Speculative Fiction: Isn’t it just Science Fiction Anyway?

Exploring the genre of speculative fiction, I was intrigued to find a passionate debate between its significance and the genre of science fiction. Several individuals I spoke to, including several teachers of English and linguistics, were not aware that such a genre existed. And through the research I did online, I found several heated conversations about the origins and value of speculative fiction. In this essay, I will explore the nature of this on-going conversation and answer the question: isn’t speculative fiction just science fiction anyway?

In my research, one of the strongest voices in the field of speculative fiction is Daniel D. Shade, Ph.D., professor of child development at the University of Delaware where he teaches two courses: Human Development through Speculative Fiction and Human Development through Science Fiction Film. In his essay on speculative fiction, Shade proclaims, “Speculative fiction eliminates the need for a separation between science fiction, fantasy, and horror because they are different forms of one thing” (Shade). In his theory, Shade identifies the nineteen sub-genres that make-up the core of speculative fiction; all related and interconnected: Alternative History, Apocalypse or Holocaust, Coming of Age (of a society), Contemporary Fantasy, Cyberpunk, Dark Fantasy or Horror, Dystopia, First Contact, Genetic Engineering, Hard Science Fiction, Light Fantasy, Light Science Fiction, Military Science Fiction, Movie/TV Tie-In, Post-Apocalyptic or Post-Holocaust, Social Science Fiction, Space Opera, and Traditional Fantasy. Shade presents an overwhelming smorgasbord of sub-genres, but the selections are too vast. By not providing a stronger definition for speculative fiction, the unique strength and far reaching capacity for exploring human nature within the genre is diluted and diminished.

Further inquiry into the nature of speculative fiction brings us to the Speculative Literature Foundation (SLF). The SLF was established in 2004 as a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting literary quality in speculative fiction. The SLF was created to bring together the energies of writers, editors, readers, and academics and to facilitate awareness of the needs and concerns within the speculative literature field. One of the primary tasks of the SLF is to define speculative fiction: A catch-all term meant to inclusively span the breadth of fantastic literature, encompassing literature ranging from hard science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to horror to folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern myth-making — and more. Any piece of literature containing a fabulist or speculative element would fall under our aegis, and would potentially be work that we would be interested in supporting (speculativeliterature.org). While this definition is broad in scope, it also does not provide enough specific differentiation between speculative fiction and science fiction. Shade asserts, “Speculative Fiction is a term that has not been embraced entirely by the writers, editors, and critics in the science fiction, fantasy and horror fields” (Shade). Defining speculative fiction as, “any piece of literature containing a fabulist of speculative element,” appears to be overly inclusive and somewhat desperate in an attempt to find acceptance and relevance within the literary world.

Silver Pen and Hugo Award winning writer Harlan Ellison has been writing speculative fiction for over forty years, and to his credit, Ellison has received more awards than any other ‘fantasist’ (HarlanEllison.com). Ellison rigorously claims the mantle of speculative fiction, and in doing so has alienated many fans of science fiction (TempletonGate.tripod.com). Once on the Sci-Fi Buzz television show, Harlan said, “Call me a science fiction writer and I will come to your house and nail your dog’s head to the coffee table!” (TempletonGate. tripod.com). Ellison, like many other writers of speculative fiction, is aware that being labeled a science fiction writer comes with prejudice and judgment by mainstream critics (Wikipedia.org).

Given that writers of speculative fiction want to be taken more seriously without the baggage that appears to come with writing science fiction, the hard-core science fiction fans label this move as elitist (Wired.com), while the literary critics turn their eyes down and give their backs to science fiction writers (StrangeHorizons.com). In a 2006 review of Harlan Ellison’s book The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective, science fiction and fantasy writer Jayme Lynn Blaschke wrote, “For all his famous protests to the contrary, Ellison is inarguably a science fiction writer. But he is *also* a fantasist — having written significantly more of that genre than its SFnal cousin — not to mention a journalist, an essayist, a screenwriter and mainstream author. The Essential Ellison makes it very, very clear that in a society obsessed with labels and pigeonholes, Ellison has never fit comfortably in any category” (Blaschke). The argument between speculative fiction and science fiction does not seem to end.

Heather Urbanski, author of Plagues, Apocalypses and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares interviewed speculative fiction writer Greg Bear and asked his opinion on its role in literature and society. Bear stated, “The future is important and we have to imagine and dream the future before we can create it… We are not prophets but we allow you to dream your dreams and let you know what your nightmares are in advance so you can prevent them… In a sense, science fiction has changed history…” ( Bear). While Bear’s comment acknowledges the benefit of speculative fiction, he does not separate it out from science fiction but rather identifies it as one inclusive genre.

We have seen several unsuccessful attempts to define speculative fiction that all result in broad, inclusive yet diluted definitions. However, one author has successfully outlined his classification system of separate speculative. Author Orson Scott Card developed six elements that define speculative fiction in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy:

1. All stories set in the future, because the future can’t be known. Out-of-date futures, like that depicted in the novel 1984, simply shift from the “future” category to:
2. All stories set in the historical past that contradicts known facts of history or “alternate world” stories.
3. All stories set on other worlds, because we’ve never gone there. Whether “future humans” take part in the story or not, if it isn’t Earth, it belongs to fantasy and science fiction.
4. All stories supposedly set on Earth, but before recorded history and contradicting the known archaeological record–stories about visits from ancient aliens, or ancient civilizations that left no trace, or, “lost kingdoms” surviving into modern times.
5. All stories that contradict some known or supposed law of nature. Obviously, fantasy that uses magic falls into this category, but so does much science fiction: time travel stories, for instance, or invisible-man stories.
6. In short, science fiction and fantasy stories are those that take place in worlds that have never existed or are not yet known. (Card)

Orson Scott Card’s definitions provide the best clarification of how to classify a work of speculative fiction. To summarize Card’s definition, speculative fiction stories are based on Earth. Speculative fiction concerns itself with an alternate history of our current world, an alternate Earth, and the terrifying or wondrous result by asking the simple question, ‘what if.’ If the story originates in another world or in outer space, it is science fiction. It’s that simple. The clarification has been made we now have a much needed filtering system for the speculative fiction.

In an interview by Wired Magazine, Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaiden’s Tale, discussed her thoughts on speculative fiction and science fiction:

I like exact labeling. Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Science fiction is that which we’re probably not going to see. We can do the lineage: Science fiction descends from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; speculative fiction descends from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Out of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea came Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, out of which came We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, then George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Ray Bradbury’s Fahreneheit 451 was speculative fiction, while The Martian Chronicles was not… there’s a crossover park where science fiction and fantasy play together. But it’s really just a question of who is related to whom. If you could do a DNA of books, you could trace the classifications of these kinds of writing. (Atwood)

Atwood’s definitions are clear and precise. But even with her specific examples, her critics will not accept the clarification. In Wired’s subsequent on-line discussion, several readers posted negative reactions. For instance, an individual identified as Hokum stated, “It’s science fiction you’re writing, Atwood, you snob. Doesn’t matter if you call it ‘speculative fiction’, it’s sci-fi” (Thill). And in the next post, a person by the name of Wisdo added, “There is no such thing as speculative fiction. Atwood is a science fiction writer” (Thill). The apparent emotional investment by these critics seems to indicate a desire to elevate the genre of science fiction. These comments show the raw emotions that arise within the fans of science fiction. This state of discontentment seems to be a direct result of the ongoing lack of respect from the literary critics that dismiss science fiction as a relevant and worthwhile literary genre. There seems to be a visceral desire from the fans and writers of science fiction demanding acceptance and acknowledgement of the genre. The emphatic clarification by authors Ellison and Atwood about their role as writers of speculative fiction begs the question: is science fiction really considered low-brow literature?

In his article, “The SciFi Superiority Complex: Elitism in Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror,” author Tee Morris addresses the disdain he has experienced by his fellow writers. Morris states, “I myself have experienced such scorn. I’ve had award-winning authors make mocking faces during my answers to a media question from the audience and one award-winning editor literally speak over her shoulder to me, her back being the only thing I was granted to make full eye contact with, all because of my position on media [television and movies in the genres of] SF/F/H [science fiction/fantasy/horror]” (StrangeHorizons.com). Morris further adds:

Media productions as widely successful as Farscape, the Star Trek franchises, Babylon 5 and others do not attribute their accomplishments to their accurate depiction of space travel, physics, and biology. Their success is seen and heard in their intelligent stories. Their scripts are not great departures from their literary counterparts, but merely told in different mediums, appealing to the dreamers in all of us. (StrangeHorizons.com)

Although Morris is referring to the science fiction in the media of television and movies, he also speaks as a writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror. And continuing the discussion on the elite critics that look down on science fiction and its relation to popular culture, Stephen King had no difficulty in addressing the literary elite in his acceptance speech for winning the National Book Award, “…for those who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer. What do you think? You get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?” (StrangeHorizons.com).

Writers of science fiction and speculative fiction both write with the desire to show the human potential for better or worse. Whether humanity is placed in outer-space or alternate timelines, authors create new worlds to explore the human condition.

Returning to the guidelines proposed by Card, the structure to approach the simple classification of science fiction and speculative fiction results in pure categorization without the assignment of value. An orderly approach to label that which is written and read should remain separate from sentiment or the passion hurtled towards genre fiction. The continuous rage and resentment cast towards writers self-identified in speculative fiction only serves to alienate one group of writers and readers from the other.

As a genre, speculative fiction owes its lineage to science fiction, but it is a distinct and separate entity. Ongoing discussion in the literary cannon will continue refining these definitions, however the difference is clear. Speculative fiction identifies the human condition here on Earth by proposing the question, “what if.” If that question is asked on a different world or in outer space, the result may be a space opera or a fantasy exploration of a new and different race, but it will not be speculative fiction as proposed by Card. A good and solid definition allows for the classification of fantasy/horror/science fiction and speculative fiction without regard to the estimated value of the genre.

In a perfect world, all literature would be valued equally and without regard to its genre. And that world would currently be located within speculative fiction.

Works Cited

“Speculative Fiction.” Wikipedia. 2010. 21 January, 2010.

Shade, D. D. “About D. D. Shade.” Lost Book Archives. 17 January 2010.

Shade, D. D. “What is Speculative Fiction.” Lost Book Archives. 17 January 2010.

Thill, Scott. “Margaret Atwood, Speculative Fiction’s Apocalyptic Optimist.” Wired.com. 10 January
2010. http://www.wired.com/underwire/2009/10/margaret-atwood-speculative-fictions-apocalyptic-optimist/.

Blaschke, Jayme Lynn. “A review by Jayme Lynn Blaschke.” SF Site.com. 21 January 2010.

Urbanski, Heather. Nightmares: The Function of Speculative Fiction as Cautionary Tale. Diss. Rowan
University Graduate School, 2003.

Ellison, Harlan. Ellison Webderland: Real Biographies. 2 February 2010.

Strickland, Galen. The Templeton Gate: Harlan Ellison.7 February 7, 2010.

Morris, Tee. Strange Horizons: The SciFi Superiority Complex: Elitism in SF/F/H. 2004. 12 February, 2010.

6 thoughts on “Speculative Fiction: Isn’t it just Science Fiction Anyway?

  1. Interesting and entertaining essay you’ve put together. I’m flattered you would include a few of my humble words among such other august sources, but as with all carping from the peanut gallery, I feel obligated to point out that my quote above, taken out of context, tends to shade my views in ways originally unintended. The continuation of such is as follows:

    “But he is *also* a fantasist — having written significantly more of that genre than its SFnal cousin — not to mention a journalist, an essayist, a screenwriter and mainstream author. The Essential Ellison makes it very, very clear that in a society obsessed with labels and pigeonholes, Ellison has never fit comfortably in any category.”

    1. Dear Mr. Blaschke,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m happy to edit my essay to include your entire quote. I’m very pleased to receive your note and to hear from you personally. I’m a second year MFA student and in the process of writing a speculative fiction novel. This essay is my short critical paper and I was so pleased to find so much activity on the subject.

      I recently had lunch with speculative fiction writer Kit Reed who shared her insightful and long history with the genre. Her musings about her colleagues mentioned in my article helped me see things from yet another angle.

      If you have any other thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear them.

      Best to you, and thank you for taking the time to write me. I’m thrilled you found the essay interesting and entertaining.


      Philip Barragan

  2. Philip:

    Hello! This is an excellent and informative post about a topic that does, indeed, provoke angst for both writers and readers of speculative fiction. I write speculative fiction because characters are tested in fantastic worlds/time periods and either succeed, or fail, depending on their willingness to be brave and rise to the “occasion.”

    In a nutshell…I liked this part of your post the best. “Writers of science fiction and speculative fiction both write with the desire to show the human potential for better or worse. Whether humanity is placed in outer-space or alternate timelines, authors create new worlds to explore the human condition.”

    I’ll make sure to add your blog in my Links section. I believe many will enjoy it. 🙂

    Take care,
    Nora Weston

    1. Nora,

      Thank you, and yes, I’d be very happy to be a link on your site. I appreciate your comments and I look forward to spending more time on your site and exploring your work as well.

      Many thanks for taking the time to drop a note.

      Philip Barragan

  3. I have been looking for such a well thought out essay on the subtleties between science fiction and speculative fiction. I think the move to ‘speculative fiction’ as a term was a bit premature. In a few more years, legitimate ‘science fiction’ will be seen within the same realms as other, more popular forms of fiction, which is what all scifi authors deserve. It just takes time for a generation more accepting of new ways to grow up. Renaming a genre in hopes to confuse the public is never a good strategy to broaden acceptance.

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