There are at least two obvious responses to the statement that Speculations on Speculation, a group of essays on science fiction criticism, is one of the two or three most exciting books, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read recently: first, I’ve lost my mind, which, given that I have at one point or another lost track of nearly everything else, is a distinct possibility; second, this book must be very stimulating indeed, which I happen to think is the correct answer.
This is not, strictly speaking, a history of science fiction, nor is it a coherent critical study. It is a series of writings, dating from 1968 to the present, dealing with the history, growth, evolution, politics (but only tangentially), and arrival of science fiction specifically, not only as a popular and influential area of literature, but as a distinct academic discipline. The contributions range from scholarly essays by Darko Suvin and Samuel R. Delany to more approachable and sometimes iconoclastic offerings by Barry N. Malzberg and James Patrick Kelly, and include as authors many who will be familiar to most readers of science fiction.
The book is organized in topical sections, beginning, logically enough, with definitions of science fiction (not surprisingly, there is no agreement on this score, although the fallback position seems to be Damon Knight’s “Science fiction is whatever we point to when we say ‘This is science fiction.'”). There is then the attempt, in a section called “Location,” to develop at least a typology, which does contain a fascinating essay by Delany on the ways in which science fiction is fundamentally different from mainstream literature. Section III, “Derivations,” does give something of an historical perspective (as well as a glimpse of the controversies) on the origins of science fiction and the literature of the fantastic in general, and includes an exhaustive essay by Brian W. Aldiss with David Wingrove on the case for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel. The remaining three sections, “Excavations,” “Infatuation,” and “Anticipation,” examine in turn, the “historicizing” of science fiction as well as events of its more recent manifestations (after, perhaps, 1970); the idea of the science fiction reader and fandom as a phenomenon that itself shapes the form; and the shape of things to come in a genre that is currently occupying the future it once sought to describe.
What seems to be the most fundamental concept that threads its way through the book, and in fact acts as a unifying element to what is, after all, a disparate set of commentaries from wildly variant points of view, is the idea of science fiction as a mode of writing rather than an actual genre. James Gunn refers to this idea in “Towards a Definition of Science Fiction,” and again in “The Readers of Science Fiction,” an essay which introduces a second key element in the phenomenon: most “mainstream literature” is about the writer, or perhaps about the literature itself; science fiction is about the reader. Brian W. Aldiss, in the “Introduction to Trillion Year Spree,” first states the idea clearly, when he calls science fiction “a mode that easily falls back into genre.” Barry N. Malzberg, in “The Number of the Beast,” calls science fiction “a methodology and an approach.” What does this mean in real terms (the “real terms” in this case meaning simply arriving at an understanding of just what science fiction is, which is something that definitions don’t seem to be able to encompass)? One gradually, thanks to the contributions of several authors, begins to see that science fiction operates from a different paradigm than mainstream literature or most commonly recognized genres. One can read a Rex Stout mystery or a Georgette Heyer Regency romance from the same set of assumptions that serve for reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover or War and Peace. One cannot carry those assumptions to Mission of Gravity or Foundation.
It is here that the participation of the audience — fandom — becomes critical. Gunn, in “The Readers of Hard Science Fiction,” examines the phenomenon in some detail, noting the “in group” quality of the reaction, in addition to a certain defensive aggressiveness — “science fiction is different and therefore better” — toward a genre that is generally looked down on as “escapism.” Robert Scholes, in “The Roots of Science Fiction,” posits realism and romance — “mainstream” literature and the literature of the fantastic — as the two historical divisions of literature, and that “structural fabulation,” a new mutation, as he terms it, of speculative fiction, has moved to fill the gap left as “literary” fiction moves away from the pure narrative, a gap that, it seems, readers need to have filled. Part Five of the book, “Infatuation,” examines the reader fairly thoroughly — David Hartwell contributes an essay entitled “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is Twelve,” which may not say it all, but it says a great deal. (This from a reader whose creaky joints and “been there, done that” attitude do not alter the fact that he is a juvenile or young adult as necessary.) Samuel R. Delany’s essay, “Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction,” is a gem: Delany discusses in some detail the differences between reading science fiction and reading anything else (based on first-hand experience as a teacher).
There are too many substantial and sometimes brilliant contributions to this collection to discuss them all in detail, or even in passing. They range from Darko Suvin’s scholarly essays soaked in Russian Formalism through Barry N. Malzberg’s brash and challenging commentaries through a fascinating contribution by Alexei and Cory Panshin linking science fiction to the 13th century Sufi poet Ibn Arabi to Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” which is pure — well, pure LeGuin. And, as might be expected in a field that is composed of individuals who are very strongly individual, there isn’t much in the way of consensus: Suvin more or less dismisses the mythic element in science fiction, which is the focus of the Panshins’ essay — a not untypical occurrence.
My only complaint about the book is that, since the essays span roughly forty years, it would have been helpful to have included the dates of each right there, on the page, without having to hunt through the Acknowledgements. That’s it — that’s the big downside.
Well, it’s not a “state of the art” collection — which, given a field that is galloping madly off in all directions (to borrow a phrase from another genre), is no surprise, and no fault, either. Speculations on Speculation is, however, a thought-provoking, often challenging group of essays about a phenomenon that some of us hold very dear, indeed.
(The Scarecrow Press, 2005)