“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 Dictionary.com:
“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.