All Stories Are Speculative Fictions: An Inquisitive Supposition

Storytelling is clearly an extremely important function of societies, but it’s nonetheless unproven that to be human is to be a storytelling being. Even if it is the case that human beings are completely intrinsically storytelling animals, it doesn’t follow that that’s something to celebrate, any more than we should celebrate the fact that human beings are defecating animals.” – China Miéville

“The term “speculative fiction”, like most genre names, does not have a clear-cut or universally agreed-upon definition.” – from The Handmaid’s Tale Study Guide

“When you’ve come across a story or movie or game that both is and isn’t science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror, then you’ve discovered speculative fiction” – N.E. Lilly

I have been reading about and pondering the idea of “story” this past week, and as Paul Jessup has pointed out, there has been a conversation of sorts going on about it across the Internet. A lot of this conversation is taking place within the fantastic field of literary production, between writers and readers, bloggers and twitterers, all asserting their notions of what makes a good “story” within the realm of, well, pick your designation. My term of choice is fantastika, which is problematic in some respects, but within the broader realm of fantastic literatures, there is, as there almost always is, debate and critique about just what the heck we’re writing about, and how we choose to write it.

As I absorbed all of these ideas, a strange thought struck me, and in this column I want to examine it more closely and see if it has any merit. As I read about technique and context and craft and protocols (digging into my collection of criticism as well), I thought to myself “Isn’t the disjuncture here that all stories are in a sense speculative fiction?” I was not specifically reading much about the notion of speculative fiction, but as that idea presented itself, I saw a supposition forming that seemed useful to engage and take apart. My contention, for the purposes of this column, is this thought: “all stories are speculative fiction, and what speculative fiction invokes is a quality of the idea of story.” This covers both what that means for the idea of speculative fiction, and for the idea of story itself.

What made the term “speculative fiction” pop into my head was the fact that, like some other labels such as science fiction, it specifically refers to fiction. This may be because using just the term speculative (or the noun form “speculation,” which is “the contemplation or consideration of some subject”) might be too confusing: it’s primary meaning of “pertaining to, of the nature of, or characterized by speculation, contemplation, conjecture, or abstract reasoning” is quite broad and needs to be specified in its application. Even when combined with the noun “fiction” to concretize it, the label has a wide range of references, which the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction entry for “speculative fiction” makes clear, as does its definition and use by other observers.

The term has a history that goes back at least tentatively to the late 19th-century, but came into fuller usage in stages, in the late 1940s, then the 1970s, and today is a term preferred by many professionals and fans in the field. Robert A. Heinlein may be its most famous discussant, coining its classical usage as a variation of science fiction. But others such as Judith A. Merrill and Samuel Delany also picked the term up (although Delany acknowledged the problem of its usage) and it soon became used for a variety of purposes, from edifying a subset of SF to being an umbrella term that extended back to the works of Euripides and forward to modern mystery novels.

There has been some stabilization of the term in recent decades. Here are the two main definitions from

“Speculative fiction (n): a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements”

“a term for science fiction or fantasy fiction distinguishing this genre from pulp, comics, superhero science fiction.”

These definitions are more basic than those from Brave new Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, but they demonstrate the two most common uses of the term: to create a broad category that encompasses what the speaker or writer wants it to encompass and infuses that category with new meaning, or to delineate a certain style of fiction as being more valuable and prestigious than more base genre fiction. “Speculative Fiction” is a label that performs several related tasks: it establishes an identity with a “highly imaginative” genre, it presumes a forward-looking or progressive perspective, and it situates a given text as being neither “merely’ SF, Fantasy or [Insert Genre Designation Here]; nor simply a pulpy, escapist tale.

The point of this brief exegesis is that the conjoined terms “speculative’ and “fiction” have been used to create a meaning that borrows a bit from the former term to bring together an array of literary productions. What struck me, however, was the realization that if we took both terms at their essential meanings, all stories are a form of speculative fiction. All stories are made-up tales (some using facts, others not, some sticking close to a recorded progression of events, others not) that look forward, whether in the re-presentation or reinterpretation of past events or knowledge, or in the invention of new situations and characters. The specific limiting to fantastika (or certain varietals of that particular umbrella term) is more an effect of usage, a narrowing of the idea of “speculative” that apparently seeks to push aside the fact that any story is on some level a work of ordered contemplation of something that is not.

I am not just arguing, however, that individual stories are a sort of speculative fiction, nor I am asserting that ‘speculative fiction” is an erroneously-employed term (although I do think that it is more problematic than some others). I am hypothesizing that it has arisen as a useful term for some observers because of its combination of flexibility and its particular interpretability that is an effect of its linkage between a generalizing adjective and a glossed-over noun. I believe that the term also finds utility because the idea of story itself is a speculative fiction, formed in assumption before a word is written or read on the page.

All stories involve fantasizing about “what if;” narrative framing is a speculative act of cognition. Stories of all sorts are a conjecture, an act of making sense of what we apprehend by organizing symbols and experiences into a culturally-coherent and absorbable text. The idea of story itself, as Miéville noted, is one shaped by culture, and the story-form that is overwhelmingly employed in (at least) English-speaking societies is very particular, if also to an extent modular. To speculate is to create a intentional view of something, not just from the standpoint of the writer, but of the reader as well. The very framing of communication into a story is the rendering of observations and conjectures into a particular discursive shape, into the very essence of the words “speculative fiction.”

Consider Ursula Le Guin’s point:

“‘A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end:’ This comes from Aristotle, and it splendidly describes a great many stories from the European narrative tradition, but it doesn’t describe all stories. . . . It implies process or progress in time: begin, proceed, end.”

And then this observation from Nick Mamatas, talking about the same idea but from Freytag:

“It’s a great little structure. I use it, I teach it. We’ve been so thoroughly exposed to it in what we’ve read and watched for all our lives we almost confuse it for what comes naturally. But nothing comes naturally. Freytag’s triangle is an invention, not a discovery. (And Aristotle didn’t discover anything either; he issued a prescription.) However it is an invention that has become hegemony and hegemony always contains the potential for tyranny.”

Nick Mamatas’ invocation of hegemony is important here, because it foregrounds the fact that our conception of story arises from social, cultural, intellectual, artistic, and political factors, from meta-ideological issues to interpersonal ones. He is making a very pointed argument that our idea of what constitutes a “good story” is not value-free, or perhaps not capable of being agreed to without ceding something else of value. This is not just some convenient consensus; hegemony is a systemic tendency that establishes the dominance of ideas to reinforce social norms, relations, and structures. The idea of story is, as both Le Guin and Mamatas assert, rigid in its conception, partly because it is at its core an idea of speculative fiction.

Not all stories are “Speculative Fiction,” but they are speculative fictions, molded conceptions generally formulated according to the idea that a story must tell us particular things, in certain ways, within a selective framework. I am not saying that all stories are fantastika (there are other ways to think about those sorts of distinctions), but that most speculate as a function of their composition, and that this may be a limiting factor. There are exceptions, but most arise from that hegemonic formation of Aristotle’s. A story is a link from the past, from one person’s now to another’s, and establishes that connection by projecting its ideas and details forward. We cannot just critique the narrative or the genre, but take the very idea of story apart and figure out what other ways there are to reproduce our understandings and insights, and discover what else can they be.

7 thoughts on “All Stories Are Speculative Fictions: An Inquisitive Supposition”

  1. peculative fiction is a term that Robert Heinlein and some of his buddies came up with to refer to science fiction and only science fiction. It then was attempted by various people to be used as a nicer, less scary, more prestigious word for SFFH, to be free of the ghetto reputation of category markets, largely unsuccessfully until this last decade, when its meaning has been translated into everything from “all fiction” to Atwood’s absurd insistence that it means near future science fiction and that science fiction only means far future science fiction.

    Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are identifier categories — loose, large groups of stories that have particular elements — non-real science-based elements for SF, non-real, supernatural fantastic elements for fantasy and elements meant to be scary, often being SFF elements, for horror, just as mysteries have mysteries in them, thrillers have dangerous situations in them, and romances are about a romance. These categories are used by publishers and booksellers for bookselling to try to help readers find books they might like. In some cases, there is enough of a wide, reliable audience to set up adjunct, category markets with extra shelf space and this allows for more authors to be waved more efficiently at interested readers, supplied mostly by publishers who are concentrating on those loose categories. Other books in the exact same categories are sold by general fiction publishers in the general fiction market. For publishers, there is no real distinction — an author might be moved from a SFFH imprint to a general fiction one and vice versa. A category section may be removed or added in a bookstore as extra shelf space. And yet, people continually try to insist that there must be some sort of narrative reason why a book with SFFH elements isn’t restricted to the category sections, a refusal to believe that restrictions don’t actually exist, particularly resistent in North America where category markets and sections are most used in bookselling.

    N.E. Lilly’s quote: “When you’ve come across a story or movie or game that both is and isn’t science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror, then you’ve discovered speculative fiction.” is trying to do two things. One is float the erroneous but much loved idea that stories that have category identifiers — science fiction, fantasy, horror, not only have the descriptive elements, but must consist of specific plots, characters, themes, writing styles, settings, etc. that rigidly must be there for a book with science fiction elements to be called science fiction, and if they aren’t there, well then we have to call it some term meaning not-science fiction science fiction. The other is the idea that movie and game storytelling are just like written stories, are sold the same way, which they are not, and so that anything you’re talking about with SFFH movies, t.v. shows and games applies automatically to written fiction.

    I don’t actually have a problem with the word speculative being in the mix and being used as an umbrella term not only for SFFH but written SFFH, movies, comics, shows, plays, games, etc. (Or even the word fantastika used in that way, though many science fiction fans are not comfortable with it.) But this notion that a story can opt out of being a type of story because it does not adhere rigidly to some imagined code of storytelling, of not-science fiction science fiction, not-fantasy fantasy, etc., is a sort of defiant tautology that is pretty much useless in discussing fiction. A fantasy story with fantastic elements that happens to include science fiction elements is still fantasy. A science fiction story that concerns itself with telepathic aliens instead of rocket ships and nanotech is still a science fiction story, not a fantasy one, not some alternate term from other science fiction stories. And in being science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, an author is not restricted in terms of plot, story structure or writing style. It just means that the author chose to write about certain elements for that story.

  2. I think KatG has written a definitive comment as far as I am concerned. I do not want speculative fiction to be used for the Magic Realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the short stories of O’Henry .That is too broad for me. If I can use recent collections by Jonathan Strahan for my definitions. His collection “Engineering Infinity” is mostly science fiction. His “Eclipse Four” collection is mostly speculative fiction. I bought the former and obtained the latter from the library. For me it is not about one form being superior but only I enjoy one form more. And the O’Henry collections I enjoy a lot less.

  3. As always, interesting, John.

    Have you listened to the latest Coode St. Podcast? Jonathan and Gary made an interesting point in the last one–what different societies (and other times in history) might consider different things “Fantastic”, or to use your parlance “Speculative Fiction/Fantastika”. If a society believes magic is real, a piece of fiction with  that sort of magic in it is NOT fantasy by their lights, is it?

  4. @KatG: I agree; I especially love the idea of a “defiant tautology.” I think categorization is often fraught with ambivalence and contradiction, as you note. I included the quotation from Lilly precisely because it muddies the waters, which is part of my point.  I do note, however, that these identifier categories are not just a top-down scheme from publishers, but arise from readers as well. Publishers and bookstores try to attract, organize and channel consumer choices with these categories, but people also use them to discuss stories. 

    I’m curious about your contention that “[f]or publishers, there is no real distinction” between categories, and that by extension category “restrictions” are so artificial as to be meaningless (if I am reading that wrong, please tell me). I agree that labels are problematic, but at the same time, I’m not sure I agree that the level of artificiality is that high. Writer andreader intentions and protocols do exist and shape both the production of texts and their reception. 

    @Honey: Are you sure that O.Henry isn’t slipstream? :-) I agree that “Speculative Fiction” is a poor term for his work and Marquez’s, but as Ian notes, they are certainly exemplative of what I’m t alking about.

    @Ian: thanks for pointing that out. Obviously I not only agree but toast your foresight :-).

    @Paul: I have not heard it yet, but I hope to soon. I agree with Mr. Wolfe that these are indeed categories that are a product of their moment, and I am becoming more and more fascinated with observing their use and evolution (which he talks about in his book Evaporating Genres).

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