"Beam me up, Scotty."
"I'm sorry, David, I'm afraid I can't do that."
Even if you haven't read and watched the books, TV shows or movies those made-up phrases come from, you've likely heard of most of them. That, in part, illustrates the degree to which science fiction, fantasy and other fantastical genres have become a part of our culture. There are so many twists to these make-believe worlds - horror, post-apocalypse, alternate history and many more - that even defining the genre dubbed speculative fiction can take some work.
What Is Speculative Fiction?
Derrick Craigie, an author and dean, who oversees the online MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University, said that, most simply, speculative fiction takes place in a world that is not Earth, or an Earth reimagined with significant differences in technology, history or natural law. "It incorporates elements where the author is creating their own history (and) lore," he said. "Something that is recognizable to us in terms of society or a culture or a history but is created within their imagination."
What that means in practice is a broad range of narrative constructs. Authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien created a new world, cultures and languages in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." Stephen King writes novels - mostly - set on Earth but with fantastical elements such as the time-traveling character Jake Epping who tries to prevent John F. Kennedy's assassination in "11/22/63." J.K. Rowling's universe of Muggles, Horcruxes and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry takes place in modern-day England but is replete with magic spells and fantastic creatures. In the "Expanse" science fiction series, James S.A. Corey imagines the culture, and conflicts on a humanity that has colonized the stars and what effects that has technologically, economically and anatomically on his characters.
Dr. Sharon Califano, associate dean of writing, composition and literature, said a unique challenge for a speculative fiction writer is designing a new world that still makes sense and follows its own particular set of rules.
"I would say one of the key characteristics of speculative fiction is world-building," she said. "So it's a more challenging genre for that reason because you might be creating a new language. You might be creating the history of a people. You would need to be thinking about the varied forms of those worlds."
Science fiction author Paul Witcover said what links the many subgenres are the questions they pose and attempt to answer in a genuine manner. "One of the things that ties these otherwise disparate subgenres together is that they directly or indirectly posit what-if questions that are to one degree or another counterfactual (time-travel, magic, ghosts) and then take those questions absolutely seriously and logically in extrapolating answers," he said.
Types of Speculative Fiction
There are many divisions within the umbrella term speculative fiction. A partial list, as defined by Goodreads.com, a site devoted to readers and book reviews and ratings includes:
- Fantasy - Fantasy fiction usually involves magic and does not incorporate scientific advancements and technology. Examples include "The Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum and "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis.
- Science Fiction - Sci-Fi novels rely on current or imagined technological advances and the exploration of the consequences of those developments. Examples of science fiction novels include "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card and "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley.
- Post-Apocalyptic Fiction - Apocalyptic stories imagine a world in which humankind has been devastated and often nearly extinct. These worlds, sometimes set on Earth, frequently have limited technology and focus on how the remnants of humanity try to survive. Examples include "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy and "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins.
- Horror Fiction - The horror genre refers to fiction meant to "scare, unsettle or horrify the audience," according to Goodreads' definition. It often deals with gruesome or frightening themes and events. Examples include "Dracula" by Bram Stoker and "The Shining" by Stephen King.
- Alternate History - Most alternate history novels are based loosely on actual events by trying to imagine what the world would look like if the outcome had been different, such as if Germany had won World War II, or slavery were still legal in the United States. Examples include "The Years of Rice and Salt" by Kim Stanley Robinson and "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick.
Many of speculative fiction's subgenres liberally overlap one another. A fantasy fiction tale mostly driven by magic and sorcery can still be influenced by the development of, say, the steam engine. An alternate history can borrow from the fantasy realm and imagine the War of the Roses if each side fought alongside dragons.
Why Do We Love Speculative Worlds?
Califano said speculative fiction has existed in some form for nearly as long as human beings have told stories. In many ways, today's authors are reimagining and re-telling stories first recorded in Greek myths "The Odyssey" and "The Illiad."
"Those are really the central, core stories that (during) human existence have dominated from the beginning of time," she said. "These stories still persist. They're really in every culture."
Witcover said he was initially drawn to the escapism he found in comic books and Edgar Rice Burrough's stories set in Pellucidar. He said he's found the genre allows for authors to explore not just the present day but to imagine the "all-but-inevitable near future."
"The fact (is) that speculative fiction, especially since the 1960s, has become a genre of bold literary experimentation that increasingly welcomes a diversity of voices. This is, in my opinion, a true Golden Age for the genre," Witcover said.
Speculative fiction can also be an ideal way to explore problems in the modern world that is made safe by being dressed in fantastical trappings. Many speculate "The Lord of the Rings" was modeled on the conflicts of World War I. George Orwell's "1984" was set in a dystopian future of total government surveillance and control. It's very common for post-apocalyptic fiction to explore ecological issues or man's reliance on technology and the possible repercussions if there were ever a catastrophic failure. By creating a made-up world, writers can address what may be controversial themes in a way that is less personal or less threatening to readers.
"My own love of speculative fiction comes from its ability to view our world through a lens that perhaps gives the author some protection from writing about themes that may be dangerous at the time," Craigie said. "To me, that's the greatest power of speculative fiction. If when it's really well done, it can make you really think and examine some of your own perceptions and some of your own values."
Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.