Alternate History Versus Science Fiction

06:36 Fri 30 May 2008
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I finished Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union today. I liked it, although I think it overdid it perhaps a little with its sheer Jewishness—it takes place in an entirely Jewish state, one whose inhabitants are all highly aware of their Jewishness in ways I’ve never encountered in real life. It’s not quite caricature, and it’s definitely a loving portrait in many ways, but it felt like Chabon figured out how to convey “a Jewish atmosphere”, and conveys it, and then hires a trucking company to keep on conveying it from his mind to yours, while you’re trying to follow the plot. I suddenly wonder if At Swim-Two-Birds strikes the non-Irish in a similar way, given that it’s steeped (very steeped) in Irishness. In any case, Chabon’s novel is a good one, and a good read, but my question is: is it science fiction?

I ask this because it won the 2007 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the Nebula is a science fiction award. It’s also been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel; the Hugo is also a science fiction award. But The Yiddish Policemen’s Union really doesn’t strike me as science fiction.

This statement, of course, immediately demands a definition of what science fiction is. I think the canonical science fiction question is “what does it mean to be human?”, but I also think this question is explored in science fiction in relation to phenomena that overtly raise it. In other words, one could argue that all literature deals with the question of what it means to be human, but science fiction is the genre that contains things making the question explicitly necessary: aliens, artificial intelligences, replicants. Or it deals with what humanity will be like in the future, a prism through which it looks at what humanity’s like today.

Another way in which science fiction explicitly raises this question is by exploring the nature of reality itself, often in relation to the idea of multiple dimensions, so that the question is raised as “what does it mean to be human in the face of this revelation about reality?”

Obviously it’s a huge genre, and covers a great deal of space (ha ha), but I think that every book I’ve read that I’ve thought of as science-fictional covers the ground I just outlined.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union doesn’t seem to me to cover that ground.

So, okay, smart guy, if you say that, why’d it win a Nebula—awarded, presumably, by people who might know what science fiction is?

There’s this genre (or sub-genre, depending on where your view on the boundaries align) called “alternate history” (some might call it “alternative history”, but that brings up a different sent of boundaries), and it’s either in or next to the science fiction territory. The awarders might prefer to expand that territory (they might think of it as their territory), to claim more of literature for their own, and hence extend their honors to Michael Chabon… or they might have already assimilated all alternate history tales into their idea of what science fiction is.

That latter, I think, is the key point, and the reason for the title of this post. I certainly think some alternate history belongs in the science fiction genre (I’m not objecting to the 1963 Hugo for The Man in the High Castle), but all of it?

Many people now prefer the term “speculative fiction” to “science fiction”. In principle, I do too—a focus on scientific discovery simply isn’t necessary to the genre or its key question(s). They go together well, which is why the term arose in the first place, but at this point it seems unwieldy. Nevertheless, I can’t seem to stop using it, because somehow “speculative fiction” seems wrong—in the first place, isn’t all fiction speculative? If not, is it fiction? I sometimes use “sf” or “SF” instead, which in my mind is a handy stand-in for some combination of “science fiction” and “speculative fiction” that sounds right, isn’t redundant, isn’t overly restrictive, and covers just what I want it to cover.

In writing this post, I discovered another feature of “speculative fiction”—to my mind, it doesn’t have the same key questions, partly because it does include alternate history. If alternate history stories aren’t speculative, what is?

“Speculative fiction”, then is a subtly-different superset of “science fiction”.

I should note that the Nebula Awards info page doesn’t address any of these questions at all.

Why is The Man in the High Castle unproblematically sf to me while The Yiddish Policemen’s Union isn’t? Primarily because in the Dick novel, the possibility of other worlds with different historical outcomes is explicitly encountered by the characters. Dick is definitely suggesting that other worlds are possible, that the reality experienced by the characters might not be the only reality. This questioning of the nature of reality is definitely an sf trait. There isn’t any of that in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, as I noted above.

It is, however, very definitely a detective/crime/mystery novel; it even has the classic segment where the protagonist gets drugged by a dodgy doctor and imprisoned in a mental-hospital-like institution.

I like it, it was enjoyable, it deserves awards, but before and after this little exploration, it doesn’t fit as sf. It’s welcome to the Sidewise and the Edgar, however.

(I feel like it’s a shame I feel this way, too, since I oddly want to be happier at/for the first author to win a Pulitzer and Nebula for novels.)

4 Responses to “Alternate History Versus Science Fiction”

  1. mollydot Says:

    My understanding is that speculative fiction is science fiction + fantasy + horror, plus other things that don’t necessarily fit into the big three, like alternate history and urban fantasy. Paranormal romance, perhaps?

    I agree that all fiction is speculative, but maybe these ones are even more so? Other fiction could theoretically be true, these definitely aren’t.

  2. Alex Says:

    I think there is a definite trend for mainstream writers to lift troupes from the cupboard of SF/Fantasy and present them to wider audience who wouldn’t normally read anything sf/fantasy.
    This seems to me to be a ( possibly cynical ) attempt to mark their work out from more run of the mill mainstream/literary fiction. The work appear more innovative because the intended audience may be unfamiliar with other examples. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, and ‘The Raw Shark Texts’ by Steven Hall would be examples I’ve recently read.

  3. Unkie Dave Says:

    I think ‘science fiction’ is written by people who want to win a Hugo, ‘speculative fiction’ is written by those who have already won a Pulitzer, its a pecking order thing.

    Chabon is a geek, ‘Kavalier and Clay’ clearly showed that, but there’s elements way back in ‘Werewolves’ and ‘Final Solution’, but he hid it from the mainstream until he had established himself enough not to scare off mainstream readers by setting stuff in an alternative Jewish Alaska. I gave my 80 something year old grandmother “Yiddish Policeman’s Union” this Christmas, she loved it – a voracious reader she would, however, never read sci-fi – though she loves a good detective novel, which at its core is what YPU is, the genre coat it wears is pretty, but its still just a coat and not the essence of the novel, and I think that’s the point of Chabon’s exercise.

    Think of Ian Banks (I believe you are familiar with his work, I seem to remember something along those lines) – he clearly separates his genre and non genre work by the solicitous use of the letter “M.” – acknowledging that he has a group of fans that would not crossover and doesn’t want to upset them by exposing them to ‘speculative fiction’.

  4. exzeteos Says:

    I’m reminded of the statement that Steve Eley (Editor of Escape Pod, a podcast novel of short form SF) has used several times: “Science fiction is what I point to when I say it”. I think our definitions are subjective, and I think that’s OK. It’s fuzzy logic (or maybe cloud logic now that it’s the 21st century). We can’t pin down a definition, but we know what it is when we see it. Robert Jordan’s Whee of Time is fantasy, even though it takes place in a future after the collapse of a highly technological civilization, and may have technological explanations for some of the super-natural elements of his story. Dick is a “Science Fiction” author (with clearly SF work like Ubik, Do Androids Dream…, Valis) so even his alternate history feels like SF. Caleb Carr’s attempt at Science Fiction (I can’t even remember the name) didn’t feel like SF to me, in part because I was familliar with his historical fiction. The arc of an author’s work sometimes colors our expectations of their work, which is why some authors use pseudonyms for different genres, or differentiate their ouvres with someother name change like Iain (M) Banks.

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