Speculative fiction has a long history. Nearly 80 years worth.
Robert Heinlein created the term in 1941 seeking to create a sub-genre of science fiction: literature situated in the future dealing with the problems of people rather than technology caused problems.
However, over the years, various individuals have taken the term and expanded (or narrowed it) with their own definition.
According to Marek Oziewicz for the Oxford Research Encyclopedias, there are three main schools of thought defining speculative fiction:
a subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems, [Heinlein]
a genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures, [Margaret Atwood]
and a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating “consensus reality” of everyday experience [what can actually happen in the real world]. In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales, and more.
(I really wished they included Afrofuturism here, but a girl can only ask so much of the current literary establishment.)
While all of these definitions have their advantages and criticisms, the main point of the 25 page research article, is that the definition of speculative fiction is “fuzzy” and contested. There is no one official definition that’s been determined by some literary research organization.
A point that I’d like to relay from the article is that genres, in general, have been—historically—often rigidly defined so the powers that be can adequately analyze, criticize or praise a work’s adherence to the norms of its particular genre, or its “literariness.”
The definition of speculative fiction is so vague and defined differently depending on who you ask, and in my opinion, has not been subject to this academic treatment.
Even though it doesn’t have an official definition, speculative fiction is a natural result of a multicultural world—or at least the acknowledgment of a multicultural world in a Western-dominated (literary) one:
Some of the forces that contributed to the rise of speculative fiction includes genre hybridization…the expansion of the global literary landscape brought about by mainstream culture’s increasing acceptance of non-mimetic [nonrealistic] genres; the proliferation of indigenous, minority and postcolonial narrative forms that subvert dominant Western notions of the real; and the need for new conceptual categories to accommodate diverse and hybridic types of storytelling that oppose a stifling vision of reality imposed by exploitative global capitalism.
So what exactly is speculative fiction, anyway?
If Margaret Atwood and other literary/academic hoity-toities can make their own definition of speculative fiction, why can’t I explain it the way I understand it?
Ultimately, speculative fiction—also known as spec fiction—answers a “what if,” question. What if something about the world as we know it, was different? An alternate reality, of sorts.
For instance, what if dragons were as real as whales? What if humans had tails? (As a kid, I dreamed I’d write this story, lol). What if a celebrity businessman became president? The “what ifs” run the gamut, but that’s what makes it interesting.
But wouldn’t this definition literally include everything?
Sure, kind of. But it definitely doesn’t.
To me, for a work to qualify as speculative fiction, our world exists or existed at some point. But it diverged to create this other world. A possible present, or a possible future in Atwood’s mind. Maybe the “other world” always existed, but we were/are ignorant of it. For instance, the immortal beings in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. (I have not read the entire series but am looking forward to it).
Secondly, another way for work to qualify as speculative fiction, and distinguish itself from science fiction and other genres is that the story is about people. Not technology. Obviously, advanced technology may be present, as it is the future and we expect technology to be improved.
Thirdly, speculative fiction may also be an amalgamation of many “fantastical” genres or draw predominantly from only one genre: like fantasy, science fiction, science fantasy, historical fiction, horror, Afrofuturism (more on this another time), urban fantasy, alternate history, utopian/dystopian, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, and superhero fiction as subgenres.
Most of these subgenres, by their very nature, ask and answer a “what if” question.
However, what’s even crazier (and confusing) about speculative fiction, is that all of these “subgenres” aren’t always considered speculative fiction. Children of Blood and Bone and Lord of the Rings are not speculative fiction. They are pure fantasy. The plots exist in completely different worlds. Earth isn’t a place in these stories.
Now, take horror, for instance: A serial killer hunting children isn’t at all speculative. It could happen in our world, today, without fudging science or the laws of our reality. This would be mystery, true crime, or horror. But if the serial killer was first a normal person, and then motivated by the impulses from a partial brain transplant after an accident? Now we’ve moved over into speculative fiction.
Why not categorize a novel in a more specific genre instead of speculative fiction? Isn’t it too vague?
Not really. Speculative fiction is a great category for stories that use elements of different genres all in one.
Our serial killer with the partial brain implant, for example—some people might say, technological advances? That moves the story from horror to science fiction. Or maybe a psychological thriller. Sure. If you want. But science fiction puts limits on the story that speculative fiction wouldn’t. But what if the story isn’t about the science part, and about the human part? What if the story is about the mental and psychological issues the serial killer grapples with? What if partial brain implants are becoming a societal problem?
To me, one of the best examples of modern speculative fiction is the Netflix show, Black Mirror. Some people will say that show isn’t speculative fiction. But this is my blog, and I say it is. I’ll admit that some of the Black Mirror episodes seem like pure science fiction, but some of them are way too close to our current reality for my comfort. Some of them could easily be a future form of our current reality. Many episodes follow the current trajectory of our society, and that’s what makes them speculative fiction. (This could be an example of science fiction as a sub-genre of speculative fiction. We see quite a bit how technology affects people and their relationships.)
Also, speculative fiction speculates. Stories about things that seem like they really could happen. Sometimes that takes a little science fiction or fantasy to make it happen. Sometimes it creates a utopia or a post-apocalyptic world. Sometimes it uses elements of many genres.
Speculative fiction titles can include multiple genres and can appeal to many types of readers. Bookstores tend to be very rigid with organizing book titles—sometimes sticking Octavia Butler titles next to Eric Jerome Dickey simply because both authors are Black. Both authors won’t always appeal to the same reader. Thanks to the internet, we self-publishing writers can do whatever we want—targeting our stories to a very specific niche.
Besides, if I were to categorize my book into one specific genre, or even two, it wouldn’t quite capture the essence of the book. My book is speculative fiction because it contains elements of science fiction, utopian/dystopian, apocalyptic, alternate history, and Afrofuturism. I like reading all of these genres, but sometimes the “stereotypical story” in these genres isn’t for me. Space Odysseys in book form? No way. Alternate history novels with lots of history? Absolutely not. I like a little bit of everything, with a focus on what I see as the most important element: people.
I understand if you’re still confused. It’s confusing because there isn’t one absolute definition of speculative fiction. There are many books that may be considered speculative, depending on who you ask. But I like to keep things simple:
Does it ask a “what if” question?
Does it speculate something about our society, past, future, current reality?
Is it rooted in the real world?
Does it combine multiple genres that involve an alternate reality?
If you can answer yes to these above questions, most likely the book is speculative fiction. But when in doubt, ask the author or make up your own mind.
What genres do you like to read? What do you write? Let me know in the comments below.