What is Speculative Fiction, Anyway?
I have to admit the term "speculative fiction," like many terms used by publishing companies to categorize books, bothers me. It feels like it's an attempt to lump horror, paranormal, fantasy, steampunk, and science fiction into one category. That is, it seems to include all fiction that takes the reader further from reality than a "realistic" story would.
On the other hand, when it's not used as a genre or umbrella term but more like a keyword tag used to connect similar works, I don't mind it so much. This is done—on Amazon, for example—to help readers find books similar to titles they've read and enjoyed. Keyword tags also help authors reach readers who are searching for the type of book they have written.
Speculative seems then more like a description of a mood than a genre. We might say a book is dark, light-hearted, comedic, tragic, dramatic, romantic, or mysterious regardless of its genre. A book could be romantic in tone or mood and still belong primarily to the fantasy genre. A book might be mysterious but still be a horror novel and not a mystery novel in genre.
What Is a Speculative Mood?
Well, I would define it as any story where the "what if" of the setting is more important than either the plot or the characters. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress explores the idea of a penal colony on the moon with its own culture. War of the Worlds is about what would happen if Earth were attacked by mysterious aliens from Mars. Star Trek is about what would happen if humans could act as diplomats and foster peace between hostile alien civilizations.
So, Is All Sci-Fi Speculative? And Is Only Sci-Fi Speculative?
Of course not. There are examples of science fiction that are not very speculative—where the "who" and "what" matter more than the "what if." For example, Starship Troopers isn't that interested in the world-building aspect of sci-fi; it's more interested in telling the stories of specific characters. The space fascists could be fighting anything; it doesn't matter. It's still a story about space-fascist military kids going to war. They could be on any planet in any star system doing anything. The story only imagines new concepts if they serve the plot.
Compare that to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells in which the concept of time travel is being explored. The main character's personal identity is irrelevant, and there's more of an exploration of a concept than plot.
Outside of sci-fi, you can also have speculative fiction. Wicked asks, "What if the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz was more like a real person?" Everything revolves around that "what if." Every character has some role in The Wizard of Oz and is being re-imagined, presuming the reader's familiarity with those characters. Anime that's not quite fantasy, like Pokemon, can also be focused on a "what if." What if we had little magical creatures we could keep in balls on our belts and train to battle each other?
Alternative history and biopics are also usually speculative. What if there was secretly a female pope hidden from history? Who was Queen Elizabeth I getting sweaty with? What secret bastard children, murders, conspiracies, and so on might be hidden from our history books? That is, in all of these myriad types of stories, the "what if" is the core of the story and the reason readers are interested. It could have weak characters or a bland plot as long as it delivers an interesting and unexpected answer to the "what if" question.
Publishing and the Official Definitions of Speculative Fiction
In "the industry," speculative fiction is just used as an umbrella term encompassing many genres of books. The thing that glues all the genres together in one category is that they create things that do not or did not exist in ordinary reality.
This is opposed to realistic fiction, which only includes events that did or could have happened in real life. You could think of books as existing on a spectrum between the two. After all, all fiction encompasses both imagination and reality, as does all non-fiction. It's just about where a given book lies on the imaginative-vs-realistic spectrum that determines its classification here.
Speculative fiction genres include but are not limited to:
- science fiction
- alternative history
- superhero fiction
- combinations like science-fantasy, or sub-genres like steampunk.
That seems like a lot to lump into one category, and umbrella terms like this aren't useful for what I use genres of books for, which is to find books I am going to like. For that, I want specific, descriptive tags, which are usually small sub-genres like dark fantasy or horror-fantasy.
The term is useful, however, in that I know that I prefer all the speculative genres to all the non-speculative ones. I read to escape reality, and if I want to read something realistic, I'll grab a non-fiction book. I'm not saying those have to be everyone else's preferences, but they are mine. So, the big umbrella term won't tell me for sure if I am going to like a book, but I can use it to rule out books I probably won't like.
Is Speculative Fiction Just Sci-Fi 2.0?
Speculative fiction may have just been used to re-brand science fiction. For a while, sci-fi was in a kind of book ghetto that was thought of as trash by critics. Recently, however, sci-fi has attained more prestige. Perhaps the label of speculative fiction was created to make sci-fi sound more intellectual. It's heckin' confusing how you might see speculative fiction in a bookstore abbreviated as S.F., since that is also an abbreviation for science fiction.
Some have argued that speculative fiction is a term used to distinguish "soft" sci-fi from "hard" sci-fi and the limitations that come with trying to make your story scientifically realistic. Writing speculative fiction is more about asking questions about what would happen if X than about doing the homework to prove that X will be possible in the future. It's like more a thought experiment than a reverse-history book. Science-fantasy, like Dune, can be thought of as speculative sci-fi for this reason.
© 2020 Rachael Lefler
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 22, 2020:
I had never heard the term "speculative fiction," so I found this interesting. It is somewhat nebulous, however.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 22, 2020:
It would seem to me that you do research so you can "ask" the relevant questions. Not necessarily to give the correct conclusion.