When The Guardian interviewed Harlan Ellison in 2013, the interviewer begged the famed science fiction writer to define the term “speculative fiction.” Here are Ellison’s words: “I will give you the only answer that there is. It is the game of ‘what if?'” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/14/harlan-ellison-q-and-a-interview
Those of us who love Ellison’s writing–and we are legion–woke up one day late last month to find that Ellison’s brilliant, quirky, teeming mind has departed this planet. Ellison died on June 29, 2018, at 84.
Ellison’s obituary in The Washington Post sums up an amazing and creative life:
The Post obit notes that Ellison “was among the ‘new wave’ of incredibly prolific authors who used stories about space and technology to explore dark moral terrain” during “a literary career that helped reshape science fiction.” The Post article cited especially Ellison’s famous script for Star Trek‘s most notable episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever” and the feud with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that followed. The tussle, leading to bad blood and lawsuits, was over just how dark “The City on the Edge of Forever” would be–if Ellison had had his way, much, much darker.
In the interview for The Guardian, Ellison had some incisive words to say about the genre of science fiction. “You take that which is known, and you extrapolate – and you keep it within the bounds of logic. . . and you say, ‘Well, what if?'”
He distinguished science fiction from fantasy. “Fantasy is a separate genre,” Ellison maintained. According to Ellison, the difference between science fiction and fantasy is that fantasy “allows you to go beyond the bounds of that which is acceptable, where all of a sudden people can fly, or the Loch Ness Monster does not have a scientific rationale, but is a mythic creature.” By no means does Ellison diss fantasy, however. “It is in the grand tradition of the oldest forms of writing we know, all the way back to Gilgamesh, the very first fiction we know, and the gods. Fantasy is a noble endeavour,” Ellison told The Guardian‘s interviewer.
On the other hand, according to Ellison, “Science fiction is a contemporary subset [of speculative fiction] that goes all the way back to Lucian of Samosata, and Verne and Wells, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.”
Ellison also claimed in that interview that speculative fiction at its best “is classic literature, on a level with Moby Dick and Colette and Edgar Allan Poe.” I myself think he’s right, only because all literature, classic to terrible, is speculative fiction. As far as I’m concerned, all fiction begins with that question “What if?”