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What Is Speculative Fiction?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Speculative fiction is an alternate term for the literary genre known as science fiction. Science fiction is any work of fiction in which the plot involves imagined advances in science and technology and their effects on human life and society. Science fiction became a massively popular subset of literature, film, and television in the 20th century. Some writers and fans prefer the term speculative fiction to distinguish certain works from the mainstream science fiction market. Others use speculative fiction to mean any fiction that includes fantasy elements, including horror fiction, magical realism, and the works of many contemporary authors.

Writers have been employing flights of fancy since the dawn of written literature. Early narrative works like The Iliad and Beowulf contain references to gods, monsters, and superhuman beings. Novelists of the 1800s such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells specialized in stories involving futuristic machines, alien races, and the like. In the early 20th century, publisher Hugo Gernsback coined the term scientifiction for his influential magazine Amazing Stories. He also coined the term science fiction, which enjoyed widespread use and remains the common term for this genre of fiction.

During the 20th century, science fiction books, films, and TV series became popular around the world. The genre essentially became its own industry, as fans launched conventions and magazines dedicated to its characters, series, and worlds. The realm of science fiction and science fiction fandom was more specialized than other genre fiction and soon developed a reputation among outsiders. Science fiction fans were often seen as clannish and obsessive, with high interest in science and technology but low social skills. Science fiction came to be associated with aliens and ray guns, key elements of movies and TV series such as Buck Rogers, Star Trek, and Star Wars.

Meanwhile, other writers were using the techniques of science fiction to tell different kinds of stories. In his novel 1984, George Orwell creates a fictitious future society to examine the dangers of totalitarian government. Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood uses similar methods in her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale. Writers such as Atwood and Harlan Ellison preferred the term speculative fiction to describe their works. This was intended to distinguish them in readers’ minds from the well-defined format of science fiction.

The phrase speculative fiction was coined by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein in 1948. Since that time, it has come into use as a catch-all phrase for any fiction that includes fantastic elements. This includes fantasy and horror fiction, which do not require a scientific element in the plot; examples include Harry Potter, Salem’s Lot, and The Last Unicorn. Magical realism, such as the Laura Esquivel novel Like Water for Chocolate, sometimes falls under this banner as well. In magical realism and other forms of speculative fiction, the effects of extraordinary or paranormal events on a story’s characters are often more important than the explanation of how those events came about.

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