What Is Speculative Fiction? Part One: Science Fiction

Rockets. Imaginary planets. Ray guns. Yep, it's science fiction.

Rockets. Imaginary planets. Ray guns. Yep, it’s science fiction.

As the theme of this website is ‘speculations about speculative fiction’, I think it’s time I took a turn at the age-old sport of genre defining. In this post I’m going to delve into a sub-set of speculative fiction: science fiction.

I view speculative fiction not as a genre in itself but as a supercluster of other genres, including but not limited to science fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird fiction. It may also include folk stories and fairy tales. And maybe myth. But maybe not. It can get a bit fuzzy about what to include, but I’m pretty sure science fiction is in there. So I’ll start with that.

  • SCIENCE FICTION ELEMENTS

Does the story have space ships? Aliens? Time travel? Ray guns? I think for many people, the presence of these kinds of elements alone is enough to justify categorisation of a work as science fiction.

For me, the test of a true science fiction ‘element’ is that within the story, this element is viewed as being non-supernatural, or consistent with the laws of physics. So in a science fiction universe, time travelling aliens with ray guns are not viewed as supernatural. They’re just part of the world.

The key here is the ‘fiction’ of science fiction. As in, this element does not exist in our own world. Possibly it will one day, but not yet. And maybe not ever.

  • IT’S ABOUT THEME, NOT PLOT

My own thoughts on what defines a work as being science fiction focuses on how these speculative  elements interact with the theme of the work. Put simply, if the theme of a work relies on the speculative element, then it qualifies as science fiction. If the theme of a story would be intact if you removed the speculative element, then it isn’t science fiction. I’m backed up by Robert A. Heinlein here, who wrote, “Another type of fiction alleged to be science fiction is the story laid in the future, or on another planet, or in another dimension, or such, which could just as well have happened on Fifth Avenue, in 1947.”

  • REAL-WORLD SCIENCE FICTION?

But what about stories that revolve around an existing scientific truth? Are they science fiction? The film Gravity attempts to be as scientifically accurate as possible. It has space ships in it, so doesn’t that make it science fiction? Well, it’s a fictional story about science… but strictly by my definition, no. It’s not sci-fi. All of the pieces in the story can be found in the real world. It’s no more a science fiction film than a rom-com that features an amusing misunderstanding involving an eggplant emoji on a smartphone.

Compare Gravity with the film Interstellar, which has also done its research. However, quite simply it’s set in an imagined future. So it involves elements (history, technology, imaginary planets) that do not exist in our world. Ergo, sci-fi.

  • IT’S A LYRICAL EPIC, NOT A GRUBBY PIECE OF SCIENCE FICTION

There is a viewpoint that, because science fiction is high-concept, then it must be plot driven, and if a story is not plot-driven, then it can’t be science fiction. I wrote about an example of this here. However, by my definition, plot is irrelevant. It’s down to whether a story’s theme draws on the speculative element.

Examples from ‘literary’ novels that I think are science fiction are Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) and The Road (Cormac McCarthy). With the former, the theme of the novel is the nature of the human soul. The clones are viewed by the society within the novel as being soulless, and therefore ripe for organ harvest. Without the speculative element of clones being bred for this purpose, the theme doesn’t stand. Similarly, The Road relies on a speculative element, an environmental apocalypse, to explore its theme of human behavior during absolute hardship. Neither of these novels are particularly plot-driven, but both plainly rely on a science fiction premise for their thematic strength.

As you can see from Ishiguro’s thoughts in this WIRED interview, he’s not too bothered about having his writing nailed down to a particular genre.

  • SOME EXAMPLES

Star Wars. Theme: Liberty from genocidal evil. Speculative element: an enormous machine that has the power to obliterate entire planets.

The Forever War. Theme: The fight against an inscrutable alien enemy changes what it means to be human. Speculative element: Interstellar time travel and the effects of relativity cause the protagonist to develop into an outsider in his own culture.

The Windup Girl. Theme: Humankind uses genetic engineering to keep pace with environmental degradations. Speculative elements: Genetic modification to food and humans in a future Bangkok surrounded by rising sea waters.

  • IN A NUTSHELL

So. Put simply, if the elements of a given text are portrayed as being non-supernatural, but do not exist in our own world (yet?), AND these elements interact with the theme of the text, then you’ve got yourself science fiction.

Or to put it more simply: made up science stuff that matters to the theme equals…  science fiction.

mileshurt