The Editorial Influence
Every venue for publishing speculative fiction, in all of its forms, is inevitably limited in an important way: the tastes of the editor. At one time, the opinions of a few people shaped science fiction as a whole. John W. Campbell, for example, created the Golden Age of Science Fiction by choosing what stories would appear in Astounding, and by his interactions with the authors who were creating new stories.
We’re no longer living in a world where a single editor has that kind of power. There are too many venues for speculative fiction. Star Wars or Star Trek have vastly wider exposure than any magazine, or even publishing house, can hope to equal. Yet the principle is the same. For years, people associated science fiction with the visions of George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry, just as they associated fantasy with JRR Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, and horror with Stephen King or Clive Barker.
Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of how public opinions are shaped. There are thousands of creators working in the fields of speculative fiction, all of them sharing their ideas of what this genre really is about. Each and every voice raised, every story shared, has some influence on others, and eventually we’re talking about a genre shaped by all of us.
That said, ask most people what they think of as science fiction or fantasy, and the odds are good they’ll say, “Oh, like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings?” Our entire field is thus encapsulated in the visions of a few.
While James Gunn’s Ad Astra will be but one more voice in the ongoing conversation, our ambition is to be a voice that reaches a large audience and will have some influence. We don’t want to force anyone to conform to our views, but since our opinions will become part of the community conversation, let’s lay our cards on the table.
Obviously, the choice of the term “speculative fiction” tells you plenty about the editorial viewpoint. Sometimes attributed to Robert Heinlein, the phrase was popularized by many New Wave authors in the 1960s as a reaction to what some characterized as the dominant view of science fiction at the time.
Now it’s a (hopefully) neutral term that’s seeing more use in academia, as a way to refer to all kinds of fiction that involve elements of the fantastic, the unreal, and the highly unlikely. It’s commonly broken down into sub-genres such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, and from there into more sub-fields such as slipstream, biopunk, magical realism, alt-history, and so on.
We’re using the phrase consciously, because Ad Astra is founded on the idea that these kinds of fiction are all related around a central goal. We feel that creators working in speculative fiction all want to explore the world through highly imaginative lenses. We don’t want to leave anyone out — all ideas are welcome, all sub-genres have something valuable to say.
The Central Question
Speculative fiction is the genre that asks What if?
What if, lost in the misty ages before common history, there were kingdoms that form only scraps of legend today, with heroes and villains struggling over the fate of the first civilizations?
What if, in the far future, the most precious resource that extended life and expanded consciousness was found only on one world, and the politics of an interstellar empire revolved around control of the spice?
What if, in a world we recognize as our own, a time not very different than today, our radio telescopes pick up a message from alien intelligences?
It’s that question, the moment where we posit something that doesn’t, or probably can’t, ever happen, that transform our stories into a new genre. Asking “What if technology lets us control every part of our physical selves, and even lets us record our personas?” transforms a simple love story into a study about self-identity, sex, cultural and social expectations, and of course, the nature of love itself.
Many other genres have elements of What if? of course, but the questions focus on the possible, the probable, and the likely. “What if we could see every aspect of the lives of migrant workers during the Great Depression?” may give us great literature, but it doesn’t require us to believe in anything other than the real world.
It is in asking What if? that we force ourselves, and our audiences, to open our minds to possibilities and perspectives we might never encounter otherwise. What if? questions all of our assumptions, lets us treat the human as alien and the alien as human. We can look at people radically different than we are and, through their eyes, see how strange our own divisiveness can seem. In a setting where there is no such thing as scarcity nor need for money, we can ask ourselves what the concepts of currency and owning things really means to us.
What if? does not require aliens, technology, and taking scientific concepts down unusual roads. It’s not a question that may only be asked in a setting where magic is real and mythical beasts roam the wild. It is not a question that admits to those kinds of artificial limits and definitions. What if? can be asked on a massive scale — what if the universe was actually a series of celestial spheres? It can be asked about one discrete event — what if Sir Isaac Newton chose not to publish his Principia Mathematica? And of course, it can be asked in ways that seem trivial — what if a kid who gets bitten by a radioactive spider gets super powers?
The joy of speculative fiction, and its central question, is that it can give us so many different stories. It can appeal to almost anyone, even people who think they aren’t interested in science fiction or fantasy might be into alternate histories, superhero comic books, magical realism, or alternate reality. It’s a genre large enough to allow us to meaningfully discuss stories about a farmhand who learns of his lineage in an order of magical space knights and who is responsible for saving everyone from an empire’s dark knight and evil sorcerer-king, or challenge our notions of personal identity through the explorations of perfect digital representations of the human mind.
This is what we want to celebrate at Ad Astra: all the ways we can ask What if? and the answers that come from this simple question.