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Tiers of Speculation


Earlier this year I finished reading Liu Cixin's Dreams of Forgotten Earth series. It struck me that a trilogy that began as a techno-thriller concerning a message from outer-space quickly morphed into a space-opera set within the solar system, and then by the third book changed to a mind-bending description of the end of the universe. Part of Liu Cixin's gift as a writer is using the plausible speculations to plow ever deeper into the unknown. This is not a series that can be read out of order, as each book lays the groundwork for what comes after. 
Petroglyphs by Morgan Crooks (2017)

Which got me thinking. How do we classify different types of speculative fiction?

I'd like to propose an alternate way of thinking about genre fiction: tiers of vocabulary. This idea is, in part, inspired by how language is approached in the field of education. When writing a lesson or developing a curriculum, an educator will consider what words a prospective student may need in order to access the lesson and learn the knowledge and skills targeted by the educator.

Tier One words are words with very broad and day-to-usage. These are words that should pose very little problem to the target student population, requiring no explicit definition and only context to get their meanings across to the students.

Tier Two words are uncommon terms or phrases nevertheless important for the acquisition of knowledge and skills. These can be words that are not especially challenging but may represent unfamiliar usages. Tier Two words will be of great use in a variety of settings, academic, professional, etc. Often times Tier Two words appear in vocabulary lists and glossaries.

Tier Three on the other hand, are your basic obscure and challenging words. They might represent concepts that are difficult to master or loan words from other disciplines/languages that require specific instruction to be meaningful to students. These are also words that may have limited application outside of whatever lesson the educator is preparing.

So to sum up, tiers of vocabulary represent layers of challenge to students, with the bottom tier being the easiest to use and master and the top tier requiring specific effort on the part of the educator to help students use and master.

So how does this tie into speculative fiction?

You may be familiar with other ways of sub-dividing Speculative Fiction, either by genre (science fiction, fantasy, cyberpunk, superhero, etc.), or Mohr's Laws of Hardness (soft sci-fi versus hard), and even Asimov's observation that all of science fiction falls into three basic story types (Gadget, Adventure, and Social.)

I'd suggest that contemporary speculative fiction often falls into layers of challenge for readers. On one end of this spectrum lie works like "American War," "Time-Traveler's Wife," and "Station's Eleven," which require very little effort on the part of the reader to access. For the most part the worlds described within these works function in a way meeting the expectations of the reader's own culture and frame of reference. Any novum to borrow the term of art to describe new ideas/technology/concepts, is framed in such a way as to be a logical extrapolation of contemporary society. For an example, turn your attention to any of the recent crop of popular genre works that save for one element could simply be a standard general fiction work. "American War," for example, despite it's setting in an America circa 2074, ravaged by climate change and political violence, is perfectly legible to anyone who keeps tabs on Global Warming and the Syrian refugee crisis. The novum is simply transferring these concerns from distant countries to one more familiar to American readers, namely, their own. I mean this as no slight to "American War," which I'm enjoying as a sweeping story of war, ruin, and hatred in own terms.

In the middle of this spectrum lie the bulk of speculative fiction appearing in its own section of a bookstore. Whether the section is called science fiction, horror, or speculative fiction, the works contained within will almost certainly contain second world aspects. In other words, the stories within require a sustained but not all-encompassing effort towards the suspension of disbelief. The worlds of these stories contain enough nova to be unfamiliar to a casual reader of genre fiction. However, the parallels within the story to contemporary society help a reader master the novel elements quickly. Malka Older's Infomocracy and Null-states, which has a similar late 21st century setting as American War, nevertheless paints a picture of world run through the idea of Micro-democracy, where divisions of the world's population into centenals allows for a patch-work tapestry of different governments across the world. Older casually introduces terminology and concepts that could have each served as the center of lesser novels. That said, the book was published in 2016 and its treatment of the peril and promise of elections struck a chord with this reviewer among others. So this is a very different version of earth but one with obvious parables for readers to their own lives. I think the Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu, (Grace of Kings and Wall of Storms) provides a decent example of the outer edge of this tier. Here, an eastern civilization that never was, develops through a series of wars, its bamboo, silk, and wind powered culture alluding to real-world history while moving 
substantially beyond it. 

Finally we have the third tier. Third tier stories are purely second world in nature and often make a point of not being set on any world remotely like Earth or even mentioning Earth at all. On the near edge of this tier we have works like Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi which depicts a galaxy spanning empire on the verge of collapse. Earth is mentioned as only a legend, its location long shrouded in myth. A reader senses its location or existence isn't going to matter all that much to the world Scalzi is trying to describe. There are certainly elements of this second-world that resemble real-world elements. For example, there have been kings and emperors on Earth. However, it could also be said that the ways these rulers are depicted in "Collapsing Empire" owes more to their appearance in Frank Herbert's Dune than any real world inspiration. This is pure castle in the sky fantasy, its predictions and novum logical from the standpoint of its own invention but also requiring a substantial effort towards suspension of disbelief. You have to believe that there is FTL transport, and a tightly knit interstellar empire run by a single sovereign. A reader has to organize her understanding of the various political factions in the story, leaving aside any obvious parallels with real world parallels. And yet, even a second-world story like Collapsing Empire does have an important hook to readers, in this case the way its "Collapsing Empire" mirrors in some respects concerns over climate change. This one familiar aspect allows the reader an 'in' to the rest of the story. On the distant far shore of Third Tier fiction are stories by authors such as China Mieville, Olaf Stapleton, and Frank Herbert which exchange vague allegories of the present day with ever-more elaborate flights of fantasy.

To be clear, I offer this method of organization not as a way of ranking speculative literature. I've read works from each of the tiers that moved me to great heights and depths of feeling. I merely suggest that when approaching contemporary speculations, it might be useful to adopt some useful frameworks to discuss the challenge certain speculations present to readers.
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