Norman Spinrad At Large And Commons – An SF Manifesto

Scientifiction, Science Fiction, Sci-F, Speculative Fiction.


Do those two letters really mean the same thing now?  Did they ever?

According to the SFWA, which began as the Science Fiction Writers of America, and then the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, currently the Science Fiction Writers Association, SF is defined as literature the publishing of a certain amount thereof and the payment of the current amount of money makes a writer a member.

According to Amazon, which sells anything given to it, whether by publishers or self-publishers, and classing it all into categories and sub-categories, there are something like 50,000 current SF books being sold by them and rising, and if Amazon categorizes it, so does the SFWA, which has just proudly announced that it now has 2500 members.

Are there really 2500 writers capable of turning out even the least literary-worthy SF? Are there really even 2500 writers capable of turning out any such worthy fiction? If you can believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you, and you won’t even have to buy it from Amazon.

I say this as a three-time President of the SFWA, as a critic for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine for about half a century, and having been published by what has been mostly called SF and not pleased by that for even longer.

The so-called  New Wave SF writers declared that those two letters burned on our asses should not be taken as Sci-fi, or even Science Fiction, but “Speculative Fiction,” meaning such fiction freed from the commercial literary and cultural restraints of the genre stuff.  Well, we succeeded in achieving that freedom, and for all, but nevertheless, chose a full name that could be remained branded by “SF” when needed for often-needed commercial survival purposes.

Was this cynical?  Well, it got books which could only be published under the SF brand published as such, but it made it largely looked down upon as not literarily significant by those who self-regarded themselves as the true champions of what they wrote.

But while they might have had a certain point when it came to genre sci-fi “science fiction,” they have gotten it wrong when it comes to confusing Speculative Fiction as the same lowly “SF.”

What has chanced to be labeled as “scientifiction,” “science fiction,” or even “scifi” may or may not be speculative fiction, speculative fiction does not necessarily have to be fiction speculating about the future of science or technology.

But to be speculative fiction and not fantasy fiction, it must not speculate on the scientifically currently proven impossible. Scientifically ignorance, especially knowingly, is not a requirement.

What I’m literarily calling “Speculative Fiction” is at least as old as Plato’s REPUBLIC. He did not create fictional characters, or a speculative future, his Atlantis was a speculative historical past.

What I  mean by “Speculative Fiction” and hence its branding as SF” was never called “scientifiction” until the early 20th Century and it isn’t what is generally taken to be called “science fiction” or “scifi” or misnomered as “SF” now. It was, it is, and hopefully will be, or else our species’ culture or even humanity’s survival will be in deep shit.

Because the literary species that probably began with Plato if not even before somewhere else, the very concept that there could be the speculation of a future, of possible futures, and that the future we get is the future we make.

And the very concept that there could be futures that we could make better or worse, that we could not avoid doing so, that the golden age did not have to be in the past or even the present, seem to have become conceived only once on this planet.  The ancient Greek culture created a toy that was a wheel that could be turned by the heat of fire, but took it no further.  The Aztecs likewise had toy wheels but it never occurred to them to make bigger ones to make carts that would make heavy loads easier to move.

The Chinese invented all sorts of sophisticated engineering and science up through the 15th Century, but never conceived the concept of technology that could, would, and have to create future cultures different from the present and the golden past, for better or worse, or both.

Nor did any human culture have the literary concept of speculative fiction before the invention of the steam engine which opened the door to ever-evolving technology, and the surety that it would create cultural evolution.

Which would inevitably create and require literary speculative fiction.

A literary speculative fiction that needed technology and science to be born, to be a necessary literature in an ever-evolving culture, but not necessarily speculative fiction based on science. Nor was it called “scientifiction” until the early 20th century and “science fiction” after that.

Nor was speculative fiction regarded as a separate literature before that.  Not Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, which many have con sided “the first science fiction novel” after the fact.  Nor were such novels of H.G. Welles and Jules Verne even though they did argue as to whether Welles’ novels went too far from the technology chez Verne or Vernes’ novels did not go literally enough beyond the technology.

And there have always been some writers even from the beginning of “science fiction” to today who wrote speculative fiction by any purely literary definition who nevertheless managed to avoid the “scifi” or even “science fiction” branding, such as Welles himself, Aldous Huxley, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Michel Houellbecx, etc, usually by making their literary reputations on more conventional novels before being known for a reputation as a writer of speculative fiction.

And yet, for the most part, more of them that not end up being centrally known for their “science fiction” novels.


I have been writing speculative fiction for half a century while being known as a “science fiction writer,” like it or not, and just about as long as my column about it in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, yet only now, after my latest On Books column Outside the Tent have I come up with an answer, not so much as myself becoming more intelligent, but because I was reading novels partially including SF, good novels written by writers who may or may not end up as being known as SF novelists and not really caring because they weren’t writing “SF novels,” they were using speculative fiction as an aspect in their literature.

Why not? After all, fantasy has been used and accepted as an aspect of all literature since literature began because not until say the 19th century had science evolved to the notion that there was such a scientific concept of laws of mass and energy and therefore a literary concept of speculative fiction that imagines only possible multiple realities, as opposed to fantasy, which by definition requires the impossible, aka magic.

And the cultural times, for many reasons, have changed, and so is literature, for a general literature that considers itself to be culturally central can no longer be so without including speculativity fiction as a useful and needful aspect as culture itself is about to drastically change as we confirm that we are not the only consciousnesses in the universe.

As we confront such a cultural and philosophic, and indeed religious revolution,  literature that does not use the tool of speculative fiction can not be culturally central, and in the end, speculative fiction must inevitably become central.

The future we get is the future we make. And a literature that denies that cannot be culturally relative.


If if you are reading this, you can be part of the Commons. Anything I write here is pro bono and can be posted and/or printed by anyone, including newspapers, news sites, Facebook,  etc. free of charge but not sold to any third party for money and provided that NORMAN SPINRAD AT LARGE & COMMONS is credited.

Anyone or any entity may join the Commons simply by requesting to receive Norman Spinrad At Large & Commons by email. Anyone in the Commons can reply to what I write here by email and if I find it germain I will ask permission to publish it and/or may OK this in advance.  Not everything will be printed, I am sort of the editor and sort of the publisher.  As editor, I am open to things that I might want to publish that not only may disagree with something I’ve written or feel should start a debate.  No one’s email will be revealed except by request

Norman Spinrad
1 rue de la Bucherie
75005 Paris

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