Getting into the skin of speculative fiction, science fiction and science romance
Science fiction has always been a defined genre ad hoc. The term first appeared in interwar American “pulp fiction” magazines (supposedly for the quality of their paper rather than their writing). But what about “speculative fiction”? And the “scientific romance”? How are these terms, these genres, with shared history and future, articulated?
Pulp fiction editor Hugo Gernsback coined the word “scientifiction” in 1926 for the first issue of his Amazing Stories. “Science fiction” itself – obviously a marked 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 United States. A common starting point in many recent commentaries, however, has been Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein.
Does speculative fiction exist?
Although Gernsbeck – and many critics and fans – clearly include Verne, Wells and Poe in the same category, a number of 20th century writers have argued 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” and not “science fiction”.
By “science fiction,” as Atwood explains in In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination (2011), she meant books from Wells that deal with “things that couldn’t happen.” By “speculative fiction,” she meant books stemming from Verne, which deal with “things that could really happen but hadn’t quite happened when the authors wrote.”
Robert A. Heinlein in the United States and Michael Moorcock in England have used the term “speculative fiction” to refer to a subset of science fiction where the central concerns are sociological speculation as opposed to scientific or technological innovation.
In 1969, 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’s something very peculiar about this attempt to set Verne and Wells apart: if there’s one thing that scholarly critics and fans tend to agree on, it’s that the two masters of ” scientific romance” were engaged in much the same enterprise. .
This is not the first time that authors have made a distinction between different types of genre novels. There is a whole range of quasi-synonyms for science fiction. The term used to market both Wells’s novels and Verne’s English translations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was ‘scientific novel’ (in France, Verne’s stories were ‘extraordinary journeys’).
Three decades ago, British author Brian Stableford argued, in Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (1985), for a “scientific romance” that was very similar to that of “speculative fiction” (although it was geographically chauvinistic).
The scientific romance, according to Stableford, was predominantly British and concerned intellectual speculation. Science fiction was generally American and full of adventures and technological gadgets.
So what is speculation/sci-fi/romance?
Whatever its origins, science fiction is, like myth, folk tale and fantasy, a kind of fiction in which the whole narrative is dominated by what Croatian-Canadian scholar Darko Suvin calls “novum”. , that is to say a fictitious novelty or an innovation not found in empirical reality.
But in science fiction, unlike myth, folktale, and fantasy, this novum is portrayed as consistent with the cognitive logic of science, as in, for example, rebellious intelligent robots or world travel. time ; in fantasy it is not – as with vampires or werewolves.
Science fiction is therefore a typically modern (and postmodern), post-Enlightenment type of imagination. And it is powerfully present in the whole field of contemporary culture, from novels and short stories to cinema, radio, comics, television, video games and rock music.
Science fiction, dystopia and utopia
Moreover, in practice, speculative fiction, as understood by both Merril and Atwood, tends to approximate what other writers understand as “utopian” or “dystopian” science fiction. Utopia is a much older genre than science fiction: the term was coined by Thomas More in 1516, but utopian societies have actually been staples of the literary and philosophical imagination since classical antiquity.
Nevertheless, many scholars tend to see science fiction as a continuation of the utopian/dystopian tradition. Suvin argued in his 1979 Metamorphoses of Science Fiction that science fiction had retrospectively “subsumed” utopia, thus turning it into “the socio-political subgenre of science fiction”. This view has been warmly endorsed by many other critics, including Fredric Jameson in his 2005 book Archeologies of the Future. That’s probably an exaggeration, though.
Science fiction, utopia and dystopia are clearly related genres, but they are not coextensive. Science fiction can be utopian or dystopian, and utopias and dystopias can be science fiction, but the genres remain analytically distinguishable, essentially by virtue of the presence or absence of science and technology.
Utopias reflect the times
The utopias and dystopias of science fiction are nevertheless invariably “speculative”, because they are inspired by the same hopes and fears that inspire politics in the real world.
Thus, the utopian fictions of the end of the 19th century were very often socialist (Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Wells).
Anti-capitalist dystopias, on the other hand, 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 significant anti-totalitarian dystopias (Yevgeny Zamiatin, George Orwell).
The utopias and dystopias of the late 20th century are often associated with anti-racism (Pierre Boulle, Octavia Butler), the gay rights movement (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 contained significant utopian motifs. Indeed, it can be argued that one of the distinctive features of late 20th and early 21st century science fiction is precisely its practical resolution of the opposition between utopia and dystopia, in what the academic and author Tom Moylan and others have called it “critical utopia” and “critical utopia.” dystopia”.
The term “critical” here clearly carries much of the force intended by “speculative” in Merril and Atwood.
Whether ‘speculative’ or ‘scientific’, ‘fiction’ or ‘romantic’, ‘utopian’ or ‘dystopian’, this genre has increasingly become the home of imaginative depictions of the deepest hopes and fears. of our culture.