Spec Fic, Sci-Fi, and Other Ambiguous Terms

"Speculative fiction" is hard to define, mostly because nobody agrees on the meaning. Broadly, there are two useful definitions, but to understand them, we have to take a brief (BRIEF!) look at the history of science fiction.

1. About 100 years ago, people called science fiction a thing.
2. About 80 years ago, sci-fi hit what's considered it's "Golden Age."
3. About 60 years ago, a LOT of people were writing sci-fi. Not all of it was good.

(Told you it was brief.)

It was around this time that Robert Heinlein coined the term speculative fiction, and gave it its first definition:

speculative fiction: (n) 1. Fiction that has science-fictional elements, but is not science fiction.

Here's what happened. When sci-fi got big, it also got stereotyped. It became seen as cheap entertainment for the masses. "Genre" fiction as opposed to "real" fiction. Critics treated it as subpar literature, even though (and I love this quote from Peter Watts) "The same critics who roll their eyes at aliens and warp drive don't seem to have any problems with a woman ascending into heaven while hanging laundry in One Hundred Years of Solitude, just so long as Gabriel Garcia Marquez doesn't get published by Tor or Del Ray."

Ever since then, a lot of sci-fi authors -- like Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, and Margaret Atwood -- have tried to distance themselves from the sci-fi label. They often use the term speculative fiction to do this.

But it's not a very useful definition. For one thing, it defines itself by what it is NOT, which is silly.

But also, it's arrogant. It tries to define speculative fiction as "science fiction, but good." It's an offense to Herbert, LeGuin, Asimov, Card, and thousands of other genuinely good sci-fi authors who weren't afraid of the term.

I think people realized this, but the term has stayed in use. But to most people, it now mostly means this:

speculative fiction: (n) 2. An umbrella term covering everything from science fiction to fantasy to magical realism.

At first glance, it appears too broad to be useful. Almost like saying spec-fic is any fiction that could not have occurred in the world as we know it.

Two things make this definition useful: (1) fans of sci-fi and fantasy* have a large amount of overlap. (2) A lot of speculative fiction does not fall easily into one of these subcategories.

Speculative fiction gives us a way to talk about works like MiƩville's Perdido Street Station without having to decide whether the fantastical races make it fantasy or the high-tech, steampunk elements make it sci-fi. Or whether Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is fantasy because it feels medieval or sci-fi because it's dystopian and post-apocalyptic.

It is almost too broad a term (which is why I didn't use it in my query), but it's inclusive rather than snobbish, which I much prefer. Instead of saying, "That can't be genre fiction because it's not garbage!" I'd rather say, "Yes, this is genre. Some it is actually GOOD."

* And magical realism and horror, paranormal, dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction, superheros, alternate history, and everything else spec-fic usually covers.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

The human need to label everything makes me cranky sometimes - for the very reason you state: that it's often used so that we can be snobby, not inclusive. But good, inclusive, descriptive labels I'm all about.

Ray Bradbury had to use a pseudonym to submit his short fiction to "real" (read: snobby) lit mags, so they wouldn't realize he was "that guy that wrote science fiction."


(Guess what? They LOVED HIM.)

Matthew MacNish said...

I wasn't aware of the whole history of the term, but I love that quote from Watts. As if magical realism is somehow better, or more scholarly.

Personally, I like the idea of a label that can include both Fantasy and Science-Fiction, because I love them both, but you're absolutely right, they often overlap.

That being said, I do agree with Susan (as I tend to do): it can be sad at times to think about how badly we feel we need to label everything before we can understand it. As a person who really does read all different kinds of books, I dislike that it seems necessary.

Catherine Stine said...

Good post. Another easy way to think about speculative fiction is that it's fiction that speculates on the future.
Catherine Stine’s Idea City

Catherine Stine said...

Good post. Another easy way to think about speculative fiction is that it's fiction that speculates on the future.
Catherine Stine’s Idea City

Steve MC said...

Thanks - I saw that term a while ago and had to go look it up. I mean, doesn't all writing speculate? Heck, I speculated just this morning about what to have for breakfast.

I'm okay with the term, but I'd rather read spectacular fiction, whatever or whenever it's about.

D.G. Hudson said...

I definitely agree.

I was quite annoyed at Atwood's claim that her writing isn't science fiction. That kind of a comment doesn't make me want to read her writing. She also charged what I considered a high price for a ticket (locally) to hear her talk about her writing. Personally I think Herbert, Asimov and a few others suit me better. They are my heroes.

When people start splitting hairs,it's usually to place themselves higher on the pedestal than someone else.

Thanks Adam for this post!

CourtneyC said...

I think of speculative fiction as a restrictive grouping within science fiction. I see it as having science fiction elements, but set here on earth. So, the world-building is at a minimum.

I have a speculative fiction MS, but I'm not billing it that way in my query because I think everyone else sees the category "spec. fic." as an umbrella term that covers *more* than just science fiction, as you stated.