Follow-up on Speculative vs. Science Fiction

A day after my post on Speculative Fiction vs. Science Fiction, Catherynne M. Valente wrote a post on the same topic and she has a lot of good and interesting things to say about this. One thing I really didn’t talk about in my post is what I see as a taxonomy problem. Personally, I think genre is useful because it helps me to find what I am looking for when I go into a bookstore (brick and mortar or virtual). We can debate what we mean by “science fiction” or “fantasy” or “paranormal romance” but the fact it that they fill descriptive buckets that helps guide the consumer to what they want.

Genre, therefore, defines the major class the work falls into. Individual pieces can have elements that cross genres.

To say a piece is speculative is equivalent, in my mind, to saying a piece is humorous. That is, they are both aspects of the individual piece of fiction and not an attribute of the genre as a whole. You can have a funny fantasy story. You can have a literary science fiction story (see just about anything by Barry N. Malzberg).  You can have a speculative paranormal romance. Sure you can. The key, for me, is that the terms “speculative”, “literary”, “funny” are attributes of a work within a genre, not the genre itself. In a similar vain, YA is not a genre as much as an attribute of an individual work. You can have YA science fiction or YA horror or YA romance. Heck you can have a humorous, literary YA paranormal romance if you wanted to try.

I still think “speculative” was chosen to take the imagined stink off science fiction–and as Cat Valente points out in her post, it maintains the same initials: s.f. But I think it was an even poorer choice when you look at the taxonomical implications I’ve just discussed.

And what of “literary” fiction. There’s no such thing, I don’t think. There is a “literary” aspect to a work of fiction, just like there can be humor or speculation. But “literary” is an adjective that describes something that pertains to the nature of books and writing, especially literature. And what is literature, but “writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.” I prefer “mainstream” fiction because it is the fiction of the masses, as opposed to the more narrowcasted genres like science fiction, romance, fantasy, horror, mystery, etc.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and with our readers, let’s call things what they are. Science fiction has a noble and important history in American letters, and more recently, around the world. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We should be proud of our body of work, it reflects well on us. In the general sense, we are Writers, but in that more special sense, we are Science Fiction writers; of Fantasy writers; or authors of Paranormal Romance.

Flaunt it, love it, shout it from the hilltops so that everyone can hear.


  1. following up the follow-up. One point you raised has been on my mind recently due to picking up a SCIENCE FICTION novel (highly praised, award winning) that went out of its way to publish blurbs that featured the word “literary”. I won’t name the novel as I don’t want my dislike of such a popular work to color the discussion.
    I hate that buzzword as it usually indicates a work that is so densely packed with sight-smell-sound-feel descriptions and phrases that the author obviously spent months trying to get ‘just right’ that I’m bored within the first ten pages. (How many more freakin times are you going to tell me what the air smells like?)
    Anyway, my presuppositions were rewarded: densely packed treacle that flows like molasses at the south pole – yet praised and honored because the trend has been to encourage “literary science fiction”. That’s fine on the surface, but here’s the problem (that you alluded to): the big dollars go to works that are being touted as ‘the thing’. If the trend for shoving this kind of faux SF down our throats continues, there will be little or no money left to publish the real SF. Forget the phrase Speculative Fiction – the real danger out there these days is so-called literary SF and the god-awfully boring, sublimated-masturbatory tomes that are churned out under its name.
    In space the air has no smell….

    1. Above all, I want my science fiction to be entertaining. As a close second, I want it to make me think a bit. Much literary science fiction misses these qualities, in my opinion. (There are exceptions. Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo, was entertaining and thought-provoking, and in my mind, literary. Ditto for Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside.) Having said that, I worry less about the long term damage that the “literary science fiction” label might do to science fiction as a whole, than I worry about the term “speculative fiction” absorbing everything it touches. “Literary” describes a quality of the individual work. “Speculative” is an attempt to perform a genre mash-up. Speculative does not describe what I like to read and is therefore a bad label in my opinion.

      I don’t worry as much about “literary” science fiction dissolving the market for what I think of as genuine science fiction. My reasoning goes to what I see happening in the marketplace. Analog, still the top market for short, “hard” science fiction is still alive and kicking. Circulations are rumored to have gone up since the introduction of Kindle editions. People are still reading it. Then, too, Jack McDevitt’s books are among the top sellers in the genre; ditto Robert J. Sawyer, Connie Willis, and several others. I love all of their stuff. In particular, Jack’s stuff epitomizes the science fiction puzzle story. There’s no way anyone would mistake these for “literary” works, and that’s not an insult to the authors, but a compliment. And yet, people are buying these books in droves. They are among the best sellers in science fiction. That heartens me. Any attempt to label these works as literary (as, for instance, by the publisher) would likely hurt, as oppose to hinder sales. So there is hope.

  2. *dons fireproof research lab coat*

    Whenever I hear the term ‘Speculative Fiction’ I smell the sound of a closet snob deliberately trying to avoid the burning visionary gaze of “Science Fiction”.

    (You know – what Burroughs and Ballard, Lem & Aldiss do.)

    This is mainly because Science Fiction is doing something right – and their soft speculative minds just can’t take the conceptual pressure.

    That is – it’s too near to our current (hyper)-reality, its burning conceptual edges a little too sharp for their refined Literary(tm) tastes.

    Science Fiction as *retreating* into ‘squids in space’ for Trekkie nerds? Hardly. Squids are the future, baby.

    The Speculative Crowd can shove their atwoody novels up their arts. We’ve got all the best (and most deliciously dangerous) summer toys – and we’re not afraid to use them.

    – Henry Swanson

  3. Jamie, I don’t know if you’re still responding to this topic, but I wanted to bring up one point, which is that I was mulling over using the term “speculative fiction” applied to my story, not because I think science fiction has a negative stigma, but because I had the notion there was at least some faction of SF writers out there actually not wanting people to use “science fiction” to describe their offerings unless science was a central theme.

    Am I wrong about that, and imagining the twitching that occurs amongst some when Star Wars is classified as Science Fiction?

    I can understand your points about “speculative fiction” being too vague a phrase. I had never heard of it until now as something people used to distance themselves from SF, I thought it was the other way around where people were using it because scientific speculation wasn’t really the point, they just wanted to tell a romance story with spaceships and lasers and didn’t want to be looked askance at for that.

    1. Clint, I never considered the fact that some stories might be “speculative” because science wasn’t central to the theme. That much, at least , I can understand, and indeed, that twitch is there when people refer to Star Wars as science fiction (as opposed to, say, science fantasy). But from my perspective, the term science fiction is more of a generic branding that helps people identify the class of fiction. Star Wars is science fiction because at least some of the tropes of science fiction are there (space ships, aliens, etc.) despite the fact that it is woefully lacking of science (and what science is there is wrong). My big thing is that I don’t see “science fiction” as a derogatory term. Like any other label, it is a useful taxonomy for identifying a specific type of literature.

  4. I don’t see the term science fiction as derogatory either… I personally love the images it conjures up in my brain. I suppose my fears are fairly groundless then… the fact that the fiction world as a whole regards it as a substandard genre means SF is going to have fairly welcoming arms, because if that weren’t true there probably wouldn’t ever have been the idea of “soft” SF versus “hard” SF, and both are still very much considered science fiction.

    It’s interesting that the alternate term for offerings like Star Wars is “science fantasy” since that preserves the “science” part that’s causing the taxonomical trouble to begin with and just changes out fiction for fantasy, two words with very similar definitions.

    “Space Monks, Cowboys, and Princesses Doing Awesome Things” is probably a bit too long to say, though.


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