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What Is Speculative Fiction?

What is speculative fiction? You may get a different answer depending on who you ask. Let’s explore this concept.

What Is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction is often used as an umbrella term for genre fiction or for narratives that do not fully belong in a particular science fiction or fantasy genre. I have even seen it referred to as a “super genre,” for its broadness. Under this classification, it can include literary fiction with fantastical elements as well as hardcore science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Also, there is the distinction that not all of certain genres, such as horror or science fiction, is speculative.

Stay with me.

The definition of speculative fiction has been—and still is—debated among well-known authors. AND, here’s another thing to cook your noodle: what is deemed speculative has changed, and likely will continue to change, over time.

A Very Brief History Of Speculative Fiction

One could argue that speculative fiction originated when poets and writers began to compose their own reimaginings and what-if stories about the world. Which is…old.

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However, according to the Oxford Research Encyclopedias article on speculative fiction, the term itself was coined by the writer Robert A. Heinlein in 1941, and then popularized in his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” Heinlein describes it as a specific science fiction subset, which is:

“[N]arratives concerned not so much with science or technology as with human actions in response to a new situation created by science or technology, speculative fiction highlights a human rather than technological problem. “

Over time, though, this definition became unpopular. Writers such as a Margaret Atwood proposed new, adjusted definitions. I’ll explain more of Atwood’s take below.

Most recently, the term goes even beyond the scope of literature. There are those who have used the term for media and other forms of art. Because of that, some see speculative fiction as too broad a term, nebulous and unproductive.

Now that we have an idea of when it was coined, let’s look at some current definitions.

Recent Definition(s): What Makes It Speculative

Let’s start simple. Dictionary.com defines speculative fiction as “a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.” Additionally, the Speculative Literature Foundation describes it as a “catch-all term”:

[M]eant to inclusively span the breadth of fantastic literature, encompassing literature ranging from hard science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to horror to folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern myth-making — and more.

With all these definitions and listed genres, it can get overwhelming. So I think it’s best to sit down and ponder the term “to speculate.” To theorize. The questions “What if this happened?” or “What if the world were this way?” often are the seedlings to speculative fiction stories. And what genres better ask these questions than science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.?

Caveats In Speculative Fiction

However, as I mentioned in the beginning, not all science fiction and horror necessarily counts as speculative. For example, there are books of horror that are still set in our world with our rules.

To explore this caveat, we need Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin.

margaret atwood in other worlds book coverMargaret Atwood writes in her book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination that science fiction and speculative fiction are fluid terms. The worlds of science fiction and speculative fiction “don’t exist, and their non-existence is of a difference in order than the non-existence of the realistic novels.” Additionally, Atwood draws the line between what science fiction stories are considered speculative fiction: “plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such—things that really could happen but hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the book.”

Atwood places her own work in this category, and as we’ve seen lately in the world, i.e. The Handmaids Tale, she is chillingly accurate to her definition in that regard.

earthsea cover for what is speculative fiction postAtwood also mentions a debate she had with Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin said that science fiction is speculative fiction when what is written about could really happen, whereas narratives that cannot, under any circumstances, happen in our world (i.e. Earthseaclassify separately as fantasy.

So in this respect, we might define speculative fiction as it relates to the world we know and live in today. These narratives are not set in our world today; that world does not exist. Yet.

Contemporary Speculative Fiction Examples

From the above exploration, I’d like to think of speculative fiction as a mix of the what-if scenario interacting with a basis in our world. I agree that narratives that take place in a purely secondary world (e.g. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, etc.) don’t quite count. But, to diverge a bit from Le Guin, there are books and short stories set in the real world, grounded in the real world, or an alternate timeline of our world, that have fantastical elements or fall squarely under the fantasy genre. Those I would support being defined as speculative. With that in mind, below is a small list—a jumping off point—of books based on a culmination of the above definitions.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Even stories that Chiang sets in an alternate past or on another world, like “Tower of Babylon,” could breach the limits of what doesn’t count as speculative and still fit the term. It’s because Chiang writes with such an authoritative voice and builds his worlds so masterfully that I unabashedly believe in each story’s possibility. Yet the best is example is found in “The Story Of Your Life.” It’s the short story that the film Arrival is based off of, and honestly, if there was ever a narrative of first contact that felt so grounded in our world, so real that it could happen tomorrow, it’s this one.

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks by Leni ZumasThis one would absolutely fit Atwood’s definition. Red Clocks envisions a future that could, frighteningly, become our own. It follows five women and takes place in an America where abortion is illegal everywhere, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and a new amendment has been added to the constitution that grants rights to every embryo. It’s been hailed as The Handmaid’s Tale of our generation, and asks the question: What is a woman for?

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca RoanhorseThis book is the first in a series and takes place after a climate apocalypse. Most of the population have drowned from rising waters and the gods and monsters of legend walk among us. This is a mixture of a dystopian environment that is clearly possible and urban fantasy elements. It follows Maggie Hoskie, a Dinétah monster hunter. Hoskie is a supernaturally gifted killer, and she’s sent to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. There, she uncovers a monster more dangerous and terrifying than anything imaginable.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Another possible future book, envisioning a world after a flu that wipes out most of the population. This is one of my favorite books of all time. It follows many characters and timelines, including a group of actors who travel from outpost to outpost in the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare plays for survivors in a dangerous, dystopian landscape. It’s about those who risk—and sometimes lose—their lives for art and humanity.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix. E. Harrow

cover of The Ten Thousand Doors of JanuaryThis one toes the line because it’s historical fantasy (and historical often isn’t considered speculative since the past already happened and we know what was and wasn’t real). I am including this for selfish reasons, because after reading this book, I so want it to be possible, and the fantasy elements still have a grounding in our world. Set in the early 1900s, it follows January Scaller, who discovers that there are Doors to other worlds and a society that seeks to close them. The magic is sweeping and beautiful, but in our world, it is subtle; could be easily missed. Perhaps we’ve passed our Doors on the street, or in a park. We just didn’t know they were there.

Let The Speculation Continue

Now, your mileage may vary on how these books sit with the term. Even the authors of these books might disagree. Feel free to discuss your own interpretations and examples in the comments on social media. Additionally, make sure to check out Book Riot’s other posts on explorations of genre, such as magical realism.

Speculative fiction is indeed nebulous. It’s actually why I love this over-arching genre so much. I live for books that maintain our world but bend the boundaries. Books that look underneath the skin of our reality and  probe what might be or might’ve been. Perhaps there are portals to other worlds lurking in our own, or perhaps we will make first contact tomorrow.

The awe and the beauty is in the speculation.

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