One Definition to Rule Them All |

One Definition to Rule Them All

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s regular round-up of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

What with all the burbling about the Booker in recent weeks, it’s nearly gotten serious in here, so this week, we’re going to have us some fun… beginning with a debate about terminology, obviously!

See, in response to a guest post by David Barnett on SF Signal, The Guardian’s Damien Walter set about breaking down the differing definitions of the various forms of science fiction. Take your pick between sf, sci-fi, speculative fiction and fantasy. Where do you stand, and why?

We close out today’s column with an announcement about Adam Christopher’s “chilling space opera series,” The Spider Wars, but in advance of that, in Cover Art Corner, news about the next novel to come Peter F. Hamilton’s pen—plus cover art, of course. Neither is what fans of Britain’s bestselling science fiction author might expect…


One Definition to Rule Them All

Whether it’s a big news week or not, you can always count on Damien Walter to kick-start a fun discussion about science fiction. Or speculative fiction. Or fantasy. Or… actually, that’s the whole point of this week’s Weird Thing—inspired, as I understand it, by this article by David Barnett:

Hello, my name is David and I’m a sci-fi writer.

That may well be raising hackles among some readers right now. But I don’t apologise; in fact it’s deliberate.

I. Write. Sci-fi.

Sci-fi as a genre label has been out of favour for a long time, in preference to the more streamlined SF. When you ally it to its genre-sister fantasy we get SFF, or SF/F, and bringing in the slightly weird cousin horror into the speculative fiction family fold gives us, somewhat clunkily, SF/F/H.

It’s something I confess I haven’t thought too deeply about until recently. I always preferred SF as a signifier, because that’s what everyone else within fandom or the industry seemed to say. […] But wait. Everyone? What do I mean by everyone?

The author goes on to discuss how everyone isn’t quite correct, because there are of course different camps within and without fandom. There are those who insist on saying science fiction, those who would rather we not capitalise SF, those who differentiate between hard and soft SF (or sf or science fiction) and those people—like me—who favour the phrase speculative fiction.

I’m sorely tempted to simply say different strokes for different folks and leave it at that, but Damien Walter didn’t:

SF? Sci-fi? Spec-fic? It’s all just fantasy to me.

If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.

For the ever growing army of writers, bloggers, editors, critics, academics and just plain old obsessive fans of this thing that may (or may not) be called sci-fi, there is at least some method in this madness. Each name and definition reveals a different aspect of the immense creativity sheltering within sci-fi. Or SF. Or whatever the hell it’s called!

What follows is “a brief glossary of the various competing definitions of sci-fi,” though Walter does sensibly stress that his definitions “may reveal some bias on my part.” I’d recommend you read his article in its entirety, but for our purposes, this brief recap will work:

Science fiction is a genre consisting of made-up stories with science in. Unless the stories are sci-fi, which doesn’t have science but is what most people think of as science fiction. Unless it’s called SF, of course, which most people think means “San Francisco”. Or speculative fiction, which is what posh people call sci-fi.

Which—though true to a certain extent, I guess—I would take exception to. As aforementioned, I consider myself first and foremost a fan of speculative fiction, to the point that I called my own blog The Speculative Scotsman. Why? Not because I’m at all ashamed of reading sci-fi, but because I read science fiction (hard and soft), fantasy (dark or epic) and horror (be it supernatural or not) basically interchangeably.

As such, I’d be hard pushed to express a preference for one species of storytelling over the others, and as a catch-all, I figure speculative fiction fits. In my mind, it encompasses almost all of what the genre has to offer. It speaks of stories that speculate—whether about chosen ones, time travel or monsters in our closets—and at bottom, that’s what excites me about a book.

Does it follow that I’m a toff? I certainly wouldn’t call myself posh, but I do have almost enough money to pay for coffee most mornings, and indeed, a degree. What does that make me?

This isn’t a problem we’re going to able to solve without talking about what it means to be posh, and opening up a whole other can of worms in the process. Instead—and I think Walter would agree here—let’s conclude that he is, for the sake of a healthy debate, somewhat dismissive of speculative fiction as a description.

Probably because of that blasted Margaret Atwood. You’ll recall her ridiculous insistence that she doesn’t write science fiction, and how dare anyone even suggest such a thing. Never mind The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake. She writes speculative fiction, see? It’s different!

Well… no, it’s not. Not really. To my mind at least, speculative fiction encompasses science fiction, alongside all the other genres we’ve talked about today. It doesn’t, however, replace any of them. Which is fine. Why should it? Who in their right mind would insist, for instance, that all bread should be referred to as bread product rather than rolls and loaves and sweetbreads and baguettes?

If I’m honest, I don’t know that any of this is particularly pivotal. Nor, indeed, does the provocateur Damien Walter:

Boil this insanely complex and largely pointless argument down to its essentials, and you arrive at something quite interesting. Is it enough for a story to be purely the product of its creator’s imagination? Or should a story instead be extrapolated from an external, rational and scientifically provable truth? In a world still starkly divided between reason and fantasy, it’s an intriguing question to ask.

My answer: yes to every question. Yours?


Cover Art Corner: The Queen of Dreams by Peter Hamilton

Queen of Deams Peter Hamilton

Take Peter F. Hamilton, Britain’s bestselling science fiction author. Drop the middle initial, add in a couple of kids—in real life, I mean—and what do you get? Why, Peter Hamilton, whose new novel, The Queen of Dreams, is likely to come as a surprise to many long-time fans of the man.

By way of Walker of Worlds, here’s a bit of a blurb:

Taggie and Jemima are holidaying on their dad’s farm. They know just what to expect – a tumbledown old cottage, sunshine and strawberry picking. But then Jemima sees a white squirrel wearing glasses… and soon after, their father is captured and whisked away to a faerie world that’s fallen to Darkness. But why would anybody want to kidnap boring old Dad, especially the dreaded King of Night? Could it be that their family isn’t quite as ordinary as they believed?

As Taggie and Jemima venture into fantastic Realms, they discover magical powers they never knew they had. Powers they’re going to need during the desperate race to save their father. But the sisters will also need all the friends they can find—no matter what kind of folk they are, or where in history they belong…

The cartoonish cover art is by Odd and the Frost Giants’ Adam Stower, who’ll also be illustrating the interior of the first volume of the Books of the Realm series.

I haven’t always adored Peter F. Hamilton’s science fiction—the fact that he writes such doorstoppers hasn’t helped—but at the very least I’ll be absolutely fascinated to see how he handles both fantasy and, considering that The Queen of Dreams looks to clock in at approximately 300 pages versus the 1104 of his Great North Road, a far shorter form.

The Queen of Dreams is due out in early January in the UK from Doubleday’s Children’s division.


The Spider Wars Hit Home

The Burning Dark Adam Christopher

We’ve known for quite a while that Adam Christopher’s next project is a “chilling space opera series” set to start next March in the States by way of The Burning Dark. Last week we learned that the books are coming to the UK too, thanks to the mighty fine folks at Titan. Per the press release:

Titan Books are delighted to announce the acquisition of a three-book series from the multi-award-winning author of Empire State, Adam Christopher. The Spider Wars series is a fusion of science fiction thriller and psychological suspense.

The Burning Dark and its sequels are a chilling exploration of guilt, loss, and the dimensions that lurk beneath our own. The first novel follows Captain Idaho Cleveland on one last mission before early retirement: decommissioning the U-Star Coast City, a distant research outpost orbiting the toxic star Shadow.

Titan Books will publish The Burning Dark in original paperback in the UK and Commonwealth in March 2014, followed by two further books in the series [namely The Jovian Conspiracy and The Stars Below, according to Christopher].

Natalie Laverick bought the rights from Stacia Decker at the Donald Maass Agency. She writes: “The Burning Dark is a wonderfully dark space opera with an intensely creepy atmosphere and absorbing mystery at its centre. Adam Christopher is a fantastic writer and we’re thrilled to be adding this series to our growing fiction list.”

If you’ve read any Adam Christopher in recent years—if not, I’d recommend his debut Empire State especially—you’ll know that this marks a rather dramatic departure for the author: a man of many talents with an evident willingness to experiment I wish more writers would take a page or two from. Which is a large part of the reason I was so pleased to hear about The Queen of Dreams.

I’ll be equally keen to read The Burning Dark when it’s released in Great Britain next spring.


And that’s it for the British Genre Fiction Focus this week. I’ll be back with another round-up of bookish news all the way from the UK next Wednesday, as ever—though, saying that, I’ll be heading off on holiday the week afterwards, so let me take the “as ever” bit back. Oh, sweet semantics!

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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