What is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative Fiction is a literary ‘super genre’ of fiction that encompasses a number of different genres with speculative elements based on conjecture that doesn’t exist in reality. They are sometimes called ‘what-if’ books. Speculative fiction changes the laws of what’s real or possible as we know them and speculates what could be instead.

In this sense, all fantasy is considered speculative fiction as things like magic, dragons and monster tropes typical in the fantasy genre are not based in reality. As Earth has yet to make (official) contact with a race from another planet all science fiction depicting alien worlds and civilisations is also speculative. This goes for anything without hard evidence or events yet to happen, so ghost stories, big foot and the end of the world also fall into the spec-fic category.

From a writing perspective, the umbrella term provides flexibility for narratives to go beyond the restrictions of one genre. As you can see in the diagram above, speculative fiction gives us a variety of new subgenres to play around with and accommodate specific interests like:

  • Magical realism
  • Historical fiction
  • Post/Apocalyptic fiction
  • Supernatural horror
  • Steampunk
  • Dystopia
  • Utopian fiction
  • Urban fantasy fiction
  • Cosmic horror
  • Afrofuturism
  • Historical fantasy
  • Multiverse
  • Space opera fiction
  • Superhero fiction
  • Alternate history fiction
  • Parallel universe/alternative reality
  • And more…

Realistically, if you were creative enough you could combine horror, historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy together to create the ultimate speculative story. There is no limit to what you can do within the genre which makes it incredibly fun to get into.

You might be surprised to learn that speculative fiction dates back as far as ancient Greece when playrights like Euripides explored alternative versions of the truth. For example, in Medea (431 BC), Euripides speculated that the shamaness killed her own children, rather than the Corinthians. William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605), J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954), Bram stoker’s Dracula (1897) and H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) are all examples of some of the most well-known speculative stories, each conjuring a world with creatures that do not exist in our world.

The term ‘speculative fiction’ was first used by Robert Heinlein in 1947 and was largely associated with science fiction up until the late twentieth century as science fiction was the most widely read genre with speculative elements. However, the term has since expanded during the twenty-first century to encompass other genres like fantasy, horror and more recently historical fiction.

Today it is one of the most popular genres on the market and continues to grow and evolve thanks to best-selling works by the likes of Margaret Atwood, George R. R. Martin and Jeff VanderMeer.


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