I recently read “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu at Clarkesworld Magazine. It’s been nominated for a Nebula Award and is a well-written allegory. In the comments section for the story, someone questioned whether it was science fiction or not, to which the author responded that the story had been inspired by a research article on the heredity of anarchism in bees and was, therefore, hard science fiction. That got me wondering (again) about what people consider science fiction. Is the source of inspiration alone enough to make a story science fiction, and in this case hard science fiction?
I view science fiction as stories that use scientific theory—including extrapolations thereof—to support or explain their speculative elements. This is certainly a definition with very blurry edges. How far can you extrapolate away from current scientific thought before a story is not science fiction and become what some people call science fantasy or even fantasy? Arthur C. Clarke noted that advanced technology would look like magic to a primitive (relatively speaking, that is) individual. Magic is generally considered the realm of fantasy.
I would have considered Ms. Yu’s story a fantasy—anthropomorphized animals, even if they are insects, fall under fantasy for me. (Yet oddly, if the wasps and bees had been alien races, I might not have felt the same way, further showing how subjective these lines can be!) While the heredity of anarchism in the bees appears in the story, I didn’t feel it was the central or even a critical element. The heredity aspect could have been entirely left out and had little effect on the outcome. I thought the story was more a political allegory, in the tradition of Orwell’s Animal Farm, than an exploration of the genetics of anarchism. Perhaps it’s best to simply call this one speculative fiction.
Now all this doesn’t mean I disliked the Ms. Yu’s story. Quite the contrary; I enjoyed it a great deal. I think it’s worthy of its Nebula nomination; it’s beautifully constructed and written. If you haven’t read Ms. Yu’s story, I recommend you check it out.