HSC English Extension: Speculative Fiction

Note: The following was written in 2002 as my contribution to a paper presented to the NSW English Teachers Association Conference in 2003.

The presentation coincided with the introduction of “Speculative Fiction” as an elective in Extension English for Year 12. Since then, the elective has been narrowed to cover just “Science Fiction”. As well, the field has progressed a great deal since 2003, especially regarding fantasy and its tropes and the explosive growth in “young adult” genre fiction. These changes have been seen in print, in computer games and on the small and large screen.


 Terms and definitions


Speculative fiction

Speculative fiction is a catch-all category first used by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in 1947. Heinlein used it to describe a subset of science fiction, but since the 1960s the term has come to encompass the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. In turn, these genres – as they exist today – were largely created by American publishers essentially as marketing pigeon holes during the era of the pulps[1] between the 1880s and the 1950s.

It could be said that speculative fiction deals with the fiction of the “fantastic”, but in some ways that is both too inclusive and too exclusive; too inclusive because it can be argued that such a definition would also include such genres as magical realism and even – at a stretch – historical fiction; and too exclusive because it does not properly describe the extent and depth of modern science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Having said that, however, it is also important to note that speculative fiction exists as a subset of fiction, not entirely separated from other subsets such as detective fiction, romance fiction, mimetic or “realistic” fiction, westerns, and so on. In fact, definitions for speculative fiction change from reader to reader, author to author and indeed, publisher to publisher. It is probably best to see speculative fiction as having no fixed axis and borders that are constantly shifting and easily crossed.

In the context of the genre module of the English Extension course, the speculative fiction works under consideration comprise three books that would typically be classified as science fiction and one film that is indubitably fantasy, and both terms are discussed in more detail below.

The module explains that “Speculative fiction composers ask us to imagine alternative worlds, which challenge and provoke controversy and debate about possibilities in human experience”; without disagreeing, it is important to note that the traditional function of speculative fiction is to entertain, irrespective of how such works are later interpreted, a reflection of the various genres’ modern roots in the era of the pulps, and better explains the success of speculative fiction in areas such as children’s and young adult publishing. More specifically, unlike more “mainstream” fiction, speculative fiction – like much popular fiction – tends to reflect a reader’s desires rather than a writer’s experiences, and chief among those desires in speculative fiction is the need to bring order out of chaos, to strike a balance, to bring symmetry to an asymmetric world. In effect, speculative fiction allows the reader to live in a world where order is the natural state of creation, imitating the order we strive to find in our personal lives. In reality, of course, the world at large is chaotic and unpredictable, and we find refuge among family and friends where the world’s chaos can most easily be kept at bay. In speculative fiction, the struggle to bring order out of chaos contrasts with the real universe, where nothing is more certain than the triumph of entropy.


Science fiction

Science fiction is a term invented by pulp publisher Hugo Gernsback, developing initially from “scientific fiction” to the clumsy “scientifiction” and finally to the familiar form[2], but as a marketing term science fiction was hardly used in the US until the 1930s and almost not at all in the UK until the 1950s.[3] Since then the term has been abbreviated to SF, sci-fi and skiffy, the last two particularly applying to space opera such as Star Wars. Sci-fi tends to be the term used by non-readers, especially in the general media.[4]

The definition of science fiction has developed over the decades as the field itself has developed from its pulp origins.

In the very beginning, Hugo Gernsback defined a science fiction story as one where “ … the scientifically impossible will not be published … the educational motif will always be uppermost in our minds. We must instruct while we entertain … an author may have poetic license in letting his imagination soar skyward, (but) he should keep away from pseudo-science … today’s scientific ‘pipe dreams’ are tomorrow’s actualities.”[5]

But the “educational motif” and the rejection of the “scientifically impossible” proved increasingly inconvenient as the market exploded in popularity, especially during the depression years, and many, perhaps even most, of the science fiction stories published during the era of the pulps were borderline fantasy.

In the late 1930s the better writers and editors in the field began to impose a greater scientific discipline, and real attempts at predicting the future, especially of space travel, were made by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

In the 1960s the field was hit by what became known as the “new wave”, where the emphasis shifted from technology to people, and where the exploration of science gave way to the exploration of our own species’ psychological and emotional limits. Beginning principally as a British movement, it soon spread to the United States, reaching its peak in the science fiction of the 1970s.[6]

Today the field has been dramatically changed by the enormous success of science fiction in other media, particularly on the screen and in computer games. Until the release of Star Wars in 1977, the genre made almost no impact outside of its still limited readership (principally male, principally white, and typically English-speaking and well educated), while films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were the exception that proved the rule. Since Star Wars, however, science fiction films (together with the mutant offspring from the genre’s breeding with fantasy, “science fantasy” film such as The Fifth Element (1997)and Reign of Fire (2002)) not only dominate box office takings the world over, but have also so strongly influenced our expectations of entertainment and popular culture that the context of terms like “Beam me up, Scotty” and “May the force be with you” are almost universally understood. The motifs of screen science fiction have become cultural motifs, and social commentators often claim (and sometimes opine) that we are living in a “science fiction “ world.

The effect of science fiction in and through computer games is harder to judge, but may well be more important than the effect of science fiction films. The computer games industry already makes more money than Hollywood, and culturally reaches a far wider audience and draws from a far wider source of writers and artists. A science fiction computer game is as likely to come from developers in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Japan or Russia as from the United States, the UK or Australia.

The popularity of science fiction on the screen and in computer games has also eroded traditional cultural barriers. The world’s biggest science fiction magazines, in terms of print runs, are published in China and Japan. The Japanese comic book art form of “manga” and its cinema descendant “anime” (with stories that are almost always science fiction or fantasy or science fantasy – the borders are even more blurred in Japan) now have a worldwide audience and influence.

Science fiction today is so large, so conflated, that any hope of a true definition is impossible.

“Science fiction is, of course, famous for resisting definition. For decades, each new attempt has been greeted with the sort of responses that in the real world are reserved for flaky proofs of Fermat’s Last Theorem or claims of cold fusion using household cleansing agents – everything from undisguised guffaws to fatal nitpicking. When the dust dies down, we are pretty much left with the purely functional and largely circular definitions of the marketplace …”[7]

Perhaps the best description is that proposed by the late American writer and editor, Damon Knight, who said that “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it”.



As already noted, the border between science fiction and fantasy is often nebulous. A simple but useful distinction is that “ … sf is unreal but natural, as opposed to the remainder of fantasy, which is unreal and supernatural. (Or, simpler still, sf could happen, fantasy couldn’t.)”[8]

Modern fantasy has four main progenitors:

  • the world’s supply of myths, legends, and religions
  • the revival of interest in folk stories and traditions in 19th century Europe
  • the creation of “sword and sorcery”[9] in the American pulps
  • and the overwhelming success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, first published in 1954-55 and dominant within the genre from the 1960s[10].

Generally, the most successful works of fantasy in modern times – particularly for children and young adults – strongly feature an idealised rural English landscape, idealised because this landscape contains several features of the English countryside – groves, downs, moors, valleys, gently rolling hills, hedge rows, farmland, villages and hamlets, new forests and wild woods – that are never found together or close by in the actual English landscape. Examples include Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Susan Cooper’s the Dark is Rising series, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, C. S.  Lewis’s Narnia books, almost anything by Alan Garner, and so on. Exceptions to the rule include L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz stories, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, and, interestingly, books by British writers such as Philip Pullman and China Miéville, who instead of England’s rural idyll concentrate on replicating versions of London, the city that before Manhattan most spoke for humanity’s urban evolution, and the London they reflect and morph is invariably a 19th century version of the city, either the somewhat fictional London of Dickens or the later and almost completely fictional London of Sherlock Holmes, both versions defined to some extent by grime and poverty. It is also important to note that the rural England portrayed in fantasy is almost never historical, but the kind of landscape described and loved most by those in Victorian and Edwardian times, a largely “ordered” country that forgoes both the grim industrial reality of the city and the forbidding grim reality of untamed nature, the romantic and medievalised landscape first made popular by Sir Walter Scott. Even the societies and cultures depicted in much “medieval” fantasy is actually a late Victorian image of the middle ages, more William Morris than Chaucer.

These points are important not because it shows that much fantasy fails any test of historically accuracy (something fantasy does not pretend to strive for, anyway) but because it reflects some ideal for the authors of the various works, an ideal obviously popular with readers. Again, it shows that speculative fiction deals with “desire” rather than “experience”, and this particularly applies to fantasy. It also indicates that modern fantasy is very much a response to city living, a yearning for something leafy, green and wide open rather than something sooty, grey and bricked in.[11] It also satisfies the reader’s urge to experience, however vicariously, the life of a hero; often the heroes are ordinary beings thrust into extraordinary situations who learn to rise to the occasion.

“Pure fantasy … seems to deal in the fulfilment of desire … in the sense of the yearning of the human heart for a kinder world, a better self, a wholer experience, a sense of truly belonging. To use the ancient metaphor … fantasy seeks to heal the waste land.”[12]

Unlike science fiction, fantasy has never really had to fight for market share, either in print or on the big screen. Although not traditionally a big seller, fantasy books have always been in print from the end of the 19th century, starting with William Morris and continuing into the new century with Lord Dunsany, E R Eddison, David Lindsay and Rudyard Kipling’s stories set in India. Interest in folklore began even earlier, with the publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collections of German folk tales in 1812-13.

Fantasy was well represented on the big screen, too, with films like The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and a raft of animated films from the Disney studio.

Modern fantasy got its big kick from two sources, and these reflect the division of modern print fantasy into two main types – “sword and sorcery” and “high fantasy” (sometimes called “epic fantasy” or – somewhat hopefully – “pure fantasy”). The great fantasy and horror pulp writers of the 30s, such as Clark Ashton Smith, started a tradition that more or less still exists in the market today – sword and sorcery. The most famous exponent of the sword and sorcery tradition was Robert E. Howard, who before committing suicide at the age of 30 had created probably the most frequently imitated and most influential fictional character in modern American fantasy – Conan the Barbarian.

Ultimately more important than the pulp source for modern fantasy was the more academic, more studied and more formal approach taken by those writers who strove to create “secondary worlds”. This tradition started with William Morris at the end of the 19th century, but found full expression with two Oxbridge writers infused with a love for language, medievalism, romance, religion, and who had experienced the horrors of the First World War. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have shaped not only the most common idea of modern fantasy, but also the most expected image of modern fantasy. Tolkien in particular, with his fully realised secondary world of Middle Earth, has transformed how fantasy is written and read in the English speaking world.[13] Furthermore, the influence Lewis and Tolkien have on readers starts at a very young age because that is when most readers first encounter Lewis’s Narnia books and Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the precursor to The Lord of the Rings.

What effect Peter Jackson’s films based on The Lord of the Rings will have on how fantasy is read and viewed in the future cannot yet be said, but their success – together with the success of the Harry Potter films – will undoubtedly help form the shape fantasy takes in the 21st century.

As with science fiction, the most important future influence on fantasy may well be computer games. It sometimes seems that those computer games not based on a science fiction premise are based on a fantasy premise. Interestingly, science fiction games tend to be tactical and even strategic in nature, variations of traditional war gaming, while fantasy games tend to be first person and role playing in nature (a version, perhaps, of a fantasy reader’s desire to experience the life of a hero). This is not a hard division, since there are plenty of examples of border-crossing, but it may suggest another way of approaching the differences between the two genres.

It may well be that the future not only of science fiction and fantasy, but the whole of speculative fiction and closely related genres such as magical realism and alternate histories, will be determined by companies that produce software rather than companies producing books or films.

Other texts

Grolier Science Fiction – the Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds John Clute & Peter Nicholls

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, gen ed David Pringle


The works and their context


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (b 1939)

That The Handmaid’s Tale is overtly political in nature and intent, and deals with human rather than technological problems, does not separate it from similar but lesser known works in the canon of science fiction. What does set it apart is, first, that it is a successful science fiction novel by a “mainstream” writer, and that, second, it was filmed as a speculative piece without a multimillion dollar special effects budget.

The first point demonstrates, if a demonstration was needed, that there is nothing particular or coded about science fiction that makes it difficult for a non-SF writer to tackle despite a litany of failed examples. Having said that, however, a mainstream writer who dives into the genre without some background understanding of what has come before may be condemned to repeat what has already been done. Lack of familiarity with the genre may also result in using terms and language that is at best dated and at worst embarrassingly clunky.

The second point demonstrates that science fiction on the big screen, as it does so often in the written word, can happily exist without aliens, spaceships and robots. That this has been proven before, with films like Charly in 1968 (which won Cliff Robertson an Oscar for best actor), shows that Hollywood has the collective memory of an amnesiac.

The Handmaid’s Tale is both a dystopian and a feminist text, and an example of how science fiction enables a writer to engage and explore both ideas. Dystopias, of course, are almost always discussed within the context of science fiction, since they deal with societies worse than our own and usually set in the future. Such tales can be cautionary or metaphoric. Political texts tend to use dystopias as a metaphor, eg George Orwell’s 1984 and Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We, but it can be argued that Atwood is using the dystopia in her novel for both purposes: a metaphor for the way women have been – and often still are – regarded, and a warning about the male control of biological processes. If the metaphor dominates the telling it is the warning that stays in the mind, a very science fictional achievement.

As an example of feminist science fiction, it lags behind works by seminal women writers in the field such as Joanna Russ, Suzy McKee Charnas and James Tiptree Jr (the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon). More recently, Australian writers such as Tess Williams are making their mark with notable works of feminist science fiction, or perhaps more accurately with science fiction works written with a feminist sensibility.

Margaret Atwood’s book can also be looked at as an example of Canadian literature, and more specifically Canadian science fiction, a distinct subset of international science fiction with its own flavour and champions, and a reputation for high standards and a predilection for intricate and often pessimistic story lines.

Other texts

Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale dir by Volker Schlöndorff

The Female Man by Joanna Russ

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr (collection)

Sea as Mirror by Tess Williams (Australian writer)

Women of Other Worlds – excursions through science fiction and feminism edited by Helen Merrick & Tess Williams

The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier


Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh (b 1942)

C. J. Cherryh is the barely disguised pseudonym for Carolyn Janice Cherry.[14] She won recognition for her work very early in her career, and, unusually for an American science fiction writer of her generation, has written more novels than short stories.

Cyteen is a political novel that deals with genetic manipulation, cloning and, rarely for a political novel, with politics itself.

Cyteen is also an example of one of the most significant features of much science fiction, a feature first established before the Second World War in the pulps and carried on enthusiastically by writers in the genre ever since. “Future Histories” describes an overall narrative structure some writers employ to link many, if not most, of their works. This is not the same as a “series”, where several novels may belong to the same story arc, but an attempt to bring together different stories (and even different story arcs), different characters and sometimes different species under a coherent historical progression. Many future histories deal with the rise and fall of empires and races, planets and economic systems; some stretch over only a few centuries, while others encompass the whole life of the universe.

Future histories enable writers more deeply to explore political, social and economic issues over a range of peoples, communities and epochs. Perhaps even more importantly in the context of science fiction, future histories allow writers to weave their tales into a huge tapestry, giving the narrative a sense of grandeur and individual stories a pseudohistorical context that adds gravitas and the impression of extraordinary depth.


Dune by Frank Herbert (b 1920 – d 1986)

One of the most influential and popular science fiction novels ever written, Dune is a watershed work. It is the first of the new style “space operas”, taking pulp icons and idioms and successfully infusing them with politics, religion and eugenics. It is the first major ecological novel in science fiction (and perhaps literature), and for much of its length reads like a traditional adventure novel.

But is it good?

For many science fiction fans, the golden age of the genre is not the era of the early pulps in the 1930s, or the era of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in the 1940s and 1950s. The golden age of science fiction is when the reader is twelve, or thereabouts. It is a time when the wonders of the universe start to unfold before your eyes, and a growing and quickly maturing mind realises for the first time that life exists over the horizon. Dune is the perfect book to read when in the golden age. It is a novel filled with its own sense of wonder, its own gospel according to science fiction. The reader encounters telepathy and mind-altering drugs, philosophers and emperors, transformed humans and giant worms, a caste of warriors and a caste of almost mythical accountants, a desert world and a water world, witches and saints, intrigue and conspiracy, loyalty and betrayal … it is a romp, an opera without music, an adventure par excellence.

Dune may also be science fiction’s best attempt at creating and describing an alien planet so well that the reader revels in its strangeness without questioning it.[15]

However, Dune is also unnecessarily complicated, too long, too preachy, and uses language that is often cumbersome and faintly anachronistic. Its characters are larger than life but often as flat as a movie poster. Its science can be inspired, but sometimes is also antiquated. Its politics is simplistic in cause but fiendishly contrived in execution. Its resolution seems insufficient for the weight of the narrative.

But … is it good?

For many of its fans, Dune is best in memory. For those who have read it once, especially in their golden age, the book shines like gold. It represents many of the things they love about science fiction, its alien vistas and its capacity to charge the imagination. For many of those who read it a second time when they are adults, the gold becomes copper and the shine becomes verdigris, and they realise that many of the things they loved about the book were really the things they loved about being twelve.

Dune is a phase every science fiction reader should experience and then pass through. It opens our minds not to the wonders of the universe, but to the wonders of reading, to the wonders of imagination, and to the wonders of seeing with new eyes.

Other texts

Dune dir by David Lynch (1984)

Dune (television series) (2000)

Children of Dune (television series) (2003)


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien (b 1892 – d 1973), directed by Peter Jackson (b 1961)

Thank god for Peter Jackson. Now all the people who have spent their entire academic life writing about Tolkien and his famous trilogy can shift their energies to the films and start all over again.

It is difficult to measure the impact Tolkien’s famous work has had on fantasy, because modern fantasy largely comprises Tolkien and his literary offspring. Modern fantasy makes no sense without The Lord of the Rings as touchstone, wellspring, exemplar and template. Even those things Tolkien did not create, such as elves and dwarves and treasure-loving dragons, he so completely made his own that his work is the benchmark by which such things as elves, dwarves and treasure-loving dragons are compared.

Ironically, the film of The Fellowship of the Ring succeeds as a work of fantasy in its own right because  Peter Jackson interprets rather than translates Tolkien’s book. As was seen with the film versions of the first Harry Potter book, directly transferring a book to the big screen does not necessarily transfer the energy and enthusiasm of the book. It is possible to be too literal, to be too close to the original text.

The Fellowship of the Ring intrigues because it manages the fine balancing act of carrying the excitement and grandeur to the screen from the source without bringing with it the sometimes stilted language and sometimes lethargic pace. Jackson knows that what works with the written word – which creates an imaginary space where the reader contributes almost as much as the writer in world creation – does not necessarily work with film – which creates an expressed space where the viewer is largely along for the ride.

Another interesting difference between book and film is that in the short space allotted a film – in this case around three hours for the cinema version – there is only time to faithfully follow only one story, that of Frodo, to the exclusion of almost every other detail.[16]

The film of The Fellowship of the Ring succeeds in bringing cinema up to speed with what has been happening in fantasy literature for about fifty years. While earlier attempts to bring modern popular fantasy to the screen have been less than successful (eg Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer (both 1981), and Ralph Bakshi’s animated attempt at doing The Lord of the Rings in 1978), Jackson makes it work because he trusts the source material without feeling the need to treat Tolkien’s book as a strand of DNA to be replicated exactly. Jackson trusts in the power of the fantasy to win over his audience.


[1] Pulps is the generic name for magazines invariably printed on short lived paper made from cheap chemically treated wood pulp, a process developed in the 1880s. In the US it also came to represent a magazine size, typically 25 cm by 18 cm, even when the quality of the paper improved.

[2] Perhaps first used in a publication in Hugo Gernsback’s editorial to #1 of Science Wonder Stories (June 1929).

[3] Before the pulps, when many of the tropes of science fiction were established by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, works in the genre were called “scientific romances”.

[4] Sci-fi was a term invented by Forrest J. Ackerman – an early science fiction fan and editor – in 1954, and was a play on the term hi-fi.

[5] Editorial to #1 of Air Wonder Stories (1929).

[6] In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (cons ed Robert Holdstock, London, 1978), British writer Christopher Priest described “new wave” as a rebellion against “the power fantasies and speculative notions of the old science fiction”.

[7] Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, June 1996, Vol 36, No 6, p 15.

[8] Grolier Science Fiction – the Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds John Clute & Peter Nicholls, 1995.

[9] A term coined by American speculative fiction writer Fritz Leiber in 1960.

[10] In the future, the success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books may also prove to be of seminal importance in the development of the field, particularly regarding young adult and children’s fiction, but it is far to early to predict with any reasonable accuracy.

[11] The historical response, of course, was the creation of the suburban home, with its lawns and gardens.

[12] David Pringle, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, 1998.

[13] “ … the greatest problem for writers working in (Tolkien’s) gigantic shadow is how to assimilate or escape the influence of The Lord of the Rings.” (Pringle, op cit, p 173)

[14] She may have changed the spelling of her last name to help avoid confusion with her brother, science fiction cover artist David A. Cherry.

[15] At least until Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about the colonisation of Mars – Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars.

[16] Exactly how Jackson manages to pull off the bifurcated story in The Two Towers will make for an interesting study.

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