Monday, March 5, 2012

science fiction, speculative fiction, science fantasy, slipstream fiction...

Patti Abbott on her blog asked the assembled on Sunday, what's the difference between science fiction and speculative fiction? And, having read a story in the anthology of newly-published short fiction Stories edited by Al Sarrantonio and Neil Gaiman, she wondered what was so imaginative about that particular story...Richard Robinson was among those who answered her, and more completely and correctly than anyone else had, and namechecked me for what I might have to say about the matters at hand...

Hard to resist, so:

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Richard, and I agree with you about everything but the uselessness of speculative fiction as a term.

And, Patti: "Oh this genre thing is a slippery slope." Politely, I'll respond, No kidding. That's where the useless pigeonholing starts. Because, yes I'll say it again, nothing escapes genre.

So, if we go back to where the label "speculative fiction" comes from (as I hope the WSJ article [Lorin Eaton cited earlier in comments] managed to trace), Robert Heinlein suggested it as a less-misleading alternative to "science fiction" in the 1940s, but he didn't push it too hard; Judith Merril, as an anthologist beginning in the latter 1950s, picked it up to use it the way Lloyd suggests above, as a catch-all for fantasticated fiction of all sorts, since what she had been using for that purpose, "science-fantasy," had an already established, more specific meaning that might be applied to fiction that mixed elements of sf and fantasy, such as much of the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance or (Ms.) C. L. Moore. So speculative fiction ruled OK for Merril, who was also very interested in the expansion of idiom for sf and fantasy writing, embracing the innovations and avant-garde approaches of some of the folks writing for FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASTIC, AMAZING, to some extent the GALAXY group magazines, and in Britain NEW WORLDS and SCIENCE FANTASY magazines in the early '60s, and coming to a head particularly in NEW WORLDS and SCIENCE FANTASY (then renamed IMPULSE) in the later ' the "snobbish" appeal of "speculative fiction" arose people who were trying to break new ground in sf, particularly, were prone to embrace the label (hard science or no hard science didn't really enter into it, as such work as John Brunner's from this period was often both "hard" scientifically and stylistically untraditional, even though the most stereotypically technological magazine in the field, ANALOG, was also the bulwark Against such attempts to move away from the plain tale plainly told, while also if rarely featuring a little of this--ANALOG had been, under the old title ASTOUNDING, the prime mover in getting such literary ambition started in the late 1930s and 1940s, after all).

So, speculative fiction is a vague term that can mean what you want to mean, but perhaps most usefully describes all of fantastic fiction, from fables to surfiction to metafiction and very much including sf and fantasy. Science fiction (about what is possible, though not under current understandings or conditions, but possible with certain theoretically possible changes in place) and fantasy (about what is commonly understood to be impossible, though obviously imaginable, with "magical realism" trying to pretend it isn't fantasy) are sympathetic but relatively distinct approaches.

I haven't yet read my copy of STORIES, but I did read the intro when I bought it, and the ambition there, beyond the hype (any Sarrantonio anthology is going to have a hyperbolic introduction just as any Sarrantonio fiction is going to be at base very goofy), was to present good stories, that might well interest the usual sf and fantasy reader and not necessarily be sf or fantasy.

This leads us to the ridiculously unnecessary, even distorting and remarkably popular term "slipstream," which pretends that sf written by people who likely don't know that ANALOG was once ASTOUNDING, or perhaps even of ANALOG's existence as a magazine at all, can't really be sf, but has to be some hybrid of sf and the (mythical) mainstream of know all that stuff that isn't sf, or isn't sf or mystery or romance, except when it is, as defined by shelves at a B&N (since Borders is gone, there is no more western nor horror "genre"s, of course, because B&N doesn't segregate those out of "fiction" as Borders used to).

4:55 PM
Blogger Todd Mason said...

Yeah, having now skimmed the Tom Shippey article, he's definitely drunk the "slipstream" Kool-Aid. What bullshit. Particularly as Atwood and others such as Kurt Vonnegut definitely did read the "insider" sf and were inspired by it, and have contributed to it on occasion, and in those two cases particularly were hoping not to lose too much audience of foolish snobs because of their interest in it. (Of course, that just inspires the foolish snobs among sf "insiders" to dismiss their work.)

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