Periscope Depth

your circuit’s dead; there’s someting wrong

Ferrett, whom I respect as a writer*, has an interesting post up about the term “speculative fiction.” He takes it to task for being “a bloodless nothing of a phrase that encompasses everything and yet evokes nothing.”

Speculative Fiction is, well, accurate as far as it goes. We speculate about things that break (or at least bend) the known laws of physics, one way or the other. (Unless you’re one of those hard-core Peter Watts-style SF writers, in which case you may well be getting e-mails from the future.) So we do that.

But does it evoke anything? Shit, reducing the wealth and breadth of everything we cool people write to “Speculative Fiction” is like looking at a jar of jellybeans and calling it “A container for spectrum-varietal confectionary goods.” Our world of fiction is so filled with mind-blowing concepts, from the realms of aliens to magic spells to dripping horrors to unicorns on candy mountain – and you’re telling me the best the greatest minds in all of our kind of writing could come with is “Speculative Fiction”?!!

First up, I have to concede that the above is true. “Speculative fiction” is a dry, uninteresting phrase. But I contend that’s all to the good.

For its first fifty years or so, fantastic fiction (the term “speculative fiction” is meant to replace) was of one of two types:

  • Pr0n for engineers; or

  • Fascism with wizards

And that was really it. Scholars of the genre can find the occasional exception, I’m sure, but those exceptions won’t try the rule.

Consider Asimov’s robot stories – his most famous short fiction, his biggest contribution to the young genre and where he made his money. Asimov’s robot stories typically involved two or four engineers, whose names were so white-bread that I can’t distinguish between them**, and a troublemaking robot. But how can a robot make trouble, when its brain is stamped with the Three Laws? What followed were four to six thousand words of cleverly written puzzle-solving. Our heroes triumphed over the tricky machine and the story ends on an up note.

Consider Howard’s Conan stories – his most famous short fiction, his biggest contribution to the young genre, and where he made his money. My friend Auston (also a writer I respect) noted that Conan was thrust into a wide variety of problems, often involving naked women, but could invariably solve them because of these two rules:

1. Conan has a sword.
2. Conan is immune to snakes.

Those rules were never violated. If Conan needed to have a sword, he would find a sword. If Conan were attacked with giant snakes, they could not kill him. And to coin a phrase, when all you have is a sword, every problem looks like a giant snake.

It wasn’t until the Sixties, the New Wave, and writers like Bester, Zelazny, Dick and Moorcock that the genre became known for its ideas. After that, you could expect sci-fi / fantasy stories that weren’t just about problem solving (“how do we stop the Earth from crashing into the sun?” “how do we stop these orcs from invading our kingdom?”) but about characters. The New Wave discovered that sci-fi and fantasy had one advantage over conventional fiction: you could throw characters into impossible situations. Doing this gave writers a lot of creative opportunities to explore the psyche, relationships and drama.

The impact of the New Wave has been profound. And it’s been almost entirely good. But it hasn’t been total.

The influence of Asimov, Howard and their like was so pervasive that you find the genre tropes they lay down still present sixty years later. The weakest parts of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War are the parts where he apes Heinlein. You can’t really sink into Stross’s Singularity Sky or Accelerando without knowing what “perihelion,” “utility fog” or “lossy transmission” mean. And fantasy novels without evil races or triumph by sword thrust are as rare as, well, the ncient blood that the prophesied hero bears in his veins.

There is still a lot of science fiction which is about the science first, the fiction second. There is still a lot of fantasy that exists solely to fantasize.

The reason the term “speculative fiction” needs to exist – or a more colorful term that means the same – is to describe stories that fit in the futuristic / fantastic genre but are not sci-fi or fantasy. Stories like The Handmaid’s Tale or Slaughterhouse-Five or Brave New World or Infinite Jest or Never Let Me Go. In these stories, the fantastic elements are essential to the setting but not the plot. A sci-fi version of The Handmaid’s Tale would end with our heroine toppling the oppressive government; a sci-fi version of Infinite Jest would present a definitive, grounded explanation of “The Entertainment.”

All of those would be called sci-fi, except for the connotations inherent to the term. Oh, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t sci-fi, Atwood insists. It’s not engineering pr0n. And I can’t argue with her.

I’m not saying sci-fi and fantasy can’t be literary. Consider Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun, or Frank Herbert’s Dune, or Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, or any of a handful of others. These are stories in which fantastic considerations are far more essential to the plot: you couldn’t tell Dune, a story of the human race transcending the destiny of resource wars, without prescience. Purely fantastic and highly literary.

But for those novels in which the fantastic only lines the setting, rather than enabling the plot, we need a different phrase. And for that, “speculative fiction” will have to do. Either that, or we need to stop reading engineering pr0n.

* Folks who know me will recognize that as a compliment, not a euphemism; I respect almost no one as a writer.

** There was one named “Donovan.” I remember that much.