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On "Speculative Fiction"
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
The "Science Fiction Writers of America" recently renamed
itself the "Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,"
but during the debate about a new name, there was a camp rooting
for "Speculative Fiction Writers of America" (and a small but
vocal group, including Charles Sheffield,
Arthur C. Clarke, F.
Gwynplaine McIntyre, and me, pushing for the abolition of that
silly "of America," and becoming an "Association" instead).
I've never liked the phrase speculative fiction. I think it goes
back to my days making a living as a magazine writer.
"Speculative writing" or writing "on spec" means you don't
have a contract for it, and risk not getting paid. The very
concept sends shivers down my spine.
Secondly, I've always felt that a professional organization
should have a name that communicates to one and all what it
deals with. "The Screen Actors Guild" is a fine name
whether you're an industry insider or not, you know exactly what
it means. "Celluloid Thespians of America" means pretty much
the same thing, but communicates not one whit to the average
Likewise, the average Joe, grabbing the latest book off the rack
at his corner 7-Eleven, knows not at all what "Speculative
Fiction" is. Indeed, the average writer in mainstream fiction
SF writers' allies in battles against diversified publishers
likewise is blissfully ignorant of the meaning of
"speculative fiction," but grasps in an instant who we are if
we refer to our bailiwick as "science fiction" (or "science
fiction and fantasy").
And that brings up another point. Speculative Fiction tries to
be an umbrella term for both science fiction and fantasy, which,
as Damon Knight has so astutely observed, are distinct entities
to publishers, book-buyers, and, indeed, to many bookstores
it's only writers that seem to have a hard time telling them
In fact, I'd be much more interested in having a phrase to cover
all fiction in which rational thought is a prized value, and in
which the stories hinge on the realities of the way things really
work. This large grouping would include real SF, much mainstream
fiction, and mystery fiction, but would exclude a great deal of
fantasy. As a writer and a reader, I see the above as a much
more meaningful grouping than the combination of "stories based
on the extrapolation of science and technology" and "stories
based on magic, mythology, and folklore, and incorporating things
that could never happen."
I'm not saying one type of story is better than the other, but,
rather, that it always surprises me that two genres that are, to
me, so opposite, are often thought of as logically and properly
belonging together, and, indeed, therefore, should be referred to
under a single rubric. Long the live the term "Science
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