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What is Speculative Fiction?

Sci-Fi has captured Rachael's imagination since she watched 'Star Trek' as a kid. Now, she's an author hoping to write good sci-fi herself.

I have to admit the term "Speculative Fiction", like many terms used by publishing companies to categorize books, bothers me. It feels like it's an attempt to lump horror, paranormal, fantasy, steam punk, and science fiction into one category. That is, all the fiction that takes the reader further from reality than a "realistic" story.

But I kind of like it if you say it's not really a genre or umbrella term, but more like one of the keyword tags used on Amazon to describe books and connect similar ones. This is done to help readers find books similar to books they've read that they like. The keyword tags also help authors reach readers who are searching for their type of book.

Speculative seems then more like a description of a mood for a book, like how we might say a book is dark, light-hearted, comedic, tragic, dramatic, romantic, mysterious, etc. A book could be romantic in tone or mood and still primarily belong to the fantasy genre. A book might be mysterious and be a horror novel, and not what people usually think of as a mystery novel.

So what does a speculative mood mean?

Well, I would define it as any story where the "what if" of the setting is more important than either the plot or the characters. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is about what if there were a penal colony on the moon with its own culture. War of the Worlds is about what if Earth were attacked by mysterious aliens from Mars. Star Trek is about what if humans could act as diplomats and foster peace between hostile alien civilizations.

So, Is All Sci-Fi Speculative, and is Only Sci-Fi Speculative?


Of course not. There are examples of science fiction that's not very speculative, where the "who" and "what" matter more than the "what if". For example, Starship Troopers isn't that interested in the world-building aspect of sci-fi, it's interested in telling the stories of specific characters. The space fascists could be fighting anything, it doesn't matter. It's about space fascist military kids going to war. They could be on any planet, in any star system, doing anything. The story only imagines new concepts if they serve the plot. Compare that to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, where the concept of time travel is being explored. The main character's personal identity is irrelevant and there's more of an exploration of the concept than what could be called much of a plot.

Outside of sci-fi, you can also have speculative fiction. Wicked is asks, "What if the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz was more like a real person?" Everything revolves around that "what if". Every character has some role in The Wizard of Oz and is being re-imagined, presuming the reader's familiarity with those characters. Anime that's not quite fantasy, like Pokemon, can be focused on a "what if". What if we had little magical creatures we could keep in balls on our belts and train to battle each other? As well as befriend and learn more about?

Alternative history and biopics are also usually speculative. What if there was secretly a female pope, hidden from history? Who was Queen Elizabeth I getting sweaty with? What secret bastard children, murders, conspiracies, and so on might be hidden from our history books? Mysteries are always, "What if a murderer did this or that to cover it up?" That is, in all of these myriad of types of stories, the "what if" is the core of the story, the reason readers are interested. It could have weak characters or a bland plot, as long as it delivers an interesting and unexpected answer to the "what if" question.

Publishing and the Official Definitions of Speculative Fiction


In "the industry", the term is just used as an umbrella term encompassing many genres of books. The thing glues all the genres together in one category is that they create things that do not or did not exist in ordinary reality. This is opposed to realistic fiction, which only includes events that did or could have happened in real life. You could think of books as existing on a spectrum between the two. After all, all fiction encompasses both imagination and reality, as does all non-fiction. It's just about where a given book lies on the imaginative vs realistic spectrum that determines its classification here.

Speculative fiction genres include, but are not limited to:

  • science fiction
  • fantasy
  • supernatural
  • futuristic
  • horror
  • alternative history
  • superhero fiction

As well as combinations like science-fantasy, or sub-genres like steam punk.

That seems like a lot to lump into one category, and umbrella terms like this aren't useful for what I use genres of books for, which is to find books I am going to like. For that, I want specific, descriptive tags, which are usually small sub-genres like dark fantasy or horror-fantasy. But it is useful in that I know I prefer all the speculative genres to all the non-speculative ones. I read to escape reality, and if I want to read something realistic, I'll grab a non-fiction book. I'm not saying those have to be everyone else's preferences, but they are mine. So, the big umbrella term won't tell me for sure if I am going to like a book, but I can use it to rule out books I probably won't like.

Is it Just Sci-Fi 2.0?


Speculative fiction may have just been used to re-brand science fiction. For a while, sci-fi was in a kind of book ghetto, thought of as trash by critics. Recently, sci-fi has attained more prestige, but maybe they created the label of speculative fiction to make sci-fi sound more intellectual.

It's heckin confusing how you might see speculative fiction in a bookstore abbreviated as SF, since that is also an abbreviation for science fiction.

Some have argued that speculative fiction is a term used to distinguish some sci-fi stories from "hard sci-fi" and the limitations that come with trying to make your story scientifically realistic. It's more about asking questions about what would happen if X, then about doing the homework to prove that X will be possible in the future. It's a thought experiment, rather than trying to be a reverse history book. Science-fantasy, like Dune, can be thought of as speculative sci-fi for this reason.

So what do you think of the term? I thought at first that it just didn't sit well with me, but I've gotten used to it.

© 2020 Rachael Lefler


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 22, 2020:

I had never heard the term "speculative fiction," so I found this interesting. It is somewhat nebulous, however.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 22, 2020:

It would seem to me that you do research so you can "ask" the relevant questions. Not necessarily to give the correct conclusion.