Visions of Paradise

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Defining speculative fiction

There are several ways to define speculative fiction, and being a compulsive organizer, I have ventured two of them. Twenty years ago I defined the genre based on its form:

A science fiction novel accepts all the scientific axioms of our real world, but adds one or two additional axioms to them.

A fantasy novel accepts most of the scientific axioms of our real world, but replaces one or two with imaginary axioms.

Thus a science fiction novel does not violate any of the real world’s tenets, but adds additional ones, such as space travel, futuristic life, alien beings, etc.

Fantasy basically accepts magic and/or the supernatural in addition to the majority of our real world’s tenets.

But what about alternate history? That was not a major part of the overall genre twenty years ago, but in the years since it has become so huge as to be equally important as f&sf. However, it does not really fit either of the above definitions. So what we need is a third definition for alternate history:

An alternate history novel accepts most of the historical facts of our real world, but replaces one of two with imaginary facts.

Another way to define speculative fiction is based on its intent:

Science fiction (or realistic imaginative fiction) is the study of plausible future change upon the world as we know it.

Fantasy (or unrealistic imaginative fiction) is the study of impossible change upon the world as we imagine it.

Alternate history is the study of hypothetical historical change upon the world as we remember it.

The word “hypothetical” in the third definition tends to separate it from the definitions of both fantasy and science fiction. Basically, it’s a fancy word for saying alternate history stories are what-if’s. What if the South had won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee), Germany had won World War II (The Man in the High Castle), or the Spanish Armada had beaten the English fleet (Pavane or Ruled Brittania). It does not have the same intent as a science fiction novel which aims to project outward from our world as it currently exists. Instead alternate history aims to project sidewise from key moments in the historical past.

Alternate history is not the only sibling genre to f&sf. Supernatural horror (as opposed to realistic horror) has so many overlaps with f&sf that it cannot be considered mainstream, but neither does it fit snugly as a sub-genre under either of the two genres.

I can understand why science fiction people have tended to subsume alternate history under f&sf, for the same reason that sf people originally subsumed fantasy under sf: they all deal with some version of imaginary worlds, whether plausible or hypothetical, so they are definitely all siblings under the cover. And while their differences have no effect on what we read, or how we review them, or when we vote for our favorites, from a critical point of view they have differences and can be discussed differently.


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