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The Speculative Genres of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction (Part 1)

Marco Fraga da Silva is a Ph.D. student in Media Arts at the Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias where he is researching Cinema, Comics, Speculative Fiction, Transmedia Storytelling, and Worldbuilding. In this article he talks about the genre giving some casual details about Portugal.

The definition of genre is a controversial issue among scholars and specialists because there is no consensus on a system of shared elements for the diversity of story patterns that have been created for thousands of years [01]. Furthermore, the genre system of categorization evolves to encompass the stories that are told, consequently, the number and variety of genres has increased a lot since Aristotle (384-322 BC).

The Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2003), said that “[e]very text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging” [02]. The genre system is not necessarily a bad thing as some claim. When properly used, a cinematic or literary work can be enriched through the scope of different genre conventions. The genres are fluid, and their tropes, conventions, and limitations can galvanize inspired storytellers who use the restrictions to their advantage: the American scriptwriting guru Robert McKee calls it the Principle of Creative Limitation: by limiting your options and imposing strict rules to your work you will creatively transcend and build better plots and achieve better storytelling solutions [03].

The speculative fiction super-genre embraces the genres of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and all the subgenres and hybridizations these can offer. The American science fiction author Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), coined the expression speculative fiction in 1948 [04] to refer to a subset of science fiction that was more social and people-oriented, in detriment of the gadget-oriented stories [05]. The Speculative Literature Foundation, launched in 2004, defines speculative fiction as a “catch-all term” that includes folk and fairy tales, fantasy, horror, magical realism, modern myth-making, science fiction, slipstream, etc. [06]. The evolution of the expression is evident, but that is not, by any means, a negative thing; it’s part of the natural process of genre evolution. A similar super-genre, though not so disseminated, is fantastika. Appropriated by John Clute, from several Slavonic languages, it also encompasses fantasy, horror, and science fiction [07]. This clearly demonstrates the necessity of bringing together these three genres that have so much in common and coexist in so many subgenres.

To better understand and define speculative fiction, or fantastika, one must try to define the main genres that characterize them – fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Doing this is a problematic and impossible task, nevertheless, the impossibility of a universal and consensual definition of these genres will never deter scholars and authors in trying to understand and classify them.

Speculative Fiction in Portugal

Speculative fiction in Portugal has been going through an interesting evolution in this century, both in literature and comics. In cinema, the genre is almost inexistent despite some case studies such as the science fiction films Gelo [Ice] (2016), directed by Gonçalo Galvão Teles, Diamantino (2018), directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, and Solum (2019), directed by Diogo Morgado. In this chapter, I will talk about one literary author and one comics project. Much more could be said of course, but the issue deserves an article entirely dedicated to the origins and presence of the speculative genres in our country.

Our best science fiction writer is the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago (1922-2010). In 2001, Robert Silverberg wrote in his Reflections column (Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine) that he had read Blindness (1995), and that he considered it a great example of social science fiction [08]. I believe that Saramago has more books that can be categorized as speculative fiction such as The Stone Raft (1986) for example. Several of his stories have been adapted into cinema, allowing a larger audience to access this amazing writer.

The H-alt project is a speculative fiction anthological prozine, with several titles published since 2015. It has been doing steady work in promoting national and international authors and their art. The editor Sérgio Santos, opted for the self-publishing strategy to promote and sell the zines online and in several festivals. In the official website [09], Santos makes available for free a digital version of the zines for those who want to access and read the stories. If you are interested in any issue, the printed zines are available for purchase. The website has several other items such as a podcast, articles, interviews, links to webcomics, etc.

The seven main issues of the H-alt anthology prozine have 162 stories written, drawn, colored, and lettered by around 170 authors, from several countries: Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and the U.S.A. This is one of the few Portuguese publications exclusively dedicated to the speculative fiction genre, being a suitable platform for newcomers and renowned authors.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

The French philosopher Éric Dufour said that the fantasy and science fiction genres oppose each other: science fiction talks about progress, science, and the future, whereas fantasy happens in an immemorial past where magic is very much present and religion has a positive value. Despite these differences, Dufour presents an example where the distinction is very tenuous. The first Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) mixes fantasy and science fiction: the use of the mystical and universal “force”, that the Jedi tap and control, is a good example of a magical element in the narrative. In the second trilogy (1999-2005), the “force” is scientifically explained with pseudo-science – the midi-chlorians – and the magical element is lost. For Dufour, the distinction between science fiction – more rational – and fantasy – more irrational – is a complicated matter because the affinities between both genres are strong [10]. Moreover, technological advancements can be perceived as magical by civilizations less advanced: the American scientist Michio Kaku said that if we could visit our ancestors and show them our scientific achievements we would be seen as magicians, therefore science and technology can be perceived as magic [11].

António de Macedo (1931 – 2017)

The Portuguese author and professor António de Macedo prefers the expression science fiction & fantasy (which he commonly refers to as fantastic), due to the common characteristics both genres share. He also acknowledges the distinction between fantasy and fantastic that most Anglophone authors usually make [12]. Another interesting expression/genre is science fantasy: in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction website, it’s defined as a bastard genre that mixes science fiction and fantasy, and sometimes horror [13]. Science fiction can be heavily science-based (hard SF) but is often based in more fantastical pseudo-science, and in the social sciences (soft SF). Hammering the false claim that fantasy and science fiction are opposite genres, the American author George R. R. Martin said in an interview that fantasy and science fiction are two flavors of the same thing [14].

The American author Rudy Rucker, dissatisfied with “realistic fiction”, coined the term transrealism. In his A Transrealist Manifesto (1983), available on his website [15], he defined transrealism as “the only valid approach to literature at this point in time.” For him, this style of writing intensifies “realistic fiction” by using the tools and tropes of the fantasy and science fiction genres.

Science Fiction (SF)

The American editor Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) coined the science fiction expression in 1929; however, other expressions already existed at the time such as scientific romance, appropriately used for the works of Jules Verne (1828-1905), H. G. Wells (1866-1946), and other authors. Even Gernsback had created other expressions before: scientifiction and scientific fiction (the latter corresponds to the literal translation of the Portuguese ficção científica). On scientifiction, Gernsback wrote the following in the editorial of the first issue of the Amazing Stories magazine, in 1926: “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe [1809-1849] type of story – a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision… Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading – they are always instructive. They supply knowledge…” [16].

For the American author Thomas Disch, “[Edgar Allan] Poe is the source, because people read his stories”. But he also acknowledges that “there remains one significant rival to Edgar Allan Poe as the genre’s founding genius: Mary Shelley [1797-1851], the author of Frankenstein” [17]. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus, published in 1818, is commonly suggested as the first science fiction work. Not trying to minimize the importance of this book, it’s important to clarify that there are many previous texts, considered to be proto-SF, which should be considered for the glorious first place. There will never be consensus in this area as in many others.

The famous American scientists Carl Sagan (1934-1996) and Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), considered the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler’s (1571-1630) book Somnium, published posthumously in 1634, to be the first science fiction literary work [18]. Another story that is clearly science fiction is Micromégas, Histoire Philosophic, authored by French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), and published in 1752. In this small text, available (in English) on the Project Gutenberg website [19], planet Earth is visited by two alien species that conclude Man is an ignorant and self-centered species. The proto-SF category offers several stories that, by contemporary standards, should be considered full-fledged science fiction.

In cinema, the first science fiction film is usually considered to be Le Voyage dans La Lune (1902), directed by French illusionist and director Georges Méliès (1861-1938). In the 1950s there was a boom of science fiction movies but low budget productions and bad monster movies discredited the genre. In the 1960s science fiction became a respectable genre. In the 1970s the main theme was ecology. In the 1980s there were two main tendencies: on one hand, we had infantilized and sentimentalized feature films, on the other we had technophobic and dystopian narratives. In the 1990s, and in the transition to the new millennium, the production of science fiction films increased, becoming the most profitable genre in the American cinema industry [20].

Several authors tried to define science fiction through recurrent themes. For American author Mark Rose, the science fiction’s paradigm is the encounter between human and non-human, which he understands as being divided into four distinctive categories: space (aliens), time (future or alternate present), machine (robots and computers), and monster (monsters, mutants, and superheroes). For American professor Carl Malmgren there are four categories of science fiction narratives: alien encounter, alternate society, gadget story, and alternate worlds. For British author Gwyneth Jones there are four groups, according to iconography: 1) the first group has rockets, spaceships, space habitats, and virtual worlds; 2) the second group has robots, androids, cyborgs, and aliens; 3) the third group constitutes of imaginary worlds; 4) the last group is designated as mad scientist and damsels in distress [21].

The British author David Seed argues, in his book Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction, that we should cease trying to understand science fiction as a genre: “to call science fiction (SF) a genre causes problems because it does not recognize the hybrid nature of many SF work. It is more helpful to think of it as a mode or field where different genres and subgenres intersect.” [22]

Science Fiction Subgenres

There are many science fiction subgenres, derived from several thematic and technological issues. This chapter is not going to cover all SF subgenres, but it will point out some of the ones that are sometimes treated as autonomous genres.

Due to social disquiet and political disarray, many SF stories are dystopian in nature, meaning the opposite of a utopian world. On utopia, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction presents pertinent information: “The term was coined by Thomas More in Utopia (Latin edition 1516; trans 1551; many editions since), although More’s work has far more Satire than practical Politics in it; he derived the word from “outopia” (no place) rather than “eutopia” (good place), although modern usage generally implies the latter (…)” [23]. If utopias and dystopias formulate answers to the classic SF question what if? it can be argued that they are all science fiction. Two of my favorite dystopian narratives are the TV series The Man in the High Castle (2015-), adapted from a book written by American author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), and the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-), adapted from a book written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

Catastrophes that almost wipe out the human race and the end of the world has been predicted and told for thousands of years – the great flood in Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah’s flood in the Torah, the apocalypse in the Bible, ragnarök in Norse mythology. We even have a branch of studies dedicated to this matter; according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, eschatology is “a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind” [24].

It’s not a stretch of the imagination that apocalyptical narratives would be effectively a popular theme in literary and audiovisual media. Emma Anne Harris, in her 2016 Ph.D. thesis [25], said that science fiction and horror overlap frequently, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other and that in relation to post-apocalyptic fiction the boundaries are “even more blurred”. For her the zombie films are “closely related to post-apocalyptic fiction”, also occupying “an uneasy place between horror and science fiction”. In his 2014 Ph.D. thesis, Hyong-jun Moon [26] said that both apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives are speculative fiction subgenres and that the first subgenre is “concerned with the collapse of civilization through various disasters such as nuclear war, plague, energy shortages, flood, earthquake, or political conflict”, and the second subgenre is “set in a world or civilization after such a disaster has taken place. They often depict the aftermath of a world-changing catastrophic event”.

I would like to add a recent subgenre called post-post-apocalyptic [27], where we don’t see the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe: the action happens long after the catastrophic event takes place but its effects are still visible. In this subgenre, I recommend works such as Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire series, Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, and the videogame Horizon Zero Dawn (2017).

There are several science fiction subgenres with the punk suffix. For this article, two will be mentioned: cyberpunk, and steampunk. For cyberpunk I will start by quoting the Portuguese professor Herlander Helias: “The “cyber” part of cyberpunk concerns cybernetics, the science dedicated to study the behavior of information flows in machines and living organisms under the perspective of control. Cybernetics is both a concept and an academic branch created by mathematician Norbert Wiener in 1947, which then served the cyberpunk writers as they tried to explain the possible merge of machine control and the street punk’s attitude” [28]. According to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia this subgenre is often dystopian, filled with technological augmented humans, virtual reality environments (cyberspace), and artificial intelligence [29]. The Wachowskis Matrix franchise is a good example.

Lawrence Person, in his Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto, said that “science fiction entered the postcyberpunk era in 1988”, and that, when compared with cyberpunk, this subgenre “features different characters, settings, and, most importantly, makes fundamentally different assumptions about the future”. The characters are not “loners” but active members of society. The future is not necessarily dystopic. Technology is very impactful in people’s lives but, instead of facilitating people’s alienation (cyberpunk), it’s an integral part in human daily life. For Lawrence Person, postcyberpunk is the best genre to explore thematically the accelerating technological innovations and the complexity of our contemporary world, “without losing the “sense of wonder” that characterizes science fiction at its best” [30].

Steampunk, coined by the American author K. W. Jeter in 1987, is characterized by a retro-futuristic aesthetic: nineteenth-century backgrounds filled with state-of-the-art steam engine technology, where the action is usually set on alternative realities (alternate history) [31]. Two of my favorite steampunk inspired films, both directed by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, are Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004); one of my favorite steampunk comics is the series titled Monstress (2015-) [32], written by American writer Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Japanese artist Sana Takeda.

Afrofuturism is a rising subgenre after the success of MCU’s Black Panther (2018). To better present this subgenre, considered to be more of an art movement, I will use an article for The Guardian, entitled Afrofuturism: where space, pyramids and politics collide. The author, Chardine Taylos-Stone, said: “In 1993, Mark Dery created the term Afrofuturism to describe science fiction by African-American writers such as Samuel R Delany and Octavia Butler, whose work “treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriate images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future”. The term is now used to describe works that explore black experience in the science-fiction genre“ [33]. Written by American author Octavia Butler I definitely recommend the reading of Wild Seed (1980), one of the best SF books I have read in my life.

(Part 2)

References:

[01] Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997), by Robert McKee.

[02] The Law of Genre (1980), by Jacques Derrida.

[03] https://mckeestory.com

[04] Teaching Speculative Fiction in College: A Pedagogy for Making English Studies Relevant (2012), by James H. Shimkus.

[05] On the Writing of Speculative Fiction (1991), by Robert A. Heinlein.

[06] http://speculativeliterature.org

[07] Excavations of Genre Barriers: Breaking New Ground with Fantastika Journal (2017), by Charul Palmer-Patel.

[08] José Saramago e a Ficção Científica em Portugal (2012), by Ermelinda Ferreira.

[09] https://h-alt.weebly.com

[10] O Cinema de Ficção Científica (2012), by Éric Dufour.

[11] A Física do Futuro – Como a Ciência Moldará o Mundo nos Próximos Cem anos (2011), by Michio Kaku.

[12] Os Mundos Imaginários do Fantástico Português: 1ª parte (2010), byAntónio de Macedo (https://revistabang.com/2010/08/07/revista-bang-8).

[13] www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/science_fantasy

[14] www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nNR1pffC5k

[15] www.rudyrucker.com

[16] www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/definitions_of_sf

[17] The Dreams our Stuff is Made of – How Science Fiction Conquered the World (2010), by Thomas M. Disch.

[18] www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/leading-figures/kepler-the-father-of-science-fiction

[19] www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/30123

[20] Alteridade, Tecnologia e Utopia no Cinema de Ficção Científica Norte Americano: A Tetralogia Alien (2010), by Elsa Rodrigues.

[21] The above-mentioned Portuguese scholar Elsa Rodrigues’ Ph.D. thesis (https://estudogeral.sib.uc.pt/handle/10316/15005).

[22] Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (2011), by David Seed.

[23] http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/utopias

[24] www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eschatology

[25] The Post-Apocalyptic Film Genre in American Culture 1968 – 2013 (2016), by Emma Anne Harris.

[26] The Post-Apocalyptic Turn: A Study of Contemporary Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Narrative (2014), by Hyong-jun Moon.

[27] https://medium.com/@DaleBeran/interstellar-and-the-post-post-apocalyptic-genre-fda7f6900942

[28] Cyberpunk 2.0 – Fiction and Contemporary (2000), by Herlander Helias (www.labcom-ifp.ubi.pt/livro/38).

[29] www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/cyberpunk

[30] https://news.slashdot.org/story/99/10/08/2123255/notes-toward-a-postcyberpunk-manifesto

[31] www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/steampunk

[32] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monstress_(comics)

[33] www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2014/jan/07/afrofuturism-where-space-pyramids-and-politics-collide

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