What is speculative fiction?

July 26, 2011 Bookish 0

I started this blog with the intention of doing two things:

  • Documenting the books I read and sharing them with others
  • Conducting a genre study for Speculative Fiction

Most people who have read the blog always ask one thing: what IS speculative fiction?

A quick Google search proved useless on the subject – disproving the common belief that Google knows all. The most common definitions I came across were:

Speculative fiction is always set in a world that is other than the one we are familiar with.

Okay – so this definition encompasses Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Shannara, Eragon … etc. But this is not a defining quality of the whole genre: it doesn’t take into account stories which are set in THIS world, but the distant past or future.

Speculative fiction is concerned with “what if”: what if I could travel through time? What if humans perfected space travel and colonised nearby planetary systems? What if I found an artefact of power that could save the world?

The ‘speculate’ in speculative fiction sort of gave that one away. But it’s a better definition than the previous one.

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term which catches all the books which do not fit into any of the more conventional genres.

I don’t like this because it implies that SF isn’t a genre; it’s just the left overs no one knew what to do with.

Speculative fiction is about things which are not possible in our world. It is Science Fiction and Fantasy and everything in between.

We do not yet know all that is possible in our world – a century ago mobile phones and space travel were concepts of fiction. Should there be a ‘yet’ at the end of that?

Speculative fiction uses magic or advanced technology.

I studied the genre of speculative fiction for two years – and this is what I have to say on the subject:

The term ‘speculative fiction’ was created by Robert Heinlein in 1941. The genre is marked by archetypal themes, which include (but are not limited to):

  • A well established dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘evil’.
  • Heroes who embark on epic quests in order to save the world from an apocalyptic event.
  • Technological advances outside current scientific limits or magical powers unknown to humans.

But the definition of speculative fiction is none of these. Speculative fiction, in my opinion, is anything which explores the human condition within the context of an imagined world. This world may be in the past or future, it may be a parallel or alternate existence, it can be utopian or dystopian, apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. In this world, humanity and human nature are explored.

Speculative fiction is not about these new worlds; it is about how we as humans cope in them. For example, Harry Potter is not about a young boy who finds a way into a magical world and has adventures there. Well, it is, but it’s also about a young boy in a new world and this world teaches him that magic, while awesome, doesn’t fix the vices in human beings but rather amplifies them. Thus, speculative fiction provides the answers to profound questions about humanity in the context of, usually, a fantastical world. 

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