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Speculative Fiction  

Marek Oziewicz

The term “speculative fiction” has three historically located meanings: a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating “consensus reality” of everyday experience. In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales, and more. Rather than seeking a rigorous definition, a better approach is to theorize “speculative fiction” as a term whose semantic register has continued to expand. While “speculative fiction” was initially proposed as a name of a subgenre of science fiction, the term has recently been used in reference to a meta-generic fuzzy set supercategory—one defined not by clear boundaries but by resemblance to prototypical examples—and a field of cultural production. Like other cultural fields, speculative fiction is a domain of activity that exists not merely through texts but through their production and reception in multiple contexts. The field of speculative fiction groups together extremely diverse forms of non-mimetic fiction operating across different media for the purpose of reflecting on their cultural role, especially as opposed to the work performed by mimetic, or realist narratives. The fuzzy set field understanding of speculative fiction arose in response to the need for a blanket term for a broad range of narrative forms that subvert the post-Enlightenment mindset: one that had long excluded from “Literature” stories that departed from consensus reality or embraced a different version of reality than the empirical-materialist one. Situated against the claims of this paradigm, speculative fiction emerges as a tool to dismantle the traditional Western cultural bias in favor of literature imitating reality, and as a quest for the recovery of the sense of awe and wonder. Some of the forces that contributed to the rise of speculative fiction include accelerating genre hybridization that balkanized the field previously mapped with a few large generic categories; the expansion of the global literary landscape brought about by mainstream culture’s increasing acceptance of non-mimetic genres; the proliferation of indigenous, minority, and postcolonial narrative forms that subvert dominant Western notions of the real; and the need for new conceptual categories to accommodate diverse and hybridic types of storytelling that oppose a stifling vision of reality imposed by exploitative global capitalism. An inherently plural category, speculative fiction is a mode of thought-experimenting that includes narratives addressed to young people and adults and operates in a variety of formats. The term accommodates the non-mimetic genres of Western but also non-Western and indigenous literatures—especially stories narrated from the minority or alternative perspective. In all these ways, speculative fiction represents a global reaction of human creative imagination struggling to envision a possible future at the time of a major transition from local to global humanity.



Joanna Stalnaker

Description is generally associated with the novel in its modern form, a perception captured in one of the dictums from Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Descriptions: There are always too many of them in novels.” But description has a much longer history and abounds in other genres, from the epic to lyric and didactic poetry to tragedy and beyond. In the 18th century, it was even considered a genre unto itself, in the newly conceived genre of descriptive poetry popularized by the Scottish poet James Thomson. Description also features prominently in genres of writing often considered nonliterary, such as encyclopedias, scientific writing, how-to manuals, and travel guides. Indeed, critical suspicion surrounding description in Western rhetorical and poetic tradition stems in part from the perception that it can too easily become a site for the incursion of the nonliterary (i.e., things rather than people, scientific or technical knowledge, abstruse vocabulary) into the literary domain. Description resists easy definition and has been characterized as one of the blind spots of Western literary discourse. In antiquity, rhetorical and poetic treatises gave scant attention to description, and neoclassical poetic doctrine was more concerned with policing description’s boundaries than defining it. It was not until the 18th century that description emerged as a theoretical problem worthy of debate and as a prominent literary practice. Since antiquity, description has been associated with visualization and the visual arts, through the rhetorical figures of enargeia and ekphrasis and the Renaissance doctrine of ut pictura poesis. Through this association, description has close ties to mimesis and has proved especially vulnerable to Platonic attacks on poetry, and on literature more broadly, as a mere copy of reality. In the 19th century, description featured prominently in the realist novel, but in the mid-20th century it was used, notably by the French New Novelists, as a means of contesting realism. Formalist and structuralist criticism sparked renewed interest in theorizing description in the 1970s and 1980s. At the beginning of the 21st century, in an age of interdisciplinarity when the boundaries between the literary and the nonliterary have become increasingly porous, description has once again emerged as a key theoretical problem for thinking across disciplines and has even been proposed as a new mode of reading that avoids the pitfalls of humanist hermeneutics.