[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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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 person.

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 apart.

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 Fiction."

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