Why do we need "alternative reality fiction"? Editorial by S.K. Slevinski
I suppose it's an ambitious pursuit to coin a term. It's an effort, as I understand it, that's not entirely in one's own hands. You can throw around as many catchy phrases as you'd like, but they only end up "coined" if people decide to use them—if they become common currency in pop culture.
I'm certainly the last person to endeavor to shape pop culture lingo. Perhaps I ought to be more ambitious, but I really have no interest in birthing historic catch phrases. Leave "Gen X", "Post-Modernism", and "blog" to the well-paid pundits and commentators. I have more practical motives for founding my own literary terminology.
My "predecessors in crime" in this endeavor are apparently Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison. At least according to wikipedia, Ellison is one of the most vocal proponents of the umbrella term "Speculative Fiction". What is this term "Speculative Fiction"? In a nutshell, it's an effort to keep authors of science fiction, fantasy or horror from being pigeon-holed into a single genre and to give these often maligned genres a more respectable je ne sais quois.
Heroic as this effort might have been, it's been largely a flop. College literature professors still slam these card-carrying members of so-called Speculative Fiction as lowly "popular genre fiction". The term has achieved some decree of standardization among those who read its included genres, including SpecFicWorld.com, Speculative Vision and Strange Horizons Magazine. However, it's usually science fiction and fantasy folks that seek to group themselves together under this term, and the horror folks seem content to keep to themselves in a number of instances. After doing some research on our associate pages, though, we have discovered that most folks are resistant even to include fantasy under the speculative heading. After compiling the votes for our list of Top 10 Speculative Fiction Novels of All Time, we got quite a few complaints that Lord of the Rings is not Speculative Fiction. We tried proffering an "official" definition, but most people were resistant, both to the inclusion of fantasy and to the use of an umbrella term altogether. Many people asked why we needed an umbrella term at all.
As editor for a magazine on these types of allegedly "speculative" fiction, I happen to need one. Though, being a self-reflective sort, I found myself asking why. One person in our associate page discussions asked why not just call it a magazine for "fiction"? It's a valid argument—on a philosophical level. It's a nightmare on a practical level. Without some way to modify the term "fiction" with greater specificity, readers will assume general fiction. Without putting some parameters on why types of fiction we publish and review, submissions would be a nightmare. One of the most common reasons we reject short stories for publication is simply that they don't meet our basic themes—they are not science fiction, fantasy, horror or historical fiction. If we're getting so much general fiction now, what on earth would happen if we called ourselves a "fiction magazine"?
If umbrella terms are so objectionable, then the next step is toward the more specific. Should we toss the current format and be a magazine for Science Fiction alone? Or maybe one just for Fantasy? Or just Horror? Or Historical? This is certainly a viable option. Many magazines have made the choice to specialize in any one of these genres. Quite frankly, though, I read all of these genres, and I'm not keen on being in the role to separate them. We've posed the question on ARWZ and on a number of our associate pages of how to separate these genres. What makes one book science fiction, and another fantasy? What makes one book horror, and another historical? Frank Herbert's Dune is considered enough of a foundational classic that it ranked fourth on our Top 10 Novels list, but where would this science fiction classic be without its elements of high fantasy? What about more ambitiously blatant cross-overs like Blade of Tyshalle that simply cannot be called more one genre than the other? Would vampire fiction in the Anne Rice tradition be as appealing to so many readers without the atmospheric journey of its vampires through centuries of history? Can Guy Gavriel Kay's post-Lions of Al-Rassan work be called primarily fantasy when its paralleling of historical cultures is much more prominent than its magical elements? These four genres of fiction cannot so efficiently be separated from one another.
Of course, these are not the only genres that get mixed up together in cross-genre works. Historical romances have long been a standard of the monolithic modern romance genre. Some romance writers have even branched off into romance mysteries, and the enormously prolific, Nora Roberts, has written both romance fantasy and romance/mystery/science fiction. Historical mysteries have long populated bookstore shelves. However, in all of our online research among communities of readers, we have not discovered a prominent presence of such books on the reading lists of science fiction, fantasy or horror fans. These crossovers serve to bring some new flavor to mainstream, romance or mystery readers, just as vampire detectives and outer-space gunslingers serve to bring some fresh zest to horror and science fiction fans.
Cross-genre experiments abound, but there is something different about the relationship among our four genres in question (though, admittedly, historical is usually considered more of a mainstream genre). Readers may be primarily devoted to one of these modes of storytelling more than the others. But readers of fantasy are still more likely to read horror or science fiction, than they are to read romance or mystery. Most online book forums for general readers combine science fiction and fantasy under one heading. Online science fiction forums are 100% more likely to have an area for discussing fantasy than they are to have areas for discussing westerns, crime thrillers or bodice-ripper romances. Horror readers seem more liberal in their genre samplings, but the "dark fantasy" trend and its nebulous distinction from horror shows that horror and fantasy are more indebted to each other than they might want to admit.
Science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction share an essential common thread—they all attract readers who seek fiction that transports them to a milieu removed from everyday life. On the one hand, it's an issue of setting, but more importantly, I believe, it's an issue of approach. Readers of these genres seek to see—and writers seek to show—our own world through a radically different lens. They share an ambition to experience the eternal themes of life and humanity from new angles, in new forms, impossible in realistic fiction. They want their fiction to answer the question "what if", not just the question "what is". They want to see how human, or human-like, characters react to and manipulate circumstances that are alien to our everyday lives.
I found my best solution to the "umbrella term" issue in the name of our magazine, a title that has been a quiet partner to this webpage for over five years. Whether all these genres are "speculative" we will leave that question up to you. But it is little in doubt that they all aspire to create alternative realities for readers to experience.
Is this term somewhat artificial and arbitrary? Of course. Do I expect it to catch on with readers? To hear people on the street intoning "alternative reality fiction" as the theme of their recent book selections? No. I expect "science fiction", "fantasy" and "horror" to remain the staples of the common lexicon. What am I looking to accomplish with the term "alternative reality fiction"? By using this term, I simply want to acknowledge that these non-realistic genres have more in common with one another than they do with other genres. Above all, I think the term is useful, precisely because of the most important commonality among these genres: their readers.
While readers of science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction may never think of themselves as readers of "alternative reality fiction", they will know that ARWZ is a place to seek out fiction about different worlds, times, places and realities. Can't blame a gal for trying, can you?
S.K. Slevinski is Senior Editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.