8 votes

Is alternate history science fiction?

16 comments

  1. [14]
    Algernon_Asimov
    (edited )
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    To me, alternate history is one of the genres that fall under the umbrella category of speculative fiction, two of the other genres being science fiction and fantasy. EDIT: It appears I can't...

    To me, alternate history is one of the genres that fall under the umbrella category of speculative fiction, two of the other genres being science fiction and fantasy.

    EDIT: It appears I can't always type "genres" correctly.

    12 votes
    1. [13]
      mat
      Link Parent
      While genre is largely just a shelving problem (and then only if you want it to be), I really don't like the term "speculative fiction" because if it's not speculative, it's not fiction. All...

      While genre is largely just a shelving problem (and then only if you want it to be), I really don't like the term "speculative fiction" because if it's not speculative, it's not fiction. All fiction is speculative, it's just some is more speculative than others.

      Also Margaret Atwood only used/popularised the term because she thinks she's too literary to write science fiction. Which is pretty insulting to all the perfectly good sci-fi authors (not to mention readers!) out there.

      1. [11]
        Algernon_Asimov
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        This is strange: I've written this exact same thing in the past, almost word for word. However, when I consider the genre of alternative history, I know that it does not fall under science fiction...

        I really don't like the term "speculative fiction" because if it's not speculative, it's not fiction. All fiction is speculative

        This is strange: I've written this exact same thing in the past, almost word for word.

        However, when I consider the genre of alternative history, I know that it does not fall under science fiction nor under fantasy; it falls beside them. All three genres are similar types of non-realistic fiction, where their background does not reflect our reality.

        Then I needed an umbrella term to sit over the top of these three genres. And, rather than invent a new one, I figured that "speculative fiction" already exists, and already serves this purpose of describing non-realistic fiction, so I might as well co-opt it for this job.

        If you know of another term to be the parent category over the top of the genres of science fiction, fantasy, alternative history, I'm open to seeing it.

        Maybe, based on what I just wrote, we need to create the parent categories of "realistic fiction" and "non-realistic fiction". Maybe I just coined a phrase! :)

        7 votes
        1. [10]
          mat
          Link Parent
          Why do you need a parent category though? Fantasy is fantasy. Sci-fi is sci-fi. Alt-history is alt-history. There doesn't need to be an umbrella term to encompass three discrete things. We don't...

          Why do you need a parent category though?

          Fantasy is fantasy. Sci-fi is sci-fi. Alt-history is alt-history. There doesn't need to be an umbrella term to encompass three discrete things. We don't feel the need for one term to cover Romance, Crime and Horror, why is Sci-fi, Fantasy and Alt-History different?

          Fantasy and Sci-fi are fundamentally different. Sci-fi deals with the possibly real; fantasy, the definitely not real. I mean sure, there is sci-fantasy (eg, Star Trek, aka magic dressed as science) and I would maybe, if I'm being very, very generous, give some Brandon Sanderson and Olivie Blake a category of some kind of realist-fantasy. But then there's always cross-genre examples in all cases - Romantic Mysteries exist, and Criminal Thrillers. I don't understand why Sci-fi and Fantasy get bundled together all the time, if not for the simple reason of keeping the weirdos in one tidy corner of the library/bookshop (a group I happily consider myself part of, at least for the sci-fi)

          Using the term speculative fiction just reinforces Atwood's ridiculous notion that sci-fi (and OK, there's probably some literary fantasy out there too but I haven't read it) isn't proper fiction and that's my main issue with it. We have sufficient genre names already, we don't need any more - believe me, my wife works in the library service and deciding how to shelve the books is really not a problem they have.

          2 votes
          1. [5]
            skybrian
            Link Parent
            Seems like if your definition of "science fiction" excludes just about everything written by famous science fiction authors like H.G. Wells, Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and Ursula K. Le Guinn,...

            Seems like if your definition of "science fiction" excludes just about everything written by famous science fiction authors like H.G. Wells, Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, and Ursula K. Le Guinn, there is something wrong with it?

            Very little of what's called "science fiction" is "possibly real". You'd have to exclude anything about galactic empires or time travel, for example. Even superficially "real" thrillers like "The Martian" cut corners. (The dust storm at the beginning couldn't cause the problems it did in the novel because the Martian atmosphere is very thin.)

            Practically every author of speculative fiction, of whatever variety, has to cut corners because reality is annoying and gets in the way of a good story, and the story is more important.

            I think of science fiction more in terms of mood, setting, and areas of concern. I like how William Gibson says that science fiction might be set in the future, but it's actually concerned about the present.

            5 votes
            1. [2]
              lou
              (edited )
              Link Parent
              I'd say that while science fiction does deal with impossibility, its distinctive feature is that even its impossibilities are often expressed in scientific terminology, scientific adjacent terms,...

              I'd say that while science fiction does deal with impossibility, its distinctive feature is that even its impossibilities are often expressed in scientific terminology, scientific adjacent terms, or at least scientific sounding mumbojumbo. Sometimes there is no explicit explanation, but when we're not in a magical universe science/technology is implied by default.

              3 votes
              1. skybrian
                Link Parent
                One way to think of it is that fantasy storytelling often borrows old myths from past cultures. These myths are largely dead to us. Science fiction often uses myths that are plausible (to layman,...

                One way to think of it is that fantasy storytelling often borrows old myths from past cultures. These myths are largely dead to us. Science fiction often uses myths that are plausible (to layman, at least) in the present. We want our myths to have scientific trappings.

                Instead of a "magic wand" there is an "energy weapon" but it serves a similar purpose.

                2 votes
            2. [2]
              mat
              Link Parent
              Not sure how you got that impression, it wasn't my intent. Wells pretty much created the genre - or at least, tied with Shelley for doing so. Asimov isn't one of the Big Three for nothing. Dick...

              Not sure how you got that impression, it wasn't my intent. Wells pretty much created the genre - or at least, tied with Shelley for doing so. Asimov isn't one of the Big Three for nothing. Dick and Le Guin are hugely important in the genre too.

              For what it's worth, time travel is possible within known physics, it's just extremely difficult. FTL is a common freebie, but still is theoretically possible. Everyone handwaves something (even super-hard writers like Baxter and Egan), because like you say, story is more important than writing a physics textbook. I'm not trying to suggest that all sci-fi has to be 100% accurate within known science. But it should be reasonably plausible, unlike the magic swords of fantasy.

              Clarke wasn't wrong when he said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but a magic box that makes a starship go faster than light using some engineering that currently doesn't exist is very different to waving a wand to make a horse talk. In a thousand years we might develop that engineering but a horse isn't ever growing vocal cords in response to a waggled twig.

              "Possible" doesn't mean "doable now", it means potentially do-able one day, maybe. A story where the tech (or magic-like technology) isn't going to break my suspension of disbelief by being ridiculously implausible. Sanderson's Mistborn series and his concept of "hard magic" is an interesting - and very rare - example of doing this in fantasy. A good example of getting it wrong is pretty much all of Star Trek, which appears to just be magic all the way down - "reconfigure the deflector array to solve this week's problem!"

              1 vote
              1. skybrian
                (edited )
                Link Parent
                That doesn't seem quite right? Maybe some physics equations allow for time travel of particles under extreme conditions, and some theoretical physicists sometimes play with the math, but as far as...

                "time travel is possible within known physics, it's just extremely difficult"

                That doesn't seem quite right? Maybe some physics equations allow for time travel of particles under extreme conditions, and some theoretical physicists sometimes play with the math, but as far as I know this isn't a live area of scientific investigation like AI and quantum computing. There is very little hope of ever sending information back into the past, let alone sending living organisms. Nobody is seriously thinking about the real world effects if someone invents time travel.

                I guess "possible" is a binary term with some wiggle room, but for purposes of telling a story, this rounds to "it will never happen."

                And essentially nobody writes time travel stories because they think it will actually happen. They write them because it's fun and interesting to imagine the future and to visit the past, and because messing with time travel paradoxes is fun. But it's mumbo jumbo just as much as Star Trek is.

                The motivations for introducing time travel devices are similar to why people add magic devices to their stories. Time travel would be cool, but so would a spell that turns you invisible (as H.G. Wells did in The Invisible Man.) The flavor of mumbo jumbo differs slightly, but as far as plausibility goes, it's not essentially different from fantasy.

                So I don't think the plausibility of the special powers they play with is a good way to separate science fiction from fantasy. I don't know what Clarke meant by "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" but to me it means that science fiction and fantasy give you similar tools for writing a story. Set your story in the far future and you can use "advanced technology" to write a story where magic exists.

                1 vote
          2. Algernon_Asimov
            Link Parent
            Why do we group animals? They're all just animals, and then we have tigers and dolphins and lizards and sharks. Why do we need a parent category for tigers and dolphins? Because tigers and...

            Why do we group animals? They're all just animals, and then we have tigers and dolphins and lizards and sharks. Why do we need a parent category for tigers and dolphins? Because tigers and dolphins are more similar to each other than either of them is to lizards and sharks. Having a "mammal" category enables us to talk about the commonalities of tigers and dolphins.

            You keep talking about shelves and libraries/bookshops. The reason for grouping fantasy and science fiction and alternative history under a parent category is to indicate that they're all in the same section of the library/bookshop: the fantasy bookshelf is next to the sci-fi bookshelf which is next to the alt-history bookshelf.

            4 votes
          3. [3]
            lou
            (edited )
            Link Parent
            I'm not versed in literary theory but I've known the term speculative fiction for quite some time and read many definitions on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and up until reading your comment I was...

            Using the term speculative fiction just reinforces Atwood's ridiculous notion that sci-fi (and OK, there's probably some literary fantasy out there too but I haven't read it) isn't proper fiction and that's my main issue with it.

            I'm not versed in literary theory but I've known the term speculative fiction for quite some time and read many definitions on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and up until reading your comment I was entirely unaware of this pejorative connotation. The term always seemed, to me, nothing more than an useful taxonomy. So I'm a bit skeptical that the potential harm you identify here is an actual cause for concern nowadays.

            2 votes
            1. [2]
              mat
              Link Parent
              I studied English Literature at university, but almost never did genre come up. Various movements in literature which are genre-like did - eg, Romanticisim, Magic Realism, etc - but generally...

              I studied English Literature at university, but almost never did genre come up. Various movements in literature which are genre-like did - eg, Romanticisim, Magic Realism, etc - but generally literary theory isn't particularly concerned with genre. Genre is a shelving issue, not a literary one.

              My question then is - what's useful about the term?

              Why is it useful to lump sci-fi, fantasy, alt-history and a bunch of other already existing, reasonably well-defined genres into one?

              It doesn't help with shelving - I don't want to dig through magic swords to find my space stories, and I doubt that the talking horse people want to trouble themselves sorting through robots with lasers. People who like both are probably happy looking on two different shelves. And genre is, ultimately, just a shelving problem and nothing more. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong - "There are two kinds of books, the good, and the bad. I read the good kind."

              "Speculative fiction" doesn't add anything useful that I can see. In fact, worse, it actively confuses things. If you ask me if I like sci-fi I will say "usually"; if you ask me if I like fantasy I will say "generally not"; if you ask me if I like speculative fiction I will say "I don't know, the question is too broad"

              1 vote
              1. lou
                Link Parent
                I personally find it useful because there are things I'd like to say about speculative fiction that I wouldn't like to say for, as an example, crime drama. In the same way that there are things I...

                I personally find it useful because there are things I'd like to say about speculative fiction that I wouldn't like to say for, as an example, crime drama. In the same way that there are things I wish to say about crime drama as a whole and not just about film noir.

                1 vote
      2. lou
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I think you're being a bit too literal. Of course, all fiction is speculation since it diverge from reality, even narratives that are based on a true story. But speculative fiction is distinct...

        I think you're being a bit too literal. Of course, all fiction is speculation since it diverge from reality, even narratives that are based on a true story. But speculative fiction is distinct from that because it speculates on the basic expectations over current reality itself. If I write a history about how @lou robbed the Fort Knox I'm certainly speculating on reality, but that is not the same, or to the same degree, as writing about flying dragons or sentient robots.

        Edit: to use Tzvetan Todorov's taxonomy, most stories are in the "strange" territory, they verse about things that are highly unlikely or unique, but under the realm of possibility. The "fantastic" stories have fantastical elements that you cannot pinpoint as real or illusion. The "marvelous" stories are the ones in which we know the extraordinary is actually true. Detective stories are strange, many stories are fantastic for the most part but end up in strange territory (examples: Scooby-Doo, Shutter Island), and many are downright marvelous (superhero movies, most science fiction...). Speculative fiction is mostly under the marvelous. I'm roughly translating those terms, I don't know their canonical translation to English.

        4 votes
  2. lou
    Link
    I like this comment:

    I like this comment:

    The science in alternate history is social science, broadly speaking: the belief that people have minds we can understand, and that they behave in ways we can analyze when faced with changing circumstances, and for that matter that changing environments produce…not uniquely “correct” sets of diverging responses, but that there are sensible ties between what happens when the world goes this way and how people go that way.

    It’s not rigorous, but then it’s not outright bogus the way a lot of physical science is in sf, either.

    2 votes
  3. skybrian
    Link
    It seems like fiction that's interested in how differences in technological development would affect history (in video game terms, exploring a different path through the tech tree) is thematically...

    It seems like fiction that's interested in how differences in technological development would affect history (in video game terms, exploring a different path through the tech tree) is thematically closer to SF than alternative history based on something else like politics? It's all interconnected, though.

    1 vote