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Conventional wisdom claims that the various subgenres called speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) are subsets of literature. I call this the hegemonic perspective, since it sometimes seems more focused on reflexive staking out of territory and importance than on shedding light on an interesting topic: “our genre is better written and more important than your genre, and therefore must have potential that goes beyond your genre”. Less cynically, this can be seen as nothing more than pragmatism: we have to give what we’re discussing some label, literature was named before speculative fiction became a thing, so speculative fiction must therefore be enrolled under the banner of literature.

However, seen from a different perspective, the opposite claim is true: Speculative fiction can include any story from conventional literature, provided only that you add a speculative element: that element may be something scientific (e.g., arcane physics theory), something technological (e.g., often a MacGuffin*), or something fantastic (e.g., vampires, ghosts). It is often called the literature of “what if?” because it begins with a question: What if the consensus reality is incorrect? What if we change it for the purpose of exploring the consequences of the change?

* MacGuffins are plot devices pursued by the protagonist for reasons that may not bear close examination. The term is most often used in a pejorative sense, because authors may use it lazily or as a sometimes-literal deus ex machina to write themselves out of a plot corner. In speculative fiction, they may be the aforementioned deity, whereas in science fiction, they’re more often some device or technology.

But wait a minute. Nowhere in the “rules” of literature does it say that technology can’t be a factor in a story. Cell phones, not considered even remotely science fictional today, would have seemed implausible “sci fi” to the literati of the early 20th century, and in 100 years, if we’re still here, they may seem charmingly antiquated elements of a story.

Hmmm. We seem trapped in a Moebius strip debate, in which the answer to whether something is speculative fiction or literature seems to depend entirely on where on the strip we begin our analysis—and if we carry the logic far enough, we eventually return to our starting point to begin the debate anew. Such paradoxes are usually a clue that the real situation is far more interesting than the literature versus speculative fiction binary admits to.

Being a pragmatist, I think the key difference between these genres is simple and practical, and relates more to the author’s goal than to any superficial trapping of genre:

  • If the goal is primarily mimetic, and dwells on a historical state or the present state (a consensus reality) without interrogating whether that that state is correct or where it leads, then the story is probably literature despite any presence of science, technology, or fantastic elements.

  • If the goal is primarily speculative, and asks whether the consensus reality of a given time (past or present) is correct or asks where that state might lead, then (almost tautologically) it is speculative fiction. Even if it seems mundane on the surface.

Seen from this perspective, the debate over whether speculative fiction is a subgenre of literature or vice versa is largely pointless. The more important and interesting point is what the author is trying to achieve, and the tools they have at their disposal to achieve it. There’s much of interest to explore via the concept of intertextuality, in which authors engage in an internal debate between the conventions and tropes of two contrasting genres in ways that alter one text’s meaning through a consideration of the meaning of parallel texts, but those waters rapidly grow murky, and are best left for another essay.
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