Once upon a time there was a literary genre called Science Fiction. It was full of BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters), fantastic technology, hunky starship pilots, and there was usually a half-naked woman on the cover. It was called science fiction in spite of the fact that the science was more implicit than explicit. You just knew that it took amazing science for all this stuff to be possible.
There came a time when writers and publishers, not to mention readers, became dissatisfied with the expression science fiction, or “sci fi” as the uninitiated and mostly annoying called it. (Hey, I’m just reporting here.) The abbreviated term was even further abbreviated to “SF” and declared to refer to not science, but speculative fiction. The definition, for good or ill, broadened to include more sub-genres, such as fantasy, and reflected a greater creative streak than just how many bug-eyes a monster might have.
I was pleased to be invited to give a paper at the Midwest Popular Culture Conference at Western Michigan University way back in 1979. My paper was a short story with observations on how so much SF had traditionally focused on the stuff, the technology, and not how humans could cope with the changes around them. The book “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler had suggested that as innovations in technology sped up we would find adjusting and living with them difficult, even damaging to our psyches. I applied this point to the character in my story who saw how dehumanizing and alienating space travel could become. I speculated that the future might be a lonely place.
That’s one side of speculative fiction. Another is how we might progress from now in many areas of life, and in particular I have followed how the future might be a more diverse world when it comes to love and sexual relationships. Being a devotee of historical fiction I have borne the impact of reading about lovers who had to hide their love at best and could be put to death at worst just for desiring a member of their own sex. The aspect of speculation in what was once called “science fiction”, the chance to imagine a world or worlds where personal identity and relationships would be free was something of a cure-all for the depression that historical novels can impose on a GLBT reader. One moves from threat to freedom, denial to opportunity.
We have two speculative short stories in this issue of Wilde Oats. The more “traditional” is the futuristic story “Hawk’s Flight”, by Brian Holliday. It takes place on a starship, speculates on how different species might work together, how morality might be seen in such a diverse setting, and how being a tiny entity in the vastness of space and the risks involved might affect humans traveling in it. It also touches on a future where being gay is an accepted part of human (and other) experience, removing some of the artificial aspects of threat from a dominant and hostile culture and leaving the two men in this story to deal with the common and sometimes uncommon issues any two lovers might have.
The second speculative story is my own “Ghost in the White House”, a bit of historical fiction where the speculation is of a paranormal nature. President James Buchanan was probably gay, but any incontrovertible proof has been lost over the 155 years since the story takes place. The speculation here is what could be learned if Buchanan’s lover’s ghost visited him and talked not only about their relationship but about the national dissolution already taking place in 1857. It is not science. It is purely speculative, based on a “what if” type of storytelling. I can tell you that historical novelists as a whole get really bent out of shape about GLBT experience in the past, everything from “There were no gay people” to “All gay people were put to death for their perversion.” The truth is that we have always been queer and we have always been here, most of us managing to steam under the bridge, and it is up to the author to speculate how they lived.
The possibility for speculative fiction to represent liberated futures or a time when we must rocket under the tractor beam is endless. Just ask yourself, “What if?”, and let yourself speculate on an endless array of possibilities.