I CAME OF AGE as a reader of science fiction in the late 1960s and early ’70s. My exposure to what was happening in science fiction was limited, as I was never involved in any organized fandom. For me, the early ’70s were spent turning on tuning in dropping out, protesting the war, expanding my consciousness, and discovering the difference between girls and women.
Those years were the height of the popularity and influence of science fiction’s New Wave movement. It seemed that many young—and more than a few not so young—writers with something new (and different and challenging) to say were influenced by Michael Moorcock and New Worlds magazine in England, directly or indirectly.
In 1964, Moorcock had assumed the editor position of the magazine and promptly encouraged his writers to embrace a more ‘literary’ form of writing their science fiction stories. The effect was the proverbial shot heard ’round the world!
Younger readers of this blog need to know that in the 1960s and ’70s, foreign magazines were very difficult to find outside of a few large cities, so I was fairly ignorant of Moorcock and New Worlds.
As editor of New Worlds magazine, Moorcock championed many young writers with a far greater literary bent than was the norm. He also introduced many stories with a hip ’60s and even psychedelic tint to them. Among his most notable achievements was steering J.G. Ballard into the spotlight.
Harlan Ellison had dangerous visions
In 1967, Harlan Ellison published Dangerous Visions. Influenced by New Worlds, this book became the most influential compilation in science fiction’s history, a claim that still stands more than forty years later. Not only was it the first compilation of entirely unpublished stories, but almost all were written especially for DV.
Each author attempted to take on a publishing, cultural, or personal taboo (a dangerous vision) with no holds barred! It was no surprise that many of Ellison’s contributors were also New World contributors (although most American readers did not know that).
Dangerous Visions introduced Americans to what the British had been reading for several years. After reading Dangerous Visions, I began searching for works of the authors whose stories appeared in those pages.
Norman Spinrad’s “Carcinoma Angels” was one of my favorite stories in that book: intelligent, humorous, hip, well-written, and somewhat psychedelic. This latter aspect would be something that would increasingly attract my increasingly expanded consciousness’ attention through the years.
Science fiction is the only branch of literature which cannot be defined by parameters of form, style, or content.
As I followed Spinrad’s career, he seemed to become the focus of what I perceived as a new concept in science fiction that I understood as speculative fiction. He also observed, “Science fiction is the only branch of literature which cannot be defined by parameters of form, style, or content. The essence of science fiction is its speculative element.”
I got it into my head that speculative fiction was a recent off-shoot of science fiction and that Ellison and Spinrad were among its primary practitioners. I interpreted speculative fiction to be a form in which the author takes a current bit of data or a concept—not necessarily scientific or even technological—and places it in the not-too-distant future.
There he experiments with the ramifications of this concept, expanding and affecting the future in unforeseen ways, and speculates on the possible outcomes. He would essentially leave the rest of consensual reality as is, treating it as the control against which the experimental concept is gauged.
The first paperback edition of Dangerous Visions was published in 1975 by Signet. It was 514 pages long and sold for the princely sum of $1.95. It recycled the artwork by the Dillons with a brighter, more attractive red background.
Norman Spinrad bugged Jack Barron
For example, in Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, the speculative concept at the heart of the story is the possibility of a television talk show host becoming a godlike figurehead for the masses (which, in practical terms, was inconceivable in the ’60s). With almost unmeasurable power because of his immense popularity, Jack Barron is able to influence the movers and shapers of a powerful capitalist economic structure.
This was written at a time when the most ‘powerful’ host on network television was probably Johnny Carson! There were no talk-show hosts like what we know today on the radio: the possibility of Rush Limbaugh and his brand of demagoguery did not come into play until the rules of the FCC were dramatically changed in the 1980s. (But that’s another story, nyet?)
I was in error about my understanding of speculative fiction and I carried that misconception around for a long time. Like, until I began researching this essay a few weeks ago.
This was my introduction to Norman Spinrad in 1969: I was intrigued by the author’s name, the book’s title (a bug named Jack Barron?), and the fact that very few science fiction books depicted black people on the cover. Taking this book home provided me with one of the most upsetting and memorable reading experiences of my life!
What is speculative fiction?
In researching the term speculative fiction online, I discovered that the definitions were not at all what I expected. Worse, the word carries definitions so inclusive as to be meaningless:
“Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing fiction that deals with hypothetical scenarios, usually with a philosophical perspective. This includes the more fantastical fiction genres, which in turn includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, and alternate history in literature.” (Wikipedia)
Um, ALL fiction is hypothetical. While the term “philosophical” may be reasonably applied to some authors in these genres, that is certainly not an adjective that I would reach for in describing these fields.
I came across an article titled “What Is Speculative Fiction?” on the GreenTentacles website. There, author N.E. Lilly carried the inclusiveness to the point of nebulousness:
“Speculative fiction can be a collective term to describe works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror and also addresses works that are not science fiction, fantasy, or horror, yet don’t rightly belong to the other genres.… 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.”
“Can be” and “are not” and “don’t rightly” are not part of the active voice that would sit well with masters Strunk or White! And the “is and isn’t” part means nothing at all!
As I argue later, much of what passes for science fiction in today’s entertainment fields do not meet the criteria for modern science fiction that many readers of science fiction (versus viewers of science fiction movies) expect. That might make it pseudo-science fiction (I have another term for it) but it does not make it speculative fiction.
Judith Merrill’s excellent anthology of New Wave writers England Swings SF did not have the impact that it should have and many excellent British writers went without an American audience.
Judith Merril knows England swings
Then I found editor Judith Merril: in 1968, she followed Dangerous Visions with a compilation of all-British, all-New Wave, all-speculative fiction stories titled England Swings SF. Unfortunately, it did not have anywhere near the sales or impact of DV with American readers. Ms. Merril definitely championed a new use of the term speculative fiction, although she is often overlooked by contemporary historians.
In an attempt to embrace the changing themes and interest of science fiction, Ms. Merril contributed an essay on the subject to the book Science Fiction: The Other Side Of Realism, edited by Thomas Clareson and published in 1971.
In “What Do You Mean: Science? Fiction?,” she defines three primary types of fiction, the third being speculative fiction, under which the sub-genre of science fiction resides:
“Speculative fiction [is] stories whose objective is to explore, to discover, to learn—by means of projection, extrapolation, analogue, hypothesis-and-paper-experimentation—something about the nature of the universe, of man, of reality. I use the term speculative fiction here specifically to describe the mode which makes use of the traditional scientific method (observation, hypothesis, experimentation) to examine some postulated approximation of reality, by introducing a given set of changes—imaginary or inventive—into the common background of known facts, creating an environment in which the responses and perceptions of the characters will reveal something about the inventions, the characters, or both.”
Yes, that second sentence is that lengthy, that and convoluted. I am surprised that an editor of Merril’s caliber would submit it—and that a second editor would okay it for publication. Still, it catches what she wants to say, if only after several readings. While this may be the best definition of speculative fiction, it is less than illuminating.
“The determination of the writers to do something different keeps the reader’s attention from flagging and the best part of the era that is re-captured here is the exhilarating feeling as one progresses from story to story that there are no boundaries and that anything can happen. The serious nature of the work at hand is shown in the influence of Joyce, Kafka, and Beckett, the inspiration provided by the Zeitgeist by a leavening of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” (GoodReads)
This is how the Dillons’ art appears to readers discovering this book for the first time. Usually, you had to buy the book and take it home to unwrap the dust-jacket and see the art in all its spread-out glory (below).
Could be but isn’t at least not yet
There are other similarly nebulous definitions on the internet, and none fit my memory. So, I turned to Norman Spinrad for some elucidation on speculation in science fiction. Aside from being one of the field’s most esteemed authors, he also wrote one of the best non-fiction books on science fiction, Science Fiction In The Real World. In an interview with Spinrad, I found these observations:
“I once defined science fiction as anything published as science fiction, but these days that genre distinction has broken down, what with all sorts of outright fantasy being published in SF genre lines and both science fiction and fantasy loosely being labeled Sci-fi.
Speculative fiction, on the other hand, has a coherent literary definition as any fiction containing one or more speculative elements—that is, the ‘could-be but-isn’t, at least not yet’ that do not contradict the known physical laws of mass and energy.
Science fiction, then, is easily and rigorously defined as speculative fiction in which at least one of the speculative elements is scientific or technological.”
So, instead of being a relatively recent SUB-category of science fiction, speculative fiction turns out to be the MAIN category with fantastic fiction as one of its SUB-genres and science fiction a further sub-genre of fantasy! (I address the field of fantasy in the fifth installment of this essay.)
With that more or less settled—and my memory banks corrected and updated—I want to address various types of science fiction, keeping in mind Spinrad’s comments above about the current state of science fiction and using the gimme concept as a reference point. That will be found in the fourth installment of this essay …
FEATURED IMAGE: I found the fantastic painting of the floating castle at the top of the page accompanying the article “Why the Divide Between Speculative Fiction and Literature?” by Kyle A. Massa. He opens his piece with these words: “According to a certain stuffy pocket of the literary community, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, collectively known as speculative fiction, don’t qualify as literature. Decent stories? Maybe. Cool ideas? Sure. But in the eyes of this snobbish literary elite, speculative fiction just doesn’t measure up …”
Massa identifies himself as a “fantasy author, blogger, and staunch supporter of the Oxford comma.” I haven’t read any of Kyle’s fiction, but I support those who support the Oxford comma, which my pappy raised me to call a “serial comma.”