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Speculative Fiction and YOU
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catvalente
Am listening to Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe's podcast and thinking about the term speculative fiction, which Jonathan hates for his own reasons and I hate too though I've not quite been able to figure out why. I was tweeting about it, but honestly, this deserves an entry to hash this out.

Specfic is ostensibly a term to over all non-realist fiction, a big tent term to sum up science fiction and fantasy and horror together as one family. Without using a word like "genre" fiction which belies the TOTAL REALITY that all fiction has a genre.

Except I don't think it really is a big tent term. I've never felt it actually included fantasy--the purpose of fantasy is not speculation in the sense that science fiction speculates--SF says "what if there were rocket ships?" but I don't think the point of fantasy is "what if there was magic?" "What if?" is not the dominant question of fantasy. It's not "our world, if we had thing x." Much science fiction isn't quite that either, but when we're talking to non-geeks, the science fiction we bring up to defend ourselves is always the what if kind, the kind we can posit provides value to culture by predicting the future and our society's trajectory. It's dealing in futures, a speculators' market. I know it's meant to include fantasy, but I've never felt it really does. (erudite_ogre  says it better: I think it (spec fic) operationalizes the genres and has utilitarian overtones. They now have a function: to speculate, which is usually the province of science fiction. I think it prioritizes SF and casts a pall of delegimitzation over the other fantastic genres.)

(Incidentally when telling people what I do I almost never say fantasy because your standard average person has no idea what the word means. They vaguely think I mean porn. AT BEST I can say "you know, like Lord of the Rings" which doesn't describe my work at all. But everyone knows what science fiction means.)

I feel like speculative fiction is a term meant to imply that KIND of worth. Also, it allows us to retain the initials SF, which never has to include the silent F of icky, squishy girly fantasy which doesn't tell you how you'll live in the singularity and is socially unacceptable unless written by men, about war, using a lot of profanity. Then it's mostly ok.

I feel like it's a sneaky term. And when people like Margaret Atwood use it to differentiate the SF she writes (good) from the SF everyone else writes (bad) then I just throw up my hands.

Because if you widen the meaning of the term speculative to its broadest definition (to mediate on a subject) then ALL fiction is speculative and the term has no meaning in the way of differentiating non-realism from realism (which by the way, realism is if anything less like real life than SFF) at all! It's all speculative, because to write a book is to create something non-real. Even non-fiction imposes a narrative.

I know we have to defend ourselves to non-readers of SFF, but using speculative fiction, a term I've never heard anyone use outside of writerly circles of geeks, is no help--you still have to define that word for them. So you might as well be super specific about what it is you read and write, because you're gonna have to explain it anyway.

I feel the stigma of being an SFF writer, too. Man, my old friends from straight-world academia have straight up told me my publications "don't count." I feel the limitations of genre, I feel the stink-eye. But shit, yo, I feel stink-eye INSIDE the geek community because I write my weird ornate books and stories that aren't "really" SF and maybe aren't "really" fiction. So, you know, we fight these genre wars within ourselves, too, and nobody agrees, and we police those walls with gusto.

So I guess I don't even know. I don't even know what the problem with the word "scifi" is--which of course doesn't mean fantasy either I know that. I just know that speculative fiction is an uninteresting term to me, either too broad to have meaning or narrow enough to exclude me. Word games where specfic is academically acceptable and SFF is not is capitulating to the enemy (where the enemy is closed minds who only like their favorite genres--divorce, adultery, the suburbs, and miscarriages, usually revolving around a professor--but have been allowed to imprint that taste on the university system as a whole) and allowing them to define the terms. The terms of what we write.

*makes some kind of universal gesture of uselessness*

No one wants fantastika anymore? Nobody?

"everyone knows what science fiction means"

I dunno about that:

"I write science fiction."

"OH! You must like Star Trek!"

Well, I do like Star Trek. And at least that is science fiction.

No one's ever said that to me. Fantasy gets the furrowed brow of I think you might mean porn, SF gets the light bulb going on.

No one wants fantastika anymore? Nobody?

Me! I much prefer fantasy to scifi, in general.

(Is that referencing The Neverending Story? It's been a while since I read it and I can't remember how it was spelled.)

I've been talking to my daughter about the science fiction/fantasy/mainstream fiction differences, because she's reading A Wrinkle In Time and wants to understand how the science works, and I had to tell her that some of the science doesn't work, at least not yet; we don't know how to do that kind of thing right now. (She's six. Have I mentioned that I have an incredible kid?) Anyway, I used the term "fantasy" to mean "any fiction which isn't just about something that didn't happen but something that couldn't happen, because the universe doesn't work that way," and by doing so, I made science fiction a subcategory of fantasy. I realize this is the other way around from the way people normally think of it, but I don't think that making up fantasies about non-viable (with current knowledge) science is any different from making up fantasies about non-viable (with current knowledge) magic, so I put them all into the category of "stuff which is not viable with current knowledge," and labeled them fantasies. Because that is what they are, stories which happen when we let our fancy run further and in wilder directions than the borders of this universe, as we currently know it, can contain.


Many people do think fantasy is the genre, and SF is the subgenre. I often say fantasy is the big tent, SF is the prize elephant inside it.

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My students asked me yesterday, "Is Beowulf a true story? I mean, we can't believe all that about him swimming for seven days while wearing armor and carrying a sword and fighting sea monsters. Maybe Beowulf's lying when he tells Unferth about it."

I don't remember exactly how I answered, but it was something about, "Don't you guys read fiction for fun? Harry Potter? Twilight?" Of course most of them had. (A pitched battle about the entertainment value of Twilight nearly ensued.) I don't know if they got the point. What I was trying to tell them is that they've read plenty of speculative fiction, or fantasy, or SFF, and they should slot Beowulf into that place in their heads and stop worrying about truth value.

I think reality tv has made us think without knowing it about whether every story really happened or not. I genuinely think it's deeply affected the american sense of narrative.

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I use Fantastika ALL THE TIME! I love it!

I commented on your tweets on FB (oh plethora of social media!):

"I think it (spec fic) operationalizes the genres and has utilitarian overtones. They now have a function: to speculate, which is usually the province of science fiction. I think it prioritizes SF and casts a pall of delegimitzation over the other fantastic genres. This is why i prefer to use fantastika (although earlier on I used spec fic).""

Umbrella terms are hard in this situation because, for one thing, the culture of the allied genres and the way that genre itself invests works with significance. I think there is more to it than that but I will have to envision (NOT speculate!) more later! :-)

I think that's a perfect point, to me. Mind if I add it into the entry, with credit?

Utility is the worst argument for value in art.

I can understand the frustration and angst people have over speculative fiction, sure. Agree with it? Think it's really worth the sweat and blood that's shed over it (yay, hyperbole!)? Naw.

I guess the reason it's never been an issue for me is that, as you point out, someone somewhere is always going to have a problem with whatever label gets slapped on a genre/subgenre. People don't understand/don't like anything with the word "punk" ascribed to it. Other people don't think anything outside of academia is worth reading. Others draw huge battle lines one whether one must always say and write the entirety of science fiction, or whether sci-fi/skiffi is allowable, or will get you kicked out of particular social circles.

It's all kinda...futile. And even if you go with the basics, even if you just say "I write fantasy" or "I write science fiction," for the most part you still have to take it further and define what it is you actually write so people don't misconstrue your work--which they will do anyways based on their experiences with those genres.

It's just another attempt to encompass an increasingly complex collection of work...stories so vastly different that many series and authors create and define subgenres in and of themselves.

Genre labels, as it's often pointed out, are more for the booksellers. The bookstores that need to know where the latest shipment goes on the shelves. They'll eventually break down under close scrutiny, and I'm not sure there'll ever be a word or phrase that will make everyone happy.

Ah, but I don't think they are just for booksellers, and I think that's a dangerous idea. If that were true you'd see wild experimentation and difference within the genres because authors never ever would think about genre at all. Genre is a system of categorization that allows us to enunciate what we want to write and read. That shit's important. Not nuclear war important, but important.

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Re: JRVogt (Anonymous) Expand
I've never considered spec fic to be a blanket term encompassing both SF and fantasy. Rather, I've always thought it meant - and have only ever used it to mean - that category of story which would be insufficiently served by the label of straight fiction, but which just as equally is distinct from any of the mainstream genre categories, such as UF, PR, SF, steampunk, cyberpunk or fantasy. By this reckoning, novels like Her Fearful Symmetry and The Time-Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger could be considered spec fic, as might a lot of Margaret Atwood's work, or The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, or stories which, for whatever reason, contain only a sprinkling of magic/weird technology, and which are otherwise written according to the conventions of straight fiction.

That being said, I can see how using it as a catch-all term sucks. I'm not in favour of doing that. But just like urban fantasy and paranormal romance have become helpful subgenre terms in describing the likely shape of this story or that, for me, spec fic has only ever been stories that don't fit obviously into those existing genres. So I'm going to keep using it that way.

This sums up my thoughts as well.

"Speculative fiction" seems, if anything, like what you get if you dumped a whole lot of Clorox over Neil Gaiman.

I mean, other than a wet, annoyed, and rapidly-bleaching Neil Gaiman.

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Lois Bujold mentions this in one of her interviews (or essays, I forget). She makes the pont that all genre fiction is a fantasy of some kind: SFF is a fantasy of political agency, Romance is a fantasy of love, etc.

This started me thinking about the genre of contemporary fiction (which you rightly note is a genre like all writing). After contemplation, I think contemporary fiction is a fantasy of relevance. In the sense that, no matter how limited my world, no matter how small my cares, no matter how hemmed in my actions are, those things "mean something" (whether to me alone or to everyone). And, most importantly, that those small things "ought to/have to" have meaning to others -- especially to that class of others who "have taste/class/intellect/etc."

You know, I haven't put these all together before. Thanks.

Edited at 2011-01-26 05:28 pm (UTC)

I'm not sure I agree at all that the central conceit of SFF is political agency--of a certain kind of SFF which Bujold writes, yes, but...

Huh. I don't feel that way about the term, honestly (that it's a sneaky way to exclude fantasy). And when I write fantasy I am asking what if this--but, yeah, that can be said about any fiction at all.

None of the terms please me, really, but speculative fiction feels more umbrella-y than SFF to me.

Maybe just, "what I write is fantastic"...ahem.

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I really appreciate that, as a lapsed medievalist.

When I try to describe your work, I end up going back to medieval stories. I study the middle ages, can't help it. Palimpsest reminded me of Sir Orfeo and Pearl and Irish myths and the narrative of the dream and travelling to Faerie. I think of Palimpsest as a modern medieval-style Faerie story where dreams are the entry point to a modern Otherworld. I am reading Orphan's Tales and it is in the tradition of Chaucer and Scheherezade, but also every myth cycle I have ever loved, and so I think of it as a myth cycle told in a particular style of narrative. And I am crossing my fingers until February when everything I have to d is done until March and I can dare to read fiction again so I can devour the rest of your writing.

I think what I am trying to say is I know the kinds of stories I want to read, but they somehow are excluded from the word "fantasy". I want to read the genre of "fantasy"/"the fantastical"/the "romance" as medieval writers wrote it for themselves, only with someone contemporary to me writing it. I don't want to read high fantasy -- nobody does it as well as Tolkien, and the high fantasy elves are dull and not very elf-like. But at the same time, the "urban fantasy" genre that relies on the same tropes and mythologies as high fantasy, or else parnormal-vampires-and-werewolves tropes but leans on New York City living to do it, that's not that interesting to me either. Every writer puts their own imprint on Encountering The Other when the other is "magical" or extra-human or fantastical, but I want them to be more than generic fantasy.

I guess what I am trying to say is I think of you primarily as occupying a space of storytelling before fantasy was fantasy, when the fantastical was tangled up in real life and was called "romance". Nothing for a stuck-up "academic" to sniff at.

(I posted this from the wrong journal the first time. -_-.)

You might take a look at Sharon Shinn's "Troubled Waters", if you haven't already. I think it might fit what you're looking for in stories. Might not, either.

I'll be honest - fantasy was my first love, with sci-fi taking up residence on my shelves some time later. I am unable to comprehend an association of fantasy with "porn," because (for better or for worse) my first adventures into the land of magic and unicorns held me transfixed and has driven me to the fantasy section of bookstores ever since. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are my two favorite books, still, because they were my first fantasy books.

Dune saved my life, but it felt more like fantasy than sci-fi to me at the time because the themes seemed so familiar. I've enjoyed far more fantasy than sci-fi in my life and I've never realized that it might be considered inferior to sci-fi, which is another sort of fantasy to me.

You know, Dune also felt like a fantasy more than a science fiction piece to me. Or like how some of Anne McCaffrey's work is - yes, we are in space/on alien planets and doing stuff but we have fire-breathing dragons/unicorn-girls/selkies. I guess most people would label that as science fiction and the world is presented as science fiction-y - there's no magic, though there may be things the characters don't understand or the author doesn't explain. It feels like a world that is possible with the laws of physics mostly as they are now.

But the stories themselves feel like fantasies.

I use the term "speculative fiction" in conjunction with Candlemark & Gleam mostly because what we publish tends not to fall within easy genre boundaries, even within the SF/F family. What do you call a dystopian near-future thriller with superheroes? What do you call a novel that involves jumping between parallel worlds, one of which is a steampunk fantasia and one of which is our world and one of which is an ancient pastoral haven, and all of which involve fractured gods?

Speculative fiction gives me a good, generic holding ground for that, to use in an elevator pitch when someone asks me what we publish.

Somehow, the term "fantastika" has escaped me until now. But I rather like the connotations it evokes in my head.

My problem is less with "speculative fiction" as a catchall than with "magical realism" as somehow being more "legitimate" than typical SF/F. As I mentioned to a writer friend this morning, I'm about ready to go down to her creative writing MFA program and start bashing heads in with an omnibus edition of China Mieville's work...

Heh. For whatever reason, fantastika makes me think of Nazi-themed fantasy. I know that's not what it is! Just the image that popped into my head.

I like speculative fiction as a term because "spec fic" is easier for me to say and type than "science fiction and fantasy and also that urban fantasy stuff though I'm not big on paranormal romance and some steampunk's pretty cool too oh do we include alternate history in here? I think alternate history is neat, and don't get me wrong I think paranormal romance fits in the genre, I'm just not talking so much about that subgenre right now." Which means I lose a lot of detail, but I can say it faster.

It also means I don't get jumped by people's flamewars over whether "scifi" or "sf" is the appropriate way to abbreviate "science fiction" and whether or not the book I'm talking about is sciencey enough for the way they want to define science fiction.

That said, I'm not sure I'm really using it the way other people do. As with many bits of jargon, there's loss of clarity that comes with the use.

This is also how I use it. If people push, then I'll gladly go into an in-depth explanation, but otherwise "spec fic" is shortest, easiest fit.

I find it very interesting to hear you writing about this, as from my perspective things seem almost diametrically opposed in the way the two genres overlap contemporary culture; aside from some cyber goth fetishism of The Matrix or whatever, fantasy seems to be much closer to popular paradigm with its Potters and Twilights and LOTRs. Heck, Star Wars is more fantasy than anything else, right from "far away and long ago" romanticism of the starting lines. And we have magical realism as the acceptable fantasy that dare not speak its name.

This is not to say that those examples are what I think exemplify what fantasy is or should be, just that I think the majority of those outside the genre have a slightly less slippery hold on what fantasy means than they do about scifi; whose worst pulp tropes ("it's all purple alien monsters and ray guns!") have been the bane of my life even when trying to get people to read Douglas Adams.

The macho fervour to vanquish the unknown rather than grow strange with it definitely seems to have the upperhand in the mainstream of both genres; I would love to see more fantasy and scifi in the veins of Tricia Sullivan, NK Jemisin and Ted Chiang; writing that flowers from what we are at heart. But I don't see people willingly leaving behind their epic dwarf quests or their space battles any time soon, and so perhaps the clean genre terms will simply come to mean tropes more than anything else.

I basically gave up on academia when my Oxford tutor informed me that Kafka's Metamorphosis was one of the greatest works of art created by man, and that part of its genius was the "central metaphor that was not a metaphor, and which was nothing silly like scifi".

Thinking about this, I quite like "strange fiction" as a voluminous space for the two to exist together; writing that goes out to meet the Other, hoping that some of it will pass back to us in exchange.

Ugh. The Metamorphosis is terrible.

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