What is Speculative Fiction?

“The History of Science Fiction” by Ward Shelley (uploaded by Tom Wigley) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Speculative fiction is notoriously hard to define. Sometimes, speculative fiction is used as an umbrella term for various non-realist genres and subgenres like science fiction and fantasy. Other times, speculative fiction is itself considered a specific form of non-realist writing, with features distinct from science fiction or other genres. These inconsistent definitions create difficulties when trying to talk about these genres critically.

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Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. le Guin once had a friendly argument about the classification of Atwood’s novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, which she asserted were speculative fiction and not science fiction (Atwood 2). Le Guin argued that her novels were, in fact, science fiction, and suggested that Atwood’s reluctance to identify them as such was due to her desire to have her work recognized as having literary merit, the implication being that the science fiction genre does not (Guin). Their disagreement spawned a debate within the field of non-realist fiction over the literary merits of science fiction and how to classify science fiction versus speculative fiction. As it turned out, however, Atwood and le Guin both had the same opinion on the attributes of Atwood’s work, their disagreement in classification stemming from their having different ways of defining speculative versus science fiction.

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One of the things that makes speculative fiction so hard to define is the general fluidity of non-realist fiction genres. While it may seem simple to divide science fiction (as dealing with science, technology, space exploration, and future worlds) from fantasy (as dealing with magic, folklore, and past worlds), the two genres actually overlap and blend in a lot of works. One of the most well known examples of this is the Star Wars franchise: set in space with aliens and advanced technologies, it appears to fall under science fiction. However, Star Wars also features a kind of magic in the “force” and notably takes place “long ago,” placing it equally within the realm of fantasy. As a result, many define Star Wars as a “science fantasy,” an example of the sort of genre-blending that often take place with non-realist fictions.

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With the idea of genre blending at work within the field of non-realist fiction there comes an endless generation of sub-genres: cyberpunk and steampunk, Gothic horror and dark fantasy, magical realism and post-apocalyptic. The hard lines between genres have become so blurred that consistent and definite classifications are nearly impossible, and for the most part unnecessary. However, a consistent working definition for speculative fiction, perhaps the worst offender when it comes to having a definitive classification, is necessary to eliminate misunderstandings when discussing the genre. For the purposes of this discussion, I will be using Rjurik Davidson’s definition of speculative fiction as “an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy, horror and other non-realist forms” (38).

It is also important to note that speculative fiction, in this context, refers to a group of genres and not a particular medium. Fictional works of all forms — art, literature, film, graphic novels, video games, etc. — are found that employ these non-realist genres to explore features of our reality through new and imagined worlds. The wide variety of media in which speculative fiction can be found serves as a testament to the genre’s popularity and adaptability to various creative purposes.

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