having sex with himself and realizes that he's actually not God's gift to women. He's actually a really horrible ugly old man and that could actually changes his relationship to the students. And it was from there that every time I read a new thing about robotics and people were up in arms about sex robots and how that was going to destroy relationships and I thought well, how could that actually improve the world? And how could the idea that we can get into the biology of humanity, how can that change the way we look at gender and how can that be a thing that's positive? And of course, the one thing that we're all fighting about is death. And you know, telomeres are something that's happening at the moment where we're actually extending life by fixing, he ends of these little things that are actually going to extend our life. And what if we could take it even further and become one with the machine? So, these were the kind of questions that I had when I went into it.
And of course, as I was writing it, I didn't really think about the environmental stuff at first but on my second pass of it. I realized that if we're moving into the future with these ideas with the technology is moving ahead but your environment is degrading. So there's this kind of this tension between the fact that when we're racing ahead with the technology but sometimes we don't have power because there's floods and you know, the storms are going to crash through you know, your power source and so you're going to have these big blackout periods as well so. Marrying that tension was kind of interesting and similar to you, I was front row seat at the Brisbane floods that were in 2011. I've got a little flat that's right on the river and we got cut off and we saw the floods just ripped whole buildings apart, it ripped them – the ferry stops that we have on the river – it tore them literally tore them off their moorings and I didn't have anything to do because we had no power. And so, I just sat on the river for days watching things like giant bits of building and giant boats upside down go down the river, bits of bridge come down the river. And I think that's really influenced my thoughts about the future and climate change.
ASTRID: It both heartens me and terrifies me that everybody on this panel has explored the breakdown of our natural environment including you, Claire. You take it one step further. You surprised me to no end. Halfway through terra nullius – I was not expecting that. Tell us why.
CLAIRE: It's really hard to talk about the concept, would have us halfway through Terra Nullius without spoiling it people who haven't done that yet so I can't say much…
ASTRID: I don't know, can we?
CLAIRE: See what happens? It happens every time I talk about it, talk about my books. We were talking about time and everyone else was writing kind of future and what I use in both my novels, I used a destabilised idea of time. Full of…destabilised the, unmoored the reader in time by unmooring my story in time. And it's both easy and hard to do – to write a story where no one quite knows when the story is set. Of course, to do that you kind of have to not describe things so which kind of annoyed people because it wasn’t about descriptions but what I would what I was trying to do with Terra Nullius is… unmoor the so-called colonisation of Australia in time so that people could experience it as not an event in the past. I'm not going to say how I did it, but I wanted people to experience it not as the past because people kept saying ‘oh it was so long ago.’ Well the colonisation of Australia is not really moored in time it didn't happen in 1788. It happened between 1788 and about 1986. 1986 was when the last Aboriginal people who'd never met white people emerged from the desert and were absorbed into the greater Australia. So, we're talking about an invasion event that was nearly 200 years long, which is not how you think of Australia. You think of Australia as 1788 white people came, peaceful, end of everything. End of like the Australia as it was before and a kind of apocalyptic upheaval. And it was but it was extremely long and I kind of wanted to teach people who said ‘it's so long ago’ that no it wasn't. I was born in 1974. So, I was fourteen or twelve years old when the last people emerged from the desert. I think it was ’86… ’86 or ’88. So that’s kind of weird when you think of it that way. Australia's colonisation possibly, certainly one of the most effective and violent and probably one of the longest, kind of, black wars in the history of the world.
ASTRID: So, without spoiling the device that you used, explain to those here how you took Australia's history and you made it a universal experience on planet Earth.
CLAIRE: I’m not going to say it, I’m not going to spoil the trick. But the idea of the trick was to find… the whole purpose of the book was to find a way to put my reader in the shoes of victims of colonisation, because most people who would read the book, being written in English. Frankly, English speakers are not the colonised, English speakers are the colonisers in the world. So, if I'm going to write in English then the idea was to find a way to make the coloniser understand what it's like to be colonised. And I've been told I did it well which is good because that was the plan.
ASTRID: You did do it well.
CLAIRE: When you when you write a book to make a point the best you can hear is yes, you made that point well. You don’t want to hear ‘it was well written’ or ‘I liked it’ or whatever. What you really want to hear is ‘damn that worked’. And that's what I wanted to do and I think I achieved that. So, if anyone hasn't read it, I hope that if you do read it, you have the same experience other people have told me they've had which is they went from being – from not knowing the kind of after-effects of colonisation to suddenly understanding. That was the idea of it.
ASTRID: Michelle you took a very different take. You didn't unmoor your story in time, and you didn't set it in, you know, just the next few years. You literally set it in 4793. Now two thousand and something years in the future which is very common in science fiction. Was that liberating?
MICHELLE: Yes. The reason is because I see Earth as evolving right? And yes, we have problems now, but I wanted to set it at the time when these problems become major because we talk about climate change all the time, we talk about you know, people killing animals and trees disappearing. My personal belief is that it's not going to happen maybe when I'm alive. But it might happen hundreds of years from now, is because Earth has changed even over millions of years. So, I see it as far, far, far in the future but my dystopian is very extreme…
ASTRID: It is quite.
MICHELLE: It’s quite extreme. But I did it on purpose because I wanted people to see how it would look like had we continued to do what we're doing right now. So, it is not… and I am very concerned about the environment. I've always been. But also, I wanted to put a human element in it. So, it's on is not just about the environment and things but I also want to see how humans think because it's not just about good guys and bad guys. I tried to make it more complex where you can understand why people act the way they act.
ASTRID: So, I have a question for the panel: is speculative fiction, which is what we're discussing here today, the best genre or the best literary form to explore our near future? And what is happening to the climate and the environment. Could it be done in a different genre?
CLAIRE: Well I think you know, if you take my all genres are speculative at the moment, I think that because the changes are happening so quickly and because we are so conflicted as to when and where these changes are going to happen, I feel like this should be and could be explored across all genres. And I really do feel like any writers who ignore it, stand out for actually if they’re writing about now and not kind of engaging with these ideas then in a way they’re kind of like climate change deniers – that kind of not engaging with what is actually happening outside the house.
KRISSY: I think people… it's time for us to realise that firstly almost everyone in this room grew up with speculative fiction all their lives. So, when you think about it that way, I don't know how we can write books without having speculative fiction in mind as we all grow up with it. Secondly, if you write about tomorrow – if you set your book tomorrow – it's always speculative anyway. If you set your book in the past you have to speculate what happened between events, so you’re also writing speculative fiction. Stuff this idea of ‘can you only use speculative fiction?’ I agree, there’s no such thing as speculative fiction as there’s no such thing as non-speculative fiction. I know, I do that. I like to be a little controversial every now and then.
But I think, the world is changing so fast, like now that to write something that is not set in the past without using speculative fiction ideas or tropes, is basically an impossible task. So, I think yeah, I think you have to do it.
PITCHAYA: Yes, I see fiction as a whole as a kind of… again it’s just light on the reality that we live in. And especially for some reason, fiction can actually elucidate truth. And especially when there is what I call a good fiction and bad fiction. And bad fiction is the speculative fiction that is climate change denialism. And it takes us like devious imagination to come up with a counter reality in many ways. And I think that using some good fiction that's based on truth and human nature and animal nature and the nature of the world to just make people really feel. It is in a way – it's an exercise in empathy that extends to an alien place or an unfamiliar place. And I think, if we can do that that helps to us to understand where we could be.
KRISSY: Astrid, I might just add to that. In terms of you know, from all my science reading. I've kind of also come to a place where I feel that fantasy, that the idea of mythology and the idea of you know, fairy tale myth, those kinds of stories are a part of reality too. You know, I read a book called Magic by Philip Ball which is about science and about how before we understood these concepts of science we had magic to fill in those gaps and that the idea of science now and what we consider science now may in the future far away be considered magic again. Oh, look at those people in 2019 thinking about science in that way that's magical thinking. And so, I think that just that idea of what we don't understand or don't know about we kind, of our brains just make patterns and make ideas and make story to fill it in. So, I think that all that kind of fantasy and mythology and fairy tales are really science. And that's how you know that's how we always understood the skies and the planets. We understood them through the stories you know, the mythology and our way of understanding the sky and planet now is another kind of mythology.
CLAIRE: And to go on another crazy like tangent from that, if you think about when in Australian newspapers climate change denialism is in our newspapers all the time. What that really is is the bad sort of speculative fiction being written in as news. Which is, if you think about it, in Australia certainly, our news is all speculative fiction also known as fake news – very same thing.
ASTRID: Now we’re on dangerous ground. So, I’m going to go back to what you said before – quite a bit before – Claire because I think it was a beautiful point that I would like to draw out. In all of your works Claire, you mentioned that it's a way of… writing speculative fiction as a way of exploring what it is to be human and finding human stories. Each of you have done that in very, very different ways. And I am not going to give any spoilers but in addition to a changing landscape in Bangkok, Pitchaya, there is also… you explore death and what we could do in the future. And I read that as very much what does it mean to be…what could it mean to be human if these things change?
PITCHAYA: The velocity of change that we have seen as a society in the past few hundred years has been kind of uni directional. And for me I see what we do as the way that our society values the world we take basically living things, we take physical things and sacrifice them at the altar of the abstract which is quantitative values of capital and I just see this general movement that coincides with technology that prioritises the data, the meta over what we actually like tangibly experience. So, for me looking forward into the future, I can't help but see how that can help, can change a city. What is… what happens when so much that we interact with is unreal and what does it mean to be a community? What does it mean to be alive? So, I think that's part of the reason why I went in extending towards the future I also had to consider not just the world that's lost but also a world that is taking shape as well.
ASTRID: I'd like to pick up on the word that you just used then ‘community’. You also do the same thing Michelle and Claire: asking how we can be human in a world that doesn't look like what it does today. And when there's different technology, different time etc. Was that what you were Michelle?
MICHELLE: Yes, actually because I…without giving away too much. The story is mostly about this coalition who is really trying to save the world right? And I think that sadly – but it's true though – I am also a coach, so I understand the human nature nothing moves until something drastic happens. When there is a disaster is when people come together. All right? So, it needed to be disastrous for suddenly something to coalesce, for something to appear. And that was what I was trying to explore. I wanted to make sure that you know, it was so vital for suddenly these people to have to come together otherwise it just doesn't work. And that was the human thing in the story.
ASTRID: Claire you do the same?
CLAIRE: Well humans are defined in many ways and often we’re defined by a couple of things, one of them being sapiens. The fact that we know that we exist is very important. And the other is that by interactions. And I just thought of another aside as long as they… alongside it wasn't a complete tangent. I recently had a piece of short fiction published that tackled the idea of: we leave information dross about ourselves everywhere. We've got our social media accounts and we’ve got all those things. And I imagined a future where, for example, your social media interactions could be used to build an artificial intelligence of you. We've probably… already possible now because – I know this is possible as I have an honours degree in artificial intelligence, and I know it's possible.
And yet, then you get the idea again of what is a person? And a person is the interactions, the interactions of all you. And if you ask everybody in this room to identify each of us, they’d give us a different idea of who we are. So, we are not necessarily just who we are as people. We are all our interactions with each other. We are a place of community and that fits back to the Indigenous Australian idea of what a person is, that a person is not an individual but they are a point in a matrix of relationships and that's all we are.
ASTRID: In all of the books here, you ask your readership to suspend their disbelief and suspend their disbelief more than they would normally do if they were picking up a work of fiction. I'd like you each to kind of explore how your readers have reacted to what you have made them confront. Krissy, can I start with you.
KRISSY: One of the nicest things that has ever been said to me was about An Uncertain Grace particularly from an older woman who had read the book and there's a scene where my main character's old by now. And I wanted her to have a physical love affair at this past 100. And so that is outlined and described in the book and she came up to me in the street and said, ‘I felt seen’. And I thought, that's what I want to do when I write. I write so that I can be seen, and I write so that the reader feels seen. And so, for me yeah, I feel like that now I can't exactly remember if that is answering your question.
ASTRID: It wasn’t but it was a beautiful story. I asked the panel you know, you asked your readers to suspend their disbelief. How do they take that given that this is the speculative fiction genre?
KRISSY: And I think that despite the fact that it was you know, this is a you know, 100 years in the future, that she felt seen now as she was as an older woman, who felt still felt sexual despite the fact that she was seen as invisible by the general community. And I feel that speculative fiction can give you the palette for those kind of connections to people where they are now in their own life. Because it takes you out of that for a minute and allows you back in. So, it's all been very positive for me so far.
There's a lot of readers who won't pick up a book because it's speculative fiction. I work in a bookshop as well and I have a lot of people who will come to me and say ‘Ah I wanted to read Claire Coleman's book and then I heard it was spec-fic and I don't read that. I don't read science fiction’. And you have to then convince the person that this is actually a book that is about human interactions and that's the thing. There's a lot of readers have these barriers when they think I don't read science fiction. I don't read horror. I don’t read…
KRISSY: And what they really mean is I don't read the really kind of high end genre stuff. I don't read stuff that is just for people who read that genre. But there's so many intersections with literary fiction like literary fiction is basically just good fiction in any genre.
ASTRID: I could not agree with you more. But I would like to invite the panel to respond to what you've said, Krissy?
MICHELLE: What's interesting is that I didn't expect any reviews read. But one of my friends actually who is very kindly picked up the book and read it, now he's a scientist which is really daunting – having somebody like that –he used to work for CERN. I can tell you that now because it's not confidential and he used to do all this, he used to meet Deng Xiaoping at the time and all these big people to try to do denuclearise the world. And he liked the book and he said you know, there are a lot of aspects of it that could be real. So, and that for me was the biggest… What was the best thing that anyone said to me because especially coming from him. You know, he's an older gentleman, he's never read a book like that before but what I like and it's exactly what you said Krissy, he picked it up even though he said he does not read science fiction but he actually connected with it which for me was fantastic.
PITCHAYA: There is a perhaps a stigma attached to it because of I think, perceived hierarchies. Yeah but I think everyone who read, at least initially, start their reading history in some way reading mythologies, folktales, probably thrillers, probably science fiction and we somehow are compelled to move out of it. I really can't explain why that is.
I think it again goes back to like what certain powers that be in academia view as legitimise literature. I think that in writing one has to sort of…suspend the belief in that. One has to sort of turn off the doubts and sort of like selfishly enjoy the writing and go back to what made you a reader. And a lot of it is through these stories that even though they are kind of alien the they are they are what compelled you to move along with them.
CLAIRE: I agree that there's a lot of perceived snobbery between them as in literary fiction and speculative fiction, particularly science fiction. And I’m aware of the snobbery because Terra Nullius was mostly shelved in literary fiction. And then when I actually got a message from a bookshop where I go all the time they said ‘We've received your new book, we've read it, we love it, we’re putting it on the shelf but where do we put it? We put it in science fiction where it probably belongs or do we put it with Terra Nullius literary fiction?’ And I said ‘Put it in both’ but they wouldn't do that. It was a public exchange on Twitter and then one of my…someone who liked my work said, ‘Put it in literary fiction.’ He said ‘If a literary fiction person goes to buy the book and it's shelved in science fiction, they won't buy it. But if a science fiction person goes to buy the book and it's shown the literary fiction, they will.’
And that says a lot about readers of books: that speculative fiction or science fiction readers will go… warm up this book that they like, some people say science fiction, is not in sci fi as I expected, that I'll go find it. Whereas literary fiction snobs – I'm going to be mean – snobs will go to buy a book and go it's not on the lit-fic shelves as expected, therefore I'm not going to buy it. It's weird.
CLAIRE: So, I think you've just answered this Claire, but where would you like your book to be found in the bookstore?
MICHELLE: Oh dear. We talked about this before. In Singapore they put my book under literary fiction. I actually asked them to put it into science fiction and then I told them, can you put in both? And that same thing, they said no. So, I don't know where it is now but having heard Claire, I might be happy with literary fiction.
PITCHAYA: Anywhere. I would love it if people take a copy, put it in the literary fiction part, the science fiction, Asian literature. Anywhere, anywhere. If someone picks it up reads it.
KRISSY: The only time that I was disappointed with a place that people put my book was when my memoir, Affection, turned up in the self-help section. And because it was a memoir dealing with sexuality, someone had thought that it was you know, people who needed counselling about their sexuality would read this and I'm like ‘No, no – it's just a memoir. Put it in the memoir section.’ So, I am happy with anywhere and I understand why booksellers won't put it in both. Because you have to have a category on the back so that every one of your booksellers knows where to shelve it and you can't tell your juniors, ‘No, this one even though it has literary fiction, there's going to have to own sci fi too.’ You can't do that to everyone for every book. So, you do have to choose unfortunately. And so, I'm actually really happy just to be in general fiction because everyone will pick it.
CLAIRE: I am. I had a weird experience when I did really like… there's a sale on the audiobook of Terra Nullius. And for some reason it got to number one on the Amazon bestseller list in fantasy romance. It's like Terra Nullius, werewolf porn, werewolf porn.
ASTRID: Whatever sells, exciting company. I believe we have a question here, followed by a question.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I want to ask a question about speculative fiction. Often it seems to be used as kind of a tool to address climate change and our kind of existential crisis in it. And often the narrative kind of goes, that it is the climate in nature that is kind of destabilising force that's malevolent, when really, it's kind of the humans that are bad guys. I'd like to ask, do you guys think it's important to… kind of like, where do you sit on that paradigm about like instead of using spec fic as a tool to just shed light on climate change and is it important to kind of humanise or stop to green climate change, to green nature? Probably I'd like to ask Claire specifically, especially about regarding colonialism and the way that still does play a huge role in that.
CLAIRE: It's really interesting a lot of people who see nature as a villain because for something to do evil, it has to have agency and nature does not have agency. Nature is there. Anything bad that's done in our world is done by people because people have agency. Not saying people are evil because people think they're doing good things. But when the climate is bad it's either nature doing what nature does, which is nature is just nature, or people have made it that way. And I don't think – I think it's important for us to make sure that everyone knows that the responsibility for when nature goes wild over the next couple of centuries… make sure people know that we did it. That nature's not drowning people in floods, we're drowning people in floods. I don't know how to make people understand that. If I could work out how to do it, I’d probably write that, but I haven’t worked it out yet. But we’ve got to…I think we need to make sure that everyone knows that we are doing it and because nature's not doing anything to us.
KRISSY: I disagree. I think that nature has agency and I think that that it's doing what it should do which is to eradicate the problem and I say this because I'm writing a book – my next book is going to be, I've got one in between – but the one that I'm writing at the moment is about is about a virus that will kind of wipe out quite a lot of people but it's about the idea that we need to actually embrace this because the changes that it will make to us genetically while it does this will actually be changes that are good for the planet. So, it's kind of… it's the planet kind of… its nature kind of fixing the problem which is us.
CLAIRE: I hope nature does fix the problem. I hope nature takes agency because frankly the majority of humans do need to be… our numbers need to be reduced and there's a large number of people who deserve to be wiped out. I’m not going to name who they are.
ASTRID: You two are very, very confronting. I'm going to take the opportunity to go to this question here.
AUDIENCE: My question is actually related. There were three billion people on the earth when I was born and there's now seven and a half billion heading for eleven. So, the human plagues… the climate change, the Anthropocene and the sixth mass extinction are all symptoms of population, exponential population, that we're not dealing with as the elephant in the room. We can't have endless growth on a finite planet. Have any of you dealt with population?
KRISSY: But the problem is not the – funny thing is – and I was talking to a scientist about this, that the problem is coming from the areas that are least populated. You know, the countries that have less population are causing more problems. So, it's really easy to think we have too many people. But what we really have is we have the areas that have very few people are using too many resources. And so that's where it's all at, it's all skewed wrong.
MICHELLE: Read my book
CLAIRE: Australia is the seventh most polluting – carbon polluting – country on earth per capita. The other six are all nations. So, you think about it that way it doesn't matter how big. And then in people Australia say, ‘Oh, other countries should reduce their climate emissions first because they've got bigger – they produce more overall per nation than we do, more carbon dioxide.’ But Australia produces more per capita which means we've got an easier change to make.
ASTRID: Start making it there.
CLAIRE: No, of course not.
ASTRID: Are there any other questions from the audience?
AUDIENCE: Hey. Krissy’s partially answered this question already but I wanted to know for those people in your life – and I'm sure everyone in this room has those people in their life – who refuse to pick up books because they believe that it's science fiction or speculative fiction or genre fiction, which is terrifying. What – how do you ease people into that without tricking them? Which I've tried like how can we take people on that journey of getting over that snobbery, I guess, of literary fiction being the genre?
KRISSY: I used to have lists a bookseller. I used to actually make lists of how to get someone from one book to a book they wanted them to read. So, I'd have customers who come in and say they didn't want to read speculative fiction and yet there'd be a book I'd really want them to read. And I used to make little lists of like there was a gateway book. You know like Margaret Atwood might be a little gateway book for a lot of literary fiction readers. And then when they read that and they go, I really liked that book. And then you go, you know that's speculative fiction like ‘Oh but I like that.’ And so, you get another book that's speculative but kind of like Margaret Atwood. But it's maybe pushing the boundary a little bit more. And so, you kind of incrementally, like a drug…
CLAIRE: Or just trick them. Buy them a speculative fiction book, that the blurb and title don’t tell them it’s a speculative fiction book. Like mine and just give it to them. Because there are books out there which are speculative fiction and you're quite a bit in before you realise that, like The Handmaid's Tale, like Terra Nullius. You don't realise until you're hooked in a story that is speculative. So just trick them with those books. Don't be afraid to trick your friends.
MICHELLE: Just buy the book and say this is a really, really good book. That's it. And you know you don't have to tell…You don't have to give a label to the book because I think eventually, books are books. You know, you read them because they're well-written and the story is engaging.
ASTRID: It's a lovely statement. You don't have to give a label to a book.
MICHELLE: I think a great book is a great book.
ASTRID: Are there any more questions?
AUDIENCE: I was just wondering if the panel could speak to the idea that genre fiction is actually far more popular than literary fiction just in pure sales and numbers. And why do you have to trick anyone or prove anything?
CLAIRE: Well I went fishing – I’m Australian and we’ll tell you that in Australia, locally written genre fiction is not more popular. In Australia it is considered so unpopular – local speculative fiction – that I was certainly told that it would never get published. I don’t know if Krissy had the same thing.
KRISSY: American spec fic is very, very popular in Australia.
MICHELLE: As an Asian, I can tell you that I only approach you as publishers because in Asia basically nobody knows what… nobody really does that genre. And I had to change a few titles. I mean a few you know, applications because I first called it spec fic. Nobody knew what that was. So eventually I said science fiction, like speculative science fiction. But I had to go into the Americas because – same in Asia – I think in in the region where I come from Indonesia, Singapore, that they're not into that they're more into fantasy. I think they're more into fantasy.
PITCHAYA: And from my perception, speculative fiction, science fiction has so far largely been a white space because of all these reasons and it's only been recent that you see the emergence of science fiction from China and a little bit from the Americans as well. But so far, the only place where speculative fiction, science fiction, anything for looking has been allowed to sort of grow out of Asia is through like anime and manga. And that is pretty much the restriction. So, I think that I welcome the addition of voices beyond the usual.
ASTRID: Can you please join me in a round of applause for our panel?