Questions from Other Worlds

Margaret Atwood has a wonderful book out, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. Read it and learn. Wisely, Atwood doesn’t pretend to know everything about fiction, but one question she raises intrigues and frustrates me. Just what is sci-fi? I’ve just finished revising a novel that I’m not comfortable calling science fiction because there’s so little science in it, but it is other worldly, sort of.

Fiction, as she says, is what’s invented. Science is what’s known. Well, I certainly get the invented part, although with the history of myth, fable, romance and novels that she relates, I’m no longer sure what I’ve invented and what I’ve absorbed in reading. The science is sketchy. Much of what appears in sci-fi isn’t known, or not yet. It is invented.

So, there’s the issue of what to call a book that involves invented science: Is it speculative, paranormal, fantasy, sci-fi? Seems there’s no standard definition, just standard deviations. Fantasy might have dragons, ogres, demons and elves. Paranormal might be something, I suppose, like Stephen King’s Carrie, which sure didn’t seem normal to me. (I imagined all of Westbrook, Maine, in flames because I associated King with my home state.) Speculative is an interesting word: the author speculates on a future society and what it might be like. And it might include space travel, time travel, alien creatures and human heroes. Sort of a nice catchall, but have bookstores glommed onto the category? Would such a book get its very own shelf?

Help! I’m drowning in an undefined sea. I welcome any lifeline you want to toss at me.

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