Notes on the Speculative Epic
Why does the multi-genre, multi-timeline, sweeping novel speak to today?
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reviewing How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu for the New York Times. It’s a beautiful and mournful book about grief and loss in the wake of a global pandemic. It’s timely and well worth your time, and you can read my full review in the link.
Embedded in the review I tried my hand at defining a growing trend in literature and slapping a name on it. I’ve always been a bit envious of critics who got to do this so I figured why not.
“How High We Go in the Dark” is a welcome addition to a growing trend of what we might call the “speculative epic”: genre-bending novels that use a wide aperture to tackle large issues like climate change while jumping between characters, timelines and even narrative modes. Some recent or upcoming examples include Matt Bell’s “Appleseed,” Hanya Yanagihara’s “To Paradise,” Anthony Doerr’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land” and Emily St. John Mandel’s forthcoming “Sea of Tranquility.” The ur-text might be David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” with its nesting narratives stretching from the 19th century to a dystopian future. Why does this form speak to today? Maybe it’s a natural reaction to the last decade’s autofiction trend, with its straight realism and narrow subjectivity. Or perhaps it’s because the issues we now face feel so overwhelming that only a vast, imaginative canvas can begin to tackle them.
I’m hardly the first person to notice this trend of course. Brandon Taylor noted in his newsletter last year that “it seemed like everyone went away during the pandemic and now they’re all back writing Cloud Atlas. Am I nuts? It does seem that there are many novels coming out in the next couple of years that are sprawling, multi-POV, multi-setting operatic fantasias.”
Christian Lorentzen amusingly summed up the genre as one of main styles of literary fiction today:
But while people have noted the trend, I hadn’t seen anyone name it and try to pin down its features.
A short newspaper review doesn’t give you too much space to spell out thoughts, so I thought I’d try to talk about this a bit more here. What traits run through the novels I named to which we could certainly add others (The Actual Star, The Overstory, and The Old Drift have been suggested)? What are the traits of the speculative epic?
An “Epic” Scope (Especially of Time)
First, the speculative epic is “epic” in that it tends to cover a vast swath of time, multiple settings, and often a large number of characters. They feel in general, well, epic. Or like a vast imaginative canvas, as I said in the review. Sometimes the speculative epic is broken up into separate parts with separate settings, but sometimes it might follow one setting through a long stretch of time. The “epicness” doesn’t necessarily mean the book is long—Nagamatsu’s book feels quite epic to me at under 300 pages—but unsurprisingly most of these books are on the longer side. Cloud Atlas is 528 pages, Cloud Cuckoo Land is 640, and To Paradise is a whooping 720.
Edited to add: It seems worth noting that epicness is of course a feature of many styles of fiction, especially of SFF where you have subgenres like “epic fantasy” and “space opera.” What’s perhaps different here is the epicness is tied to a big canvas of settings, characters, and especially time. Some epic fantasy or space opera novels have a big cast of characters and many settings, but they typically are confined to a relatively small time period in an individual book (baring a prequel chapter or epilogue perhaps).
Multiple Genre Modes
Secondly, the speculative epic tends to be “genre-bending” in that it covers a range of genre modes. Often this is connected to the variety of historical time periods, of which at least one will be a science fiction future. Cloud Atlas and To Paradise are good examples here. Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham is another early (2005) speculative epic that should probably goes right after Cloud Atlas as a foundational text. Specimen Days is split into three sections, three time periods, and three genres. A ghost story in 19th century, a noir in roughly the present day, and a future SF timeline. It’s hard not to see the influence in To Paradise that also has three time periods (an alternative past, a fairly realistic 20th century section, and a dystopian future) and characters with the same name. A speculative epic can also blend genre modes at the same time, such as how Matt Bell melds fabulism and science fiction in Appleseed.
Large Societal Issues
As I suggest in my review, I think this form is often used to tackle large issues like climate change (present in many of these especially How High… and Appleseed) that perhaps feel impossible to tackle with a smaller novel canvas. Refugee crises, dystopian politics, global plagues, and similar elements appear in many of these works. Granted, perhaps it is rare to write about a future timeline without tackling some big issues. But climate change in particular feels very at home in this style, perhaps because it is something that occurs on a planet-wide and historical level.
Mystical Connections / The Power of Storytelling
Although I didn’t mention this in my quote above, a kind of mystical connective tissues seems common in these books especially when it comes to mystical connections between the time periods and characters. Specimen Days features the same core character types with similar names in each story. Cloud Atlas’s narratives are nested and interconnected. Etc. (This can be done well and also badly. Every review of To Paradise I’ve seen calls out the pointlessness of the unrelated characters in unrelated timelines having the same names with little resonance.)
If there isn’t overt mysticism, there’s often at least a kind of “power of storytelling” or “power of art” layer to the novels with stories within stories and commentary on what art means in the face of apocalypse and dystopia. And sometimes it is both the power of art and connections that seem at least at first to be mystical, such as the violin music in Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility.
Perhaps a few of the books listed above only hit three of these four, but together those feel like the main bullet points of the genre. A fifth point might be that these novels are typically pitched as literary fiction rather than SFF, thus the term “speculative”—the literary world’s preferred term for SFF elements it seems—tagging along with “epic.”
This is, um, speculative, but I wonder if part of what informs the speculative epic trend is another recent literary fiction trend of novels with minimal magical realism elements used to heighten and estrange—in the classic Shklovskian sense of making us see something anew—socio-political issues. I’m thinking of novels like Colson Whitehead’s award-winning The Underground Railroad, in which the metaphorical underground railroad becomes literal, and Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, in which immigration and refugee crises are reimagined in a world of magical portals.
When I say “minimal” I mean that there is one magical element added to an otherwise largely realistic world. This is as opposed to traditional magical realism that—at least in the novel form—would have many different magical elements that weren’t necessarily tied to a central magical conceit. In One Hundred Years of Solitude there is a man constantly pursued by butterflies, a magic carpet, a cursed character with a pigtail, a priest who levitates after drinking hot chocolate, and so on and so forth. Lots of small bits of unreality woven into the fabric of the world rather than the singular, but very large elements of magic portals or a literal underground railroad.
Perhaps there aren’t enough examples of this minimal magical realism novel to count as a trend, but I do wonder if the success of those two books and similar works helped literary world writers realize that speculative elements could help novelists tackle large issues in fiction. (SFF writers have known this for forever of course).
In any event, one thing I think we can say is this trend is part of a larger trend of “genre-bending” literature that combines the pleasures and aims of both SFF and literary fiction together and ahs been steadily kicking down the walls between those worlds. Think writers like Kelly Link, Marlon James, and Carmen Maria Machado who compete for Pulitzers and National Book Awards with clearly SFF work, something that probably would have been almost incomprehensible in the 1990s. To me, this seems to be probably the most significant trend in literary fiction in the last 20 years. The speculative epic is just the latest step.
Speaking of genre label debates, my essay on cyberpunk and the body in fiction was published in Uncanny this month.
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David Mitchell has been an outspoken proponent of breaking down the artificial genre/literary gatekeeping, and so it's good to see one of his novels take its place as an archetype in this current trend.
One other novel that comes to mind is Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. It doesn't exactly fit the speculative epic rubric since there's a direct thread across the hundred years rather than skipping time, and, of course, the genre elements are fantasy/magic realism rather than science fiction. (Genre fantasy readers have long complained that "magic realism" is just code for "fantasy that literary critics like.")
I believe Cloud Atlas is much more directly influential to the current wave of speculative epics than 100YoS, but I do think 100YoS played a role in making epic-scope fantastical novels have a place in the literary world.
It's interesting (to me, anyway!) to compare these novels to a couple older ones that almost fit but not quite. A Canticle for Leibowitz gives you the same place in three time periods (all future), is very up-front about the mystical connections between characters across time, and uses the time shifts to explore current social issues (the big obvious one of nuclear war, but also euthanasia/eugenics, the role of libraries, and expanding technological control). But it's not aiming for that gigantic "epic" feel--it's tighter, more like a series of linked fables.
Meanwhile Infinite Jest is SF in lit clothing, is huge and feels epic, and uses its sprawl to depict all-pervasive social conditions like consumerism and the distraction economy; it's definitely about the role of narrative, also, which seems similar but maybe subtly distinct from the question of the role of art. But it doesn't cover that much of a timespan and I don't remember (though I could definitely be forgetting!!) much in the way of mystical rather than normal, often thwarted connections among characters. Still, I wonder if it was an influence for any of these authors.