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Khánh Hmoong

Getting under the skin of speculative fiction, science fiction and scientific romance

Science fiction has always been a genre defined ad hoc. The term first appeared in American inter-war “pulp fiction” magazines (so-called for the quality of their paper rather than their writing). But what of “speculative fiction”? And “scientific romance”? How do these terms, and genres, with a shared history and future, interract?

Pulp fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback coined the word “scientifiction” in 1926 for the first issue of his Amazing Stories. “Science fiction” itself – clearly, a distinct improvement - followed in 1929 in Gernsback’s Wonder Stories.

In his opening editorial in Amazing Stories, Gernsback traced this tradition back to Jules Verne in France, HG Wells in England and Edgar Allen Poe in the USA. A common starting point in much recent commentary has, however, been Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein.

Does speculative fiction exist?

Despite Gernsbeck – and many critics and fans – clearly including Verne, Wells and Poe in the same category, a number of 20th-century writers have made a case for a new class of science fiction.

In 2011 Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood argued that her novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood (2009) were “speculative fiction”, not “science fiction”.

Felix Nadar portraits Jules Verne. Félix Nadar 1820-1910 portraits Jules Verne/ Wikimedia Commons

By “science fiction”, as Atwood explained in In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (2011), she meant books descended from Wells, which deal with “things that could not possibly happen”. By “speculative fiction” she meant books descended from Verne, which deal with “things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote”.

Robert A. Heinlein in the US and Michael Moorcock in England used the term “speculative fiction” to denote a subset of science fictions where the central concerns are sociological speculation as distinct from scientific or technological innovation.

In 1969, the Canadian-American writer and critic, Judith Merril, argued in her regular column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that “speculative fiction” was a more accurate generic marker than “science fiction”.

But there is something very peculiar about this attempt to prise apart Verne and Wells: if there is one thing both scholarly and fan critics tend to agree upon, it is that the two masters of the “scientific romance” were committed to much the same enterprise.

Science Romance

This is not the first time authors have drawn a distinction between different kinds of genre novels. There are a whole range of near-synonyms for science fiction. The term used to market both Wells’ novels and English translations of Verne in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was “scientific romance” (in France, Verne’s stories were “voyages extraordinaires”).

Three decades ago, British author Brian Stableford made a case, in Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985), for “scientific romance” that was very similar to the case made for “speculative fiction” (although he was geographically chauvinist).

Scientific romance, according to Stableford, was mostly British and concerned with intellectual speculation. Science fiction was generally American and full of adventures and technological gadgets.

So what is speculative/science fiction/romance?

Margaret Atwood in 2015. Frankie Fouganthin/Wikimedia Commons

Whatever its origins, science fiction is, like myth, folktale and fantasy, a kind of fiction in which the entire narrative is dominated by what Canadian-Croatian academic Darko Suvin, calls the “novum”, that is, a fictional novelty or innovation not found in empirical reality.

But in science fiction, as distinct from myth, folktale and fantasy, this novum is depicted as compatible with the cognitive logic of science, as in, for example, rebelliously intelligent robots or time travel; in fantasy, it is not – as in vampires or werewolves.

Science fiction is thus a characteristically modern (and postmodern), post-Enlightenment type of imagining. And it is powerfully present across the entire field of contemporary culture, from the novel and short story to film, radio, comics, television, computer games and rock music.

Sci-fi, dystopia and utopia

In practice, moreover, speculative fiction, as understood by both Merril and Atwood, tends to come very close to what other writers mean by “utopian” or “dystopian” science fiction. Utopia is a much older genre than science fiction: the term was coined by Thomas More in 1516, but recognisably utopian societies have actually been staples of literary and philosophical imagining since classical antiquity.

Mary Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840. Wikimedia Commons

Nonetheless, many scholars tend to see science fiction as in effect a continuation of the utopian/dystopian tradition. Suvin argued in his 1979 Metamorphoses of Science Fiction that science fiction had retrospectively “englobed” utopia, thereby transforming it into “the socio-political subgenre of science fiction”. This view has been warmly endorsed by many other critics, notably Fredric Jameson in his 2005 book Archaeologies of the Future. That is probably an overstatement, however.

Science fiction, utopia and dystopia are clearly cognate genres, but they are not coextensive. Science fictions may be utopian or dystopian, and utopias and dystopias may be science-fictional, but the genres remain analytically distinguishable, essentially by virtue of the presence or absence of science and technology.

Utopias reflect the times

Science fictional utopias and dystopias are nonetheless invariably “speculative”, since they are inspired by much the same hopes and fears that inspire politics in the real world.

So, late 19th century utopian fictions were very often socialistic (Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Wells).

HG Wells. Wikimedia Commons

Anti-capitalist dystopias, by contrast, were inspired by both socialism (Jack London) and liberalism (Karel Čapek, Aldous Huxley). The middle decades of the 20th century also witnessed a number of important anti-totalitarian dystopias (Yevgeny Zamiatin, George Orwell).

Late 20th century utopias and dystopias were often associated with anti-racism (Pierre Boulle, Octavia Butler), the movement for gay rights (Samuel R. Delany), feminism (Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy), environmentalism (Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi) and anti-capitalism (China Miéville).

Interestingly, these later utopias often contained significant dystopian motifs, and the dystopias significant utopian motifs. Indeed, it can be argued that one distinctive feature of late 20th and early 21st century science fiction is precisely its practical resolution of the opposition between utopia and dystopia, into what academic and author Tom Moylan and others have termed “critical utopia” and “critical dystopia”.

The term “critical” here clearly carries much of the force intended by “speculative” in Merril and Atwood.

Whether “speculative” or “scientific”, “fiction” or “romance”, “utopian” or “dystopian”, this genre has increasingly become the prime location for imaginative representations of our culture’s deepest hopes and fears.

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