Speculating on Fiction's Name
by David B. Coe
Recently I was on a panel at a convention with several other writers, fielding
questions from the audience. One question, which generated a good deal of
discussion, went something like this: "Why are fantasy and science fiction
grouped together in bookstores and spoken of as if they're basically the same
thing, when clearly they're not?"
One can challenge the assumptions behind the question. One can argue that
fantasy and science fiction are essentially the same thing, or one can say that in this
day and age they are no longer lumped together as a single genre. But I believe
that the question has merit.
I also believe that fantasy and science fiction do belong together.
It's easy to catalog the differences between fantasy and science fiction. One of
them is backward looking, while the other ventures into possible futures. One
plays with different forms of magic, while the other relies on science -- at times
science that is advanced and complex. One of them tells stories about wizards or
elves or faeries, while the other concerns itself with spaceships and lasers.
I'm reminded of the old George Carlin routine in which baseball is compared to
football: one is played in a park, its players wearing caps and running home; the
other is played on a gridiron, its players wearing helmets and attempting to
penetrate enemy territory to reach the end zone. Clearly fantasy is baseball;
science fiction is football.
But comedy routines aside, the two genres have far more in common than I've
allowed thus far. In Australia, where I lived and wrote for the better part of a year,
the two, along with horror and other related subgenres, are referred to collectively
under the heading "Speculative Fiction." It's a term that has fallen out of favor in
recent years in the U.S., and I find myself wondering why.
The "Fiction" part is self-explanatory. But what about that first word:
"Speculative." According to Merriam Webster's, it's an adjective meaning
"theoretical rather than demonstrable" and "marked by questioning curiosity."
In other words, "Speculative" accounts for those magical words we writers of
fantasy and science fiction rely on so often: "What if?"
"What if there was this really powerful ring . . .?" "What if a family of nobles was
forced to move to a desert planet with giant, spice-producing worms . . .?" "What
if an extraordinary young boy was Earth's last hope in its battle with a race of
preternaturally intelligent alien insects . . .?"
Speculative Fiction challenges us. It forces us to look beyond our own mundane
world and imagine the extraordinary. It introduces us to perfectly normal people
and then throws them into circumstances that we never thought to imagine. And
it's nothing new in the literary world.
William Shakespeare dabbled in fantasy with The Tempest and A Midsummer
Night's Dream. Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror and dark fantasy more than a
century before it occurred to booksellers to market them as such. Also in the
nineteenth century, Edward Bellamy and Mark Twain experimented with science
fiction in Looking Backward and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Writers have been asking "What if?" and speculating beyond the bounds of what is
"real" for centuries, without giving much thought to what the results might do to
the layout of their favorite bookstore.
But, you might ask, does that mean we should group the works of Shakespeare and
Poe and Bellamy under a single literary heading?
The answer, of course, is no. And yes.
Labels like "fantasy" and "horror" and "science fiction" can be handy when
navigating the corridors of a bookstore. But they can also be used to denigrate
certain types of fiction while elevating others. One reason why fantasy and science
fiction are often lumped together is that for some people the genre label offers a
convenient way to dismiss entire categories of storytelling as unworthy of being
"Fantasy and science fiction? I don't read those. I like to read more literary
At times like these, it's helpful to have Shakespeare, Poe, and Twain on our side.
Yet even as Speculative Fiction makes us look beyond the confines of our world, it
also turns back to examine the assumptions that lay at the core of our society. It
doesn't ask "What if . . .?" merely for plot ideas. It asks because the question is
imbedded in the very being of the genre. At their best, the works of fantasy,
science fiction, and horror, that delight and entertain us also force us to think, to
open our minds to new possibilities. By bending reality to fit new worlds, authors
of Speculative Fiction force us to question the norms of our old world, be they in
matters of race or sexual identity, religion or ecology, politics or culture. Their
books may be works of fiction, but they speculate on matters of undeniable weight.
Consider, for instance, the work of the late Octavia Butler, whose novels and short
stories, most notably Kindred (1979), explored questions of race and slavery with
stark and unsettling stories. Yes, she could have taken on these subjects in other
genres; not in the same manner, of course, but surely with equal impact. Yet,
perhaps because she wrote Speculative Fiction, and so was not thought of strictly
as an author of African-American literature, Butler also wrote books addressing
issues of sexuality, religion, and social class. And she made them incredibly
Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree, Jr., published short stories and novels that
have become legendary for breaking down gender barriers and forcing readers to
rethink assumptions about how the works of male and female writers should read.
But like Butler, Tiptree/Sheldon wrote Speculative Fiction that ranged far beyond
sexuality and gender identity. Even Walter Mosely, who is best known for his
"Easy Rawlins Mysteries," has experimented with science fiction in books like
Blue Light (1998) and The Wave (2005), perhaps because Speculative Fiction
offers him an opportunity to look at race in innovative ways. As Mosely wrote in
Blue Light, "The written word is where we can all come together . . . Words are
thoughts, and thoughts are dreams, and dreams are the dawn of change."
Speculative Fiction lets us dream -- dream of what will be, dream of what could
be, dark dream of what must never be.
Ultimately, those who would question whether fantasy and science fiction ought to
be grouped together, be it on the physical shelves of a bookstore or library, or in
the intellectual space known as Speculative Fiction, make the same mistake as
those who would dismiss both genres entirely. They forget that in the end the
books we love are about people. They may be set in different worlds or different
times; they may introduce us to fanciful systems of magic or as-yet-undiscovered
technologies; they may even use as protagonists "people" who aren't human. But
like all works of fiction, they succeed or fail on narrative flow and the development
of compelling characters. They draw upon universal themes: good and evil, love
and betrayal, freedom and sacrifice. They entertain. They arouse emotion and
Speculative Fiction in all its forms can present us with dystopian visions of our
past or utopian dreams of our future, or it can do the opposite. But it will always
challenge our assumptions; it will always remove us from the world we inhabit so
that we might turn our mind's eye back on that world and look at it in a new way.
Critics can dismiss the genre by calling our books "fairy tales for grown-ups" or
"escapism," but surely that can't be reason enough to deny the links that exist
among fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Fairy-tales for grown-ups? Actually,
that doesn't sound so bad to me. Escapism? Close-mindedness holds us down like
gravity; if these books I love can get my mind to the escape velocity necessary to
break free, then that's all the more reason to embrace them, and hold on tight.
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