Thursday, July 24, 2014

How speculative does 'speculative fiction' have to be, or should I have had the tortoises shooting lasers?

From time to time, I write short stories involving animals doing vaguely humanlike (although not quite human) things.  This began with a story called "2 Frogs" in which the 2 titular frogs discussed one frog's invention of a new word, and has continued through "7 Pigs," prompted by an Andrew Leon quote about bacon, "5 Chickens," "Bear" and, most recently, "3 Tortoises."

The latest, "3 Tortoises," I submitted to a website for publication, as I do with all my short stories now.  I won't name the publication, because I'm not trying to pick a fight with them, but I will share the rejection they gave me:

Hi Briane This doesn't appear to really be speculative fiction, so we can't accept this submission. cheers 

The rejection itself didn't surprise me; despite a run of success in which I had three stories published for pay in June 2014, rejection is still the norm for most of my stories.  (Actually, the norm is not hearing back from people for a long time.)

But I was surprised that a story about talking, thinking tortoises was deemed to be not really speculative fiction, and so although ordinarily I would publish the story somewhere down the line on my own blog, I am going to share it with IWM readers to help decide just how speculative fiction must be to qualify.

The cover took me WEEKS.
This was actually a debate that began during A To Z month, when one of our featured books was my collection of short stories Just Exactly How Life Looks, which I described in a comment as being more literary than sci-fi or spec fic, and I finally settled on magical realism, which fellow IWM-er Rusty Carl took issue with, saying:

So literary stories aren't spec fic because they are, um, what? You're not also Margret Atwood are you?

And P.T. sided with him, pointing out that things like The Lovely Bones might be considered literary rather than spec fic, and then, much as I had with my ongoing internal debate about what really separates a poem from a short short story (someday I'll do a post about two things I wrote that were both at the same time and discuss that) I began thinking about just how speculative fiction must be.  In Just Exactly, after all, I have cowboys roaming endlessly in a desert, but there's no overt speculative aspects to the story.  Another story in that book, God Shrugged, has God as a character, so I guess that is speculative? And there's one where scientists meet in a secret cabal to decide how to lie to the public and get people interested in science again ("Quantum Everything" is the title and spoiler alert!) which seems fiction-y but not speculative.

So I don't have a clear answer yet.  I mean, lightsabers, superheroes, wizards, dragons, ghosts: those all seem speculative.  But tortoises deciding on what to do? Seemed spec fic to me, but you decide:

3 Tortoises.

3 tortoises appeared on the edge of a clearing. In their whole lives none of them had traveled more than a quarter-mile, and their whole lives, so far had been 70, 50, and 57 years.

Are we now to come closer? The 70-year-old said to the two young ones.

Or shall we turn away from each other? The 57-year-old said.

The 50-year-old ate a leaf and watched the other two.  It was up to him.  He felt it.  What he did next would determine the fate of these three, a fate that might last another one hundred years.

If he stepped forward, the other two would also, and the three of them would remain in this clearing for five, twenty, seventy years, maybe never leaving each other’s company.

If he stepped backwards, each would turn away and over years would slowly (oh so slowly) drift apart, until several decades hence they might be separated by as much as 200 yards, each aware of the other two back behind it, moving away, each conscious of the proximity that for every other animal might be no big deal, but which for them was the chasm of time, of momentum, of the past.

When you live as slowly as we do, the 50-year-old said, you can afford to mull over your next step. He proceeded to do that.

The sun set.

The sun rose.

The sun set again, rose again, and so on for many nights.

The rains came.

The rains left.

The three tortoises had not moved.

The 50-year-old one morning, as the dew settled on the blades of grass around him, said let us meet.  They were the first words spoken in that clearing in 2 years, but they were the right words, and a year later they came true.



  1. But that's not speculative fiction. It's a reflection on the lifespan of turtles. If you, say, speculated on why turtles age the way they do, or if they age that way for a reason, that would be speculative fiction. But what you wrote isn't. The publication was accurate in its determination.

    1. And before you say so, I realize that turtles are not tortoises. But I was thinking turtles instead of tortoises when I wrote my response. Speculating that turtles are tortoises in some secret way would also be acceptable speculative fiction.

    2. For me, Tony, the speculative part was that the tortoises were talking and thinking. While they might actually do that, we don't know, so I was speculating as to that.

    3. But I agree: a story on why turtles live so slowly would also be interesting. It's just not the one I felt like writing.

  2. I feel famous. I'm in block quotes and everything. I think there should be a website that collects ironic rejections. I had a 2000 word short story rejected, mostly, because the editor didn't want flash fiction.

    And that seems pretty spec ficky to me. Also very good.

    1. It's amazing how many things I've written that were inspired by something you said or did, Rusty. You truly are my muse.

      We should post those rejections here.

    2. I've always thought flash fiction was 1000 words or less, but I guess there's no firm definition of the term.

  3. Sentient talking turtles sound like fantasy to me (though if they were genetically/neurologically enhanced, that would make them SF). There was an article on yesterday showing that animals do share more emotions with people than we realize, so who knows? Perhaps turtles really do decide if they want to approach each other or retreat, but they may do so nonverbally.

    Genre is more of a marketing tool than anything else, a way to help people find the stories they want to read. IMO, Magical realism is a term used to get people who normally wouldn't read fantasy to read it. That said, I'm more likely to read a magical realism book than something labeled mainstream fiction.

    I hope we can all agree on the most important point: it's a good thing these turtles don't eat pizza.

    1. I agree about genre being marketing. In that sense, I think they just meant "It's not for our readers."

  4. I had a story rejected a couple months ago because it wasn't speculative enough. Maybe I should have add a couple talking turtles. But apparently that's not speculative either? Darn it. Now what shall I do?

    1. Lasers, Jean. I'm positive that's where it's at.

  5. First, as I've said many time before, I hate the term speculative fiction. It's too all-encompassing to mean anything. Everything that is not precisely true is speculative. So biographies are not speculative and history is not speculative and literary fiction is generally not considered speculative, but basically everything else is. ALL of fantasy. ALL of sci-fi. ALL of horror. ALL of historical fiction. ALL stories with talking animals (so Tony is 1000% wrong). And I could go on with that list, but, basically, any story that hinges on the question of "why" or "what if" or has the thought "I wonder" is speculative. Unless it's something so normal as to not actually require speculation. Something like "I wonder what would happen if my MC held up a bank and shot a cop" is not speculative, because that happens. Turtles, however, do not talk, so that makes it spec fic.

    And just to add to my rant, spec fic is barely even a real thing. It's just a term that genre writers have started throwing around recently (the last decade or so at most) to make them sound more legitimate. Screw that. If you write sci-fi, just freaking say you write sci-fi. If you write weird fiction (and, yes, that is an actual genre (developed largely by Lovecraft)), say you write weird fiction. I have never once told anyone I am a spec fic writer. I tell people that I what I write, mostly, is fantasy of one sort or another, because everything I have out so far (except the cookie story) has fantasy elements. At some point, I will become a sci-fi/fantasy writer, but my sci-fi thing isn't finished, yet.

    Anyway, that you were rejected on the basis of that not being spec fic is ridiculous, and you shouldn't want your thing published in a thing where someone would say that, because that clearly shows that those people don't know what they're talking about and probably don't know what they're doing.

    And, by the way, I liked the story.
    But it would have been cool if they'd had lasers. Like The Plague Dogs except Plague Tortoises. Or something.

    1. I like 'spec fic' because it fits a lot of what I do. "the After" isn't really 'magical realism,' which I think of as a story that basically could happen with some magical elements thrown in, versus spec fic, which I think of as a fantasy story that's got a lot of real-seeming components. A story like "Happy Happy" is hard to categorize. It's definitely not Lovecraftian. Not that I mind having a hard-to-categorize story, but you've got to say it's SOMETHING.

      The labels do overlap, though. Horror usually has a huge chunk of either sci-fi ("The Passage," "The Stand") or fantasy. Or both.

  6. Oh, also, magical realism is also considered spec fic.
    Just to mention it.
    Especially since people often want to classify House as magical realism, which I'm actually okay with.

    1. I would think the House books would be straight-up fantasy. They've got wizards and ogres!

    2. Well, yeah, I call them fantasy but, since it's set in the "real world," people have a hard time with it as fantasy and want to call it something else. Like magical realism.

      It's still weird to me though, since they don't, for instance, call the Dresden books magical realism. No, those are urban fantasy.