It started out so simple. I was explaining to a college writing class how fantasy, science fiction and horror were related. Out comes the marker and I draw a Venn Diagram. “Science fiction and horror lie within the larger fantasy genre. Science fiction is distinguished by having a basis in science fact, or the social sciences, but ultimately it moves into fantasy as it extrapolates from there. Some horror is also science fiction. Think Alien or The Thing. And there is a point of debate about horror, whether it must always contain a fantasy element. Some say all that horror requires is a sense of dread. So, in a nod to that idea, I’ve drawn the diagram to show that some horror may lie outside fantasy.”
“Where does speculative fiction fit?” asked a student, and that’s when my simple diagram, and the entire discussion, became complicated. “Speculative fiction is out here in the literary universe,” I say, drawing it as its own circle. “People who like to make distinctions between speculative fiction and genre fiction set it apart.”
I proceed to draw lines of association between my neat Venn diagram of genre and the speculative fiction circle, till it looks like speculative fiction is a black hole siphoning off material from a neighboring star.
I confess to saying some unkind things then, about the people who would make these distinctions. I explain that some writers’ books that are arguably fantasy or science fiction are shelved in general literature, while others are shelved in genre. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is found in science fiction, but Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and its wonderful sequel, The Testaments, are found in literature, even though both deal with alternative events in the United States that affect life here profoundly.
I recovered from my rant to intelligently discuss Fabulist Fiction, Carol Emshwiller’s writing, and my enthusiasm for The New Weird writers like M. John Harrison, China Miéville, and Jeff Vandermeer. Yet even weeks after the class, I’ve wondered about this whole thing. Are these labels simply attempts to separate more literary writers from what some—after all these decades—still consider pulp?
I remembered editor Judith Merrill had written on the topic of science fiction and speculative fiction, and dug around in my bookcase till I found it, in the introduction to SF: The Best of the Best, published in 1967 by Dell. I was humbled to read her words: “Science fiction as a descriptive label has long since lost whatever validity it might once have had. By now it means so many things so many people that—even though there are more and more people to whom it means something—I prefer not to use it at all.” And here I’d so blithely offered a definition to the class that, in retrospect, doesn’t begin to cover it all.
Merrill goes on to explain why she used the initials SF in the anthology’s title: “[It] allows you to think science fiction if you like, while I think science fable or scientific fantasy or speculative fiction, or (once in a rare while, because there’s little enough of it being written, by any rigorous definition) science fiction.” Wow, and this was back in 1967. Fast-forward to an anthology like The New Voices of Science Fiction (Tachyon, 2019), and her words about the term would fit just as well.
Then, to top it off, Merrill offers the most beautiful definition of science fiction I’ve ever read: “So I say SF—but I still think science fiction….It has a ring to it that suits our times: an implicit dialectical synthesis equally expressive of our acclimatization to the ever-more-fantastic facts of daily life, and the growing popularity of fact-filled fantasy and fiction.”
So, science fiction it is. Or speculative fiction. Whatever name suits, it—and fantasy and horror—are not in a genre ghetto, but are interconnected spheres floating within the literary universe, their collective gravitational pull influencing writers of all kinds, no matter where their works may be shelved.