This post was very nearly entitled ‘in defence of speculative fiction,’ but that sounded needlessly… well, defensive.
Jonathan and Gary quite took me aback with their latest episode of the Coode St Podcast with Jonathan’s strong dislike of and Gary’s similarly negative associations with the term ‘speculative fiction’ – mostly my surprise came from the fact that I’ve had several really in depth conversations with Jonathan about the field over the last 12 months, and never once come across this particular pet hate.
It wasn’t until Jonathan mentioned it on said episode that I realised how greatly and comfortably we use the term ‘spec fic’ over at Galactic Suburbia. Which is something I’m perfectly happy about. I certainly don’t see it as a vague or wishy washy term, as Jonathan does – I see it as something very specific and necessary to the point where I could not see how he manages the current conversation without using it.
Cheryl Morgan did a nice job of talking about speculative fiction as a neutral, useful umbrella term, and also how terms can mean different things to different people. While Jonathan suggested that liking/hating specfic as a term was a generational issue, she suggested it might actually have something to do with gender, and be a term of inclusiveness rather than non-specificity.
Basically I agree with Cheryl, so go read what she says! I understand how annoying it can be when you hold one definition of a term closely to your skin and other people insist on using it differently (try being in the same room with me when someone uses “decimate”). I also agree with Jonathan that in the SF community, we all hate each other’s terms!
I sympathise entirely with people like Gary and Jonathan who have heard ‘speculative fiction’ used by people or institutions who are embarrassed by the connotations of science fiction, either through ignorance or insider cringe, and for whom the phrase is always going to recall those negative associations. I have experienced that too – good old Margaret Atwood and her “it’s speculative fiction because it’s intelligent and doesn’t have spaceships”. (a horrible paraphrase, I know, let’s move on)
However, I do think that speculative fiction has become a term that is essential to the conversation. We’ve got past the stage where science fiction or fantasy can be said to include each other – they both have such a long history behind them, and ultimately have quite oppositional meanings. By including fantasy as a subset of science fiction, or vice versa, as has variously been done in the past (and, probably, the present), there is an implication that whichever is used as the umbrella term is the most important, which is needlessly judgemental and divisive. It’s also inaccurate, and confusing to people outside (or even, let’s face it, inside) the conversation.
We can just say ‘science fiction and fantasy’ of course, and often do. But there are times when that is also just not accurate enough. The spec fic community includes a lot of work which does not wholly fit into one category or another, and I don’t just mean crossover work like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death (fantasy in a science fictional setting). Something I learned from judging the Aurealis Awards for years (which divides all fiction into science fiction, fantasy and horror categories) is that sometimes, those categories just aren’t inclusive enough. If you’re judging science fiction, then there are great stories which can get dismissed because they’re not QUITE science fiction, and lost between the cracks because they’re also not QUITE fantasy, or horror, and maybe the best story of the year might miss out on any recognition at all.
This is particularly an issue in Australia, because in our science-fiction-and-fantasy-and-horror community, many of our best writers are those who don’t QUITE write in the categories. We have Anna Tambour and Deb Biancotti and Peter Ball and Margo Lanagan, and Ben Peek, and Terry Dowling. Never mind works slipping between the cracks of the categories, sometimes all the good stuff is in the cracks. Those damned cracks are overflowing with stories that are only science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, if you look at them sideways.
Speculative fiction is not just science fiction and fantasy and horror and slipstream. It’s also steampunk and alt. history and new weird, and urban fantasy/paranormal romance (however hard many critics or editors try to keep that particular subset out of the clubhouse), and far too many hours have been spent trying to shoehorn that work into the science fiction box, or the fantasy box, or the horror box, when in fact speculative fiction covers them all nicely, like a big, glorious patchwork quilt.
Then there are those stories which Gary brilliantly calls ‘slippage,’ which are only really science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, or slipstream, OR WHATEVER (in a Muppet accent) because of who wrote them, or what they were written next to, not because of the content itself. China Mieville or John Crowley, or Karen Joy Fowler or whoever are already in the clubhouse, and because their work makes more sense within the speculative fiction dialogue than without it (at least to those of us carrying on the conversation).
Speculative fiction is dear to my heart because I’m an inclusionist rather than a reductionist, because I love the crunchy bits around the edges, and because, quite frankly, ‘specfic’ is faster to say than any of the other options. I think speculative fiction is an incredibly useful, essential term. It doesn’t mean we stop talking about science fiction, or fantasy, or steampunk, or slippage, and gnawing back and forth on those terms and what they might mean, or include. But it does mean that we can talk about those things discretely as well as collectively, depending on our needs at the time.
I for one welcome our speculative fiction overlords!