Sunday, March 04, 2012

A Question?



What is the difference between speculative fiction and science fiction?
A discussion by Joyce Carol Oates of Margaret Atwood's latest book of essays obfuscates rather than explains it for the lay person. (Or at least me).

If it's set in the future but does not employ aliens as a plot device, is that enough to make it speculative?

****I just read a story from STORIES, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, an anthology, which purports to be composed of imaginative and speculative stories. The first story I read, "Unwell" chosen by me because I had just put a book by her on reserve at the library, was by Carolyn Parkhurst. It was about a woman who subverts every chance her sister has at happiness through very ordinary and if I might say so, familiar means.

I don't see how this story "reinvigorates, redefines and expands" the boundaries of imaginative fiction. It is a very ordinary story on any terms. Gaiman's statement that "we wanted to read stories that used a lightening-flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as something we have never seen at all" would not apply here for me at all.

So I guess I also need a definition of imaginative fiction.

24 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Interesting! I think they're closely related, but in my opinion, speculative fiction focuses more on alternative realities given our current technology, etc.. Science fiction lets go of our notions of current technology and explores other technology. Or maybe that's just me...

Chad said...

Honestly, I think it just comes down to which name you prefer. Some people find science fiction a dirty word.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Patti, I don't know the difference between the two but I like to read science fiction that's totally bizarre and beyond reality. A magical world, as it were.

George said...

I agree with Margot. Speculative Fiction projects current technology into the near future. Science Fiction deals with technology that doesn't exist: faster-than-light space travel, alien civilizations, time travel, etc.

Heath Lowrance said...

Speculative fiction is simply fiction that has a fantastical element, but not necessarily of a sci-fi nature. Think George Saunders, Tim Powers or even Neil Gaiman.
But it's a nicely open-ended name for a genre.

Loren Eaton said...

The Wall Street Journal had a fascinating discussion on this a while back, Patti.

F.T. Bradley: said...

Science fiction is more techie, or science based. Speculative fiction more social; both are futuristic.

At least that's my definition. Labels are so useless :-)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Loren. I ran it off for my husband. His class on utopias will undertake this discussion this week with Marge Piercy's WOMEN ON THE EDGE OF TIME.
I like that open-ended definition and I must say I am more attracted to stories without aliens or technology in large doses.

James Reasoner said...

I always figured speculative fiction was what people wrote when they thought they were too good to be writing science fiction.

Seriously, I think it's all science fiction. What people think of as speculative fiction maybe tends more toward "soft SF" rather than "hard SF" (the more hardware oriented SF, naturally). But when the term speculative fiction was coined, I'm convinced it was just an attempt to elevate the genre in the minds of people who looked down on "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff", as it used to be denigrated. It's similar to the authors who used to say, "Oh, heavens no, I don't write Westerns! I write frontier fiction." It's marketing, an attempt to escape a perceived genre ghetto.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My husband said something along those lines about fifteen minutes ago. And the WSJ article that Loren sent along suggested (as you do here) that as traditional science fiction was losing ground to fantasy (elves and dragons especially) the genre needed to reinvent itself.

Anonymous said...

I agree that a lot of it sounds like marketing. And that Parkhurst story doesn't sound like it fits either category to me.

Jeff M.

Loyd Jenkins said...

I was taught that science fiction, fantasy, and all the things that inhabit the area in between make up speculative fiction.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think it might well be the best one.

Ron Scheer said...

FYI, Patti, it's not "marketing." It's "product placement."

Brian Lindenmuth said...

SF & F has (at least) two perennial arguments. (Much in the same way that What is noir? always comes up in the crime genre.)

The first is whether SF is a sub-genre of F or vise versa.

The second is the desire to change the name. At different times different names have been tossed out there and science fiction, skiffy, sci-fi and yes, even speculative fiction have all made the rounds and stuck around in varying degrees.

Speculative fiction came about when SF was though to have predictive powers. Think old SF that often talked about the future.

Really though, it's just a name :)

Deb said...

Isn't all fiction by its very nature supposed to be speculative and imaginative? (Although I must admit, I've read some very unimaginative fiction.)

My personal definition of science fiction is any fiction that presents a specific technology (currently considered unachievable) as achieved, implemented, and accepted; or impossible life forms (elves, hobbits, vampires) as part of the "normal" world.

To me, speculative fiction is less about the "bells and whistles" and more about how humans relate to a world changed in some way by the appearance of new technology, new ability, new species, etc.

Deb said...

Or, put another way, science fiction is about what CANNOT happen right now (colonies on Mars, for example), whereas speculative fiction is about what HASN'T happened yet (such as global plagues that cause blindness).

Richard R. said...

I really want to see what Todd says about this one!

I'm very old school, and thus have old school definitions, with which most people will probably disagree. Then again, my definitions are from the times the terms of "science fiction" and "fantasy" were initially being formed.

First, Science Fiction and Fantasy are NOT the same, nor is either part of the other! Fantasy doesn't not rely on science in any way, whether it's talking horses, living castles or elves and dwarves. Often, the presence of magic is a delineator. Science Fiction depends on science (sorry, George, it can be current science projected forward in time) that is known or can be explained by the invention of scientific discovery. Thus faster than light drive is part of science fiction, not fantasy. Yes, space ships and aliens are parts of science fiction, but not a requirement of it. But science, in some form, IS a requirement of it. Science fiction can include swords (travel to another planet with a medieval level of culture) but it cannot have sorcery. So sword-and-sorcery stories are fantasy, not science fiction.

Now that we have THAT taken care of, let's move on to speculative fiction. Pretty much, it's just a made-up name intended to, as James says, sound classier than science ficiton for authors like Atwood, who has long argued that her books are not science fiction, though some were originally published under that label. She just wanted to get more high flalutin'.

Picking a collection with Oates and Arwood is just asking for the confusion you are experiencing, in my opinion. You wouldn't have that problem with a collection edited by Isaac Asimov or Hugo Gernsback. Speculative fiction can be whatever the hell the person applying that label wants it to be. Truly, ANY fiction is a speculation, since it's not factual. You speculate that someone is murdered at the zoo by an ornery zebra, that story would be speculative fiction by a broad, but to me allowable, definition. Thus, to me, speculative fiction is pretty much a useless term.

David Barber said...

Speculative and science fiction aren't something I could comment on as I'm not really into that kind of writing.

On your other definition requirement, surely "imaginative" fiction would be anything that we write, in any genre, that isn't factual. ??

pattinase (abbott) said...

Why not just fiction then? Oh this genre thing is a slippery slope.

Erik Donald France said...

To your last comment, agreed. Or why not just "writing" or "text?"

Music is the same way, mostly pigeonholing for selling purposes. Politics are presented that way, too, come to think of it. In academics, I love interdisciplinary work more than any one silo type of classification.

Loren Eaton said...

Patti,

From what I've seen, specfic tends to be a little more literary. Hard SF goes so deep into the science that the story often disappears, while soft (or sociological) SF examines future societal trends.

For what it's worth, Clarkesworld has a lot of specfic in it.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Rick, and I agree with you about everything but the uselessness of speculative fiction as a term.

And, Patti: "Oh this genre thing is a slippery slope." Politely, I'll respond, No kidding. That's where the useless pigeonholing starts. Because, yes I'll say it again, nothing escapes genre.

So, if we go back to where the label "speculative fiction" comes from (as I hope the WSJ article managed to trace), Robert Heinlein suggested it as a less-misleading alternative to "science fiction" in the 1940s, but he didn't push it too hard; Judith Merril, as an anthologist beginning in the latter 1950s, picked it up to use it the way Lloyd suggests above, as a catch-all for fantasticated fiction of all sorts, since what she had been using for that purpose, "science-fantasy," had an already established, more specific meaning that might be applied to fiction that mixed elements of sf and fantasy, such as much of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance or (Ms.) C. L. Moore. So speculative fiction ruled OK for Merril, who was also very interested in the expansion of idiom for sf and fantasy writing, embracing the innovations and avant-garde approaches of some of the folks writing for FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASTIC, AMAZING, to some extent the GALAXY group magazines, and in Britain NEW WORLDS and SCIENCE FANTASY magazines in the early '60s, and coming to a head particularly in NEW WORLDS and SCIENCE FANTASY (then renamed IMPULSE) in the later '60s...so the "snobbish" appeal of "speculative fiction" arose then...as people who were trying to break new ground in sf, particularly, were prone to embrace the label (hard science or no hard science didn't really enter into it, as such work as John Brunner's from this period was often both "hard" scientifically and stylistically untraditional, even though the most stereotypically technological magazine in the field, ANALOG, was also the bulwark Against such attempts to move away from the plain tale plainly told, while also if rarely featuring a little of this--ANALOG had been, under the old title ASTOUNDING, the prime mover in getting such literary ambition started in the late 1930s and 1940s, after all).

So, speculative fiction is a vague term that can mean what you want to mean, but perhaps most usefully describes all of fantastic fiction, from fables to surfiction to metafiction and very much including sf and fantasy. Science fiction (about what is possible, though not under current understandings or conditions, but possible with certain theoretically possible changes in place) and fantasy (about what is commonly understood to be impossible, though obviously imaginable, with "magical realism" trying to pretend it isn't fantasy) are sympathetic but relatively distinct approaches.

I haven't yet read my copy of STORIES, but I did read the intro when I bought it, and the ambition there, beyond the hype (any Sarrantonio anthology is going to have a hyperbolic introduction just as any Sarrantonio fiction is going to be at base very goofy), was to present good stories, that might well interest the usual sf and fantasy reader and not necessarily be sf or fantasy.

This leads us to the ridiculously unnecessary, even distorting and remarkably popular term "slipstream," which pretends that sf written by people who likely don't know that ANALOG was once ASTOUNDING, or perhaps even of ANALOG's existence as a magazine at all, can't really be sf, but has to be some hybrid of sf and the (mythical) mainstream of literature...you know all that stuff that isn't sf, or isn't sf or mystery or romance, except when it is, as defined by shelves at a B&N (since Borders is gone, there is no more western nor horror "genre"s, of course, because B&N doesn't segregate those out of "fiction" as Borders used to).

Todd Mason said...

Yeah, having now skimmed the Shippey article, he's definitely drunk the "slipstream" Kool-Aid. What bullshit. Particularly as Atwood and others such as Kurt Vonnegut definitely did read the "insider" sf and were inspired by it, and have contributed to it on occasion, and in those two cases particularly were hoping not to lose too much audience of foolish snobs because of their interest in it. (Of course, that just inspires the foolish snobs among sf "insiders" to dismiss their work.)