Sunday, January 31, 2010

Speculating on the Speculative

Last week, there was a post on the Netflow Developments blog titled “Science Fiction as a Tool for Human Survival” in which the writer laments the demise of what might be seen as a more meaningful age in terms of our genre.

“Sci-fi has for a very long time served the purpose of framing current sensitive social and political issues and putting them into a clear perspective without making people feel preached to,” says the writer. “It was a way to get people to think about issues that they normally wouldn’t or didn’t want to think about for various psychological reasons…this has always been the greatest strength of the genre and during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, with the exception of Star Wars and a few other more trivial pieces, the genre as a whole set out to bring a multitude of social issues into the spotlight….Because of this evolution of the genre I feel that we are going to see a clear divide coming down between Sci-fi action flicks such as the last Star Trek, or Avatar and then the sci-fi that attempts to shine light on these dark recesses of our mind that we so conveniently block out such as District 9 or Soylent Green.”

The writer goes on to quote an article by film maker Alex Rivera. Speaking of his debut film Sleep Dealer, Rivera says “I love gnomes and goblins and elves, but what I'm really interested in is speculative fiction. I wanted to use this film to ask the question, ‘Where are we going?’”

The writer of the Netflow Developments blog goes on to suggest that most science fiction today leans in the direction of “eye candy”; going for visual effect, seeking to satisfy “the increasingly shrinking attention span and ever expanding mental laziness of the developed world.” The implication is that some works, which can be categorised as “speculative fiction”, are worthy of our attention, while works of the “eye candy” variety are unworthy and are therefore nothing but “science fiction”.

As a long-time lover of “science fiction” I resent this. The term “speculative fiction” has been in use for many decades — in fact, the earliest citation by Wikipedia dates from 1889! It has become a reasonably well-accepted umbrella term to cover all the speculative genres, which certainly include science fiction, fantasy and horror and can be stretched to encompass, for example, alternative history and magical realism and possibly more.

For isn’t all fiction, by its very nature, speculative? What is the difference between writing a story set in an imaginary town on Earth called Smithville, with a trio of characters called Amber, Jason and Brett, and one set on another planet with characters called Ambyria, Jasek and Bremet? Both stories would be, basically, packs of lies that set out, first and foremost to entertain the reader. And if they are worth reading, they will also explore such questions as Rivera’s "Where are we going?" For if a story does its job well, it will be a pack of lies that points the finger at an eternal truth.

I want and expect any book I read or film I see to examine some aspect of what it means to be human. If it doesn’t do this, it will not grab me, and, I suspect, it will not grab many other readers or viewers, either. The only question is “To what depths of investigating humanity’s essence does this story go?”

For this exploration of the human condition can be very deep indeed, or it can skate over the surface, even make us laugh. The difference between Star Trek and Soylent Green is purely one of degree. Both make us look at the eternal question of good and evil: Star Trek does it by entertaining us; Soylent Green does it by shocking us. I would suggest that all the arts are capable of doing both, and that the speculative genres can do it better than most through the use of allegory, symbol and metaphor. There is nothing inherently wrong in seeking to entertain first and provoke thought second, and to highjack the term “speculative fiction” and use it only to refer to those works that set out to grab the reader by the throat and shake her into considering the deeper meaning behind the story and characters is to do a gross injustice to those works that choose to instruct through laughter, sympathetic response and archetypal stories and characters — and yes, eye candy. The difference is only one of degree, and who can say where “science fiction” ends and “speculative fiction” starts?

Some people have tried — Margaret Atwood, for one — but to the average reader or viewer such distinctions are nothing but hair-splitting. If a story deals with things that do not exist or have not happened, as far as we know, at any time in human history, it is speculation. It asks what if… and, if it does its job properly, it leads us, in exploring that question, to consider some aspect of ourselves and the world and our place in it.

I am indebted* to Robert Hoge for raising the similarity between the arguments of Alex Rivera and Margaret Atwood. Both have tried to belittle science fiction: Atwood is on record as describing it as "talking squids in outer space." Fortunately Atwood has modified her stance in recent years: in an interview for The Guardian in 2005 she admitted that “science fictional narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot”.

Bravo, Ms Atwood. Now, will someone please explain it to Mr Rivera and the writer over at Netflow Developments?

*I am also indebted to Paul Mannering for first drawing the attention of members of the Vision writers list to this discussion.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Satima. I agree. Science fiction does have an edge over realistic fiction for the unique way it is able to explore certain themes. I also think that regardless of whether people want want to call it sci-fi, sf, spec fic, science fiction or eye candy (which are all variations of the same thing) it not only asks "what if the future is like this" it also tells us a lot about ourselves as we are in the present by focussing on our hopes and fears regarding that "what if". So even though it looks like it's about the future, it's also about the present. I see this in "eye candy" like Star Trek, for the way it projects white, middle-class ideals into the future and "District Nine" for the way it explores racial issues and governments and corporations.

  2. I've always hated the term "speculative fiction", because, as you suggest, it can cover such a broad range of often very different material that it just about becomes meaningless, imho. Me, I'm a science fiction guy, through and through. And it's *science fiction* or *sf*, never sci-fi. I always told myself that if I ever ran into Forrest Ackerman, the US uber-fan who coined the expression in the 50s (to with the then-current thing for "hi-fi"), I'd give him a piece of my mind, for making an intelligent body of work sound stupid and lame.

    Then, in 2004, at the Boston Worldcon, I did meet him. He was very elderly indeed, infirm, in a wheelchair, being pushed around the Dealers Room by a carer. I said, "g'day Mr Ackerman, nice to meet you." We talked about his fabulous collection of memorabilia. The subject of that bloody "sci-fi" appelation never came up. You don't want to go round kicking poor old blokes.