I know this may not be the most popular opinion, but I don’t really see the necessity of the term “speculative fiction,” at least not as an alternative to science fiction. When I type “SF,” I mean science fiction. It’s not that the speculative fiction moniker is offensive, but it seems to arise from the sort of skeevishness about a term that has negative or limiting connotations that drives Atwood’s quackery. Science, in Atwood’s view, is about “impossible” aliens (I’m not sure where she got the idea that scientific consensus finds alien life impossible or even improbable), while speculation is about feats of practical engineering. This strikes me as totally backwards.
Atwood says that “…”what Le Guin means by “science ﬁction” is what I mean by “speculative ﬁction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science ﬁction.”” I wonder if Atwood knows that Le Guin shares her definition with others – lots of others. Her definition is the one that’s based in something reasonable. At best, Atwood’s differentiation is arbitrary. At worst, it’s downright scientifically ignorant. To her credit, Atwood does acknowledge that War of the Worlds might have been considered plausible in its day. But that doesn’t seem to cause her to reevaluate her position; instead, she launches into a summary of “slipstream,” an even more pointless non-classification.
The building of an air-balloon or submarine involves real, applicable science – that’s how those things were eventually made real. But Verne was still speculating at the time, just as Wells was. SETI was a scientific venture; does the fact that we haven’t found aliens yet make them silly and fantastical? Does silliness somehow connote science? Might not Wells’ time machine be, like the submarine was when it was conceived by Verne, something which will one day exist through the practical application of science?
Look, it’s not that hard. If a story features, as a significant aspect of its basis, a plausible situation that is based on or best understood through scientific thought of one kind or another, it’s SF.*If a story has a basis in things which were written without the intent of plausibility, featuring things known, more or less, to be impossible, it’s fantasy. Got it? If the author wants to quibble, she is certainly free to, but she’s wasting her time. Old writers may spend a lot of time talking about how meaningless genre terms are, but that neglects a sociological and anthropological truth- that art and its identity is a cultural process, and an important one. And neglecting sociological and anthropological truths is irresponsibly unscientific.
Science isn’t “truth,” or “being right.” It’s not what is, it’s our process of trying to understand what is, and what could be, using the most objective criteria available to us. Dividing out speculation about alien life, reducing science to engineering alone, quibbling about the involvement of the social sciences simply because they are less often able to utilize the mathematically quantitative (and less often benefit from it), is simple-minded. Science is not math, or engineering, or proven facts alone. Science is the pursuit of truth and understanding in all literal things, a process that involves a good deal of informed speculation and which is never complete. There’s room for aliens, anthropologists, and hot air balloons alike.
* This is a whole other thing, but the only grey area here is “psychology.” In some sense, all fiction involves the understanding of a character with respect to their psychology. That’s not necessarily scientific, though; we’re all sort of folk psychologists simply by virtue of our membership in a social species. Use of actual, technical psychology in writing or understanding a character or culture, however, crosses the line into SF.