Are rules made for breaking?

ENGL 4110 “Commonplace Book” Entry 6

Speculative fiction can be notoriously hard to define. Containing a number of subcategories such as fantasy, science fiction, and more, the genre’s most accepted description is R. B. Gill’s: “[…] works presenting modes of being that contrast with their audiences’ understanding of ordinary reality” (73).

However, in order to contrast reality, authors of speculative fiction must first create a way for the extraordinary to interact with reality. As a result, speculative fiction relies heavily on established rules–a set of understood principles that govern reality–in order to break them and thereby qualify as speculative. These rules give the reader a basis of understanding from which they can begin following a story, and they also establish limits that make the plot just feasible enough to stay interesting.

Octavia Butler’s Kindred serves as an excellent example of outlining rules in order to break them for speculative fiction’s sake. By introducing time travel as a feat only possible within certain confines, the novel showcases how rule-breaking elements define speculative fiction as a genre.

Kindred first establishes itself as a work of speculative fiction when the main character, Dana, time travels for the first time. The moment is crucial for the storyline, as it introduces the reader to how Dana’s world–and newfound ability–works:

“I bent to push him another box full, then straightened quickly as I began to feel dizzy, nauseated. The room seemed to blur and darken around me. I stayed on my feet for a moment holding on to a bookcase and wondering what was wrong, then finally, I collapsed to my knees. I heard Kevin make a wordless sound of surprise, heard him ask, ‘What happened?’

I raised my head and discovered that I could not focus on him.

‘Something is wrong with me,’ I gasped.

I heard him move toward me, saw a blur of gray pants and blue shirt. Then, just before he would have touched me, he vanished.

The house, the books, everything vanished. Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees. I was in a green place. I was at the edge of a woods. Before me was a wide tranquil river, and near the middle of that river was a child splashing, screaming . . .

Drowning!” (Butler 13)

The passage illustrates the first time that the story diverges from ordinary reality, signaling to the reader that it will contain speculative elements. Before this moment, Dana seems to live in a normal world and do normal things such as unpacking boxes after a move. Then, she feels sick, and she notes feeling dizzy and nauseated. The nausea is not unrealistic by itself, but the sudden change signals to the reader that, as Dana puts it, “something is wrong.” She falls to her knees, tries to focus, and then everything disappears and is replaced by a completely different scene.

Thus the first rule is broken. The reader’s understanding of reality dictates that people cannot spontaneously travel across time or distance. After the above passage, however, a new rule is formed: Whenever Dana is nauseous and dizzy, she is transported away.

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