Atwood writes: “What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians.” (From In other worlds, p.6)
With these remarks in mind, is it useful to distinguish between science fiction and speculative fiction? In answering this question you might consider Le Guin’s suggestion that people who refer to their works as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ are simply trying to protect themselves from some of the negative connotations associated with science fiction (see In other worlds)? Discuss in relation to at least two works.
‘Science fiction’ is often defined as a wide literary genre related to fictional stories. It contains many subgenres, such as space opera, cyberpunk, utopia, dystopia, alternative histories and speculative fiction. Although there are an extensive number of subgenres, some writers, as Margaret Atwood, have been trying to differentiate ‘speculative fiction’ from ‘science fiction’. Maybe this wideness of subgenres existing under the genre ‘science fiction’ is exactly the reason why Atwood found interesting to present this differentiation. When we consider science fiction stories, many different things can came up to our mind, such as aliens, intergalactic travel, artificial intelligence and utopian (or dystopian) societies. Considering that, as we can notice in these examples, these topics can differ a lot from each other and it might be understandable that Atwood wanted to differentiate (more than just defining different subgenres) the kind of fiction related to more ‘plausible’ things (things that could really happen, as she says).
Definitely, ‘speculative fiction’ books have a completely different scenario from cyberpunk, aliens or space opera works and this could awake a desire to disconnect them in a more significantly manner. However, it is possible to affirm that this distinction between ‘science’ and ‘speculative fiction’ is not useful and that there is no reason for making it, especially considering that speculative fiction is just one more subgenre of science fiction. This thesis will be supported by a number of points presented throughout this essay. Firstly, it will be argued that the subgenre ‘speculative fiction’ fits perfectly into the definitions and requisites related to ‘science fiction’.
Secondly, it will be discussed that Atwood’s definition of ‘speculative fiction’ is vague and can change according to interpretation, and also that it can be used to define as speculative fiction other books that she clearly had classified as belonging to ‘science fiction’. Thereby, her definition can be seen as not clear, which makes it not useful at all. Finally, it will be presented that Atwood seems to reinforce this division specially because distinguishing ‘speculative fiction’ from ‘science fiction’ is convenient for her. There are some evidences for that, for example, Le Guin once said Atwood was trying to protect herself from negative connotations associated with ‘science fiction’. This is even noticeable considering that many of her attempts to define the genre contained irony and clichés.
Firstly, it will be discussed that ‘speculative fiction’ fits perfectly into the definitions and requisites related to the ‘science fiction’ subgenres, which makes unnecessary and not useful the distinction between them. It was stated before that ‘science fiction’ has a big number of subgenres and it is clear that they differ considerably from each other. However, despite their singularities, all of them have one kind of cohesive element in common, which brings each subgenre to be defined as part of the genre ‘science fiction’. To define this common element noticed in all the science fiction subgenres, it is useful to consider two Suvin’s definitions about science fiction: “SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (Suvin 1979, p. 7) and “Science Fiction is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic” (Suvin 1979, p. 63).
Considering these two definitions, it is possible to affirm then that the necessary and sufficient conditions to identify one science fiction work are: the presence of a ‘novum’ and the presence of a ‘cognitive logic’, the logical consistency which makes the ‘novum’ become part of our knowledge about real things. With this in mind, we can analyse the book The Handmaid’s Tale from Atwood. She clearly have classified this book as not being ‘science fiction’, however, it is easy to identify the ‘novum’ and also the ‘cognitive logic’ in her book. The ‘novum’ is represented by the whole system of political organization in the Republic of Gilead described on the book and the ‘cognitive logic’ is given by some similarities that can be noticed between our society and the society described on the book.
In the same way, for the book of H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, we can also identify the ‘novum’, which is given by the Martians and their technology; and the ‘cognitive logic’, given by the similarities existing between both societies. Thus, it can be affirmed that both books The Handmaid’s Tale and The War of the World belongs to the genre ‘science fiction’, contradicting Atwood’s previous proposition. This proves that although Atwood’s book can be classified as ‘speculative fiction’, it truly belongs to ‘science fiction’, leading us to verify again that ‘speculative fiction’ is just one more subgenre of ‘science fiction’. It makes clear then that the division between ‘science’ and ‘speculative’ fiction is not useful and not justifiable.
Secondly, it will be presented that Atwood’s definition of ‘speculative fiction’ is imprecise and also can be used to define as speculative fiction other books that were categorized as ‘science fiction’ by her. In order to illustrate these points, we will analyse Atwood (2011) definition about ‘speculative fiction’ as “things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.” This is a vague and inaccurate idea. It could encompass different definitions because the range of things that could really happen is highly dependent of each person’s beliefs and ideas, what makes this definition extremely subjective. Also, with just a few exceptions, it is not possible to say for sure what is and what is not going to happen.
Besides, Atwood even gives us another definition: “Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. Science fiction is when you have chemicals and rockets.” (Watts 2003, p. 3). Considering both definitions given by her, it could be understood that she considers rockets and chemicals as things that really could not happen, as they belong to science fiction. However, it is known that rockets and chemicals are not things impossible to happen, especially because nowadays we can see some examples of them. Both definitions become contradictory then. Considering her first definition, books about this theme would be classified as speculative fiction; however, she decided to use these two themes to exemplify ‘science fiction’. Atwood’s definitions about ‘speculative fiction’ are imprecise, therefore, what is the purpose in using an imprecise and cloudy definition? It is simply not useful to distinguish ‘science’ from ‘speculative fiction’ then.
Thirdly, it will be presented that Atwood seems to reinforce this division specially because distinguishing ‘speculative fiction’ from ‘science fiction’ is convenient for her. Le Guin (2009) states that Atwood was trying to protect herself from negative connotations associated with science fiction and also “from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders”. Considering Le Guin’s remarks, it is possible to observe that ‘science fiction’ was not a literary genre with considerable prestige in the intellectual audience. This could reduce her reputation on the high literary society. One possible reason for ‘science fiction’ being underestimated is that science fiction could be related to some works produced for mass audience like Star Trek and Dr Who and intellectuals would associate her books to these works. Then it would be interesting for her to dissociate the connection between her books and the genre ‘science fiction’ once it was not so appreciated by the intellectual audience.
And this is also noticed by considering that some of her remarks about ‘science fiction’ contains irony, as she frequently uses clichés to refer about it, such as ‘rockets’, ‘chemicals’, ‘blood-sucking Martians’, ‘talking squids in outer space’, and ‘skin-tight clothing’. Thus, it is possible to verify why Atwood reinforces the division between ‘speculative’ and ‘science’ fiction. And considering her reasons we can see that they are not justifiable and strong enough to make the distinction between ‘speculative’ and ‘science fiction’ useful. Finally, this essay discussed a number of points in order to support the thesis that the distinction between ‘speculative’ and ‘science’ fiction is not useful. Firstly, it was stated that although it may be hard to define some literary genres it is noticeable that ‘speculative fiction’ fits perfectly in most of definitions of science fiction, making it a subgenre only.
Secondly, it was presented that Atwood’s definition about ‘speculative fiction’ is vague and could classify as ‘speculative fiction’ some books that she clearly classified as ‘science fiction’. Thirdly, it was discussed that is convenient for her to separate ‘speculative fiction’ from ‘science fiction’ since the genre of ‘science fiction’ was not so appreciated by reviewers and prize awarders and was associated to some mass audience works. She does not want to be linked to this image so she tries to put her works under a different literary classification. This point shows us clearly that there is no consistent and general reason for her to do the distinction. In conclusion, this essay illustrated that is not useful to distinguish between ‘science fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’ and the reason for this was explained by all of the arguments stated previously.
Atwood, M 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale, Anchor Books, New York.
Atwood, M 2011, In Other Worlds – SF and the Human Imagination, Doubleday.
Le Guin, U 2009, ‘The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood’, The Guardian, 29 August. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/aug/29/margaret-atwood-year-of-flood
Suvin, D 1979, Metamorphoses Of Science Fiction, Yale University Press, New Haven
Watts, P 2003, ‘Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt’, On Spec, vol. 15, no. 2, summer, pp. 3-5.
Wells, H 1898, The War of the World, New York Review Books, New York.