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I am a writer, editor, reviewer and dance teacher based in Perth, Western Australia.

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Sunday, 17 February 2008

What is meant by the term "Speculative Fiction"?

In a comment on last week’s post, Jo asked me to define the term “Speculative Fiction” and Juliet suggested that I might blog definitions of the speculative genres. This gave me food for thought, for such definitions vary from one expert to another – and I’m no expert! In the past I have had one foot in journalism and one foot in academic writing, so you will find this post has elements of both approaches. Typical of the journalistic approach, my research has largely been limited to Googling, much of which of course, took me to the ubiquitous Wikipedia. I am also indebted to Carol Ryles, who kindly sent me excerpts from The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

But first, to every Googler’s favourite encyclopaedia! In its article on Speculative Fiction, Wikipedia suggests that Speculative Fiction asks the classic "What if?" question and attempts to answer it. The article goes on to say that the term is often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein, who is first known to have used it in his 1948 essay On Writing of Speculative Fiction as a synonym for science fiction. In a later piece, he explicitly stated that his use of the term did not include fantasy. Wikipedia further goes on to say that while Heinlein may have come up with the term himself, there is one earlier citation: a piece in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1889, referring to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000–1887. In that Looking Backward was a Utopian novel set over a century in the future, we would today probably recognise it as Science Fiction rather than Fantasy.

Yet if we take Wikipedia’s open-ended definition rather than Heinlein's exclusive one, we quickly see that SpecFic must encompass genres other than Science Fiction, since Science Fiction does not have a monopoly on “What if” questions. In recent years, the most usual definition of “Speculative Fiction” has included Fantasy, Horror and possibly Alternative History and Magical Realism, together with stories of the supernatural and those of superheroes, not all of which fall readily into one of the three basic categories of SpecFic. Wikipedia defines all these and more!

Heinlein is also quoted (from Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues ) as having said, "a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method." Now this definition definitely excludes the other genres that we generally think of as speculative. How then, do we define those other genres? How, under Wikipedia’s definition, do the speculative genres differ from each other? More particularly, how does Fantasy differ from Science Fiction?

Rod Serling, writer and producer of The Twilight Zone, stated "Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible." That is as neat and succinct a definition of the difference as you are likely to find, and one that has been echoed by many other authorities since Serling’s day.

So, OK we can see that both Sci-Fi and Fantasy are speculative, but a modicum of consideration will demonstrate that their speculations hinge on different parameters. To see the parameters of Fantasy clearly, perhaps we need look no further than Ursula K. LeGuin, who, in her collection of essays entitled The Language of the Night, tells us, “Fantasy is the natural, the appropriate, language for the recounting of the spiritual journey and the struggle for the good and evil in the soul”. A little further on, she says, “Fantasy is the language of the inner self".

Fantasy, then, is very often allegorical. I, for one, think good fantasy is always so. It describes some aspect of the human journey and comments on it, and almost always ends on a note of hope. John Clute & John Grant, in their definitive Encyclopedia of Fantasy put it this way: “This story-driven urge to comedic completion also distinguishes full fantasy from its siblings, supernatural fictions and horror, whose plots often terminate – shockingly – before any resolution can be achieved”. Horror, I believe, exploits the horrific for its own sake, without making any comment on the human condition. Horror that does so comment is, perhaps, better defined as Dark Fantasy.

Wikipedia’s entry on Fantasy's sub-genres suggests no less than eighteen, with some of those having still further subdivisions. The list is mind boggling!

* 1 Alternate history
* 2 Bangsian fantasy
* 3 Comic fantasy
* 4 Contemporary fantasy
o 4.1 Urban fantasy
o 4.2 Elfpunk
* 5 Dark fantasy
* 6 Erotic fantasy
* 7 Fairytale fantasy
* 8 Heroic fantasy
* 9 High fantasy
* 10 Historical fantasy
o 10.1 Celtic Fantasy
o 10.2 Steampunk
o 10.3 Wuxia
o 10.4 Historical high fantasy
o 10.5 Medieval fantasy
* 11 Juvenile fantasy
* 12 Low fantasy
* 13 Fantasy of manners
* 14 Mythic fiction
o 14.1 Mythpunk
* 15 Romantic fantasy
* 16 Science fantasy
o 16.1 Sword and Planet
o 16.2 Dying Earth fiction
* 17 Superhero fantasy
* 18 Sword and sorcery

While one might argue against the necessity for so many subdivisions and, perhaps query the classifications (for example, is “Juvenile Fantasy” really a category? Might it not itself be divided into the same subdivisions as the adult variety?) the list serves as an object lesson in the difficulties of pinning down the speculative genres and trying to make them fit into clearly defined classes. Perhaps in another decade we will be defining the sub-genres altogether differently. One thing is certain: speculative stories have been with us since we sat around fires at the entrances to our caves and told stories that explained the unexplainable, and it will be with us until the last human dies on a planet that has outgrown our species.

9 comments:

Marilyn Z. Tomlins said...

Satima -- Really interesting! I wonder under what genres will the bookshops display it. In December in London I was astonished to see that Waterstone's Gower Street branch has a dozen quite large bookcases filled with 'Fantasy', but only one with true crime.
Marilyn

Imagine me said...

Interesting, Satima. I gave a talk on speculative fiction to our local branch of the Society of Women Writers a few months ago and in my research tracked down over fifty genres and sub genres for Science Fiction and fantasy and that wasn't including horror and magic realism. I'm sure I could have found more if I had tried because sub genres of both seem to grow by the day.

Satima Flavell said...

Yet it seems not all booksellers recognise that Speculative Fiction is a catch-all for three genres. Too many of them still file all the SpecFic genres under "Science Fiction". Occasionally you get "Science Fiction and Fantasy" and sometimes there will be a little dark corner labelled "Horror".

Waterstone's I think, must have a buyer who's right into Fantasy:-) I noticed their two shops in Exeter both had lots when I was there last year. I was especially chuffed to see Aussie writers surprisingly well-represented.

It seems that True Crime is an under-recognised sub-genre. I guess it's a bit of cross-over between Crime and Biography and booksellers aren't too sure how to handle it. I don't think I've ever seen a separate section for it here in Oz, but that doesn't, of course, mean there aren't any, especially in the larger cites.

I suppose if the bookshops stack all the genres and sub-genres in together with only the broadest of classifications, people might buy a wider variety of books. I know if there were sections named Historical Fantasy and Speculative Humour I wouldn't look anywhere else!

Jo said...

Well it does seem to me that Spec. Fic. is a broad enough category to cover all the bases of the sci fi, fantasy, magical, etc. etc. genres, and surely it would be more sensible to put them all "in one place". That said, I suppose it would irritate me personally to have to plough through horror which has no interest for me. Then again, what category would Jim Butcher's Wizard books come under I wonder. Lots of horror, lots of humour, filled with vampires et al.

Thanks for the explanation Satima.

Satima Flavell said...

Ooh - I must look for Jim Butcher's work! Much as I dislike Horror, I will read the kind that's too funny to be scary. Richard Harland is another writer who does the same thing and his books are a hoot!

Carol Ryles said...

Thanks for that interesting read, Satima. I've just been reading about "Animal Fantasy", (eg, Wind in the Willows, Animal Farm, Brer Rabbit) which I didn't see in the Wiki article. Though it does mention 'Watership Down' but lists that as Juvenile Fantasy.

Satima Flavell said...

Ah, that's interesting, eh, Carol? Jonathan Livingston Seagull is another that leaps to mind, although of course it's often shelved with "New Age". As Helen has pointed out, there are almost as many categories as people listing them!

Graham Clements said...

Speculative fiction is not so much what if this or that happens, it's more about what if something that is not possible now like magic, human cloning or werewolves is possible, and how that different element changes the way the story's characters cope with the conflict at the centre of the story. So it includes probably all science fiction and fantasy, but only horror with some supernatural/fantasy/science-fiction element.

Satima Flavell said...

Good point, Graham, and I don't think that's the whole of it. Very often, especially in fantasy, the conflict itself has to do with something that is not possible, such as which kind of magic will rule the world. That's where I think the idea of allegory being essential to fantasy comes in: it uses the impossible to draw attention to some aspect of the human condition.

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