Speculative Fiction

Term devised to cover 'Science Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fantasy' and other sub-genres. Apparently initially applied to OUSFG because the University Authorities (whose Enforcement arm were known as Bulldogs) thought that the term 'Science Fiction' might be detrimental to the University's highbrow, orthodox image. Some people, such as Dan Hartland, dislike the term for other reasons.

Despite its inauspicious origins, in many ways 'Speculative Fiction' is a better way to describe SF than 'Science Fiction' since, with the arguable exception of hard SF, the 'science' isn't generally the most important aspect of the fiction. If one aim of Literature is to explore the human condition, then 'Speculative Fiction' might be said to explore the human condition by looking at how humans, or human analogues, react to non-normal circumstances and events. Science is often what the fiction is speculating about - generally how life would be in a more scientifically advanced society, or some variation thereof, but it's quite rare for it to actually be the story.

Asimov, for instance, fits the bill as a writer of speculative fiction. Even the relatively down-to-Earth Robot Novels there is (Thank God, IMHO) no real discussion of how robots are built, or the technology behind them- a few buzzwords like 'positronic' are thrown around, but even if they're accurately researched and appropriate buzzwords, they're really only there for the same reason as Star Trek's technobabble- as an up-to-date equivalent of magic spells. Where robotic tech does come up, it is mentioned by way of its social and psychological impact on this human/robot society -C/Fe (carbon/iron?), to borrow from "The Caves of Steel" - for instance in showing the instinctive revulsion towards something that looks human and isn't when the human looking Daneel opens up his chest cavity and removes a food sac. The Three Laws of Robotics invite us at every turn to try to imagine the psyche of a sentient or pseudo-sentient being with those three commands as its baseline- and are frequently linked by characters to the question of what might be the Three Laws of Humanics.

Asimov is, of course, not a Hard SF writer. It's a universally acknowledged truth that his books are far more about social science fiction but:

"I should have called it psychosociology, but that seemed to me too ugly a word."

I put forward that Speculative Fiction is a nicer term, even if nobody in the wider world does know what it means.

Let's try this definition again from the point of view of a more Hard SF oeuvre. (At this point I'd like to invite anyone with a greater knowledge or interest in Hard SF than I have to cite other examples. If you want to offer counter-examples, please do so, but put them at the bottom of the page, after the argument 'for' has finished...)

Consider Steven Baxter- I'll look at "Voyage", since I've only recently read that. Now, in "Voyage"- and in "Titan" too, for that matter, there is a lot of attention paid to the mathematics and engineering of space travel. Here we have 'science' foregrounded quite a lot... except that I'd describe it as more 'technology fiction' than 'science fiction'. When it comes down to it, all the advanced tech in these books, with the exception of the weird 'umpteen million years later' sequence in one of them (the 'one of them' vagueness is the closest you're going to ever see me to avoiding spoilers, all right?) is essentially engineering. Yes, it's a Sense Of Wonder thing, but it's about the application of science- tu whit, technology. The actual science itself isn't that much more advanced than an internal combustion engine, with a couple of interesting exceptions. Once again, the social and psychological- what does it feel like to be on an alien world, what are the effects on people of being involved with such an organisation, and in competition with each other to slip the bonds of gravity? - effects are foregrounded. Whilst the tech is far more important to the story than in Asimov, I still feel that the "Speculative Fiction" uber-label is warranted.

That's not to claim, by a long chalk, that 'Science Fiction' is an inappropriate label in all cases. As discussed by our very own Lord of Time, Time Travel short stories do provide an example where the science- even if it is frequently 'magic door into the past/future with added technobabble' is foregrounded. There are other examples, but once again, it is the 'human condition' effect which generally takes centre-stage. Consider "The Time Machine". Yes, there's a time machine in it- (Oh look, a spoiler! I'm so contrite!) - but what it's actually about is human society, from Communist parable to post apocalyptic giant crab populated wasteland. Wouldn't Jean-Paul Sartre have just loved that...? The time machine just provides a convenient way of getting there to see what Wells wants us to see.

Now, there are obviously going to be plenty of counter-examples to this. Of course SF is Science Fiction... well, most of it. One of the most important things to learn about literature is that genres don't have anything like sharp edges. Genre is a series of hundreds of fuzzy Venn diagrams, making a total mess of the coffee table of human thought. However whilst Science Fiction makes a perfectly valid genre most, and arguably all of it, fits inside the larger Venn diagram of Speculative Fiction, which also encompasses a number of SF oeuvres which don't really seem to fit in the Science Fiction bracket.

Can someone pick up the other end of the argument here? -- WJR urg, I think I lost the thread of it along the way --TL

Hmmm.... Just like to point out that most things that really exist and apply to the humanities are 'a bit like' Venn diagrams.

The issue still seems to be topical today:

Wed, 22 Feb 2006 11:54:53 GMT Front Page Recent Changes Message Of The Day