Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.

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– Damon Knight, Science Fiction Adventures (November 1952)

Or, more fully, “That the term ‘science fiction’ is a misnomer, that trying to get two enthusiasts to agree on a definition of it leads only to bloody knuckles; that better labels have been devised (Heinlein’s suggestion, ‘speculative fiction’, is the best, I think), but that we’re stuck with this one; and that it will do us no particular harm if we remember that, like ‘The Saturday Evening Post’, it means what we point to when we say it.”

But the simplified version has been used to define, defend, and dismiss for seventy years now. The third one of those may have some unfortunate connotations, but we do need a dividing line somewhere. Something not being speculative has no bearing on whether it’s good, and it probably fits in some other bucket.

My stance first.

I like the basic principle, and in this brief opinion piece you can start with the basic assumption that I’m defending the intent. Science Fiction (or Fantasy or Speculative Fiction in general) is whatever the reader thinks it is. I won’t quibble over hard SF, sociological SF, or the various flavours of Punk, or Space Opera, or Science Fantasy, or, or, or {insert exhaustive list here}.

But while I’m not interested in trampling anyone else’s opinion, I do have a limit to what I consider speculative and it’s a very simple one: there must be a speculative element. It can be very light, just present enough to distinguish the world that the story happens in as different from our own, but it must be there and it must be necessary to tell the story you want to tell. If it’s not there, what I’m reading isn’t Speculative Fiction (of whatever flavour). For me, it’s that simple.

Which leaves me with the idea that Speculative Fiction is what I point to when I say it.

Which lets me point at something and say it’s not Speculative Fiction.

This ability I claim isn’t to dismiss genres or subgenres I don’t like (for an example of each, I’m not much for Horror or Magical Realism, though I very occasionally read a little bit of both), and the line is a fuzzy one sometimes, but it’s a real demarcation.

If, for example, the main character is being stalked by a monster from the sewers but the narrative makes it very clear that that character is suffering from delusions brought on by neurological issue, substance abuse, or other real, existing thing that could cause it, it’s not a Fantasy or Supernatural Horror story. (If there’s doubt about the reality of that monster, we’re in the fuzzy part of the line, but I’m likely to give it a speculative pass.)

If, for example, the speculative element in the story is someone tossing a few rocks and blades of grass into a plastic bottle and then holding that bottle up to the sun to pretend it’s a zeppelin, there is no way I can consider that speculative no matter how well written it is or how real the characters and emotions are. (I’m simplifying, but I’ve read that story passed off as Fantasy.)

Characters talking about aliens doesn’t make the story Science Fiction any more than those characters talking about dragons would make it Fantasy.

On the flipside, not every SF story needs spaceships, aliens, or technology indistinguishable from magic and not every fantasy story needs magic, strange creatures, or gods that interact directly with humans.

But Speculative Fiction stories need something to distinguish them from standard fiction stories.

Thoughts, opinions, and disagreements always welcome.

Be well, everyone.

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