What is Speculative Fiction?

In the various writer’s groups I’m a part of, the question of genre definition comes up at least once a week in some form. Often, that’s a question of defining speculative fiction.

There’s something about the term “speculative fiction” that confuses a lot of writers (and readers).

That could be because it’s a relatively new term in a genre label sense.

Or it might be because the genre boundaries are, perhaps, more slippery than other genres.

Or maybe because speculative fiction as a genre is defined a little differently to most other major genres.

how to define speculative fiction

What Is Speculative Fiction? (The General Definition)

When people ask me what I write, my default answer is “I write speculative fiction” (or “spec fiction”).

Quite often, even when I’m talking to writers, I’ll then have to define that term.

My default follow up is to individually list the genres I write in. Fantasy, science fiction and horror with a sometimes a little bit of crossover between the three.

To give a more elegant definition…

Speculative fiction is fiction that deals with otherworldly aspects.

These otherworldly aspects can be broad, encompassing anything from classic fantasy tropes (magic, paranormal phenomena, etc.), science fiction in the realms of possibility that might not currently exist in the real world, and even possible futures that aren’t specifically “magical” or beyond the possibilities of physics.

What is Speculative Fiction? (The Rabbit Hole Definition)

Hold onto your brains, this is about to get complicated.

The Origin of the Label

The term “speculative fiction” as a genre label has been around since the mid-twentieth century. It’s popularly attributed to sci-fi writer, Robert A. Heinlein who used the term in a 1947 article as a synonym for science fiction, though he specifically excluded fantasy from the label. (more info on that on Wikipedia here)

“Speculative fiction” was applied to a utopian science fiction novel as early as 1889.

The Three Branches of Speculative Fiction

Wherever it came from and whoever said it first, the way we use “speculative fiction” today as a genre label covers three main genres of story (literature or film):

Fantasy
Science fiction
Horror

Each one of these has its own unique subgenres.

The Etymological Definition

Speculative fiction is fiction that speculates (duh!).

It asks the question, “what if…?” and presents a possible answer.

Wait!
Doesn’t all fiction speculate?

Yes.

But…

Speculative fiction extends that speculation into a world that is not our present reality.

This doesn’t mean that a certain science fiction possibility can never come true, but it does mean that, at the time the writer is writing the story, the fiction is not currently possible in reality.

A great example of how this tricky side of the definition works is The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

The Handmaid’s Tale novel was published in 1985 and has been recently re-popularised by Hulu’s award-winning TV adaptation (2017 – ).

The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian fiction. The world has fallen apart, most of the population is infertile, the environment is ravaged, and civil war and rebellion are everywhere.

The Handmaid’s Tale is also science fiction.

Margaret Atwood has repeatedly denounced the label of “science fiction” for a lot of her work including this novel (see also Oryx and Crake) as she claims there is not one element of the story that has not been a reality or could not be a reality soon.

Biology is a science, ecology is a science, and these are at the core of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our planet, our society could be headed to a similar future, it’s even likely, but at the time of writing (both the novel and the TV adaptation) it’s still not our present scientific or social reality. Ergo, science fiction.

Speculative fiction extends fictional speculation into a world that is not our present reality.Click To Tweet

But Magic Will Never Be Real… How is Fantasy Speculative?

True, magic and spells and Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and the millions of other imagined fantasy worlds are not and will never be real.

But in speculative fiction, we ask, what if they were real?
And the story takes over from there.

Is All Horror Speculative Fiction?

No.

Horror is a unique genre in that, at its core, it is defined by the emotional and even physical reaction it seeks to elicit in the reader (or viewer), not the elements of its story.

A horror story like The Silence of the Lambs, Hostel, The Strangers, or Misery are indeed all excellent examples of the horror genre, but they are not speculative fiction.

Each of these horror stories takes place within the realms of current possibility. The monsters here are all human.

On the other hand, horror stories like Hellraiser, IT, The Exorcist, anything with ghosts, witches, demons, Satan, anything magical or science-fiction are all speculative fiction horrors.

Can Other Genres Be Speculative Fiction?

Yes.

What if Rome had never fallen?
What if the Germans won WWII?
Historical fiction turned speculative fiction. We call that alternate history or alternate universe.

Isn’t all historical fiction speculative?

Yes and no. And this is where it gets even more brain twisty….

With history, all we can do is infer reality from what we learn from historical evidence. Some speculation is therefore necessary.

Historical possibility is not speculative fiction. Future possibility is speculative fiction.

Paranormal romance is speculative fiction because werewolves and vampires (insert supernatural creature as applicable) do not exist.

Dystopian fiction can be a slippery one to define because not all dystopias are the result of scientific developments (or declines). That said, any forecast into the future is speculative fiction as it is not part of, not possible in our current reality.

The same goes for post-apocalyptic fiction. Even if the apocalyptic event in within our current realms of reality, an environmental disaster, for example, the effects of that disaster are likely still only speculation. If the cause of the disaster is within the realms of reality (localised tidal wave, for example), then it’s not speculative fiction. If it’s a single tidal wave that floods the entire planet, then it’s speculative fiction.

Are the Speculative Fiction Boundaries Fixed?

No.

Reality changes. Science advances, the world shifts. As such, so will the boundaries of what is speculative fiction.

The Test – Am I Writing Speculative Fiction?

You’ve written a story. It’s full of magic and wizards or other obvious fantasy tropes. It’s pretty easy to determine if your fantasy piece is speculative fiction.

If you’re writing science fiction of any kind, you’re writing speculative fiction, even if that science or science result is probable.

If you’re writing a piece of science themed fiction using in the very real and actual science of right now, then you’re not writing speculative fiction.

If you’re writing horror and everything that happens could happen in this world right now, it’s not speculative fiction.

If you’re writing horror and you’ve got some kind of otherworldly monster, even if that monster is human affected in some otherworldly way, even if it’s undefined, you’re into speculative fiction.

In most other genre definitions, the label gets applied to where the generic traits are the most prevalent.

You’ve got a lot of cowboys and saloons, then you’ve got a western.
The trajectory of a romantic relationship is the core of your plot, then you’ve got a romance.

Speculative fiction is different – you just need one element of the otherworldly, no matter how teeny tiny.

You can have a standard romance story between two very normal humans, but if you add one single element of anything outside of current reality, no matter how inconsequential to the plot, then you’ve written speculative fiction.

Genre is important. Some writers and readers like to think it’s inconsequential, rated only to the bookstore categories, but it’s just not true. Defining genre defines story, and that’s important for writers in their understanding of how to structure their narratives, and it’s equally important for readers in deciding what they might like to read next.

Do you write speculative fiction?
How do you define the term?

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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