You Say To-may-to, I Say To-mah-to: Define Your Terms

What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters…’speculative fiction’ means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books….In a public discussion with Ursula Le Guin in the fall of 2010, however, I found that what she means by ‘science fiction’ is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under ‘fantasy.’”   ~Margaret Atwood, Introduction to In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

When two writers of Atwood’s and Le Guin’s caliber come to separate definitions of the terminology used in the Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction/Fantasy genres, it’s a sign there will probably be some confusion when you’re looking to see where your work will wind up on the shelf. This is a question that a lot of writers ponder.

I admit that the sci fi/fantasy stuff I read – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, etc. – tends to be found in the general fiction/literary categories…which makes it that much more confusing. The novel  I’m working on now is a dystopian novel (speculative in its own right), and a large bit of it hinges on what Atwood would call ‘speculative fiction’ and Le Guin would call ‘science fiction.’ When all is said and done, how am I supposed to define my work?

After much pondering, I decided the first thing to do is to define what I believe these genres to be, and put my work in its own place within my own defined parameters.

While Atwood’s definition of science fiction differs from Le Guin’s, both authors have terms that serve the definition of: “stories with elements that could conceivably occur in the future.” For Le Guin, that’s ‘science fiction.’ For Atwood, it’s ‘speculative fiction.’ Both have definitions that function within the larger genres as a whole. They aren’t speaking a foreign language. If pressed, they can communicate their terms – and once the terms are presented, it’s really quite simple to understand what a person is claiming.   

If you, as a writer, understand what your story is – slipstream, urban fantasy, military science fiction, space opera…whatever…be sure that you can explain your idea of the term to a person who might say it’s something else.

The second thing is not to define your terms so randomly that no one working within any of these genres would understand what you’re talking about – be aware!

Atwood and Le Guin are not on different planets when they talk about these terms. Be familiar with the lingo of the genre you’re writing in. In fact, the above quote gives some very good parameters on science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. Defining your work shouldn’t mean creating a whole new terminology. Let’s face it: none of us are creating the wheel.  

For me, as it turns out, Atwood’s definition fits what I think of my novel. Also, I think of it as speculative fiction because, in my head, science fiction involves outer space. It’s just my own personal pitfall. However, I’m not so ridiculous as to insist that readers MUST call it speculative fiction – I understand that a lot of readers (if not most) jive with Le Guin’s definition of science fiction. In fact, during the pitch session last Sunday, Ms. Jones asked if my work could be classified as science fiction. And I ’fessed up and called it science fiction. Still, I knew what she was getting at, and I knew what she meant when she asked about genre. Because I knew what my definitions were, there was no confusion when I presented my work.  



One response to “You Say To-may-to, I Say To-mah-to: Define Your Terms”

  1. Ali Eickholt Avatar

    Categories are tough. Generally abstract, largely arbitrary. All those fuzzy, fuzzy lines.

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