What Is ‘Speculative Fiction’ and How Do We Define It?

What is speculative fiction? Is speculative fiction science fiction? Is science fiction speculative? Does speculative fiction include fantasy—what about urban fantasy, high fantasy, epic fantasy? Is Game of Thrones speculative fiction, or is Star Trek, or True Blood? If I enjoyed watching Guardians of the Galaxy that couldn’t be speculative fiction because it’s based on a comic book, right? Or is it that…?

It’s okay. There are so many genre terms that it’s not unusual to have questions or to stumble into confusion when someone adamantly tells you that Thing-They-Love-X could never be in the same genre as Thing-They-Hate-Y.

Thankfully, the definition of speculative fiction simple: Speculative fiction is any storytelling possessing elements that aren’t feasible based on modern technology or elements that cannot be explained by modern science.

This includes magic, ray guns, the supernatural, premonitions, flying dragons, downloading your consciousness into a computer, AI, talking to ghosts, time travel, vampires, clockwork beings, alien life forms, ships that hop and skip around the universe, and just about anything that we don’t have a ready explanation of.

Speculative fiction is a catch-all term. 

Instead of having to sub-divide science fiction from fantasy, or define the hybrid baby, science-fantasy, or to separate high fantasy from urban fantasy, or parse out magic-based systems from non-magic systems, or try to figure out just where “weird stories” end and slipstream begins… we can just say it’s speculative fiction.

Having a term to encompass everything makes sense: rarely have I found a fan of science fiction and/or fantasy who will only read a certain subset of the genre. Genre readers read, read a lot, and read across boundaries. Bookstores understand this. They don’t keep the science fiction away from the fantasy; they’re all mixed up on the same shelves.

Surprisingly, I’ve heard people disparage the use of the term “speculative.”

First, I need to be clear: Speculative fiction is not a pejorative term.

Some of these people believe that the term is an attempt to sanitize genre fiction of its less-than-highbrow historical association with the pulp press. Or they consider the term “speculative fiction” an attempt to bring sci-fi into the mainstream. Others believe that speculative fiction is yet another subset of sci-fi.

None of these things are true.

Speculative fiction is not a disparaging, belittling, or sub-dividing term. It is a catch-all. A short cut. One that we can put to good use.

Speculative fiction is a big wide river.

Back when I was Editor-in-Chief of World Weaver Press, a small press publishing—you guessed it—speculative fiction, our content guidelines were over 500 words long. And that’s just in regard to content—those 500 words didn’t even begin to take into consideration the formatting guidelines and submission methods. I think we eventually whittled it down a bit, but it still wasn’t short. That’s over 500 words to explain where in the river of speculative fiction World Weaver Press stood in the river of speculative fiction.

It’s a big, wide river.

Having a shortcut to describe the whole river instead of always having to refer to it as the current, the rapids, that little slow moving pool off there to the side where the fish tend to gather — is a good thing.

Speculative fiction gives us a way to talk about uncategorizable things.

Using the term “speculative fiction” also allows us to understand where certain works fall in terms of genre when they aren’t overtly in any other category. Stories that do not operate strictly within the known rules of our reality but don’t seem like any other science fiction or fantasy we’ve ever seen. The TV show Lost is a great example of this.

When I first came to Lost, I thought it was just a bunch of people shipwrecked on a tropical island—a story that would completely obey the rules of our reality.

But it quickly became clear that this show most certainly did not obey the rules of our reality. It wasn’t like any piece of science fiction or fantasy I’d previously seen, but it was most certainly in possession of speculative story elements.

Speculative fiction Venn diagram time.

Speculative Fiction Definition Diagram

In this diagram, the blue of speculative fiction encompasses fantasy, science fiction, the area of fiction where the two overlap, and a bunch of the nebulous space outside of sci-fi and fantasy—dystopia and alternate history, for example. Speculative fiction also encompasses some but not all of the genre of horror.

Much horror is speculative in nature: poltergeists, demonic possession, satanic ritual, viruses that make people into brain-eating zombies, personified-Death coming to get you, aliens bursting out of your stomach and eating you.

But horror doesn’t necessarily need speculative elements to be horrifying.

Think of the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man. (I’ve not seen the 2006 remake, so let’s go with the older version.) There’s an island of people off the coast of England who lure a detective onto their island, then after an appropriate amount of suspense, they shove him into a giant wicker cage (shaped like a man) and burn him alive.

Horror? Definitely.

Speculative? Nope, not really.

Every single thing they did can be explained by the rules of our reality—no one had magic wands or the ability to travel time or space instantaneously. No demons sprang up from the earth to tell the islanders to kill the detective. They did it because they’d always done it. It was ritual. A horrifying ritual but not one that encompassed any speculative elements, putting it firmly outside the definition of speculative fiction.

A version of this post originally appeared on World Weaver Press’s website in 2012.

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