For many of us, books and reading provide a means of both leisure and pleasure- a way to escape the everyday and into the world of literature. This is no truer than in speculative fiction. A collection of genres that puts the ‘creative’ in creative writing, the imaginative nature of speculative fiction sets our minds free to envision worlds, people and cultures different from our own. It’s the broad-mindedness that results from such thinking that makes speculative fiction so truly special.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What is speculative fiction (and what isn’t)?
- The history of speculative fiction
- Subgenres of speculative fiction
- Examples of speculative fiction
- How to write speculative fiction
- Top tips for speculative fiction writing
- Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
So, just what is speculative fiction, and how can you depict imaginative realms in your own stories?
What Is Speculative Fiction?
Speculative fiction is an umbrella term, or ‘super-genre’, for genre fiction about things that don’t exist in our world. It asks questions, and often the question is, ‘what if?’. Contemporary speculative fiction has subgenres like science fiction (sci-fi), fantasy, dystopian fiction and more.
Historically, speculative fiction has been a nebulous literary term. We’ll look at why in ‘The History Of Speculative Fiction’ below, but for now, it’s a term that’s evolved since its inception, progressing alongside the novels it aims to describe. Even today, there’s still debate about what is considered speculative fiction.
For example, Margaret Atwood states that ‘speculative fiction is a way of dealing with possibilities that are inherent in our society now, but which have not yet been fully enacted’. Atwood, with speculative fiction successes like The Handmaid’s Tale, is certainly an authority; and yet at the same time, we must acknowledge that such definitions limit speculative fiction to ideas overtly grounded in real-world context. As a result, this omits secondary-world stories like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (despite its setting being ‘Middle-earth’), which fantasy fans might argue firmly belongs in the realm of the speculative.
This is where definitions of speculative fiction diverge, and it comes down to a question of emphasis. Revisiting our definition above, if your focus is on ‘things that don’t exist in our world’, then like Atwood, you may prefer the challenges of a narrower definition. If, however, your focus is ‘things that don’t exist in our world’, then it’s likely your interests sit at the broader end of the speculative spectrum.
When it comes to a term that’s as fluid and eclectic as speculative fiction is, perhaps a better question to ask is: what isn’t speculative fiction?
What Is Not Speculative Fiction?
Speculative fiction represents concepts that err outside the bounds of our real world in some way, whether great or small. So, what doesn’t speculative fiction cover? Here are three examples:
- Historical fiction where the only speculative element is a fictional character that doesn’t affect chronicled events.
- Horror fiction with fictional antagonists that aren’t paranormal in nature — think serial killers as opposed to vampires, werewolves, zombies etc.
- ‘Mundane science fiction’, a sci-fi subgenre founded by Geoff Ryman and the Clarion West Class of 2004, which limits its scope to Earth-based worlds, no aliens or interstellar travel, and only pre-existing or plausible technology. This is akin to hard science fiction, which focuses on technical accuracy.
If you’re into sci-fi, Ryman and co.’s ‘Mundane Manifesto’ is brilliant (case in point: calling the genre’s tropes a “bonfire of the stupidities”). Definitely recommended reading.
The topic of sci-fi is an excellent segue back into the history of speculative fiction, so let’s take a brief look at that now.
The History Of Speculative Fiction
The idea behind speculative fiction — to ask ‘what if?’, and remark on a world that may have been, that is or that could be — is one that goes back to the classics.
A well-cited example is Medea, a tragedy by ancient Greek playwright Euripides, who explored the sorceress Medea murdering her own children for revenge — whereas in versions of the legend, she was not directly responsible. Euripides used speculation to write an alternate history.
A less famous example is the cleverly-titled novella A True Story, a fiction work by Lucian of Samosata in the second century. Similar to Euripides, Lucian was an ancient Greek writer, but one who speculated on fantastical space travel and war, not to mention aliens. Lucian became the first writer of his time to openly pen fiction (and satirical fiction at that, given the title vs. topics).
Another example is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which unites the Greek hero Theseus of Athens, the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, and King Oberon and Queen Titania of the Fairies alongside other characters. Nowadays, the play is known as speculative fiction, despite the phrase not existing then.
Bonus example: I’m going to add one more here, simply because it’s amazing. Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World is a speculative work from 1666 about a utopian society, accessible through a portal in the North Pole. Utter genius.
The term ‘speculative fiction’ was eventually coined by author Robert Heinlein in 1941 and publicised in his 1947 essay, On the Writing of Speculative Fiction. Heinlein, a science fiction writer, argued that unlike the pulp sci-fi of his time, speculative fiction focused on human-centred reactions to posed scientific or technological problems, and deserved the artistic merit of literary fiction. Sci-fi’s close association with speculative fiction is largely thanks to Heinlein.
As successful authors like Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin weighed in on such delineations (Le Guin has argued for abandoning genres altogether), speculative fiction expanded into particular genres like fantasy, dystopian fiction and more. Today, speculative fiction’s family of subgenres make it a broad literary term in keeping with the evolution of its stories. It’s to these subgenres that we’ll turn next.
Subgenres Of Speculative Fiction
Given sci-fi’s relationship to speculative fiction, it’s a good subgenre to start with. Science fiction with speculative elements uses advanced technology like interstellar travel, which can lead to encounters with extraterrestrials. It employs tropes like teleportation, parallel worlds or alternate universes, time travel and even magic; space operas, as a subset of sci-fi stories, are particularly grand in scale. Such speculative leaps are precisely what mundane sci-fi opposes, as they’re deemed too unlikely to ever happen in the real world.
Fantasy is a purely speculative genre of fiction, where concepts are fantastical because of the inclusion of magical powers, mythical creatures etc. Like sci-fi, fantasy exists on a spectrum from low fantasy based in the real world, to high or epic fantasy (eg. ‘sword and sorcery’ fantasy) set in alternate or secondary worlds. Fantasy fiction also includes many subgenres like dark fantasy, fables, fairy tales, urban fantasy and magical realism.
Science Fiction Fantasy
As you might guess, sci-fi fantasy is a blend of science fiction and fantasy stories, wherein the sci-fi also has fantasy elements such as magic and myth.
While we’re still thinking about sci-fi, consider superhero fiction like DC’s alien superhero Superman, or Marvel’s many superheroes eg. the Avengers. While tales about beings with superhuman powers fighting evil supervillains could easily be categorised as fantasy or paranormal, superhero stories have become a behemoth in their own right — just look at the world’s devoted comic-based fandoms.
Similar to superhero fiction, paranormal fiction could also be classed as fantasy, but the sheer volume of topics and titles has culminated in its own recognised genre. Paranormal fiction tells of secret phenomena that generally defy science and the natural world, involving creatures from fables, folklore, fairy tales and pop culture eg. vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches. It can also include psychic abilities like levitation and telepathy. This particular genre has many subgenres, such as paranormal romance, which has produced multiple international bestsellers, particularly in the young adult (YA) category.
Like the paranormal genre, supernatural fiction also eludes scientific explanation, focusing on death and the afterlife — with heavenly deities like gods/goddesses and angels, as well as resurrection, reincarnation and the soul. Subgenres include supernatural horror and thrillers; ghost, gothic and weird fiction; and anything else of a spiritual nature that morphs into the macabre.
Utopian fiction centres on the concept of an ideal world, and the potential impact of human beings on these seemingly perfect civilisations.
Conversely, dystopian novels depict governments and societies, often totalitarian, where people’s suffering is as rampant as the injustice at its core. Such speculative literature often sets stories in places not normally equated with bleak future states.
Apocalyptic fiction involves disasters that end in large-scale population death and destruction. Stories involve catastrophic events like meteorological disasters, nuclear wars or pandemic diseases, centring on characters fighting to survive.
If the apocalyptic genre is ‘before’, then post-apocalyptic fiction is the ‘after’ of these monumentally devastating events. Any characters that survived must now learn to endure the consequences of the apocalypse, which can range from a nuclear holocaust to societal breakdown, and may include paranormal aspects.
Alternate History Fiction
As we saw in Euripides’ Medea, alternate history fiction provides a fork in the road to explore historical events and their potential for lives unled.
Examples Of Speculative Fiction
The Expanse Series By James S. A. Corey
This hard sci-fi modern classic, starting with the first novel Leviathan Wakes, speculates about humans colonising the solar system without interstellar travel eg. Mars and the Asteroid Belt beyond it — but with Earth and Mars in conflict.
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series By George R. R. Martin
We’ve already mentioned Tolkien, so let’s look at Martin’s epic fantasy works, also known as the TV adaptation Game of Thrones. You can’t get more speculative than situating this fictional ‘War of the Roses’ alongside dragons, sorcery and ice zombies.
Dune Series By Frank Herbert
An older classic and fantastical space opera, the titular first novel and its series are a sci-fi fantasy of grandeur. Unlike The Expanse, Dune does have interstellar travel, as well as magic, alien sandworms, a prophecy and the mystical Spice Melange.
Warbringer By Leigh Bardugo
YA fantasy bestseller Bardugo picks up the mantle of depicting Wonder Woman in a comic novelisation of Diana’s origin story. Prior to becoming the superheroine we all know and love, the novel sees her befriend a descendant of Helen of Troy.
The Vampire Chronicles Series By Anne Rice
Before the TV series hits our screens, revisit Rice’s fully-realised paranormal world of vampire mythology in the series’ first novel Interview With The Vampire, which is not only a cultural phenomenon but also a masterwork of the genre.
The Call Of Cthulhu And Other Weird Stories By H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft’s supernatural The Call of Cthulhu is one of his best-known stories, and features a kraken-like creature with wings — complete with a cult of worshippers — and the power to drive people insane through subconscious control.
Gulliver’s Travels By Jonathan Swift
A stinging satire of adventure travel that helped birth the novel format, Swift’s protagonist journeys to far-flung locales where he meets philosophers, scientists, mages, immortals, and intellectually superior horses ruling over humans.
1984 By George Orwell
You could well argue there’s no more relevant dystopian tale than Orwell’s 1984 — and we’re 38 years on from that fateful year. Yet here we are, still grappling with the same totalitarian fears; the unfortunate hallmark of a truly well-crafted tale.
World War Z By Max Brooks
Given the last example, it’s not surprising we’ve made it to the zombie apocalypse; though Brooks’ novel is simultaneously post-apocalyptic, with its 10-year span that begins with rumours of a new pandemic from China (sound familiar?).
The Stand By Stephen King
Following on from a zombie pandemic, let’s get a little more real with fiction master King’s actual pandemic novel, a post-apocalyptic tale of an influenza-based plague that (wait for it) kills 99.4% of the population. Cue civilisation imploding.
The Man In The High Castle By Philip K. Dick
Finally, we end on an alternate history classic, with Dick speculating, ‘what if Germany had won World War II?’. The answer to this question sets the novel in an America where New York is Nazi territory and Japan rules over California.
How To Write Speculative Fiction
Now that we’re clear on what speculative fiction is (and what it isn’t), how do you go about creating these world-bending stories for yourself?
Here are our 5 steps to writing speculative fiction:
1. Form Your Idea
Your first step is to identify an idea for a story. Speculative fiction deals in ‘what if’s, so let’s start there. Here’s an example you may already be familiar with.
Margaret Atwood’s idea for The Handmaid’s Tale came from a conversation with a friend in the 1980s about feminism and women being outside the home, and those who wanted to reverse the trend. Atwood wondered what it would take to do that, and in answering her question, the world of Gilead and its handmaids was born.
Whether you subscribe to Atwood’s definition of speculative fiction or not, mining current events, society, culture, and the latest research for good ideas to build a concept from will grant you many an interesting ‘what if’ to ponder.
2. Do Your Research
Despite the fantastical nature of speculative fiction, if your story is in any way based on the real world, it’s likely you’ll need to do some research, such as when writing sci-fi stories inspired by science or technology. Not all science fiction will need this as a prerequisite, but grounding such stories with real things tends to strengthen them.
There’s also a point to be made here about sensitivity. If you’re broaching topics that involve those in a minority, potentially triggering subjects or cultural taboos, it’s important to do your due diligence as a professional in the writing community. And that means doing your research and crafting authentic portrayals.
3. Build Your World
If you’re like me, this is the fun part. World-building, particularly in fantasy, looks top-down at the world you’re creating — from the realm’s geography, to its people and civilisations. This also includes society, politics, the economy and technology; which in turn means defining warfare, and what magic or myths to include.
That said, your world-building doesn’t need to be complex. The key is consistency, and rules with discernable stakes (which also aid your central conflict). Within the realm of the speculative, as in fantasy or dystopias, defining your magical systems or the rules your society is based on will help readers navigate your story.
For more on world-building, see our ‘Top Tips For Speculative Fiction Writing’ below in the section following this one.
4. Outline Your Story
So, you’ve got an idea, and you’ve done your research and world-building. Great! Now comes your story outline. This can be as simple or as granular as you like, depending on whether you’re a ‘pantser’ or a ‘plotter’ when it comes to planning. Either way, the reason for outlining in speculative fiction is to clarify your world and its consequences for your characters, and then build your arc.
Think about the idea you’ve come up with and how it impacts your main character. Are they high or low on the food chain of the world you’ve developed? Where do you want them to end up, and how? What are the main problems that they’ll face? Asking yourself these questions will help you plan your story’s outline. Need help? Check out our article on plot points.
For the plotters amongst us, your research, world-building and outline should equip you with more than enough to get started. For the pantsers, this will be where you finally dispense with all the planning and just write. So, what are you waiting for?
Pro tip: Some people recommend writing first thing in the morning or late at night — essentially, when our thoughts are more free-flowing — for creative effect.
Top Tips For Speculative Fiction Writing
What if you really want to try your hand at speculative fiction- but you just can’t seem to make the words happen? We’ve got you covered.
Here are 3 more tips and tricks for writing speculative fiction stories:
This is where you try and think of as many ideas as possible without judging them, then tease out the golden thread of a story. You don’t need to do it all in one sitting, but your goal is to look for new and unexpected combinations and connections.
One way to do this is by thinking about conversations eg. like Margaret Atwood, or eavesdropping on new ones in cafes, on public transport, at the park, anywhere; all for the sake of potential inspiration, and to get you asking questions that can lead to intriguing tangents, and eventually stories.
Here’s my own method: handwrite your brain dump of ideas, if you can, as there’s something about physically jotting them down; it probably facilitates the next step. Then, go do something else- ideally, something manual like cleaning, exercising, showering, or driving (Spielberg gets his best ideas on the road). And finally… wait. When your mind is quiet, like when meditating or on the verge of falling asleep, that’s when your best ideas will strike.
Or, why not use one of our sci-fi writing prompts or our fantasy prompts as a jumping-off point?
2. Research Building Your World
If going directly from researching to world-building is too much of a jump, don’t worry. The internet has a plethora of resources to help you build your world.
- Brandon Sanderson, author of bestselling fantasy and sci-fi stories like the Mistborn series, has entire YouTube playlists devoted to his writing process. As part of his 2020 creative writing lectures at US Brigham Young University, check out his world-building part one and part two videos.
- Another writer of bestselling speculative fiction eg. the Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin is a fantasy and sci-fi author with superb educational content; her website hosts a great presentation from one of her webinars.
- World Anvil is a resource I’ve been recommended on Twitter more times than I can count for world-building, whether for writing fiction or D&D-style RPGs (that’s ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and role-playing games, for you non-nerds). A word of warning: get ready for more links than you can poke a sword at.
- Why not check out our articles on world-building or have a look at our upcoming events or courses that will help you get started?
3. Read, Read, Read
This is a wonderful tip, particularly if speculative fiction is new to you (and if you’re a bookworm, all the better): immerse yourself in the greats. Writing isn’t just rewriting, as they say- it’s reading, and reading speculative classics, modern or otherwise, can give you the hit of inspiration you need to think outside the box. So, jump back to the ‘Examples Of Speculative Fiction’ above, and add them to your to-be-read (TBR) list for a heady dose of speculation.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is Speculative Fiction?
Speculative fiction refers to genre-based fiction with concepts grounded in things that don’t exist in the world as we know it. An umbrella term, it includes genres like fantasy, dystopian and science fiction (which it was originally associated with), and covers imaginative stories of conjecture that ask questions, particularly ‘what if?’. Speculative fiction has evolved since its twentieth-century inception to become the creative ‘super-genre’ it’s known as today.
What Is The Main Purpose Of Speculative Fiction?
The purpose of speculative fiction is, unsurprisingly, to speculate: to think, to guess, and to ask questions (eg. ‘what if?’) of the world we live in, its history and its future. Speculative fiction then explores the answers to these questions through stories of varying imaginative degrees. Like reading more generally, speculative fiction can be a form of entertainment and escape. Where it differs from literary fiction is perhaps in its attempt to not only illuminate the human condition, but also challenge our own world views and understanding of them- with the goal of deeper personal insight.
What Is The Difference Between Science Fiction And Speculative Fiction?
Science fiction (sci-fi) is a genre within the ‘super-genre’ of speculative fiction, and tells stories about science and technology with outer space as a frequent theme. ‘Speculative fiction’ as a term has been strongly connected with science fiction since its inception and popularisation by Robert Heinlein in 1941 and 1947, who was himself a science fiction author. Heinlein argued that speculative fiction was a subset of sci-fi more slanted towards literary fiction, unlike the formulaic pulp sci-fi of his day. Today, speculative fiction has expanded to include genres like fantasy and more.
Is Magical Realism Speculative Fiction?
Magical realism, as a subgenre of fantasy fiction, can be classified, like fantasy and science fiction, under the broad ‘supergenre’ of speculative fiction. Magical realism can be speculative as the fantastical elements of such fictional worlds exist beyond the realm of our own. This, however, does depend on your definition of speculative fiction being less strict than author Margaret Atwood’s, which leans into real-world societal scenarios that have not yet come to pass (such as in her speculative novel and bestseller The Handmaid’s Tale).
Writing Speculative Fiction Stories
As you’ve seen throughout this article, speculative fiction is a broad literary term. But more importantly, speculative fiction isn’t just an assortment of other genres- it’s a way of telling visionary stories that excite and inspire us as engaged readers, in a world that sometimes fails to. Speculative fiction highlights the awe of exploring other realms and other ideas, and in doing so, reflects something back to us: the limitless potential of the human imagination.
And, happily, that’s something we don’t need to speculate about.
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