modern science fiction and the gimme part 3

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.”




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