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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

  Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.

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Musings, #1: Speculations on “Speculation”

(Or return to the full list of Musings.)

Making the “Candidates” page of this site—a list of authors and works that I think, based on credible reviews, to be plausible candidates for the lists on this site—perforce meant scrutinizing other people’s lists of “great” science-fiction & fantasy works, a process that has left me with some curious thoughts.

(I shall hereafter, at least in this musing, use the term “speculative fiction” as an umbrella term comprising both science fiction and fantasy, but nothing else; in another Musing I try teasing those two apart, but not here.)

Those thoughts mainly concern the question What belongs here?  Obviously, quality—by whatever standards one judges it—is a requirement. But before we even try to judge quality in a book, we need to address the threshold question of whether we should be considering that book at all. I say “we” meaning myself, the maker of this site, and you, the visitor here who has presumably been drawn in by the phrase “science-fiction and fantasy works” in the site’s title. This is not a general literature site: it is a site that deals solely with a specific type of literature, once called “fantastic fiction”, latterly “speculative fiction”. A book not speculative fiction, whatever its merits or defects, is inappropriate for examination here, and not only here but on any list purporting to comprise works of “speculative fiction”. Yet the lists I examined seemed to me rife with books that simply are not speculative fiction; moreover, those many interlopers mostly fell into a few distinct categories, easily recognized.

Now for me to say a book is “not speculative fiction” implies clear, practical, reasonable guidelines for defining that species. It is commonplace in contemporary discussion to assert that books cannot tidily be assorted by types; I think that nonsense. I concede that there will invariably, in any sort of categorization of something so diverse as literature, be the odd case here and there that does not easily yield to a rule; but it is my belief that such exceptions are pleasingly few, and that guidelines can be posited and usefully applied without great difficulty.

My guidelines for defining “speculative fiction” are two:

1. The tale is set where or when some rule that materially affects the way people meet or experience life operates in a way significantly different from any ever experienced in ordinary, everyday consensus reality.

2. The consequent difference in the way characters within the tale meet or experience life owing to that difference in rules is necessary to the author’s purposes in telling the tale.

Putting that another and simpler way, a speculative tale is one for which it is virtually impossible to eliminate the fantastical aspects of the tale without destroying the tale itself: it must be impossible to recast the tale wholly within the mundane world by relatively simple rewriting. A rule of that sort does not so much show us what to include in the category as it does what to exclude.

(“Horror fiction” meets the simplified criterion but, I think, not the second of the more formal guidelines. The question is complicated enough that I have made it the topic of a separate Musing, and so will not further address horror fiction here.)

Because that principle will soon be seen to be a wicked sharp knife, it is important that we not at this point merely accept it with an uncritical nod and move on; it is crucial to any analysis of speculative fiction, so we’d best be sure we are happy with it. I said that we want guidelines that are clear, that are practical, that are reasonable; do we have them?

Are they clear? Do we readily understand what they mean? I think so. The question of whether a particular tale could be rewritten to be set in some time and place that has really existed (or exists now) is not often going to be a difficult one. We ask ourselves “If we just change the names, and some background minutiae not relevant to the plot or characters, can we without great strain imagine this tale taking place in X in the year Y?”

Are they practical? Can we easily apply them to particular cases? Again I think so. In considering the paragraph just above, even if we lack large knowledge of history it is rarely difficult to sense a tale that would fit into historical reality.

Finally, are they reasonable? Do they contradict any commonsense or intuitive notion of what speculative fiction is? That query is, I reckon, the crux. Let’s test it by considering opposites:

Regarding Guideline #1, could we say that some tale set in the “real” world wholly under the rules of consensus reality is science fiction or fantasy? Remembering that all fiction is, by definition, “fantasy” to the extent that it relates things that never happened, what would or could exceed that definitional minimum of the fantastic in any tale where all the rules, physical and cultural, work as they do every day for you and for me?

Guideline #2 is perhaps less self-evidently true. But consider: what is “speculative” about a tale in which, let us say, instead of the population having skins that are white, black, yellow, or red they have skins that are blue or gold, and the people and the cities have names very different from ours—if all we have is an ordinary mainstream novel of race relations in which the author has merely used her word processor’s “global replace” to alter “white” to “blue” and “black” to “gold”, and “Chicago” to “Ogacihc”, and so on? Nothing in such a tale “speculates” in any meaningful sense of the word. The differences are not necessary to the author’s purposes in telling the tale.

That sort of pseudo-speculative tale, “reality with the serial number filed off”, is all too common. Owing to the modern fascination with gadgetry, there is a distinct sub-class that I often call “Cowboys and Indians in Outer Space”, because the tales so described could just as well be set in the stereotyped American Old West (as well as in ancient Rome or mid-century Los Angeles or Arthurian England or, in truth, anywhere: a sword, a six-shooter, a ray gun, it really doesn’t matter to the plot or the characters).

It this connection it is important also to see that so-called speculation of the famous (some might say “notorious”) What if . . . ?  nature is not in and of itself “speculative fiction”: to posit some great change then imagine and describe in a tale the consequent world is an interesting exercise, but if the tale does not use that changed world to tell us something worth hearing about the human condition, which something would be difficult (or at least harder) to tell without the fantastical differences, it was ill-conceived as a fiction and would better have been presented as an essay or article in a non-fiction context—it is just (to coin another term) “Gus’s Garage in Outer Space”.

(“Gus’s Garage” was a regular feature in Popular Science magazine a half century and more ago. It was really just an article about some aspect of automobile care or repair, but was presented in the guise of a short story, a “tale" in which good ol’ Gus Wilson down at Gus’s Model Garage solved some customer’s “mysterious” problem with his (never her) vehicle. The theory was that having affable ol’ Gus spout the tech stuff (while puffing on his pipe, an affable-old-guy requisite) made it more palatable than a simple article on the subject.)

We read fiction to discover (or be reminded of) what people think and feel and do in various circumstances—to gain better appreciations of what it means to be human and of ways to deal with Life, the Universe, and Everything. Fiction enriches us, expands us, augments our lives: it allows us to vicariously live many lives, to feel and experience the thoughts and emotions of hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of persons we are not and never will be, to experience feeling and thinking in ways not our own, often very much not our own. We do not read fiction to discover how a severe shortage of energy—or a sudden influx of cheap energy—might affect economic and social structures: to explore such matters is exactly why God created Scientific American magazine and its kin.

When I happened to post a shorter version of some of those thoughts on a speculative-fiction usenet group, they created rather a commotion. The assertion was made that a great many people like to read stories with high-tech or magical settings chiefly for the enjoyment of such highly colored backdrops, even when (by implication) those backdrops are not being used for any literary purpose but only as stage settings. The feeling seemed to be that I was dissing—or simply dismissing—such works, taking a snobbish, “hyper-literary” view.

First off, I could not and cannot escape the thought that the lady doth protest too much, that the remarks suggested a reflex defensiveness. But be that as it may, the matter at issue here is not criticism but taxonomy. The duck-billed platypus lays eggs: is it a mammal? The answer, either way, does not make the platypus a “better” or a “worse” creature; it only tells us how it relates to other species. If it is a mammal—as it is—its laying eggs instead of bearing its young live does not make it a “better” or “worse” mammal, but it makes it a mammal of a sort different from most other mammals, a “sort” that today contains only two other species. Taxonomy is not criticism. Not in any sense of that word.

Obviously—well, it is obvious to me—we could use a distinct term expressly signifying fiction with a fantastical background that is a “stage setting” not integral to the actual tale itself. For our purposes here, I will use “wonder fiction”, though I daresay a snappier title would be wanted if ever such a term were to catch on.

While wonder fiction is not, in my taxonomy, speculative fiction, we need to recognize a few things about it. First, most readers both within and without the community of regular “speculative fiction” readers will consider such stuff to be a part of their regular fare (as much as anything because that’s how publishers and booksellers class it), and thus to be “speculative fiction”. The distinctions I care to draw are doubtless of no interest beyond this web site; nonetheless, here I try to abide by them, and do not consciously include any wonder fiction in this site’s lists. (I say “consciously” because I am human, and hence imperfect, and may let a title here or there in without thinking through whether it is wonder fiction as opposed to speculative fiction; but I don’t think many will slide through, for reasons the following paragraphs explain.)

I have been at some pains to make clear that I do not assert that a tale is any lesser thing just because it is wonder fiction rather than speculative fiction. But I would be less than honest if I did not add that I firmly believe that much, arguably most, wonder fiction is work of a lesser caliber than the best of speculative fiction. Take care when parsing that statement: it is also true (Sturgeon’s Law) that much true speculative fiction is not very good. The belief I am trying to articulate here has two components: one, that the fraction of wonder fiction that is good literature is significantly smaller—possibly almost to the vanishing point—than the fraction of speculative fiction that is; and two, that the best of wonder fiction is still, as a class, distinctly lesser stuff than the best of speculative fiction.

The cause is simple enough: writers of excellence do not undertake work at random—everything they do and don’t do flows from consideration and purpose, from design. A good writer is not going to set a tale on Aldeberan VI simply because that uh, like, sounds, y’know, uh, like a way cool thing to do, man. Such a writer will have a definite story-related reason for adopting any such setting, and will thus be using that setting for that reason.

Writers of wonder fiction may be good writers who just wanted to have a little fun; the possibility of a wonder-fiction book of literary merit exists and cannot be categorically denied. But my own experience—stipulating a mediocre memory—does not throw up a plethora of examples. Writers of wonder fiction are, by definition, choosing fantastical settings for reasons not integral to their tale; perhaps they simply like such tales themselves, perhaps they are aiming at a particular sales market, perhaps they could not get published in any other category—but the causes are immaterial to the result.

One more point about wonder fiction deserves mention. While the class likely encompasses few works of profound literary merit, that does not make it, or those who read it with pleasure, contemptible. I am fortunate enough to have a fair-size decently stocked wine cellar, but I do not disdain a beer from time to time, nor soda pop: all things to their time and purpose. But I do not, on the one hand, turn to pop or beer when I want complexity and subtlety, nor on the other hand do I drink Joe’s Green Slime when I want a beer. Every class of available pleasures has a range from bad to decent to good. Those who read for what some term a “sensawunda”—a byword in certain circles—or because they enjoy accounts of (another byword) “exploding spaceships” are not thereby some sort of Neandertal; I go back from time to time to the Lensman series. Whether the level of enjoyment available to those whose literary diet is chiefly composed of wonder fiction compares with that of those who munch on a select crop of speculative fiction is a matter for another Musing on some later day.

Let us now continue cutting with that wicked sharp knife.

We can resume by excluding the kind of tales usually called “alternative history”—tales set in the world that might have been had some event in our history gone differently: had the Spanish Armada conquered, had the Confederacy won the American Civil War, that sort of thing. In such tales, the state of affairs—whether in a time contemporary to our own or earlier—can be whatever the author imagines. By presenting a newly set stage for the characters, the author frees them to wreak large deeds not possible in a world constrained by real history; but if the crucial historical event (and its ensuing consequences) is the only difference between the world of the tale and our familiar world, then—humans being human—the resulting society cannot, in any large sense, be materially different from any other that has ever gone before in human history. The characters may become involved in divers exploits grand or minute; but they cannot be made to think or feel or experience anything not commonly thought or felt or experienced in some current or past society. Such tales are little different from The Prisoner of Zenda and its made-up Ruritania: the altered world the characters inhabit has no material effect on their human reactions to Life, the Universe, and Everything as compared to some suitable time and place in actual history. As one reviewer of Kingsley Amis’s alternate-history novel The Alteration remarked, “The more it changes, the more it stays the same.” (Unlike wonder fiction, however, alternate-history fiction is as likely as any other sort to throw up work of quality.)

Another false sort of speculative fiction is fiction that deals with the merely bizarre. Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget is the tale of a woman who, by adulthood, reaches a height not made explicit but apparently somewhere between two and four feet; naturally, the way she sees the world—both figuratively and literally—is different from how most do, and equally naturally she has an unusual life composed of unusual experiences. But that is not a question of a rule working differently, that is, of an altered or alternate world: it is simply an unusual aspect of our normal, everyday world. Helen Keller’s autobiography with little but the names changed would scarcely be classed “speculative fiction”; but quite a few stories of this sort make their way onto supposedly “speculative-fiction” lists.

A related variant of the fiction of the bizarre is fiction in which the characters are assuredly in our everyday world, but act in usually inexplicable weird ways. There are not, so far as a reader can tell, any rules—physical or cultural—that generate the characters’ odd behaviors: it is merely that the author wants that weird behavior so as to generate a parable or allegory. (I suspect, albeit book unread, that Abe Kobo’s Woman In The Dunes exemplifies this sort.)

Yet another variant of bizarre fiction is tales in which something apparently fantastical occurs, or may have occurred, but for which we never have any convincing auctorial expression of belief, and which even the characters doubt or are unsure of. A man who has, or may have, or thinks he may have seen a ghost is not existing in a world different from our own, in which people see every day things that no one else seems to, and which often they themselves much doubt the reality of. Even if the vision or experience is pivotal to the tale, it is not a tale set in a world differing from our own: unless the ghost or whatever is clearly real, the tale may be an incisive psychological study but it is not speculative fiction.

(We should have a care, though, not to slice away tales in which something fantastical seems to the reader to have happened, even if the characters in the tale dismiss it or fail to recognize it—The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay comes to mind as an example.)

(I do not think that any of those flavors of bizarre fiction, individually or as a class, is a distinct enough or large enough category to want a separate taxonomic designation; we neither want nor need to clutter up our discussions with any divisions beyond bare necessity.)

Then there is what I suppose is best called “experimental” fiction (and here we do want a definite taxonomic term). The strangeness of such work lies not in the characters in the tale and their human experiences but in the methods used to relate those experiences. Such tales have varied characteristics: bizarre jumps in time or place or narrator, cryptic interplacement of apparently unrelated materials, even weird fonts or page layouts—the rich vocabulary of weirdness that can result when clever hands turn to expressly generating weirdness. I am not much enamored of such stuff, suspecting that it merely disguises an inability to tell a tale within the ordinary conventions of narrative (one must have mastered the rules of an art before one can break them to effect), but that is not the point: the point is that the author is telling, however strangely, a tale of this world and the people in it.

(I need, I think, to insert here an observation that ought to be obvious, but better safe than sorry. I do not in any way depreciate tales of the several sorts I am cataloguing here; indeed, they include much of the world’s finest literature. I am saying only that such tales do not partake of the special quality of “speculative fiction”, which—I repeat—is fiction in which the author uses a world with different rules as a means of conveniently focussing a spotlight on some aspect or aspects of the human condition. Readers interested in the scope and possibilities of true speculative fiction are led away from their interest when such pseudo-speculative tales are included in the category.)

Then there is <shudder>“magic realism”</shudder>. The first warning flag for magic realism is that no one can define the term (one caustic wit has defined it as any fiction by a Latin American author). The term has a pleasing, evocative sound, leading to its having been applied to almost anything that isn’t The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Look at (and, if you are a glutton for punishment, read through) the pages on this far from exhaustive laundry list of sites all concerned with “defining” magic realism:

Fortunately, a precise definition does not much matter to our purposes here: the observation (from the first link in the list above) that “Literature of this type is usually characterized by elements of the fantastic woven into the story with a deadpan sense of presentation” will suffice. (I like that word “deadpan”.) Be that as it may, the chief question about “magic realism” is whether it is essential to the true tale: were the “magic” aspects deleted, would the tale vary in human terms? (And, again, human terms is what fiction is all about.) Because the phrase is now so regrettably debased, one cannot make any generalization on the answer: it is necessary to examine tales so classed on an individual basis to determine whether the fantastic elements are simply interesting window dressing (which I suspect is the case in the majority of instances) or integral to the nature of the tale. But the key point is that the label “magical realism” is not in itself a free pass into the world of speculative fiction: the tests still need to be applied.

One other excludable class is tales that, while fantastical to us, were first told as either truths or as plausible fictions—chiefly myths and legends. The defining characteristic here is that neither the author nor the audience thought the settings “fantastical”, but rather accepted them as real or at least believable. Hence, by definition, the authors could not have been using the world of the tale as a special spotlight on the human condition, since the tale’s world was—to them—“the real world”.

I don’t say this is an exhaustive categorizing of all the pseudo-speculative fictions out there. I do say, though, that the guidelines I set forth above are not usually difficult to apply, and that the result of applying them is not usually difficult to interpret. There is, in my mind, no excuse for seeing Red Harvest or Moby Dick or Lolita or Jane Eyre—just to mention some egregious examples—on lists of “speculative fiction” works.

(Return to the full list of Musings.)

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