Speculating

Coloured contour map of Mars (NASA image)

“But what would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?”
Asimov: “Type faster”

It’s a truism that fiction, but more particularly what’s called speculative fiction, tries to answer the question “What if?” A speculum is, after all, a mirror or reflective glass, and looking in one gives the viewer an image of reality — but it is not in itself reality, because what is seen is reversed, or distorted, or limited by the frame.

I recently did some notes for other participants on a Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction module run by Aberystwyth University for a creative writing course, and offer it here in the hopes this basic discussion, with links to my reviews and some external sites, may prove helpful for any others yet to sample the genre.

Note that it doesn’t claim to be comprehensive or exhaustive, or even authoritative; I have nevertheless slightly rejigged the original text to suit a different audience.

There is, as with all specialist areas, much disagreement, even controversy, as to what to call the genre, what to include in it, and so on. All I’ve done is to take the outline for the course and add a brief commentary.

Emily and Anne Brontë’s imagined polities, Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi

So the first point I want to make is that the terminology for what’s loosely described as SF is complex and fraught with controversy and disagreement. You’ll hear of SF, science fiction, hard SF, SFF (science fiction + fantasy), speculative fiction, alternative history, counterfactual, alternative world, multiverse, urban weird, steampunk, cyberpunk, dystopia, fantasy, and everything in between and beyond.

I personally prefer to think of all fiction as fantasy, not least because fiction (and even what often passes as non-fiction) is the product of phantoms or fancies of the mind — but that’s not useful when it comes to genre writing and, particularly, cross-genre writing.

Right now I’m going to try to convey a broad sense of what only some of the subgenres of SFF might look like when we come across them, as outlined in the course criteria.

Genre
This link goes back to a class discussion participants had a few years ago on genre, in which I tried to make a start on distinguishing subgenres in this amorphous genre. (This site here I found useful as a general introduction.) I’ve also reviewed a Waterstones’ guide to SF and related genres which may still be available secondhand.

Ursula K Le Guin
The course introduction makes reference to the late great Ursula Le Guin. Sadly I haven’t yet reviewed The Left Hand of Darkness which was on the course list but you can get a taste of her individual approach to SFF (anthropologic, environmentalist, feminist etc) in her collections of short stories, such as A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. (I’ve discussed some of her writings under this tag.)

Uchronia
Uchronia is my favourite term for what’s also known as alternative history (‘alternate history’ in North America) or counterfactual history: it simply means ‘not-times’ just as Utopia means No-place. A classic uchronia is Keith Roberts’ Pavane, while Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a more recent example. American fiction is full of alternative histories, with Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is often cited as a prime example. My current favourite is a children’s series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Paracosm
A paracosm is a world, universe or cosmos which runs in parallel with our own (alternate or alternative world), part of a general theory that we are just one universe in a multiverse. Writers like Michael Moorcock and Diana Wynne Jones (the latter’s fiction is full of Related Worlds) have several paracosms existing side by side, as does Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (this guide is extremely helpful). Meanwhile this link mentions some of these paracosms; even so-called ‘serious’ writers like travel writer and historian Jan Morris have got in on the act. Inevitably the genres of paracosm and uchronia simply coalesce as alternative history often requires, and merges with, an alternative world.

Fantasy
In broad terms SF is really a sea in the ocean of fantasy. Differentiation often takes this form:-

Science fiction describes the possible; fantasy describes the impossible.
SF is essentially non-religious; fantasy often draws on myth.
SF provides social commentary; fantasy with its magic is akin to fairytale.

But it’s rarely that simple. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell is in one sense a uchronia, an alternative history set during the Napoleonic Wars, but it also deals with magic and fairies. This, and its companion volume The Ladies of Grace Adieu, are firmly rooted in fairytale but in a way that touches on dark fantasy, ghost stories and, with their footnotes and faux academic references, pseudohistory.

Meanwhile, children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones borrowed freely from SF with her version of the multiverse but she allowed magic in her paracosms, for instance in her Chrestomanci series.

Finally — for now — I come to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. How to classify this? Is it, with its regenerated Creature, SF? Or, when young Frankenstein studies and apparently uses cabalistic magic, is it fantasy? With no reference to the contemporary Napoleonic Wars is it uchronia? Others see it as a philosophical tract, an allegory or parable, a ghost story pure and simple, or a late example of High Gothick.

In my view SFF challenges the reader to imagine and contemplate alternatives: though — unlike much contemporary writing — it can offer us a crystal ball to see possibilities, it may also hold a mirror up to ourselves, so we may see what we have become, and ask us if we like what we see.


May is rapidly approaching and several bloggers are already planning to read different subgenres of fantasy under the Wyrd & Wonder banner hosted, as usual, by bookwyrm Imyril at onemore.org.

I’m not planning to officially join in but I do intend to read some SFF novels this month, some leaning more on the speculative side, others firmly in the fantasy camp.

Don’t be surprised therefore to find reviews and discussions for the merry month of May on titles which most decisively don’t deal with the everyday and the mundane!

18 thoughts on “Speculating

  1. Really enjoyed this post. Curiously although I’m a huge Philip K Dick fan, I didn’t enjoy The Man in the High Castle. I’m also determined to finish Jonathan Strange this year. Started it a few years back and it’s just been sat on my shelf ever since.

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    1. Thanks, Nicola! I think that was the first PKD novel I read, and certainly one I want to reread because I’m sure there was much I didn’t get a handle on. Ditto with Ubik which I’m rereading now with a few more ‘Ah!’ moments! 💡

      JS&MN is worth taking up again, I think; having watched the excellent TV series I’m not sure if I’ll ever not have the main leads out of my mind’s eye in a reread!

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      1. I love Ubik. It’s my favourite PKD. I’ve even got the script version he wrote for the film that never happened. I loved JS,&MN on TV so I really want to read it. I’ve already decided that next year will be a year of re-reading old favourites so I’d better get a move on 😁.

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        1. Yes, I saw there was a film script, a pity it wasn’t realised! Maybe Christopher Nolan could do it justice, à l’Inception? Nearing the end of my reread and spotting so many things I’d missed first time around, eg Joe Chip and the twelve ‘disciples’…

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  2. I would love to re-read Jonathan Strange… I would categorise it (if I had to) as fantasy rather than uchronia (a term new to me – which I instantly plan to use).

    Spec fiction for me is always set in the near future, close enough to the now (of its time) for the world to be easily recognisable. Sometimes I have problems with too human-like robots too close to now though – the writing needs to be good enough to help me suspend my belief.

    It’s so complicated though!

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    1. That whole genre is an area of shifting sands, Annabel, especially when authors insist on coming up with innovative add-ons to our understanding of it! But, as you say, complicated. 🙂

      As for android robots, Japan for example seems pretty close to simulacra that mimic humans in several ways — repetitive actions, walking, being ‘companions’ with realistic silicone features, using AI to ‘converse’ — but it’s convincingly combining all those aspects which I think is still far enough away to count as speculative, even if sooner or later within reach.

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  3. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

    I adored JS & MN! Strange and Norrell are high on my personal list of deeply flawed characters that I loved reading about. And the setting is great.

    Last year I read Declare by Tim Powers, a fantasy set during the Cold War. I don’t know if it is truly counterfactual because there aren’t any major changes to history, just behind-the-scenes fantastical happenings. I really liked it, and found it worthy of its World Fantasy Award. (Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik does something similar.)

    Re. Pavane: I read this long before I was blogging, but what rubbed me the wrong way was the implication that just because the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in Europe, the rest of the world pretty much stagnated. (Compare _The Years of Rice & Salt_ by Kim Stanley Robinson, which doesn’t have this problem.)

    Robin McKinley has set several fairytale retellings (Spindle’s End, Deerskin, Rose Daughter) in paracosms (possibly the same one, I’m not sure.)

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    1. Regarding JS&MN, have you also read The Ladies of Grace-Adieu? Equally haunting tales with distinctive central characters, though nowhere near as epic as the novel!

      I haven’t read the Tim Powers, or the Novik, in fact nothing by either of these authors, but I shall add them to my virtual list! Ditto the Robinson and, to my shame, McKinley (though I’ve probably read short stories by the latter in collections, I think). As for Pavane I did enjoy it, and though as a realistic counterfactual it didn’t work, I think it was an excuse for obsessing about traction engines and Elizabethan intrigue (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-stately).

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      1. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

        The Robinson is on my list of books to reread so I can review them properly. I have read The Ladies of Grace-Adieu; I think the title story might be my favorite, or the one with Mary Queen of Scots.

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        1. I too have shelfloads of books I need to reread to review them properly, Beth! In the meantime I’m looking forward to Susanna Clarke’s new novel, due out this autumn if all goes according to plan…

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  4. piotrek

    “Dictionary of Imaginary Places” was recently published in Poland and I’m fighting with myself… probably will buy it at some point. But I have to admit I already two volumes of Manguel’s essays I bought after reading one of them in a magazine, and I’m yet to read them…

    Is the Dictionary really as cool as it seemed to be when I skimmed it in a bookshop :D?

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    1. I frequently dip into it, Piotrek, and I have the first edition acquired way back when, so yes to your question! Would be interested to see what made its way into more recent editions, however. Not tried Manuel’s essays yet…

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          1. piotrek

            I received the book yesterday, and it is indeed great. I’m reading an entry or two each time I need a short break from my home-office work 🙂 They added quite a bit to Polish edition, stuff from local literature – the editors did great job!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Oh that’s fantastic, Piotrek, and I’m so pleased that there are editions to cater for different languages and their literature! I’m gagging now for an updated English edition as even back when I acquired my copy I could see several gaps that needed filling in.

              And ‘little but often’ has frequently been my mantra in the early days too. 😊

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