Speculative Fiction Essay

3. Examine how speculative fiction questions our notions of what makes us human?

Speculative fiction is a literary genre which is encompasses, but not limited to, the sub-genres of fantasy, magical realism, science fiction and horror. One of the key defining features of speculative fiction works is the concept of a secondary world, in which the laws and functioning are different to our own. Defining the qualities of what makes someone human has been one of society’s most comprehensive dilemmas, hounding the fields of modern science, psychology and philosophy for centuries.
Webster defines humans as being “bipedal primate mammals” (2020) that have specific biological characteristics exclusive to the species of homo-sapiens. Yet, despite having always shared similarities with nature, Greek philosopher Aristotle distinguishes humans as being “rational animals” that have the ability to “pursue knowledge for its own sake” (BBC Future:2015). The philosopher considered man’s “sense of good and evil” was the unique characteristic, that qualified an individual as being humane. Contrastingly, Darwin wrote that the “various emotions and facilities” considered exclusive to higher animals, like humans, are actually “a well-developed condition, in the lower animals” (1871); implying biology as the definitive factor.
In literature, the ‘human condition’ is a term used to describe the “defining positive or negative aspects of being human” (Study.com:2020), typically applied by the reader’s judgement of a character’s morality, based on their actions. Using the focus texts of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005) and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985), I will explore how speculative fiction challenges our notion that being human is limited to biological composition rather than the individual’s sense of morality.

Exploration into speculative fiction suggests that the individual’s biological composition is not the deciding factor of what makes a human, rather it is ability to express morality through their choices and actions. Zusak’s magical realism novel, The Book Thief supports this view through the humanisation of the novel’s omniscient narrator of Death. Death is the permanent cessation of all biological functions of a living organism, but Zusak personifies the condition by creating a narration from the perspective of Death, enabling the condition to embody the human characteristics of emotion and judgement, which later influences its actions. Throughout the novel, Death’s ongoing expression of emotion is an attempt to remove the stigma that it is an unforgiving and merciless being by presenting itself as sharing the same emotional experiences as humans do. Death works to convince the reader that despite associated negative stigmas, it “can be cheerful […] amiable, agreeable, affable” (Zusak 2005:11) being, and therefore should be viewed respectively. The italicised ‘can’ emphasises a sense of desperation within the narrator’s desire to be considered to be humane. The psychological concept of metaperceptions, explores how a person perceives other people’s perception of themselves, however, due to these perceptions being based around an individual’s self-concept, they are often inaccurate due to bias (Flora:2005). Death’s adamance for humans to view it as being more than the epitome of cessation, is an identical emotional response of “social anxiety” found within humans (Flora:2005), ignited by reliance upon metaperceptions.
This is further explored when Death describes itself as “performing the job” (Zusak 2005:12), suggesting that its performing a role rather than being an total embodiment of the decay of human life. The narrator is further personified when it admits to using the colours of the sky at the time of each human’s death as a “distraction” to “help cope” and “keep sane” within its line of work (Zusak 2005:12). The use of the words ‘cope’ and ‘sane’ imply that despite being a creator of grief and suffering, Death undergoes the a psychological cycles of stress impacted by the pressures of work similarly experienced by humans. Zusak commented that he purposely humanises Death’s insecurities and “vulnerability” to allow readers to view the actions of Death as being more obligatory than an immoral choice, which in turn, prompts the readers to emphasise with Death (Zusak 2006).
The concept of metaperceptions and outcasts are explored through the protagonist Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The novel is set during 18th century France, a society chiefly dominated by religion, superstition and the fear of God. The notion that being human was based on an individual possessing the same biological and physical attributes as those who contributed to society’s standard of the ‘norm’. Grenouille’s physical abnormality of having no body scent, combined with his own gift to “recognise individual odours […] from each human being” (Süskind 1985:158), causes his wet nurse and the Priest Terrier to believe he is “possessed by the devil” (Süskind 1985:14). The lack of a medical diagnosis in conjunction to the presumption that Grenouille has affiliations with the devil at infancy, highlights the control religion had upon a medically underdeveloped society. Alongside the influence of religion, the narrow-minded views of society resulted in the continual dehumanisation of Grenouille “The Monster” (Süskind 1985:199), based solely on his abnormalities. Grimal treats Grenouille as an animal who is expected to “heel”, “obey implicitly”, “appear satisfied” and to be “locked up in a closet” every night (Süskind 1985:37), this dehumanisation highlights that despite biologically being a human, Grenouille was outcasted based on his disability. Metaperceptions focus heavily on the idea that our self-concept is fundamentally shaped from our primary care-giver (Flora:2005). Grenouille exposure to religion-fearing and dehumanising care-givers throughout his infancy and adolescent years influenced his intense desire to “acquire the human-being odour” that he, himself, had never possessed (Süskind 1985:158). Süskind takes Grenouille’s self-concept of being undeserving of humanisation because of his abnormality and enables the character to be consumed by the desire to be accepted in the social universe, later influencing his morality.
The construction of Death and Grenouille’s desires challenges the notion that being considered human, stems directly from having ‘normal’ physical and biological characteristics, as like Death, Grenouille, a human, seeks acceptance within a society that reserve humanisation to those whose physical appearance fit a ‘norm.’

Aristotle’s view that a man is defined as human based on his sense of good and evil, rather than biology is explored through Death’s fondness over Liesel and Grenouille’s actions as a murderer. Death experiences similar struggles to those of humankind, despite having no physical or biological attributes of the human race, it is emotionally similar to humans as he devotes his narrative to depicting the story of a leftover human. Liesel begins as just a “perpetual survivor” (Zusak 2005:12) but once she forms her first connection to reading, she becomes a “ten-year old reading genius” (Zusak 2005:51). Death’s ironic choice of the word ‘genius’ is one of the earliest examples of its fondness for Liesel, despite being illiterate, Death perceives her someone who continues to celebrate life despite having suffered grief and loss and “allows” itself to “use her stories to distract” it (Zusak 2005:378). Death’s attachment to Liesel’s life enables the condition to develop a sense of empathy towards the select individuals in her life, rather than to humanity as a whole. When recounting Rudy and Liesel’s friendship, Death comments that Rudy “didn’t deserve to die the way he did” (Zusak 2005:170), alluding to the condition’s feeling of remorse and its empathy towards humans despite humanity perceiving it as being heartless and the unforgiving. This is further reiterated through the line “You see? Even death has a heart” (Zusak 2005:170), the bitter-laced rhetorical question, emphasises Death’s adamance to prove that unlike the stigma suggests, it is more than its job of collecting souls.

Although Zusak uses a timeless narrator, the novel is set during WW2 Germany and Death’s fatigue for his job as a soul collector, is displayed through his lack of empathy for the victims of holocaust. Death notes that “the human race like to crank things up a little” in terms of “increasing the production of bodies”(Zusak 2005:218), alluding to the increasing death toll during wars. Death’s hyperbolic comment of needing a “broom or mop” (Zusak 2005:218) instead of a scythe, comedically uses the stereotypical human perception of the grim-reaper to highlight the sheer intensity of his job. Death dehumanises the deaths of the holocaust remarking that “a few bombs”, “some gas chambers, or the chitchat of faraway guns”, usually “do the trick” (Zusak 2005:218). The idiomatic phrase of “does the trick” is Death’s cynical quip about the morality of the human race and how they audaciously depict Death as having “skull-like facial features” (Zusak 2005:218) and a heartless agenda. Death affirms that it only the aftermath and process of collecting souls and not the killing itself, this emphasises Death’s perception of humankind as being hypocritical as in actuality, they are the cause of loss, not Death itself, making human Death’s greatest haunting (Zusak 2005:378). Some critics would argue that Death’s ability to dehumanise the holocaust is a depiction of evil and would consider the condition as lacking in a sense of morality, however, Death shows compassion and empathy for Liesel and the people she loves. Death’s empathetic attachment to Liesel, resembles the individual human’s empathetic attachment to their loved ones rather than the human race as a whole, making Death’s sense of morality akin to humans.

Contrastingly, Süskind’s Grenouille loses his sense of moral direction, particularly once his man-made body odour fails to integrate him into society and remove the stigma of being an outcast. Grenouille’s gift of “recognise individual odours […] from each human being” catalyses his descent into a state of immortality through his desire to create a human odour by “acquiring a number of personal odours” (Süskind 1985:191). Grenouille’s pride clouds his morality encourages him to make different perfumes for various emotions, whilst his greed motivates him to kill living creatures to harness their scent, which he later uses to control the townsfolk and his victims. The outcome of Grenouille’s sins are met with admiration from the townsfolk, psychologically convincing the protagonist that murder to attain social acceptance is morally correct as the outcome of his actions are praised and he faces no legal repercussions. Grenouille’s ignorance to consequence fuels his desire to “imitate human odour” using “rare humans who inspire love” as “surrogates” (Süskind 1985:197). Grenouille uses the artificially created scent to lure women, whose scent he was in love with, to be his lover before he murdered them to obtain their scent. Grenouille is wholly consumed by his desire to obtain the scents of his lovers, that his conscience is unaffected by the murders he commits as the perfumes results in his reputation moving from being “the solitary tick” and an “abomination” (Süskind 1985:199) to being an talented apothecary of society. This further suggests that Grenouille has no sense of morality, challenging the notion of whether despite sharing biological attributes, he deserves to be considered humane due to his lack of conscious morality, unlike Death.

To conclude, Zusak and Süskind’s speculative fiction novels both challenge society’s notion that being human is based on an individual’s physical appearance and biological characteristic rather than their sense of morality. Zusak uses the narrator of Death to showcase that emotion and a sense of morality can exist in beings that are not biologically human. By comparing Death to Süskind’s Grenouille, the notion is further challenged as the biologically classified human is outcasted based on his abnormalities, which once overcome, the desire to be socially accepted clouds his sense of morality. In my opinion, being human should be based on the individual’s emotional awareness and sense of morality, therefore I would consider Zusak’s Death as fitting the concept of what is human more so than Süskind’s Grenouille.


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Zusak, M. (2006) ‘Markus Zusak’s Compelling Appointment with Death’ [interview by Linda M.Castellitto] on BookPage [online] available from <https://bookpage.com/interviews/8341-markus-zusak-ya#.X9OEfdj7Q2w> [11 December 2020]

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