Tom Shippey’s latest article for the Wall Street Journal discusses Margaret Atwood’s book In Other Worlds and takes on the perennial question “What is sci-fi”?
Most people here would follow a distinction made by Ms. Le Guin. Things we think are impossible, magic and dragons, that’s fantasy. Things we’re not sure about yet, that’s sci-fi. So we might challenge Ms. Atwood’s insistence that her books are “speculative” and not sci-fi. All the same, she may well be right, but for a deeper reason.
What slipstreamers seem to like in sci-fi is the scenarios, usually utopian or dystopian. Yet what’s missing in Ms. Atwood’s own speculative fictions is what sci-fi fans really like: explanation and analysis. Sci-fi futures need to show not just when and what but also how.
The comments have already begun to accrue from fans who wish Shipped had asked “What is science fiction?” That’s not my issue, though if it was I couldn’t imagine any point in lecturing Shippey about it — someone with his unassailable knowledge of the fantasy field cannot be presumed to have used “sci-fi” unaware of the tempest-in-a-teapot that follows when Ackerman’s term is preferred.
[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the story.]