What Is Speculative Fiction?

Today, by request, I’m going to take a crack at pinning down a definition for that mysterious term “speculative fiction.” [For more definitions and genre musings, check out the rest of my “What Is Genre Series” here!] If you’re a writer, reader, or movie-goer you’ve probably come across this phrase before. You might have also heard it shortened as “spec fic” (spec-fic).

So what is speculative fiction? The fast answer: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. But as you can see by my hastily-drawn diagram [UPDATE: I finally made a nice diagram! Yay!], that oversimplification causes some serious problems. For one thing, both horror and science fiction can include works that aren’t actually “speculative.” (We’ll get to that in a minute.) For another, while those three are the dominant genres involved, they aren’t the only genres involved, and no one likes to be excluded.

That moves us to the need for a more accurate definition. The key here lies in the root word: speculate. Think of this in terms of “what if” and you’ll see it. So now you might ask, “But doesn’t that make all fiction speculative? Fiction, by definition, is untrue, so all of it involves some degree of speculation.” The difference is in what’s being speculated upon. Speculative fiction is fiction in which the author speculates upon the results of changing what’s real or possible, not how a character would react to a certain event, etc.

Therefore, the thing being speculated upon must be more elemental than character or plot. Speculative fiction is any fiction in which the “laws” of that world (explicit or implied) are different than ours. This is why the term “world-building” usually goes hand-in-hand with “speculative fiction.” If you’re changing our world or creating a new one, you’re going to have to do some work so the reader/viewer understands the new “rules.” Don’t let the word “world” throw you off, though. The defining line between fiction and speculative fiction is not so much scale as it is ‘what’s possible’ in reality. (Scale is more of a byproduct, and an optional one at that. Speculative fiction can be and often is small in scope – think a single character’s life vs. global battles.)

So dropping a bad guy into a nest full of alligators, while thrilling, isn’t “speculative” because it could really happen in our world. Dropping a bad guy into a nest full of mutant alligator-sharks is “speculative” because it isn’t possible in our world; the author must “speculate” on how that would go. (And I’m guessing the answer is “not well.”)

Another example: a movie in which two astronauts get lost in space isn’t speculative because it could really happen within the realm of our existing knowledge of the world, as terrifying as that may be. A movie in which a group of astronauts discover an alien life form is speculative because – according to our current knowledge – it couldn’t happen in real life, since we know of no other intelligent life forms. See the difference?

Speculative fiction takes our existing world and changes it by asking “What if…?” (What if monkeys could fly? What if zombies were real? What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if one man had x-ray vision?) This opens up the first definition — fantasy, science fiction, and horror — to include other genres as well, such as alternate history, weird tales, dystopian, apocalyptic, time travel, superhero, etc. It also excludes science fiction and horror that doesn’t speculate (i.e., horror without supernatural elements, or science fiction based on current technology).

Now that we have a good definition to go on, let’s take a more detailed look at my little diagram.


In area 1, we have the overwhelming component of speculative fiction: fantasy. By definition, all fantasy is speculative. This includes all subgenres, such as epic, soft, urban, and magical realism.

In area 2, we have another large component: science fiction. As I mentioned above, sci-fi is usually but not always speculative. (When it’s not it becomes section 3.) Speculative sci-fi often includes the sub genres of space travel and time travel.

In area 4, we have the third part of the main triumvirate: horror. Horror is frequently but not always speculative. Horror based on true events or without any supernatural elements falls outside the speculative ring (section 5). Speculative horror includes paranormal, creature, and weird tale to name a few.

Sections 6 through 10 are probably pretty self-explanatory. If you combine speculative sci-fi with speculative fantasy, for example, you might get superhero fiction. In all those little overlapping sections, it’s really a game of mix and match.

Section 12 is historical fiction without speculative elements, such as a fictionalized rendering of a real battle or a fictional character living in historically accurate settings. Section 11 is historical fiction with speculation thrown in, such as supernatural elements added, a shift in the real timeline (alternate history), etc.

Finally, there’s lucky section number 13, which holds all of those speculative stories that don’t fit neatly into fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or historical. These might include dystopian, weird tales, or surrealism.

As if that weren’t all complicated enough, if you shift some circles around you can build and blend your own genres. Expand “historical,” for example, so that it overlaps with “fantasy” and you’ve got historical fantasy (think vampires in the Victorian period or elves fighting in World War I). Throw in a healthy dose of fear and you might have historical horror.

The possibilities are really limitless, which is perhaps why so many people get confused by the term “speculative fiction.” If you find yourself getting lost, go back to the basics: could this world really exist according to our current knowledge of reality? If the answer is yes, it probably isn’t speculative. If the answer is no, it probably is speculative.

At this point you might be wondering, Does this mean that “speculative” changes over time? My answer is yes. As our knowledge and technology change, so does our interpretation of what’s “possible.” Technology in futuristic books written twenty years ago might not be speculative at all anymore. No to mention that individual beliefs can affect the definition, too. That’s how you get books about ghosts and aliens on the “nonfiction” shelf; some people believe these are already a part of our reality. Technology changes, knowledge grows, beliefs shift – and these are all things that inform our concept of “what’s possible.”

As you can see, the lines on all the circles I’ve drawn could be a little blurrier, but I hope I’ve shed some light on the general concept. As always I’m happy to answer questions below, or to hear your take on things!

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