When you think about it, the phrase speculative fiction seems quite redundant. After all, isn’t all fiction ‘speculative’? Even the most accurate historical novel, meticulously pieced together from surviving documents and photographs, must contain at least some speculation.
To some extent, the word ‘speculative’ sows the seeds of its undoing — it’s too ambiguous. Too open to interpretation. And, according to some, too pretentious. So, what does this all mean?
Speculative Fiction as a genre
As a genre definition, the term has been around for a long time. Author Robert A. Heinlein used it in the 1940s as synonymous with ‘science fiction.’ In the 1960s, a ‘New Wave’ of science fiction writers, keen to dissociate themselves from the so-called Sci-Fi Ghetto, started using it to describe their more experimental, literary work.
Over the years, speculative fiction has become an umbrella term for an array of speculative genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror; plus those sub-genres that combine elements of the above: dystopian, alternative history, historical fantasy, and similar.
(For a fuller discussion of which genres are and are not speculative fiction, try this post from author Annie Neugebauer. It has Venn diagrams and everything!)
The Anatomy of Speculative Fiction
While trying to get to grips with a term as ambiguous as this, it helps to recognize what isn’t considered speculative fiction. For instance, the submission guidelines for Third Person Press assert that stories which take place in the ‘real’ world as we know it, or an accepted historical past, it probably do not count. According to editor Sherry D. Ramsey, this stands true even if events ‘seem strange or supernatural but turn out to have a logical, scientific explanation.’
So speculative fiction cannot take place in the real world? Well, yes and no. Back to Annie Neugebauer, who gives this excellent example:
A movie in which two astronauts get lost in space isn’t speculative because it could really happen within the realm of our existing knowledge of the world, as terrifying as that may be. A movie in which a group of astronauts discover an alien life form is speculative because – according to our current knowledge – it couldn’t happen in real life, since we know of no other intelligent life forms. See the difference?
This is a great example because both scenarios are ostensibly ‘science fiction,’ but only one is speculative; only one demands the reader to transcend the possible and delve deeper into the human imagination. If fiction is about asking ‘what if?’ then speculative fiction is saying ‘yes, but really what if?’
What is Speculative Fiction good for?
Well, what is any fiction good for?
Is speculative fiction just a comforting fantasy? A way of self-medicating against the harsh realities of adulthood? Perhaps it can be, and there is nothing wrong with that. Who says we must lose our sense of wonder? Why must we meekly accept our tick-tock world of spreadsheets, responsibilities, and productivity?
Speculative fiction is a voyage into the impossible. It describes worlds that operate on different ‘laws’ to our own. The fully-realised world, customs, history, and language of Tolkien’s Middle Earth is written to be enchanting (although let’s not get into Tom Bombadil right now). It’s a workout for the imagination, and that can only be a good thing.
If you’ve ever read Iain M. Bank’s gnarly Culture novels, you’ll appreciate the humor and bombast of his settings. From cavernous spaceships, super-sized gas giants, and mind-expanding cities, it’s a place you would really enjoy exploring. Bank’s novels dazzle you with impossible detail; his imagination was incredible.
Even horror, which might not seem a natural environment for wonderment, can provoke this same sense of awe. Consider Pennywise, the antagonist from Steven King’s ‘It’. As you plumb the depths of depravity within this multidimensional creature, you can’t help but marvel at its abhorrent nature. Terrible, yes, but a marvel all the same.
It’s not all fun and games
However, speculative fiction isn’t just a playground for the imagination. Consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; a classic dystopian novel published in 1949. Here, we’re invited to marvel at a different type of horror. Rather than stand aghast at an alien being, we’re confronted with humankind’s will to dominate all, no matter the cost.
In this world of doublethink — The Ministry of Peace orchestrates a perpetual war, The Ministry of Truth ‘rectifies’ history to support Big Brother’s narrative – the world around our protagonist reflects the conflict within us; our capacity for kindness, love, and compassion, but also hate, cruelty, and betrayal.
And this is a key point. Speculative fiction might create worlds that follow different rules to our own, and it might surprise us with the incredible and unexpected. But it also places us in front of a carnival mirror and asks us to consider our humanity. Speculative fiction asks hard questions. Who are we, really, and where are we heading?
Expand the parameters
All fiction is capable of asking hard questions, of course, but the questions – and answers — found in speculative fiction are rendered in stark, bold, and innovative ways. It is an exploration of the human imagination, splashed across the page in vivid temper. It allows us to plumb unimaginable depths – or soar to incredible highs – and consider the flaws, hopes, and dreams of ordinary people.
And, more often than not, we experience a damn good story in the process.
A fantastic journey
This fantastical journey into otherness is one of discovery. Like all heroic journeys, we arrive back home changed by our experience. Speculative fiction changes the way we understand the world — and ourselves. What stories have changed the way you look at yourself or the world around you? As Joseph Campbell wrote: ‘The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.’ And, in speculative fiction, that cave really is something to behold.
Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms? Recommendations? If you have anything to add please submit your comment below. It’d be great to hear from you.
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