What is speculative fiction?

As an avid worldbuilder, I find that my writing tends to gravitate toward speculative fiction. This is the answer I’ve been giving lately when asked what I write, and it almost always results in the same question: “Isn’t all fiction speculative?” I thought that at first, too. But the answer, surprisingly, is no.

Speculative fiction (sometimes called spec-fic) is an umbrella term for a wide variety of fiction genres. Fiction itself, of course, just means “made up.” But something can be made up and still have the possibility of happening, like a billionaire falling in love with his secretary, or two brothers fighting for the same woman’s attention. To make it speculative, you have to ask the question “what if…?” outside the realm of what is possible in our real world. For example, if that billionaire were to put on a metal suit and face off with an alien army, or if those two brothers were vampires. Aliens and vampires don’t actually exist, they change the “rules” of the real world, so all we can do is speculate how they would affect it. Hence the term “speculative” fiction.

Worldbuilding is a staple of this blanket genre, because when you bring something impossible into the mix, you have to explain to your readers just how it would work. Whether your story is set on another planet altogether or simply adds a single element to our own, there is some worldbuilding involved. The less you change our known world with your “what if,” the less you’ll have to build.

Although fantasy is the main genre that comes to mind when someone hears the term “worldbuilding,” speculative fiction touches upon a lot of major genres. The most popular include fantasy, science fiction, superhero, horror, and alternate history. Let’s take a closer look to help you understand how it all fits together.

Fantasy

Fantasy is borne of imagination. This vast genre revolves around fictional elements (whether large-scale like secondary worlds or small like a single creature) that question the rules of our known world. Mythological creatures, created species, aliens, gods, magic—none of these exist in the real world, therefore any stories that ask “what if these were real?” are speculative. And in the fantasy genre, that’s all of them. Some examples include Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Chronicles of Narnia, and The Wheel of Time.

Science fiction

This genre tackles the potential consequences of advanced scientific and technological innovation, solidly based on our past and present knowledge, and is usually set sometime in the future. The speculation comes into play when you add in unknown elements like time travel, aliens, and space travel to worlds we have yet to discover. Some examples of speculative sci-fi include Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Martian, The War of the Worlds, and Ender’s Game.

Superhero

A self-explanatory genre, this focuses on people who have extraordinary or super-human powers and fight evil (thus making them heroes). Having powers is purely speculative (as far as we know). It most often takes place in our own real world, tossing in a super-powered hero and their dark nemesis. There are superheroes who don’t have actual powers, like Batman or Iron Man, but they share every other element with those who do, so they still count. Examples abound in the comic world, though most notable are the superheroes (and supervillains) created by Marvel and DC, such as The Flash, Wonder Woman, Vandal Savage, Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch, and Doctor Doom.

Horror

This genre aims to frighten. A lot of horror and suspense is not speculative and could actually happen. Serial killers, wild animal attacks, people with exaggerated mental illness—that sort of thing. When you add in monsters, ghosts, and other paranormal or supernatural beings and events, it becomes speculative. Examples include The Exorcist, Dracula, Frankenstein, It, Coraline, and The Haunting of Hill House.

Alternate history

This fascinating genre explores what the world would be like if history had taken a different turn. If Hitler would have succeeded. If the South had won the civil war. If the Black Death had killed far more than it did. Anything from small events to global ones count here, and since history quite clearly went the way it did and can’t be changed (that we know of), alternate outcomes are purely speculative. Examples include The Man in the High Castle, 11/22/1963, Making History, Bring the Jubilee, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Fatherland.

 

A lot of these genres can be combined to form wonderful speculative mash-ups (and also some awkward ones, but I won’t judge). If you look through these genres and analyze what can make them speculative, you’ll begin to see what sort of worldbuilding had to be done to make readers believe such things might actually exist. Essentially, though, they can’t exist in our world, not with our current knowledge of how things work.

Which brings me to my final point: the unavoidable change in what we think we know. Speculative fiction is only speculative as long as it breaks our “rules.” But we’re always learning things and growing as an intelligent species. Aliens might be speculative fiction right now, but what happens when we discover another world with a sentient life form? It becomes real. Once upon a time, people believed the earth was flat. Back then, stories about “going around the world” were speculative. Until we learned it was round. So, times change, knowledge deepens, and what is speculative now might not always be. But until such time as we prove these fantastical elements are true, we have to figure out how they might exist. We have to ask “what if…?” and do a little bit of worldbuilding to back up our theory.

As I said, it’s a large umbrella term and most stories can be further classified into a more specific genre, but hopefully now when someone tells you they write speculative fiction, you’ll know what they mean.

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