Homer wins the Hugo!

 A question was posed during the previous discussion so interesting I thought it merited its own entry:

Q: You don’t consider Odyssey, Eneid, Fourth Eclogue, Divine Comedy, Tempest and Faust to be Speculative Fiction? I do – so I think there is no lack of Great Works of SF.
A: My humble opinion—
Science fiction is the fiction of the scientific revolution. It is the unique product of the revolution in thought that ushered in the modern age. That revolution changed both the theory and the practice of life, the paradigm and the technology, both what men thought about the cosmos and how they lived their daily lives.
Having lived through one paradigm shift and its attendant technological advancements, an audience was ready for fictional speculation about the next paradigm shift, the next technological advancement.
Speculative fiction, properly so called, is fiction taking place in a cosmos that differs from what the audience understands to be the real world, either (in science fiction) after the next paradigm shift or (in fantasy) before the previous one. Both challenge the imagination by rejecting the paradigm, or the technology, current to the time and place in which the author and his readers generally agree they live. 

Even a single element unearthly or extraterrestrial element in an otherwise mundane setting —a Mindreader in Brooklyn—can make the story science fiction; this is because discovering a Mindreader in Brooklyn would overthrow the current paradigm. We don’t believe in telepaths, and James Randi disbelieves even less than we do. Therefore a tale where the reader is asked to take that possibility seriously, to think through the implications, challenges the current paradigm.
The genre is called “speculative” because of the emphasis on implications. The Invisible Man of H.G. Wells has to run around naked because his clothing was not also transparent; and his footprints dinted the snow. The invisible ring in Orlando Furioso had no such logical limitations: it was magic. When Brandamart puts it in her mouth, she vanishes.
All this is in marked contrast to the epics and poems mentioned here. They were written by authors whose purpose was to confirm the paradigm of the time and place in which they wrote.
Dante was not attempting to lead his Christian readers into speculations about what the pre-Christian world looked like to pre-Christians, or to imagine what the world was like had that long-lost world-view been true. Dante did not write a fantasy. He wrote the opposite. Pagan elements are introduced (Ulysses, etc.) for the express purposed of being retrofitted into a Christian philosophical framework. This would be the same as if some author (for example Mary Renault) took a character from the previous prescientific world view (for example, Theseus) and retold his story explaining all the supernatural elements in terms of scientifically and anthropologically modern ideas (for example THE KING MUST DIE). 
The speculative element is exactly what is missing in Dante: and I say this with the greatest respect for Dante’s scientific learning. His astronomy and his optics are spot on perfect. But when the shades in Purgatory see the shadow of Dante on the ground, and the departed spirits cast no shadow, it is not explained how the ghostly eyeballs can see Dante’s shadow, if the photons are passing through them–and if the photons are not passing through them, then how is it that the departed spirits cast no shadows? Common folk wisdom of Dante’s time said shades were shadowless, and he had craft and art enough to work this cleverly into his poem. But he did not speculate about scientific implications. Dante’s take on ghosts was meant to confirm the paradigm of his age. 
In contrast, Robert E. Howard wrote fantasy. Conan does not live in our universe as we understand it: he cannot be fitted into the modern scientific world-view. Conan is a speculation (if we may dignify it with that term) about what the world would have been like had the men of the previous paradigm been correct in their view of the universe: a realm of capricious gods, monsters, bold barbarians, beautiful slavegirls, pirates, kings, where magic worked and sorcery hung thick as incense on the air.
Do not be deceived by the presence of wondrous and fantastic elements in the great poets. All tales are really about wonder. All readers suspend their skepticism at least in part for the sake of the tale being told. I truly doubt every man in the audience of Homer believed in Amazons or Centaurs. Certainly Plato scoffs at Homer’s portrayal of Gods and demigods. And there were skeptics even in Shakespeare’s day who did not believe the ghosts: but ghosts were an accepted part of the revenge story, and so a ghost in HAMLET was not something alien to their paradigm of the universe. There are many modern skeptics who do not believe in love at first sight, but who will accept it as possible for the sake of watching a love story.

So, with all due respect, while we have the liberty to define SF broadly enough to include anything and everything we want (indeed, a liberty I take here), we run the risk of sounding puffed and presumptuous. I have never been at an SF Con were a fan said his three favorite science fiction authors were Asimov, Heinlein and Virgil. I have never found a copy of Shakespeare’s TEMPEST in the Dungeon and Dragon’s aisle at the bookstore, even though Prospero is clearly a Twelfth Level mage, able to cast a seventh level control weather spell with an area-effect modifier.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that the bookstores are not worshipping Sauron the Great in secret, and have not entered into a conspiracy against our beloved rayguns-and-rocketships genre. Why is it that a reader looking for a classic does not first come to the SF aisle? When he is in the mood to read a Great Book, something that will contemplate the eternal questions of life, why does he go to where Tolstoy is shelved next to Ibsen and Dante, but walks right by GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. “Doc” Smith? When we can identify what the property or set of properties that differentiate that reader choice (and all genre boundaries are defined by reader choices) then we will be justified saying where and if SF overlaps Great Literature.