Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Speculative Fiction

I just read Margaret Atwood's piece on the uses of science fiction. It's very good, and I want to comment on it more some other time. Right now, however, what caught my eye is her comments on what science fiction is. As a genre, science fiction is interesting. There are different ways of defining it and different ways of subdividing it (alternate history, space opera, etc.). Some people want to include fantasy or science fantasy in the mix; some want to leave out anything that's not strictly science. Some want to include only science as we know it; some want to broaden it to include any stories that use a science-like explanation for their fantastical elements. What made me pause in Atwood's piece was her definition of science fiction and speculative fiction. Here's what she says:
I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms - science fiction fantasy, and so forth - and others choose the reverse.
I've never heard anyone divide the genre up that way. I've generally heard what she calls *speculative fiction* referred to as *hard science fiction* or *mundane science fiction*. I'm sure that many others use *speculative fiction* in this way, but I don't remember ever seeing it myself before. Of course, the naming is complicated by science fiction's inferiority complex. Is it literature? Is it a backwater of poorly written dreck? This is another topic for yet another day. I tend to use *speculative fiction* myself. What attracts me to the genre is best captured by the word *speculative*. Whether using science (naturalistic explanations) or fantasy (supernatural explanations), it gives me a lot of room to explore interesting territories and to tell fascinating stories. Which term do you prefer or use?

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