Written by Irina Mugford
The overly simplistic definitions claimed that speculative fiction is simply a mix of science fiction, horror and fantasy, which to me seems odd. If it’s a mix of three very clearly defined genres, then do we really need a new term for it? The elitist definitions, on the other hand, claimed that all science fiction that is not about “talking squids in space,” as Margaret Atwood once put it, is actually speculative fiction. I’ll return to that quote in a minute, but this definition makes even less sense to me.
This all got me thinking about the term itself. In his book On Writing Stephen King asserts that every story starts with a “what if?” question. What if the aliens invaded Earth? What if we started making teenagers battle it out every year in an arena? This makes all fiction sound essentially speculative. Yes, even high fantasy - what if there was a hobbit that lived in... You get the point.
But if all fiction is speculative, then really no fiction is speculative - we don’t need another term for it. Then where did this word even come from?
And what about the squids?
In the science fiction community, we’re perfectly happy differentiating between “hard sci-fi” (think Solaris) and “soft sci-fi” (think Fahrenheit 451). I know we’re all guilty of this: when someone asks for an example of sci-fi, we go for the softer ones as it’s considered easier for non-geeks to process character-centric works. And this is fine, because it's still sci-fi, whether there are talking squids in space or not. On a side-note: if you feel ashamed to admit to reading Solaris then you read it all wrong.
It’s when the community feels somehow ashamed of the fact that both of these are in fact science fiction types that it gets frustrating and downright aggressive in my eyes. The science fiction icon and legend Margaret Atwood claiming that she doesn’t write science fiction because she has no “talking squids in space” on BBC is odd. Trying to distance herself from the clichés used among mainstream media for the genre, she comes up with this “speculative fiction” term, that is, according to her, basically more realistic and probable than sci-fi. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the community - represented by the great Ursula Le Guin - to disagree, claiming that this an “arbitrarily restrictive definition”. Despite the fact that I’m a fan of both these amazing writers, I have to side with Le Guin here: talking squids is not what science fiction is all about, so distancing yourself from it in an attempt to be more “literary fiction” is far from necessary.
It is much further into my research that I discovered a definition of speculative fiction where the only difference from other literary fiction is the unwillingness to mimic reality 100%. It is the addition of elements otherwise non-existent or different in an attempt to present a new, fresh look at something that perhaps exists in the real world. This covers all kinds of science fiction, but also all the various sub-genres of fantasy and horror. So instead of being a mix of all, it is an umbrella term for all of this, as opposed to “mimetic” fiction which does not add any additional elements to the existing reality. This is something that I can get behind: speculative fiction encompassing both pulp science-fiction with the squids and realistic works set in near-future on Earth that are more character-driven.
In the end, opinions still diverge and people seem to come up with their own definitions for speculative fiction, and that’s fine. If in order to feel good about reading The Handmaid’s Tale you have to be convinced that it’s not science fiction, then please do so, as long as it makes you read even more of that wonderful non-sci-fi stuff. I will hold on to the belief that gradually the stigma that science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres bear will fade into history, as more and more works will become mainstream and be seen for their brilliance.
In the meantime, a message to those of us already in the community: please let’s stop trying to prevent the legitimisation of science fiction. We don’t need a new name for it only to escape the stigma - it’s already happening. If we’re set on using this new fancy term, then let’s use it as a clearly defined genre, encompassing all that we love. I think it’s time to say, “Yes, we do talking squids in space sometimes. But if those squids and their tentacles serve to deliver important social commentary and make us think just a little, is that really so bad?".