Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guest editor Eric T. Reynolds: What Are the Bounds of Speculative Fiction?

Eric T. Reynolds is Editor/Publisher ofHadley Rille Books, a publisher of fantasy, science fiction, and archaeology fiction. Hadley Rille just celebrated five years in publishing. Eric has edited over 30 books over the past five years, many of which have received critical acclaim. He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has had fiction published by small press and nonfiction published by science-related publications. Visit him on Facebook “Eric T Reynolds” and his blog,

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Several authors I've worked with and I recently had a long conversation that could have been titled: "What is speculative fiction?" We were focusing on what might be called the fringe of speculative fiction, that gray area where fiction strays close to the borders of mainstream.

What about stories that don't have any of the tropes of speculative fiction?  Science fiction author James Gunn's definition of science fiction includes stories that deal with the human condition, and how humans interact with nature.  Such stories might include castles and spaceships, but many stories may not be recognizable at all as speculative fiction.

At Hadley Rille Books, where I serve as editor/publisher, we publish a series archaeology-correct novels about common people who lived during ancient times.  These are being written by archaeologists and anthropologists.  So while we love the non-mundane, we have found a place for the mundane as well, which we think fits within the speculative fiction genre.  The exploration of the ancient world is full of drama, discovery, and excitement, and involves the exploration of other worlds, worlds vastly different from what most of us experience today.

Take for example K.L. Townsend's Song of the Swallow (which we will release in December of 2011), a book set during the collapse of the Southern Song Dynasty in China during the 1200s CE.  The story follows the struggles of a young woman who is taken from her home to serve as a concubine in the Emperor's palace.  She has a horrible life there, but during that time she manages to befriend another woman, form a sisterhood, and grow as a person.  She is subjected to a way of life that should never be experienced by anyone, but as a human being manages to explore ways to overcome and perhaps escape her predicament.  Townsend explores many aspects of the human condition and her knowledge as an anthropologist allows her to speculate about human life during that time.

Another example is anthropologist Shauna Roberts’s Like Mayflies in a Stream, which although it’s based on the fantastic account, The Epic of Gilgamesh, it speculates (also based on current archaeological and historical knowledge) how people lived in ancient Mesopotamia.  She took care to show us what their daily lives were like, how they performed ceremonies, how their society treated women, and what kinds of conflicts they had.  She shows us the most accurate portrayal of daily life in Mesopotamia as it may have been over 4000 years ago.

In classicist Jenny Blackford’s The Priestess and the Slave, we follow the lives and deaths of common people who endured the Plague of Athens nearly 2500 years ago in ancient Greece.  We learned how they cooked, how they mourned their losses, what their dwellings were like, what they believed in and how those beliefs drove their actions for coping during bad times.  Again, Blackford worked from her extensive knowledge and study of that culture and from her efforts, we get to follow a very real and riveting drama of the people who lived through those times.

Taken individually or taken as a whole, novels such as these accomplish many goals of speculative fiction.  The very word “speculative” is the basis of stories like these, speculation based on knowledge and discovery about different snapshots of the human past.  What we find is that people are alike all over whether geographic or temporal.

To a casual browser in a bookstore, these books won’t strike him or her as speculative fiction.  But when a story explores the bounds of human endurance and enters the realm of the distant past (which is a different world), it may be seen as mainstream.  But we really know it’s a speculative fiction story.  And it seems that speculative fiction has a much bigger audience than many of us realize.


Liane Spicer said...

Welcome back to Novel Spaces, Eric.

I'm realizing more and more that genre labels are fluid. I've read books labeled science fiction that contained little or no science but which fit the criteria for speculative fiction that you outlined above.

This must be a problem for marketing departments, but for the reader genre overlap/expansion/innovation is not much of an issue. I enjoy good stories in any genre - even horror which I usually avoid but which has provided me on occasion with delicious, memorable reads.

Charles Gramlich said...

The term does seem to be getting broader and broader. I've always considered historical fiction set before the advent of gunpowder to be an off shoot of fantasy, though. That's how I always shelve them in my house. By putting them in fantasy I don't mean to belittle them, since fantasy is my preferred genre and I have great respect for it.

Terri-Lynne said...

Most wouldn't look at these titles and think "spec fic." But really, of course they are. History based, sure, but still speculative.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

This is a great post, Eric. I haven't had a chance to read "Song of the Swallow", but I've read the other two volumes you mentioned and they are among my favorite books. Both give the reader a realistic portrayal of ancient life that nonetheless stretches the imagination. It's nice to see how you tie them in under the larger umbrella of speculative fiction. Gives me something to think about!