What is Speculative Fiction?
The following is taken from an introductory essay in Checkpoint, published in 2007 by the European Institute. About one-third of the content of Dimension Five appeared in Checkpoint.
SPECULATIVE FICTION – THE TEN IDEAS
This book is a collection of speculative fiction stories. I would rather use that term than ‘science fiction,’ or the awful ‘sci-fi,’ because ‘speculative’ gives a better idea of the wide potential of this genre. The dictionary definition (Concise Oxford) of ‘speculative’ is ‘of or based on speculation’ with speculation being defined as ‘meditation on, enquiry into, theory or conjecture about, a subject.’ This is helpful enough: if general fiction is about the ‘What and Why and When/ And How and Where and Who’ postulated by Rudyard Kipling, speculative fiction, or ‘SF,’ is about the ‘What if.’
My aim in this short introduction is to open your eyes to the possibilities and potentials of the genre. I want to start off by throwing a few facts at you. More accurately, they are a mixture of facts and opinions, or perhaps I should say facts and speculations.
Facts and Speculations
1. A few years ago, Waterstone’s, a major UK bookseller, published a controversial ‘Top 100’ books. This sort of thing doesn’t deserve to be taken too seriously, but it is interesting that the ‘top three’ books should have all been SF: Lord of the Rings; Nineteen Eighty-four; and Animal Farm. Science, you might notice, plays no role in two of them and no more than a subsidiary role in the third. More recently, the BBC conducted a major poll to find ‘The Nation’s Favourite Book’ and Lord of the Rings again topped this.
2. Speculative fiction is as old as literature. One early examples are: Lucian of Samosata, a second-century Greek writer who wrote The True History. Among other things, this was about a trip to the Moon. Joseph Hall, in 1605, wrote Mundus Alter et Idem (roughly ‘Other Worlds and This One’). In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote the celebrated Gulliver’s Travels. This is still very readable - don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s just about Lilliput and Brobdingnag, or that it is a children’s book.
3. The three early books mentioned above are all satires. This should give you a hint of one possibility for SF today. Romania has already had a turn at being an oppressive society. Other nations, including the UK, are not exempt for the future. Those nations that assume they’re exempt are most at risk.
4. SF is not a ghetto of literature. Think of fine writers like Doris Lessing, J.G. Ballard, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, CS Lewis, Anthony Burgess, and of course H.G. Wells. All have written novels that are indisputably SF. Ballard and Wells are primarily (but not very accurately) known as SF writers.
5. SF may be thought of as the Literature of Ideas. You could say that there are only a limited number of ideas, and that most of them have already been used. Some would say that they all have been, and that essentially there are only ten ideas. SF writers use these over and over again in different ways, and in different combinations.
The Ten Ideas
1. MACHINES. E.M. Forster (yes, the writer better remembered today for fine ‘mainstream’ novels like A Passage to India) wrote a short story called The Machine Stops. This asked the question ‘What happens to a totally machine-dependent society when the machine stops?’
2. UTOPIAS & DYSTOPIAS. Utopia is the ‘ideal state’ as originally portrayed by Thomas More in 1516. The word is from the Latin and means ‘no place’ or nowhere. There is a play on words in the title of Samuel Butler’s Erehwon – nowhere. Dystopias (this has the opposite meaning) are more common than utopias in SF. Some very well known examples are Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four; Huxley’s Brave New World; and Zamyatin’s We.
3. TIME & INTER-DIMENSION TRAVEL. Wells’ The Time Machine has been a favourite of mine since I was eight or nine years old. This idea provides great scope for logical speculation, e.g. ‘going back to kill your grandfather.’ Dimension Five in this collection is a direct tribute to Wells’ first novel.
4. ALIENS & ALIEN ECOLOGIES. The best-known modern example of this is probably to be found in the film Alien and its sequels.
5. SPACE TRAVEL & GALACTIC EMPIRES. The Foundation novels (originally a trilogy) by Isaac Asimov give a whole speculative future history.
6. TELEPATHY & MENTAL POWERS. I once used a simple idea for a story called Lamia* (not in this collection* There were two boxers, one a has-been from Earth, the other an alien telepath. Was this an unfair contest? *[It appears in Dimension Five as Champion of the World, the original title of the story.]
7. APOCALYPSE. Many years ago I read a novel called The Big Eye. A large planetoid, with surface features that gave it the appearance of a human eye, was seemingly on a collision course with Earth. This provided endless speculative opportunities for the effects on Earth societies as doom was approaching.
8. RELIGION & SPIRITUALITY. These are some of our strongest social forces. They provide a ripe field for SF. The danger is in using worn-out ideas. I trust that no-one who reads New Eden* in this collection will be tempted to write a story using the tired Adam and Eve idea at least. [*also in Dimension Five].
9. ALTERNATIVE HISTORIES. The title story of this collection is an example of this.
10. SEX & SEXUALITY. I remember reading a short story years back. After so many years, I can’t even remember the title of it, but it was about the exchange of ambassadors between Earth and a distant planet. Protocol required the two diplomats to exchange wives for the night. The ambassador from Earth agreed to this ‘in the line of duty,’ but it turned out that when the couple actually reached the planet the aliens looked like giant earwigs.
Do you think you could extend this list, or could it accommodate all the speculative fiction stories that you know about? I would say that it would deal with most of the stories in this collection. The exceptions are Tolman the Dreamer, Cyclomania, and Wish Man’s Wood. These are fantasy stories. Such stories usually have an element of magic in them, and are difficult to classify in this fashion, but I would most definitely think of fantasy as speculative fiction. The same would hold good for stories of the supernatural (ghost, horror, etc). There are no unequivocal stories of the supernatural in this book, except possibly Wish Man’s Wood. Pumlumon can be read either as a ‘timeslip’ story, or as a ghost story. It goes to show how important is the perception of the reader in this and indeed any form of reading.