Sunday, November 24, 2013

What is Speculative Fiction?

Glad you asked!  I mean, if you weren’t asking, then there would be no reason for me to be telling you.  How do I know you’re asking?  Because, everyone seems to be asking.

It amazes me how many avid readers and writers don’t know what speculative fiction is, actually.  I mean, it’s been around for a while, but it doesn’t seem that it has picked up notoriety until recently, which may explain why so few people know about it.  I guess if you’re not a nerdy, geeky author/reader you don’t care about such terms and titles.

The term speculative fiction was first attributed to Robert Heinlein in 1941, though there were others before him whom we are told were using the term. Unlike historical fiction and modern fiction, speculative fiction is not categorized by a time, nor is it as simple to define by setting as science fiction and fantasy fiction often are. Speculative fiction is actually a bit more all encompassing.
If you were to actually break down the definition of speculative fiction to its most basic terms, the definition would read something like this: fiction that posses elements which aren’t feasible, based on modern technology, or ones that cannot be explained by modern science.

I’m sure you are sitting there going, “Okay, but that’s a pretty broad category”.  Yes exactly!  See, if we were to take this definition, that would mean that speculative fiction encompasses such topics as magic, the supernatural, premonitions, downloading your consciousness into a computer, AI, talking to ghosts, time travel, clockwork beings, alien life forms, ships that hop and skip around the universe, and just about anything that we don’t have a ready answer for. To which I would say, “Yes, it does”.
You see, speculative fiction became a catch-all term, of sorts, during a time when so many new things were happening in the fiction world. Instead of having to sub-divide science fiction from fantasy (or define its hybrid baby, science-fantasy), separate high fantasy from urban fantasy, and parse out magic-based systems from non-magic systems, we are now able to, since the creation of the term speculative fiction (or spec-fic, if you like to shorten things), throw it all together.  Which, in other words, means that speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres; specifically genres such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature.
Now, am I saying that speculative fiction was coined for the sake of convenience? Yes, actually, I am, because having a term to encompass everything within this amazing genre makes sense.  For example, rarely have I found a fan of science fiction and fantasy who will only read a certain subset of the genre. Genre readers read—and tend to read a lot!—across boundaries. In fact, if you’ve ever noticed, bookstores don’t keep the science fiction away from the fantasy on the shelves, do they?  Well, I mean, in a technical sense they do, but they don’t separate out the dystopian fantasy/sci-fi from the paranormal, do they?   Of course not! They mix it all together.  And why might that be? Because the marketing gurus know full well that fantasy lovers are more likely to pick up the sci-fi book for sale right next to their fantasy pick, than any other shopper in the store. And vice versa.
In fact, it would be smarter if libraries would just put everything under speculative fiction, I think, because I hate looking for a book that I, as an informed spec-fic author, assume would be in the sci-fi area, only to discover upon searching that I wasted all my time because it was misshelved as fantasy because it crosses over into fantasy as well as sci-fi. 
*huffs *
So, for those who didn’t know before what speculative fiction was, now you do.  Enjoy this new knowledge and be sure to impart it to other unsuspecting innocents!


  1. I agree with your description of speculative fiction as an "umbrella term"; it's my understanding that the term was created and is generally adopted to avoid quibbling about whether something like Pern or Andre Norton's Witch World (for example) is really "science fiction" or "fantasy." But I take issue with your definition as "fiction that posses elements which aren’t feasible, based on modern technology, or ones that cannot be explained by modern science." Because that excludes a great deal of classic science fiction. In the "golden age of science fiction," much of the best science fiction explicitly aimed to use only elements that are feasible based on modern science and technology. Their primary audience included so many scientists and engineers that to do otherwise risked letters coming to the editor of their magazines correcting their errors. (Now, several influential authors and editors were convinced that what they called "psi" was well-established science, but that doesn't negate the point.)

    1. I think you have a point, Jonathan, and my post lacks reference to the type of Sci-Fi that you mentioned. Therefore, I was wondering if you might like to write up a note clarifying this and I will put it in as a postscript, crediting you for the clarification?


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