Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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June 2009

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 read.

"Fantasy and science fiction? I don't read those. I like to read more literary fiction."


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 entertaining.

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 provoke thought.

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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