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What is Speculative Fiction?

With subgenres like fantasy, science fiction, horror, alternate history and more, speculative fiction is an encompassing genre that freely explores possibility and impossibility alike.

A speculative fiction writer with a mug, writing in a notebook beside a window overlooking a lake.

"Abracadabra."

"I volunteer as tribute!"

"May the force be with you."

"Now, you're in the sunken place."

Even if you haven’t read and watched the books, TV shows or movies those phrases come from, you’ve likely heard most of them. That, in part, illustrates how the fantastical genre of speculative fiction and its subgenres like science fiction (sci-fi), fantasy and horror have become ingrained in popular culture.

But what exactly is speculative fiction? Let's explore the many elements that make up the speculative fiction genre.

What Does Speculative Fiction Mean?

Derrick Craigie with the text Derrick CraigieAuthor Derrick Craigie, a senior associate dean who oversees the liberal arts program at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), said that speculative fiction takes place in a world that is either 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.”

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,” or the telekinetic powers of his titular character in “Carrie.”

Science fiction author and an associate dean of liberal arts at SNHU, Paul Witcover said the many subgenres of speculative fiction are linked by 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)," Witcover said. "(Then, they) take those questions absolutely seriously and logically in extrapolating answers."

What is the Difference Between Fiction and Speculative Fiction?

General fiction or realistic fiction is typically bound to reality. Speculative fiction freely explores possibility and impossibility alike.

In addition to its inclusion of the fantastical, speculative fiction can have different traits than general fiction due to differing narrative styles associated with the genres.

Lisa Wood with the text Lisa Wood"General fiction is character-driven—these characters are often dealing with real life issues," said Lisa Wood, an instructor at SNHU who writes horror under the name L. Marie Wood. "Speculative fiction lives in the space where real life and make-believe converge, allowing for interplanetary travel, time travel and the undead to come out and play."

As Wood noted, works of speculative fiction tend to be action-driven, featuring large-scale plots complete with world-building. In contrast, general fiction tends to be character-driven, exploring human problems and the internal lives of characters in a realistic world.

According to Witcover, in speculative fiction realism is simply one craft element among many. In realistic fiction, however, realism takes a more pronounced and important role. This has led to some sentiment that realistic work is artistically superior. "I think that is bad for literature because it tends to push everything other than (realistic) fiction into a lesser category," said Witcover, who is also an editorial board member for The Penmen Review, SNHU's online creative writing journal.

Witcover also said that the genres of fiction and speculative fiction are not entirely dissimilar, and this emphasis on realistic fiction seems to be fading over time. "(M)ore and more literary writers embrace elements of speculative fiction in their work," he said.

What Are the Types of Speculative Fiction?

There are many categories within the umbrella term speculative fiction.

A partial list defined by the book-reviewing platform Goodreads includes:

  • 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. Examples include “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead and “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick.

  • Fantasy – Fantasy fiction usually involves magic and does not incorporate scientific advancements and technology. Examples include “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis, “The Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi and “The House in the Cerulean Sea" by T.J. Klune.

  • 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 content. Horror also can contain fantastical creatures like vampires or werewolves, but the tone and intent to frighten sets horror apart from other speculative subgenres. Examples of horror include “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, “The Shining” by Stephen King and “Fledgling” by Octavia Butler.

  • Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian 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, “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins and “Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor. These post-apocalyptic narratives may be described as dystopian fiction, but dystopian fiction can also more broadly refer to narratives about a society undergoing a great and imagined injustice. George Orwell's “1984” is an example of a dystopian narrative that is not post-apocalyptic.

  • 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, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, “The Stone Sky” by N.K. Jemisin and “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir.

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. Alternate history can also borrow from fantasy, such as within George R. R. Martin's “Wild Cards” series on the speculative fiction website, TOR.com.

What Are the Origins of Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction's origins can be hard to pin down, as speculative stories have existed for thousands of years. According to "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy" by John Clute and John Grant, the works of ancient Greek authors like Euripides and Homer are considered to be among the first works of the fantasy genre.

Wood points to the human imagination as the true origin of speculative fiction. "If you can dream it up, there's a genre dedicated to it," she said.

Along these lines, many believe that speculative fiction is as old as humanity itself. Witcover said that some point to early mythology as the world's first speculative stories.

“Others point to 'Frankenstein,' by Mary Shelley, as the first science-fiction novel, but even if that is so, sci-fi is only one branch of speculative fiction,” Witcover said. “The literature of wonders and monsters, of gods and demigods and their interactions with mortals, is the oldest of all literatures.”

What is World-building?

World-building involves developing the universe in which a story takes place. In speculative stories, this world is often much different from our own, so the process can be more encompassing than in literary genres.

Wood said that world-building is also where a writer's creativity can shine. "You can create the rules, meaning the government, the laws including the unspoken and unwritten ones," she said. "You can create languages and religions, landscapes and norms—social, cultural, and behavioral. You are in control, and the power can be heady."

As Wood noted, creating new languages is one way to develop a fictional world. J. R. R. Tolkein created the language of Elvish and George R. R. Martin invented the fictional language of Dothraki. The television series “Star Trek” also invented the alien language, Klingon.

World-building can also mean defining the set rules or logic within a speculative work. Within “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis, children enter a fantastical world through a wardrobe, where the White Witch has cast an eternal winter upon the realm. This is an example of world-building in the fantastical land of Narnia.

What is the Difference Between Low Fantasy and High Fantasy?

Fantasy, already a subgenre of speculative fiction, can be further broken down into the categories of low fantasy and high fantasy. In low fantasy, magical or fantastical elements are introduced to a realistic world. A high fantasy story takes place in a new world entirely.

"High fantasy is alternative worlds, creatures unknown and lots of characters intermingling," Wood said. "Low fantasy is the real world with a side of magic, like a lemon wedge on the rim of a glass of water."

“A Game of Thrones” and the other books in George R. R. Martin's “A Song of Ice and Fire” series are considered high fantasy as they take place in a new and imagined world. In contrast, “The House in the Cerulean Sea” by T.J. Klune and works like the Harry Potter series are considered low fantasy because they are set in realistic worlds that feature fantastical beings and magical powers.

Witcover is not fond of the phrases high fantasy and low fantasy, citing the way terms like these can overlap and intersect.  “A lot of horror novels with supernatural elements might also be considered works of low fantasy,” he said. “You can see why I don't like these labels! The more you look at them, the flimsier they turn out to be.”

Why is Speculative Fiction So Important?

Speculative fiction conjures the impossible and can lead you to reimagine what might be possible in the future. Not only is the genre hugely significant in the landscape of popular culture, but according to WIRED Magazine, speculative fiction's subgenre science fiction is the most important genre of writing because of the societal advancements that it can inspire.

Paul Witcover with the text Paul WitcoverWitcover said that speculative fiction has proved to be fertile ground for writers and artists to explore issues of race, gender, class and religion from alternative perspectives in addition to exploring possibilities for humanity's future.

"Some science fiction has successfully predicted technological innovations, such as Arthur C. Clarke's idea for a global communications satellite network, or social movements, as with Margaret Atwood's dystopia 'The Handmaid's Tale,'" Witcover said. "Perhaps more importantly, science fiction has inspired countless young people to embark on careers in science."

According the MIT Technology Review, ideas from science fiction in particular have inspired many technological advances, and science fiction is increasingly referenced in computer research settings as artificial intelligence develops. Researchers suspect that this data exemplifies only a small fraction of the impact that science fiction has on developing technologies.

Why Do We Love Speculative Worlds?

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 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," Witcover said. "This is, in my opinion, a true Golden Age for the genre.”

Speculative fiction can also be an ideal way to explore problems in the modern world that are made safe by being dressed in fantastical trappings. For example, it’s 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....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.”

Discover more about SNHU’s online MFA in creative writing: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

Mars Girolimon '21 is a writer and student at Southern New Hampshire University, pursuing a master's in English and creative writing. Connect with them on LinkedIn.

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