The Spelunkers of Speculative Fiction – Notes from New Sodom

The Scalpel and the Cigarette

“In fact, one good working definition of science fiction may be the literature which, growing with science and technology, evaluates it and relates it meaningfully to the rest of human existence.”
H. Bruce Franklin


When you watch enough of the daily dogfights down in the SF Café, you can get a bit jaded with it all. It’s science fiction versus Science Fiction versus Sci-Fi versus science fiction versus Fantasy versus fantasy — and all of these labels simply tags on one collar of a single Hydra-headed hound, our rabid Cerberus unbound, trying to rip its own throat(s) open. And all too often it’s the same fight underneath it all; clear away the rhetoric (e.g. “magic” and “science”) and what you find is Romanticism and Rationalism going at it yet again, the ideal of the sublime versus the ideal of the logical.

Was a time when they were partners, and they still tag team occasionally, to be sure, but the old alliance of fantasia and futurology, that Rationalist Romance of Science Fiction? Its spectre may still haunt our favourite… well, haunt, but the coherence of a Campbellian closed definition has been shattered. Where we might once have pinned the term science fiction to a conventional form in which fantasia and futurology were partners, the term now applies to a discourse far better characterised by the conflicts of these two than by their alliance. And the dialectic of Romanticism and Rationalism is so engrained in the discourse, in fact, we sometimes talk as if no other aesthetics even exist, as if there is only this binary choice: the sword or the spectacles.

The reality is far more gnarly though, because while Romanticism and Rationalism square up against each other in mutual hostility, each has… another opposite. Where one sets Passion against Reason, and the other sets Reason against Passion, there are aesthetics which refuse to play that game, twistier approaches, strategies that set reason against Reason, passion against Passion. Every so often those dogfights take an interesting turn when the aesthetic of the logical finds itself up against the aesthetic of the absurd, or the aesthetic of the sublime comes up against the aesthetic of the domestic, those two twisty aesthetics being basically the fifth columns of intellectualism and sensationalism, out to rip them apart from the inside.

The absurd is not the fantastic as many think of it, see; it’s not about the wow factor of the weird. Nor is the domestic about social realism as we might consider it, in terms of observational objectivity. The aesthetic of the absurd we find in Kafka or Pinter is not the sensationalism of the Romantics, but Rationalism turned against itself, a cold blooded murder/suicide of reason. No tawdry melodramas play in the operating theatre of cruelty; there are no frilly cuffs here, just surgical gloves. Where Romanticism wields the strange, the impossible, as a sword in a hero’s hand, for the surrealist it is a scalpel with which to dissect the psyche. Likewise, the aesthetic of the domestic we find in Dickens or Calvino is not the intellectualism of the Rationalist, but Romanticism turned against itself, a devouring of fancy, the impassioned assault on imaginative fripperies that begins where the soulful scribbler knows in their heart that what really matters is the cigarette in your hand, lit by a stranger outside a bar, or lit by a friend outside a funeral home.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as they say, and it’s no different here in the SF Café. Those dogfights sometimes take an interesting turn when the sword and the scalpel pair up against the spectacles, or the spectacles and cigarette piar up against the sword. To put a grossly superficial gloss on it, we could say that the two warring clans, the Campbells and the Macdonalds of Science Fiction and Fantasy, sometimes find strange bedfellows in the black sheep of each other’s families. The intellectualists find themselves fighting side-by-side with realists who might hold little faith in Reason, who might have little real respect for the mechanistic process of logic, but who despise the grandiose glamours for perverting honest passion. The sensationalists find themselves fighting back-to-back with surrealists who might hold little faith in Passion, who might have little actual interest in the emotional dynamics of the sublime, but who reject wholesale dogmatic meta-narratives that deny disorder rather than investigating it.

The point is, of course, for those who want to fit everything into a neat dichotomy of Reason versus Passion, these twistier aesthetics fuck with that, fighting on the wrong side goddamnit, ruining the taxonomic purity. In the SF Café, the cigarette is all about the sensation of smoking, not the science, and the scalpel is wielded by writers who believe in Godel, not gods.

But even that is, as I say, a grossly superficial gloss. If you look around the SF Café what you see is actually a whole lot of writers and readers with a cigarette in one hand and a scalpel in the other. Thing is, these two aesthetics are not opposed to each other, do not cast themselves as opponents locked in mortal combat. So with this writer the domestic becomes a key concern as they spurn the dishonest passion of Romanticism. So with that writer the absurd is employed to attack the inflexible unreason of Rationalism. Neither strategy entails a rejection of the other, so those two writers need not see each other as their hated foe. They may well be the same writer, the sort of obstinate, opinionated, downright thrawn motherfucker who looks at the aesthetic of the sublime and the aesthetic of the logical — and the whole tawdry turf war they’ve had going for two centuries or more — and sees them both as failing to do justice to the passion and the reason they idealise.

And that’s where it gets really interesting, I think.

If I Bring Back the Ashtray…

It’s those thrawn motherfuckers I see when I look at science fiction. Sure, there’s the Campbellian closed definition of Science Fiction that was, in essence, a sort of Rationalist Romanticism. And now there’s the schism between those two aesthetics that plays out in endless teacup tempests where one is set against the other. But looking into that gaping rift reveals the true core of the field as pulp modernism, I think, even from its earliest days. In many of the canonical novels or short stories of this field of strange fictions, what we see is not futurological fantasia, not an adventure with the sublime bound within a logical rationale, but rather writers striving to balance the sublime with the domestic and/or to violate the logical with the absurd. I’m not talking about the New Wave here, mind — Ballard’s catastrophe worlds of banality riven by the irrational or Moorcock’s non-linear narratives of Jerry Cornelius degrading the hero to a spotty adolescent in a London flat. Not yet, at least. I’m talking about Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” published in 1950, a tale as domestic as you can get and one where the irrational irrupts out of a viewscreen with all the scientific rigor of Freddy Krueger. It eats the main characters.

Yes, down in the SF Café, in the ghetto of Genre, there is, always has been, and probably always will be an audience looking for “more of the same,” where “the same” is basically a Campbellian Science Fiction. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But in this “literature of ideas”, born from the fusion of the intellectual and the sensational, futurology and fantasia, originality is an imperative that’s been countering formulation from the start, novel or stories prized for having their own killer concept as a Unique Selling Point. And that means — has always meant — a sort of evolutionary pressure for novels or stories in this idiom to offer not “more of the same” but “something different”, a pressure that doesn’t sit well with any closed definition.

For all the fiction designed to cosset the reader in conventions, that pressure within the field supported — if not demanded — a more exploratory fiction, one which sought to challenge the reader with subversions and outright breaches of those same conventions, which strove to serve as more than just consolatory fantasia and/or compelling futurology. The aesthetics of the domestic and of the absurd are only to be expected as emergent features of a genre focused on the sublime and the logical but one where “transcends the genre” has been code for “what we want to read” since forever. I seem to recall hearing somewhere that the cover of an early edition of Bester’s THE DEMOLISHED MAN sports that plaudit in its copy. Or possibly THE STARS MY DESTINATION. Admittedly this is a titbit snatched from a faulty memory of a casual conversation that took place in the SF Café sometime… well, more than a minute ago. Anyway… over the decades, writers pushed the envelope continuously in a quest for novelty, carrying on into new territories, constantly challenging and overturning Genre cliches, turning their tricks to satire (c.f. Frederick Pohl & Cyril Kornbluth or John Sladek), to semiotics (Samuel R. Delany), to whatever idiosyncratic interest they wanted to explore.

For a prime example of how orthodox this unorthodoxy is, how inadequate a simple closed definition in terms of fantasia and futurology is, we need only look at the late fiction of Philip K Dick, where the domestic and the absurd are often far more important than any sense of either the sublime or the logical. Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke may have been the Big Three who ruled the pantheon of pros back in the day. Hell, even for a kid coming to science fiction in the early 80s it was those three who benchmarked my entry-level experience of the field — Asimov’s I, ROBOT the first proper sf novel I read, Heinlein the first writer I obsessively collected, Clarke’s 2061 the book that revealed to me the Law of Diminishing Returns. But Dick is the Dionysus to their Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, and it’s his wild rites many are pointing to when they talk about science fiction. See VALIS or THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER for science fiction which is neither Romanticist nor Rationalist at all, not remotely. On the back of my copy of VALIS, a simple quote from the book reads, “If I bring back the ashtray, can I have my prefrontal?” That’s the cigarette and the scalpel in action right there.

If this type of science fiction focuses on science, it is to use it as a metaphor, a mechanism through which to explore humanity and modernity. The questions that concerned Dick were not scientific but philosophical: what it is to be real; what it is to be human. Science, for Dick, is only one of the many forces which reshape the world into the strangeness of what might as well be a waking dream. While Thomas Disch was pointing accusingly at the fantasia of the futurology when he titled his book of essays on science fiction, THE DREAMS OUR STUFF IS MADE OF, we can point to Dick as an emblem of another sort of dreams we might be dealing with, in his 60s suburban worldscapes ruptured by psychotic breakdowns of reality itself. These aren’t fantasias of flight, but freaky visions of finding the kiosk you were buying a hot dog from replaced by a slip of paper with the word kiosk on it. Disch’s own “Descending” is a similar blend of the mundane and the irrational, as are many of Ellison’s short stories, “Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tik-Tok-Man,” for example, (and of course Bradbury’s,) but where a dedicated Science Fiction partisan might mutter about all those Twilight Zone style fictions being “really horror,” Dick’s fiction is as often as not more strange than uncanny, not frightening so much as just plain weird.

The point is, Dick’s animatronic presidents and AI suitcases, ersatz realities and government conspiracies are less about plausible wonders than they are about the paranoia and neurosis inspired by the late 20th century, the era of McCarthy and Nixon, the Communist Witch-Hunt and the Sexual Revolution, Vietnam and Watergate… and serious drugs of course. And he was far from alone, in the SF Café, in following the cultural shift from Rocket Age rapture through the Cuban Missile Crisis of the soul towards a Cold War detente of the banal and the bizarre. It was in this context, where the concerns were less the material aspects of technology and more the abstract potentials of modernity for good or ill — if not the strange actualities of modernity itself, the futureshock of living in the present — that the term speculative fiction began to be taken up.

Note the absence of capitals, by the way.

The Solidity of the Stuff

Ask anyone in the SF Café what science is, and many will tell you it’s a method, an approach, but just as many will, in all probability, describe it as products rather than process, as stuff. Maybe they’ll describe it as a domain of knowledge, as the facts and principles accrued within that domain. Maybe they’ll point to the theories and experiments, the sundry instances of the scientific method in action. Or maybe they’ll just hold up some technological doohickey forged in the application of those theoretical principles and experimental procedures. Hey, man, check out my new iRobot! Now that’s what I call science!

There’s always been a tendency for the science in Science Fiction to focus on the latter, on the gadgetry and gimcracks, but this is not really surprising. The futurological fantasias the label was slapped on were largely structured round conceits that this or that technical impossibility had been rendered possible in some fictive elsewhere and/or elsewhen, in Outer Space and/or the Future. The literary device that Darko Suvin terms the novum, the unit of novelty written into the narrative for the protagonist (and by proxy the reader) to confront, is essentially a fancy of a techne that does not exist, (not yet, not quite.) It is the imaginary technique which does what cannot actually be done, not here and now. It’s only natural for that mechanism to be figurated in the fiction as a mechanism in the concrete sense: where the impetus to Romantic adventure creates a pressure for that conceit to function as a MacGuffin, a Maltese Falcon style plot device, well, a physical object is much easier to fight over; and even where conceits were offered as more than just the basis of “let’s pretend” fun, where there’s an intellectual game of playing through the “what if” scenario in action, where working the conceit has become an end in and of itself, anchoring that conceit in an object offers the reader a focal point. The solidity of stuff is useful, and so writers of Science Fiction turned to robots and aliens the way another writer might turn to, say, cigarettes and scalpels.

Still, the substitution of speculative for science is more accurate even at this level, because the novum is not science, no more than the erratum of Alt History — the historical impossibility to science fiction’s technical impossibility — is history. Those two Genres are characterised by the liberties they take with the domains of knowledge they play around in. There is a historical fiction which does not emply errata, but this is a quite distinct idiom from that of alternate history. We can easily imagine a scientific fiction which does not employ nova, one which instead utilises actual science the way war fiction utilises war; but this just isn’t what we point to when we say science fiction. We’re not dealing with facts but with conceits. A cloned alien brain in a robotic body is not science but fancy, however arguable we consider its (meta)physical possibility. It’s a conjecture, a speculation that tickles our “Cool!” response precisely because it breaches the mundane reality of what is technically possible. Calling it speculative fiction makes more sense, right?

But the substitution of speculative for science also reflects a logical development of the novum itself, from the concrete to the abstract, from the mechanisms of unobtanium cogs, handwavium gears and spuriotronic circuits to the mechanisms of individuals and societies. The Campbellian closed definition of Science Fiction explicitly excluded “[s]ociology, psychology, and para-psychology” as “not true sciences”, but if the most instantly recogniseable nova of the fictions were (and probably always will be) physical objects — Heinlein’s dilating door, Bradbury’s nursery with viewscreens for walls — the writers were often just as interested in the invented social structures that went with them. The group marriages of THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, the “firemen” of FAHRENHEIT 451 — ironically, if science fiction can be said to actually use real science, it is the soft sciences it employs more than anything, attempting to apply real principles of psychology and sociology to model the impact of a conceit on humanity, how we could respond to what could not actually happen.

To talk of speculative fiction rather than science fiction is to shift the focus from the solidity of the stuff to the impact of that stuff on humanity, from the mechanics of gadgets and gimcracks to the dynamics of psyches and societies. If we might tend to think of science in terms of its products, speculation is explicitly a process, and so the word serves as a banner of intent. This is about working the conceit, it says. And again, it seems a natural evolution for this approach to turn inwards. Working the conceit had become a core concern of Science Fiction with its Rationalist hat on, and even with Campbell dismissing the soft sciences, the field was quite open to conceits wherein humanity was not just confronted with concrete nova but directly altered by them, not just biologically (Frederick Pohl’s MAN PLUS), but psychologically (Theodore Sturgeon’s MORE THAN HUMAN), intellectually (Daniel Keyes’s FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON), linguistically (Samuel R. Delany’s BABEL-17). Through conceits of biological evolution and chemical augmentation, writers side-stepped Campbell’s strictures (which weren’t exactly the Word of God anyway, not in a field where Horace Gold was publishing Bester’s tales of ESPers and jaunting,) and got their teeth into science as soft as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The questions being asked in those four books — all sitting on my shelf in the Gollancz Classics editions from the 80s as core members of the canon — are questions of identity, of the relationships of human beings to themselves, to each other, and to the world around them.

These are not “what if” stories but “what is” stories. What is reality? What is society? What is humanity?

And slowly but surely they approached the question, What is fiction?

Fusion Cuisine in the SF Café


“Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.”
Brian Aldiss

In the SF Café, the beatniks had moved in, poncy artists and pretentious intellectuals, poets and (post)modernists, God bless em. The very sciences that Campbell excluded — sociology and psychology — were at the core of their interests. And when it came to literary aspirations, they saw no reason why science fiction should be any less innovative, any less rich than the mainstream in terms of style and form. It wasn’t just that they wanted all day breakfasts with eggs-over-easy instead of a burger and fries; they wanted Eggs Benedict. They didn’t want a Diet Coke; they wanted an espresso so black and so strong it blew the roof of your head off. Screw the sugar rush and the fatty satiation of comfort food; they wanted you to feel the jitters of a caffeine overload along with the exquisite tang of a perfect Hollandaise sauce. They refused to recognise (or recognised as irrelevant) the territorial politics of rival aesthetics. The sublime, the logical, the domestic, the absurd — these were just the salt, sweet, sour and bitter flavours to be thrown into the mix, and fuck any purist’s proscriptions and prescriptions that set one against another, forbid miscegenations. If fiction is food, they wanted to be eating and cooking the finest fusion cuisine.

One could say that in zeroing in on the desire for “something different”, on novelty as a key ingredient, these writers were simply reinventing the Genre of Science Fiction each time they “transcended” it, keeping the conventions under constant revision. One could equally say that they were creating exemplary (rather than exceptional) works within an idiom predicated on change by manifesting that change in the idiom itself, in an act of recursion. Either way, in a subculture of writers looking for that “something different,” it was only a matter of time before that search progressed to the next level, before those writers began to search for, find and offer “difference” in the very language and structure of the narrative itself.

So soon there was Delany’s DHALGREN, Moorcock’s CORNELIUS QUARTET, Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. There was Aldiss and Ballard and Crowley and Disch and Ellison and Farmer and so on, some more experimental than others, but all of them bringing their own new twists to the form — looped and fractured narrative, metafictional and intertextual narrative. It is difficult to think of a more (post)modern project in any of the arts than that of speculative fiction where it turns its gaze upon itself in this way. Genre is inherently self-aware in its impulse towards formulation, its recognition of story as the unifying agency of a narrative; it is continually exploring its own boundaries, reifying or reshaping them. But this speculative fiction was not simply self-aware but self-critical, analysing itself, re-evaluating the relationships between story and narrative, deconstructing and reconstructing its own nature from first principles.

The pastiche of Genre found in the work of Moorcock or Farmer is not simply referential play; it is speculation as to the nature of fiction itself. And without the cop-out of ironic distance, this (post)modernism spits on the high-art / low-art distinction with a sincerity few in the ivory towers ever really had the balls to emulate. Here, or in Delany’s THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION, we have a fiction which takes fiction as its experimental subject, its focus of conjecture. How, it asks, are we ourselves made by the stories we make, by the language in which those stories are told, the semiotics and semantics? This was fiction tearing itself apart to understand how it worked, how all narrative worked, including those narratives of identity we call human beings. If it inhabited worlds and cities shattered by catastrophes — real or imagined, Dresdens or Bellonas — no doubt much of this was a mark of the turbulent times the fiction was born in, but more than anything else this is, I think, a marker of… the alterior perspective at the heart of this fiction, a clearing away of artificed structures (which is to say strictures) in order to expose the dynamics of deeper connections.

In the SF Café, in the ghetto of Genre, in the City of Writing, a trap door had been discovered. In the cellar that it led to was a door, and beyond that door a system of secret tunnels — subways and sewer that led throughout the city and beyond it, across the nation of Art, around the entire world of Culture. Those who discovered those tunnels, who used them, realised that being part of a subculture did not simply mean being a member of some component culture within the system as a whole, a community sealed off by its boundaries of identity, walled-in within a ghetto. Rather a subculture was that which existed beneath the culture as a whole, permeating it as a mycelial network of interstices. That subculture might reflect the culture in negative (an oppositional counter-culture), as the sewers of Paris map precisely to the streets above, or it might be completely different (an entirely alternative culture), as the tube in London links the nodes of places in a pattern utterly unlike the streets above. Either way, the underground discovered by speculative fiction linked all the important points in this world of Culture into one big system that could be explored freely at this level without concern for the territorial politics at street-level.

The walls of the ghetto of Genre meant fuck all. A writer could go anywhere they fucking wanted, and they did. For the spelunkers of speculative fiction every corner of the city of Writing was fair game. And in those tunnels they found the power cables and gas pipes of words and images that linked it all, the linguistic innards of this living thing. They found kindred spirits in potholers who lived in the uptown district of Literature, the Burroughses and Burgesses who explored “our” terrain as we explored “theirs,” these gourmet chefs who were checking out the menu in the SF Café and going home to cook up their own fusion food in their own bistros, serving up a cold buffet of a naked lunch, duck a la clockwork orange. The writers of Genre shook hands with them in the urban netherworld, under the eldritch glow of biophosphorescent slime that seeped through cracks in ancient brick walls. Together they built mechanical minotaurs whose hollow roars echoed all through the underground, audible even on the surface to some passer-by standing near a ventilation shaft. The mushrooms that grew down there became a staple on the menu of the SF Café.

But if they wandered far and wide, the Young Turks of speculative fiction did keep returning to the SF Café to tell their tales. It was their home. In the Bistro de Critique, in the uptown district of Literature, stuffed shirts still baulked at the strangeness offered by those (post)modern compatriots, reviled it as obscene pornography or revered it as intellectual play, declawing it with concepts like “irony”, rendering it safe by herding it off towards the Temple of Academia. In the ghetto of Genre, the writers lived free of the constraints of decency and decorum. In the ghetto of Genre, anything goes, man. When you live in the gutter it doesn’t matter if you’re filthy.

In theory anyway.

The Surrender to the Spectre

It is ironic that where Heinlein’s coinage of the term speculative fiction was intended as a better specification of the form, a marker of the extrapolative rather than technological focus of the genre (i.e. requiring the act of extrapolation rather than the mere presence of science-based conceits and plot devices), it has been adopted largely as a descriptor for the field at its most inchoate, used as a default term for works defying easy categorisation within the tribalist rhetorics that stand in place of any coherent taxonomy. But in this explorative fiction-of-science, this experimental science-of-fiction, this innovative fiction-as-science, it seems apt as a reaction to the ossifying conflict of territorial nonsenses, as a rejection of the whole tired discourse of science fiction versus Science Fiction versus Sci-Fi versus science fiction versus Fantasy versus fantasy. It’s what the doohickey does that matters, not whether it comes under the heading of gadget or gimcrack.

Is it science fiction, fantasy or horror? someone asks a speculative fiction writer.

Well, yes, answers the speculative fiction writer.

For all that this answer is apparently unacceptable to some turf war partisans in the SF Café, it is largely their insistence on closed definitions of these idioms as Genres that makes it inevitable. Lurking in that label is a recognition that this fiction has, as far as many are concerned, stepped beyond the conventions of Science Fiction in a fundamental way. Aesthetically, the Young Turks of the New Wave were at odds with the most traditional aspects of the field and quite aware of it, as the title of Ellison’s DANGEROUS VISIONS anthologies makes clear. But rather than argue with the reactionary writers and readers still seeking to bind science fiction to the closed definition of Science Fiction, the radicals of the New Wave in the USA simply adopted Heinlein’s monicker and made it their own. And in so far as their chosen term has come to signify a broad genre of fantastic fictions, the superset, in fact, of all the inextricably interpenetrating fantastic genres, they have largely succeeded in establishing their less restrictive model.

Still, when I look back for a branch-point, I see a long history of narratives that had ceased to be futurological fantasias even long before the New Wave. I see writers offering novelty as a source of futureshock rather than sense-of-wonder, conjecturing on the basis of angst rather than argument; I see writers for whom the aesthetics of the sublime and the logical are largely irrelevant as they work on projects quite at odds with Romanticist and Rationalist agendas — Delany’s DHALGREN, Moorcock’s CORNELIUS QUARTET, Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. I see Zelazny’s ROADMARKS, Silverberg’s THE BOOK OF SKULLS. But when you’re faced with those who predicate Science Fiction on the abjection of Fantasy and/or Sci-Fi, to point to these sort of projects and their core qualities and say, this is science fiction, can be a fast route to a flamewar.

No, that’s “really” fantasy. No, that’s “really” horror.

It seldom seems worth arguing.

As I see it? The estrangement effect of the novum is powerful, and it is not limited to the dread or desire that might slide a story over some imaginary border, “out of” science fiction and “into” horror or fantasy. We’re talking about conceits that can provide the foundations for tragedy or comedy as easily as for a Romantic adventure or a Rationalist thought-experiment — or for the sort of satire that is both tragedy and comedy, as where the dark absurdities of Vonnegut’s CAT”S CRADLE belong with Heller’s CATCH-22 more than with Heinlein’s SPACE CADET or Asimov’s FOUNDATION. Where those nova function — as any conceit may — as the vehicles of metaphor and metonym, we begin to deal, in fact, with the figuration of modernity in all its strangeness. Whatever label we apply to this fiction, I see in it a staggering range of narrative grammars and an openness to using all the various flavours of conceits, not just technical and historical impossibilities but metaphysical and logical impossibilities too. If that flexibility isn’t allowed in your Science Fiction, well, maybe another name is a good idea.

Down in the SF Café, of course, this is when the double-bind of the territorial rhetoric kicks in. To many speculative fiction seems a coy and euphemistic evasion, a craven attempt to gain literary credibility by distancing one’s work from Genre… and hence a betrayal of one’s ghetto comrades in favour of the dreaded literary elite. In all honesty, this may not be entirely unfair; many of the more literate writers who adopted the label made no bones about the taint of trash that they were trying to escape, their disdain of the generic product that defines the field not just to the outside world but even in the community of uncritical devotees. Through the act of abstraction denoted, speculative fiction signifies an intellect and intellectualism divorced from the dirty physicality of science, from any slack-jawed wonder at gadgets and gimcracks. It claims a cerebral rather than visceral effect, adopts an attitude of aloofness to the very Genre it resides within. As much as it might denote the entire field of science fiction, fantasy and horror, it also connotes (or signals oneself to be a member of) a specific subset of that field — that which has “literary aspirations.”

But I can’t say this strikes me as a mortal sin. One thing to bear in mind, I’d say: this is not an act of abjection as that meted out to Fantasy and Sci-Fi. If there’s a rejection of that which is a part of oneself, a recoiling from the generic, it is not a marginalisation of that formulaic product as alterity, as other. On the contrary, this is a redefinition of self as alterity, as other. Rather than fight a losing struggle against commercialism and conservatism, rather than battle for the broken banner of science fiction, for the right to carry an empty label and claim proudly, we are it! while expelling the Enemy as something else, it seems to me that many of the New Wave and their inheritors, to all intents and purposes, simply shrugged and walked away. As a marker more of literary intent than of aesthetic form, the term speculative fiction was and is a disavowal of the dross, but this reunciation was and is more surrender than betrayal.

If anything it is the desolate retreat of the defeated in the face of intransigent animosity, the abandonment of science fiction to the reactionary. It is the slow trudge of the refugees of speculative fiction down into the tunnels beneath the city, leaving the SF Café to its taxonomic turf wars, surrendering it to that hoary spectre of Science Fiction that haunts it still, rattling the shackles of its closed definition angrily as the dogfights rage on.

So it goes, as a wise man once said.

Author: Hal Duncan

Hal Duncan is a sodomitic Scots smoker who staggered drunkenly into the SF Café in 2005 with his debut, VELLUM, and now has various novels, novellas, short stories, poems and essays circling in print or the aether. Further scribblings and rantings can be found at

2 thoughts on “The Spelunkers of Speculative Fiction – Notes from New Sodom”

  1. The future will undoubtably turn out to be more wacky than we expect although i still reckon a distopian state of affairs is most likely. After that, who knows?

  2. Just found this lovely series, and have been reading through it and had a thought I thought I’d throw out there. Where does cyberpunk fit into all this? It seems to me that one thing (good) cyberpunk does is sort of solve the issue you present here:

    “Through the act of abstraction denoted, speculative fiction signifies an intellect and intellectualism divorced from the dirty physicality of science, from any slack-jawed wonder at gadgets and gimcracks. It claims a cerebral rather than visceral effect…”

    It does this by necessity, as it’s central concern is not (like a lot of other sf) “what would society look like with rocket ships?” or “what would society look like with infotech?” or “steam power?” or “nanotech?” or whatever, but “what does a society look like while it is undergoing a true revolution in its foundational technical culture?” This is why steampunk is recognizable: it is an investigation of that question as applied to the industrial revolution, instead of the infotech one. The key is that the focus is on the lived experience fo the transitional period, not the new society that has not yet emerged.

    As a direct result of this, gadgets and gimcracks CANNOT be ignored. At the same time, they can’t be looked at with any sort of slack-jawed wonder. They and our relationship to them must be engaged in all their dirty physicality. It’s, like, important that Cayce fires up a Mac Cube to send an email to her boss in Pattern Recognition. The gadgets are no longer (only) symbols of the change represented, or even of Change itself: they are the change incarnated (and they ARE, even in the coffeehouse where I type this as no fewer than four children under the age of ten are playing (working?) on iPhones or iPads).

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