Amanda Kallis: Speculating on the Speculative

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Author Amanda Kallis, who will be teaching Frequency’s Speculative Fiction class starting on November 18, tells us what excites her about this mode of storytelling. 

<– Amanda hugs a robot.

What’s a book that made you love speculative fiction? Do you still feel the same about it today?

The shortest list I can give: Frank Herbert’s Dune, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Also movies and shows (Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Blade Runner). With many classic works, there are elements I see differently now: Blade Runner‘s Deckard is violent and yet backed by a sultry saxophone, Dune‘s politics are (excuse the pun) a can of worms. I believe there’s still room for them, yet I understand why others would rather update the canon or toss out the idea of a canon altogether.   

What’s a classic of the genre that you think is important to understanding speculative fiction?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, because of its influence, its placement right at the splintering off of the new branch of genre, and how it remains so surprising. To read Frankenstein is to see how modern it is. 

How about a recent work of speculative fiction that you’ve enjoyed? What does it have to say about the state of speculative fiction? 

Parasite is in theaters and I’ve been telling everything that breathes to go see it. The film is funny, suspenseful, and (while others might call it realism) I think it’s such a good example of how Samuel Delany described the speculative: a form “in dialogue with the present.” So I have to include it here. Director Bong Joon-ho’s speculative approach—taking a metaphor and literalizing it, giving it teeth*—is great satire, and thrilling. I also want to mention Alice Sola Kim’s “Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying,” and Louise Erdrich’s “The Stone,” which similarly are wound by a speculative approach, but are more interested in personal desires and fears than societal ones. Both works are gorgeously crafted and stick with you.

*Check out Jia Tolentino’s recent article, which describes this turn (with reference to one of my favorite academic texts, “Do Metaphor’s Dream of Literal Sheep?”) while comparing another three excellent works of speculative fiction (Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and Yoko Ogawa‘s The Memory Police).

Do you always set out to write speculative fiction? Do you write realism as well?

So far my fiction has inevitably included an element that doesn’t fit our world as we know it, but it’s hard to say how intentional that has been. I read and love all types of literature. That said, the works that really excite me tend to have something speculative. I always tell my students to write what they’d like to read, so I do the same. Writing is too hard to begin with; it’s not worth worrying what other people want.

I also write poetry and essays, though I wouldn’t call either “realism.” Anyhow I’m suspicious of the term, which is a set of aesthetic assumptions huddled under a trench coat. It’s a genre like any other, but in Western literature it is saddled with the misleading and stuffy label of “real.” I tend to sit down to write because I was inspired by something sensory–an image, a setting, the sound of a string of words–and move from there. Where I think the genres diverge is that poetry and essays have an associative logic instead of a character logic. And they digest differently. I structure my fiction thinking about immersion, which means taking into account pacing, the rise and fall of tension (aka, plot). Poetry and essays can be objects, the reader can float on top of the words.