An open question about speculative fiction.

In another post, I ventured a functional definition of speculative fiction. I said that a manuscript is “speculative” (i.e., fantasy, sci-fi, or anything in between) if it requires the writer to invent a rule or condition for their world that acts as a metaphor for the novel’s theme. In other words: If you make something up, that something has to offer the reader a clue to what the book is about. Otherwise it’s gratuitous.

Yet, I am reminded of Occam’s Razor, which says that the simplest explanation for anything is usually the truest one. The problem with my earlier definition is that it doesn’t always work; there are lots of books about dragons, fairies, and/or outer space that use speculative elements just for the fun of it. Some readers like to read about dragons, for instance, so a market exists for writers who enjoy telling dragon stories. Simple as that. There is no rule that says all dragon stories must be important social commentary.

So let me try a simpler definition. Where all fiction involves five basic elements–premise, theme, voice, character, plot, and style–speculative fiction also involves a sort of sidecar to premise: the concept.

So, if premise is what the story is about in a few simple sentences, the concept is the invented-but-believable element that separates the story world from reality. The concept could be anything: vampires and why they exist (Interview with a Vampire), a medieval world inhabited by dragons (The Dragonbone Chair), a future America in which fertile women are required to reproduce (The Handmaid’s Tale), or a alter-reality in which Irish immigrant spirits are at war with Native American spirits (Forests of the Heart). If your novel uses a concept, then it has a speculative element. Simple as that.

So, here’s my question. What is the difference between realist fiction and speculative fiction?

And a bonus question: Where is the line that separates books shelved in a store’s “general fiction” section and its “sci-fi and fantasy” section?

Click for a link to a high-res version of Ward Shelley's brilliant "The History of Science Fiction." I love this image so much that I hung it over my desk.

One Comment on “An open question about speculative fiction.”

  1. You pose a difficult question, which this helplessly curious reader must attempt to answer.

    All fiction requires some suspension of disbelief, but speculative fiction is distinguished by a greater cognitive leap required by the incorporation of story elements that significantly diverge from our understanding of the known world. Moreover, the type of the break from reality defines the sub-genres: fantasy stories violate the laws of nature, alternative histories contradict the historical record, and science fiction challenges our technological expectations. In so doing, speculative fiction both enables readers to escape farther from reality, and equips writers with unique settings in which they may convey original stories.

    You used “concept,” but I prefer “setting” to capture this distinction. Speculative fiction differs functionally in that the setting diverges significantly from our understanding of reality. Realist fiction, however, showcases that which is possible in our known world, and does not require the reader to set aside some boundaries of reality to explore the unknown.

    on Dec 29th, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

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