Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy

In a recent review, Margaret Atwood reiterated her idea that she doesn't write "science fiction," but speculative fiction. The reviewer states that "she prefers 'speculative fiction.' If we have to have a label, that’s a better one, since part of Atwood’s mastery as a writer is to use herself as a creative computer, modeling possible futures projected from the available data — in human terms, where we are now."

Far be it from me to dispute such a long-standing SF luminary as Margaret Atwood, but in this case, she and the Times reviewer seem to be operating on an odd definition of "science fiction."

"Science Fiction" is one category under the umbrella of speculative fiction. The other major strain is fantasy. A third, less common, is alternate history. Broadly speaking, alternate history is fiction in which a fact of known history has been changed, and the speculation is about how that would change the present, and what the implications are. Fantasy supposes a change in natural law--a magical environment. Science fiction supposes a change in science and technology, and speculates on what that would mean. In other words, if a wizard creates a race of elves, it's fantasy. If a scientist creates a genetically modified species of human, it's science fiction. Ms. Atwood's latest book is the latter.

Now, the categories within speculative fiction overlap frequently. It's a very fluid genre. One or another usually emerges as the dominant form, but there's a lot of freedom inside the genre. An alternate history might be based on a technological change or a magical one (Kenneth Oppel's Airborn is a good example of an alternate history with different technology). A fantasy world with an advanced technology might be done. And there's no special reason an elf can't pilot a starship, though (unless you call him a Vulcan and suppose a different planet of origin) it would be hard to market to the science fiction fan base, which draws a hard line on fantasy elements entering science fiction.

There is not, however, a hard line about the time in which science fiction might be set, or what sorts of science might be the "guinea pigs" for the alteration or development. Any decent science fiction will involve "using [one]self as a creative computer, modeling possible futures projected from the available data — in human terms, where we are now." That, in fact, is a fairly succinct definition of the genre.

Is there a gosh-wow segment of science fiction? Sure, and it's as valid as the Sword and Sorcery segment of fantasy (for those not used to speculative fiction, there are quite a lot of sub-categories inside of each of the major ones--sword and sorcery, dystopian, utopian, etc). But it's certainly not the definition of science fiction. Isaac Asimov's Foundation--a, well, foundational book in the genre--is largely based on, of all things, political science. Orson Scott Card's Ender books use psychometrics and genetics, as well as sociology. Brian Aldiss's Helliconia trilogy deals with the impact of climate on societies in a binary star system. The list goes on. There's almost no scientific concept that can't be tweaked for science fiction. Ms. Atwood chose genetic manipulation. Excellent. And the branch of speculative fiction into which that falls is... science fiction.

Instead of saying "This isn't science fiction, it's good literature!", why not say, "Look! Science fiction is good literature!"?

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