What is Speculative Fiction?

Jelly fish horde and diver

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for all the sub-genres within science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Simple right? Except, it’s not perhaps not quite as simple as that.

The word “speculative” means conjecture about what might happen. Speculative fiction aims to make us contemplate possibilities or rather, the implications of the improbable, I’d like to think.

Several writers have tackled the business of defining speculative fiction. The following are a couple of posts and articles on the subject that I found particularly insightful.

In her very insightful post What is Speculative Fiction? Annie Neugebauer describes the oversimplification of speculative fiction as merely fantasy, science fiction, and horror as problematic. She further breaks these genres down into twelve sub-genres and explains that while these genres may have speculative elements, not all fantasy, science fiction and horror can be classified as speculative fiction.

In SpecFic 101: What is Speculative Fiction? Shaheen credits Robert Heinlein as the father of speculative fiction and highlights several popular SF books as well as film and television titles that engender the allure of speculative fiction.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction provides a history of the usage of the term “speculative fiction.”

“The first known use is by the reviewer M F Egan in “Book-Talk” (October 1899 Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine), which describes Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) as “speculative fiction”. In the symposium published as Of Other Worlds (coll 1947) edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Robert A Heinlein proposed the term to describe a subset of SF involving extrapolation from known science and technology “to produce a new situation, a new framework for human action”.”

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Of course, a many a great debate has raged over what is considered speculative fiction versus what is not. A 2010 i09 article regales us with Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin’s debate about science fiction vs. “realism.”

Margaret Atwood further shares her thoughts on the matter in a 2013 Wired.com article.

She defines speculative fiction as stories set on Earth and employing elements that already exist in some form, like genetic engineering, as opposed to more wildly hypothetical science fiction ideas like time travel, faster-than-light drives, and transporters.

As time passes, though, the definition of speculative fiction has evolved into something more basic and far less controversial. Book Riot credits Masterclass with the coining of the definition of speculative fiction as a super genre. This definition leads back to the concept of an umbrella term for subgenres within science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

While some may still argue about which specific works may or may not constitute speculative fiction, at the end of the day, there is one big takeaway.

Speculative fiction asks “What if?

Speculative fiction seeks to inspire flights of fantasy and make us stretch the limits of our imaginations and ask all sorts of questions about ourselves, our world, and our universe.

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