Sunday, December 9, 2007

Speculative Fiction; The Many Names for Science Ficton and Fantasy

There is a wonderful name for fantastic fiction: Speculative Fiction. Supposedly this means any kind of fiction that speculates about the nature of reality. A big bite to chew off if I may say so.

I've always thought that this was a way to sneak in the literary minded fantastic. This is because speculative fiction is supposed to cover magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, and alternative history fiction.

I enjoy reading and I find the urge to say something has literary merit is pretentious. I think it is a way to preserve fiction that is only read by academics. Literary merit should be focused on the truly great books. It is often applied too widely.

Magical realism is a subset of speculative fiction. It was originally started in Latin America. The most famous proponent of magical realism is Gabriel Garcia Marquez who has written numerous books including One Hundred Years of Solitude. He stated that he always liked to blur the line between fantasy and reality. His books are great reading. Also Borges, Isabel Allende, Jorge Amado, and Yann Martel are considered magical realism. Yann Martel's Life of Pi, is very interesting it is about a young boy who spends seven months at sea with a tiger in a lifeboat trying to survive. The tiger is never found in the end. Pi also manages to practice Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism at the same time, a rather fantastic feat.

With this, I will switch to the idea of Alternative History. This genre is about where something different occurred in the past, and the present world is somehow different. Quite often it is things like the Ottoman empire never fell, or the nazis succeeded. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick presents an America where the nazis have concurred it. Another famous series that is more recent and definitely science fiction is Harry Turtledove's World War Series. Alien reptiles invade during world war II and attempt to take over the world. It changes the course of history. A very entertaining series. A classic book in this genre is A Connectict Yankee In King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain, a satire where a man from Mark Twain's time travels back to the time of Camelot. For something very contemporary, you might try The Plot Against America about a place where Franklin Roosevelt didn't get elected for a third term, but Lindbergh did. It is about a slow slip into American fascism.

We are moving into the concept of science fiction or as it was originally called by Hugo Gernsback, scientifiction-- scientific fiction. Science fiction was not the original term for the genre. Now there are abbreviations for the genre sci-fi and sf. I think of abbreviations sometimes as being lazy. Science fiction, is most often fiction that speculates about future events usually focused on science and technology. It has been with us for a very long time.

Most people dismiss science fiction as about B.E.M.s, or Bug Eyed Monsters. I happen to really like bug eyed monsters. Aliens are fun to read about in their wide variety. There is nothing like reading about pip the minidragon in the Pip and Flinx series by Alan Dean Foster, or being terrorized by the Coeurla in The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. Van Vogt.

There are many subgenres of science fiction. Hard Science Fiction is fiction which focuses on using real science to predict the future. Jack McDevitt is a wonderful example of a contemporary hard science fiction writer. Also Kim Stanley Robinson when he wrote about the terraforming of mars is writing hard science fiction.

The opposite is soft science fiction. Science fiction about social issues. Ursula Leguin is the quintessential soft science fiction writer. One of the books I have read, The Margarets by Sherri S. Tepper is a good example of soft science fiction. Sherri S. Tepper also wrote The Gate To A Womans Country, a good example of both soft science fiction and feminist fiction. For something more accessible to the every day reader, there is The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood. This was made into a wonderful film that is quite scary.

On this note we have utopian or dystopian science fiction. This focuses on popular fear. 1984 by George Orwell is the ultimate dystopian novel. It is required reading in high school. Remember "Big Brother Is Watching You." Another subgenre of utopian fiction is Ecotopian fiction. The most famous of this type of fiction is Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. More recently there is the Ecolitan series by L.E. Modesitt.

Then there is the concept of cyberpunk, or combining computers with a punk reality. The most famous of these books and some say the first novel in this genre is John Brunner's Shockwave Rider. Cyberpunk has almost become real today. Bruce Sterling who writes science fiction, wrote a book about Kevin Mitnick, The Hacker Crackdown, which reads very much like a cyberpunk novel.

On a side note some of the modern science fiction writers are introducing something that rides the boundaries of science fiction and contemporary thrillers. I call it the near future thriller. William Gibson recently wrote Spook Country which has elements of cyberpunk in it, even though it is considered a mainstream bestselling novel. Also Charles Stross recently wrote a novel called Halting State where police are called in to solve a crime inside an online roleplaying game.

A digression from cyberpunk is steam punk, or victorian era science fiction written by present authors. Alan Moore in his graphic novel sequence, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen revives all of the characters of 19th century science fiction and turns them into superheroes in an odd alternate Victorian england. This is an example of both Superhero fiction and steampunk. Another example of steampunk is The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling. In this world, a secret society controls a babbage machine which they use as a supercomputer and have been using since Victorian times.

David Drake is one of my favorite writers. A series that is loved by many military people is Hammer's Slammers a story about future tank warfare. This is military science fiction. Another example of military science fiction that deals with tanks is Bolo by Keith Laumer. Baen books is the leading publisher of military science fiction today. I rather like their books. They are very entertaining. Jerry Pournelle who wrote the nonfiction book The Strategy of Technology, also created the Codominium universe where Russia and the United States ally to create a bleak future history. The codominium setting is mostly military science fiction.

Of course if you are thinking of military science fiction, you also are thinking of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction as well. Quite honestly, I don't read much apocalyptic fiction. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard is about as far as I get with this kind of thing. I like to think I have a positive vision of the future. However, if you want a really good well written accessible book about the death and rebirth of civilization, read A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

There are two major acknowledged ages in Science Fiction, The Golden Age, and The New Wave. The golden age of science fiction is mostly the 1930s and 1940s. It is the age of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine. This is when the major writers and artists of the genre began to be established. Virgil Finlay and FrankR. Paul are the two major artists that came from this time period. Isaac Asimov and others helped turned science fiction more mainstream at this time. The New Wave happened in the 1960's. It is a turn towards soft science fiction or social commentary. During the new wave, Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany, and Michael Moorcock expanded the boundaries of science fition.

What most people see as science fiction is really Space Opera, romantic future adventure stories. The real foundation of space opera started with Flash Gordon who was always fighting Ming the Merciless. Today we see two main space operas, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Star Trek is far more romantic than many people realize. The theme song shows this. Captain Kirk is always getting a new woman.
Star Trek Lyrics:

Beyond the rim of the starlight,
my love is wandering in star flight.
I know he'll find
In star clustered reaches
Love, strange love
A star woman teaches.
I know his journey ends never.
His Star Trek will go on forever.
But tell him while
He wanders his starry sea,
Remember me.

Star Wars was originally meant to be a comedy when it was first released. It turned into a movie empire. It is what people think of when someone mentions science fiction. There are very strong elements of fantasy with the jedi knights in Star Wars. I think of it as more science fantasy than science fiction.

Space Western is not a category which I know much about. I haven't seen too many of this kind of thing. I am guessing it is high noon in space, or the lone ranger in space. The movie Outland starring Sean Connery is about a lawman coming to clean up a space station. It is definitely a space western.

When I think of science fantasy, I think of Darkover written by Marion Zimmer Bradley with its psychic leroni, or Witch World by Andre Norton with its psionic witches. Both of these books posit a kind of psychic super science in a medieval setting. They set this "science" against modern day explorers who are trying to take the planet for themselves. Both Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley are writing in the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy.

You can also categorize the Darkover novels as Romantic Fantasy, because there is a strong element of love and intrigue in the novels.

Sword and Sorcery is a very commen theme in fantasy literature. It is a form of low fantasy. Conan the Barbarian is the most famous of low fantasy characters. Robert E. Howard didn't write most of the Conan novels. L. Sprague De Camp basically expanded the series into what we know as Conan. Now there are innumerable spinoffs from Conan. Faffhrd and Grey Mouser are two excellent fantasy characters created by Fritz Leiber. I think of sword and sorcery as have sword will travel.

The first thing which people think of when they think of fantasy is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien this is high fantasy at its best. The Hobbit regularly gets assigned as standard reading for junior high and high school in American schools. It is very well written writing.

The best fantasy has strong mythic overtones. The Queen of Elflands Daughter by Lord Dunsany is an example of well written myth fantasy drawn from myths and legends surrounding Ireland and England. Some more modern examples of myth fantasy are American Gods and Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. These are both set in the modern day.

You could almost call them urban fantasy. Urban fantasy is putting mythic elements into a modern setting. Charles De Lint does this wonderfully. I'll probably pick up his new book Little Grrrl Lost about a six inch tall girl and her friendship with a big person in a modern urban setting. There is something always interesting in fairytales or fantasies about little people. I always liked to watch the Lilliputians in the movie of Gulliver's Travels.

There is still the regular fantastic literature to consider. I still read things like Erik Stevenson's Malazan Book of Fallen, or George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire.

Something which I don't often read is Horror which is considered part of speculative fiction. I am not big on being scared. I have read Cujo by Stephen King about a rabid dog, that is about as scary as I want to get. There is some relation between science fiction and fantasy. Dean R. Koontz, the bestselling author started out writing science fiction then later switched to writing horror. Dan Simmons writes both science fiction and horror. His Endymion series is quite interesting.

In horror, vampires, werewolves, and zombies seem to define the genre. Anne Rice's vampire novels are more slightly erotic adventure stories than terrifying novels. Also, World War Z by Max Brooks is more of an adventure and survival story about surviving zombie attacks than a true horror novel. Max Brooks other book, The Zombie Survival Guide is more humor than horror. I prefer my monsters to be more humorous than terrifying. You Suck: A Vampire Love Story by Christopher Moore is an excellent example of a humorous vampire novel. Again, I prefer my lycanthropes to be more adventurous than scary. The Werewolves of London by Brian Stableford is more of an adventure story than anything else.

I also actually like H.P. Lovecraft and people who write adventure pastiches on the Cthulhu mythos. Once again, stories like At The Mountain of Madness are not particularly scary, they are more strange than anything else. I don't have a Cthulhu doll like many people, but am thinking of getting one. I might get a shoggoth doll instead.

I don't read many superhero novels. Somehow superheros belong in comic books more than they belong in novels. Nevertheless, now you can buy novelizations of Vampire Hunter D, Batman, Superman, the X-Men and many other characters. I actually enjoyed the Dark Horse comics novelization of Vampire Hunter D by Hideyuki Kikuchi. It is no longer in print. The manga of course are much better. There is a certain woodenness in many superhero characters. Of couse, sometimes, if the person creates an original hero for a superhero novel, it can be entertaining. Count Geiger's Blues by Michael Bishop parodies and at the same time tells the story of superhero Count Geiger.

The other type of fantasy not yet mentioned is the pulp heroes, The Spider Master of Men, Doc Savage, and The Shadow. As they say, "The Shadow Knows." Baen has reprinted the Spider Master of Men and is distributing it as a paperback. The original pulp heroes crossed the detective with the superman. Doc Savage is a self made superman, stronger, faster, and more intelligent than the peopel surrounding him. An interesting take off of Doc Savage is a fantasy novel called Doc Sidhe by Aaron Alston. Doc Sidhe is a kind of an alternative Doc Savage sent in an elfen art deco 1930s. There is magic, intrigue, and a very pulpy setting.

Some mystery novels have a fantastic twist to them. There are mysteries set in ancient rome, cat detectives, fantasy detectives, and others. One of the most hated mystery novels by science fiction fans is Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. It successfully lampoons science fiction writers and fans. There is even a followup, Zombies of the Gene Pool. Isaac Asimov wrote numerous mystery novels.

If you are following the mysterious, somehow supernatural fiction also got mixed in with speculative fiction. I honestly don't know that much about supernatural fiction. Reading about hauntings and ghosts unless they are in The Weekly World News doesn't fascinate me that much. I cannot get myself to read The Amityville Horror, or the Haunting of Hell House by Richard Matheson. The one short story which I can recommend is "Pigeons From Hell" by Robert E. Howard.

By the way, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is being reproduced for theaters soon. I wish they had done the Incredible Shrinking Man first. It is a much better story.


Anonymous said...

Wow! What a comprehensive post. Great! For informative.

Anonymous said...

*correction* For should read very.
Sorry :D Just woke up.

Paul Burman said...

I found this article very interesting. Thanks. Have always felt that 'Speculative Fiction' was a somewhat tautological term; after all, isn't all fiction speculative? In this respect, I too find it unsatisfactory and so broad a term it's almost worthless.

Unknown said...

FYI re "I Am Legend"; it was also done in the late 50s, b/w, with Vincent Price. Then, delightfully and amazingly ever-so-chessily in the early 70s, in Charlton Heston's "Omega Man".