Defining Speculative Fiction

When I tell people that I write speculative fiction, one of the first questions that they normally ask is what is speculative fiction?

My stock answer: speculative fiction is an umbrella term for all the subgenres 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 subgenres 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 of Speculating on SpecFic credits Robert Heinlein as the father of speculative fiction and highlights several popular SF books that engender the allure of speculative fiction.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction provides a history of the usage of the term “speculative fiction.” I have included an excerpt below but I suggest reading the original entry for a more comprehensive overview of the history of 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”.” ~ SFE

Of course, a many a great debate has raged over what is considered speculative fiction versus what is not. In a 2010 i09 article, Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin debate science fiction vs. “realism” and Margaret Atwood further shares her thoughts on the matter in a 2013 article.

She defines speculative fiction thus:

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.

While we may 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 ask all sorts of questions about ourselves, our world, and our universe.

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