When I put together the first volume of Voices of Imagination, I really wanted to call it an anthology of speculative fiction. It’s so much neater and tighter than the unwieldy title currently attached to the collection – Voices of Imagination: An Anthology of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. The word “anthology” over “collection” was the concession literary snobbery.
So clearly, I didn’t use the term speculative fiction in the title. Why? Well, I suppose that it’s only speculative fiction snobs (SF snobs for short) even use that particular nomenclature. I have definitely never heard it outside an academic setting, and even when I did it was usually by a pompous professor trying to present cyberpunk as high literature, which of course it can be but usually isn’t.
So fellow SF academics, you’ve probably been nodding on breaks between re-reads of Heinlein, Tolkien, or Lovecraft. Most other readers are probably wondering what speculative fiction IS. Here’s the answer I always give: Speculative fiction is the genre of fiction in which the author asks a particular “What if…?” The story revolves around a certain speculation, usually fairly far-fetched. In practice, speculative fiction encompasses science fiction, fantasy, and horror, among other genres like magical realism or alternate history. Now is this the textbook definition of speculative fiction? Maybe. It’s what I learned in school, and it’s how I’ve always defined it. (Actually, if you Google it, that’s pretty much what you get.)
Now, why is that label valuable? Why not just break genres down along their traditional lines? Frankly, because they’re too limiting. Sometimes it’s just not that much fun coloring inside the lines. Sometimes you just want to get your crayons and make a mess. Sometimes, the genres as they are defined can be a bit too restrictive. Here’s a rough definition of the three biggest players.
- Science Fiction – Fiction based on science (real or extrapolated).
- Fantasy – Fiction based on phenomena that cannot possibly occur in nature.
- Horror – Scary stories, either realistic or not.
Maybe these rough definitions give you the idea that I’ve had… What about stories that don’t fit? Does H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine fit under science fiction or fantasy? The science behind it borders on the magical, but that doesn’t stop it from being a science fiction classic. How about a fantasy novel that makes use of metallurgical science? I remember a few of the old Dragonlance novels doing just that. And Richard K. Morgan’s A Land Fit for Heroes blurs the distinction between science and magic (but you have to be reading pretty closely). Horror is probably the easiest, but it’s so unnecessarily broad. Zombie movies are clearly horror, but is the contagion a scientific or magical one? The trope is now so common, that it isn’t really addressed anymore.
And that’s why I use speculative fiction, at least when I’m alone or talking to my dog. It is shorthand for imaginative stories in which the rules of reality as we currently know them are bent, broken, or otherwise subjected to the author’s will. I find it useful to just call them “speculative.” The public at large doesn’t seem ready for that, however. Either that, or it’s the more likely scenario in which most readers don’t give a shit. So until readers are either ready or start to give said shit, my anthology (read “collection”) of short stories will be called Voices of Imagination: An Anthology of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.