14 May 2006

Speculative fiction: A categorical objection

"Speculative fiction" is a term we have trouble with. All fiction is speculative. It posits a "what if" as its premise. Think of Joyce's Ulysses beginning with an elided conditional "(What if) stately, plump Buck Mulligan..." and the rest of the novel flows as an apodosis. At the beginning of speculation, said Aristotle, lies a feeling of child-like wonder. Good fiction is speculative even in the strictest sense of speculation (from "speculum") as it holds up a mirror to an age, a distorting mirror at times, to be sure. Through this act of seeing, fiction creates worlds with a weird but familiar and believable logic of relevance for the reader. So "speculative fiction" sounds like redundant cant.

Literature like any project or institution in our society seeks to perpetuate and reproduce itself through such "choices." "Speculative fiction" is, however, an industrial (publishing/academic) category. It is a catch-all genre for science fiction, ghost stories, horror, gothic tales, and fantasy and marks it off from other forms of fiction. The question to ask is: when these subcategories are clearer with their own histories why blur them under one grouping? The rise of science fiction as a genre, for example, has its origins in the industrial revolution in Europe and leads to specific utopian or dystopian narrative events. These are quite different in their genesis, traditions, values, outlooks, forms and styles from the tall tales of Baron Munchhausen, from Dante's Inferno, Hesiod's Cosmogony or from More's Utopia. Lumping them all under one rubric as emblematic of the speculative imagination is not useful. On the other hand, Michael Moorcock’s futuristic novels where he assumes an alternative world in which dirigibles, not airplanes, have become the common mode of transport readily qualify as speculative fiction. But why this need to squeeze writing into bottle with labels? Besides, as a writer-friend noted about the spate of dystopian science fiction, is it speculative fiction when much of it is real already?

We can also ask another question: what do these items in this "genre" then do collectively that other forms of fiction don't? The common ground is that "speculative fiction" answers a “what if?” It suspends, inverts or erases the natural order of things in favour of a "magical" narrative where reality is arranged differently, sometimes unrecognizably, but always freighted with more possibilities than the present. Todorov dwells on the literary space where two orders of explanations for events coexist: the natural and the supranatural, or the realistic and the fantastic. But that is true of many works of imagination and where does a hybrid form like magic realism fit in with its own traditions?

The history of modern European literature has had many such speculative writers in this new sense: Gilman, Walpole, Poe, Verne, Voltaire, Stoker, Huxley, Lefanu, Wells, Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Kafka, Ivan Angelo, Calvino, Perutz, Borges, Zamyatin, Voinovich, Dick, Clarke, Lem, Moorcock, Pratchett, et alia. Certainly, Shelley, Poe, Kafka, Calvino, Perutz, Borges and some others can be said to have transcended their genres, whatever that means. Now academies may have overlooked others, assigned some of their stories a lesser value, and maybe this new genre is claiming them as the central figures of its pantheon but will there be cross-overs when the boundaries are made watertight and relativism rules?

There are some new writers to note. Japan has a notable tradition of science-fiction. Encouragingly, writers of colour such as Walter Mosley and Nalo Hopkinson are willing to interpose their new experiential counterpoints into the rather blank discourses of Atwood and Silverberg, Le Guin being the exception. One such stalwart Octavia Butler died recently. They need to be appreciated widely and deeply in the mainstream, more than just as oppositional tokens in a new marginal and manufactured genre.

We leave the junk categories of "creative non-fiction" and the "nonfiction novel" for others to unravel.

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