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What is Speculative Fiction?

~ by N. E. Lilly (March 2002) ~

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Well? What is it? You don't really know do you? Well that's OK, because then there would be little point in writing this article.

Speculative fiction is a term, attributed to Robert Heinlein in 1941, that has come to be used to collectively describe works in the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

But if we already have science fiction, fantasy, and horror, then why do we need to muddy the water with yet another genre description? Because speculative fiction addresses fiction that includes Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and Fantastic Fiction. It also may include other genres, such as Mysteries, Alternate Histories, and Historical Fiction. Speculative fiction can be a collective term to describe works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror and also addresses works that are not science fiction, fantasy, or horror, yet don't rightly belong to the other genres.

Speculative fiction is also more than the collective title for works of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. The term also embraces works that don't fit neatly into the separate genres. Tarzan. Television's Early Edition. Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Tales that span the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Stranger in a Strange Land. The Twilight Zone. Stories by Edgar Allen Poe. Tales that have been labelled simply as 'weird' or 'adventure' or 'amazing' because there was no proper place to put them. Stories on the fringe.

When you've come across a story or movie or game that both is and isn't science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror, then you've discovered speculative fiction.

Examples of speculative fiction may run the gamut from the outright weird, such as in the short stories 'The Call of Cthulhu' by H.P. Lovecraft or 'The Metamorphoses' by Kafka, to the frighteningly possible, such as in the movie 'Jaws' directed by Steven Spielberg.

Speculative Fiction is Everywhere

Nearly every major industry has some little niche that produces content for or about speculative fiction. From an obvious industry such as cinema or toys, to industries that are not quite so obvious such as the manufacture of clothing and jewelry (costuming).

Nearly all content and media created for children contains some aspect of speculative fiction, such as talking animals, magic, or monsters. When speaking of children's literature it's almost impossible not to find speculative fiction in the form of fantasy or science fiction.

The majority of computer game titles produced, whether for personal computer or gaming consoles, also contain some element of speculative fiction. Whether it be a science fiction strategy game like Sid Meyer's Alpha Centauri or a fantasy based first person role-playing game like Everquest.

And I defy you to find a single pen and paper role-playing game that doesn't draw on some element of speculative fiction. There may be one, but I wouldn't hold my breath looking for it.

Speculative Fiction is everywhere. It has invaded our lives... but what is it? We've contacted various people in the specultive fiction industry to profess their knowledge of the question... What is Speculative Fiction?

David Bowlin of ShadowKeep Magazine []
'Speculative fiction is a world that writers create, where anything can happen. It is a place beyond reality, a place that could have been, or might have been, if only the rules of the universe were altered just a bit. Speculative fiction goes beyond the horror of everyday life and takes the reader (and writer) into a world of magic, fantasy, science. It is a world where you leave part of yourself behind when you return to the universe as we know it, the so-called real world. Speculative fiction defines the best in humanity: imagination, and the sharing of it with others.'

The Staff of Planet Magazine []
Tom Wagner, associate editor
Speculative fiction is the roadmap to tomorrow and the bible for beyond.

Romeo Esparrago, associate editor, art and graphics
Speculative fiction is fuel for the future and whets the appetite of the eaters of words.

Andy McCann, editor
Speculative fiction is the cheapest way to travel, and sometimes the only way. It's doubtful I'll ever travel in space in my lifetime, not only because of technology, cost, and opportunity issues but also because I sometimes get carsick. I'd never survive those centrifugal-force machines for astronauts-in-training. Vomiting in a spacesuit must be a special kind of misery, especially if one keeps fainting from the acceleration. However, if offered the chance, I'd probably go anyway (assuming permission from The Wife). Until that day, though, I'll just keep picking up SF paperbacks and continuing to fly right on out into deep space. And if I don't feel like flying, I can always dig into some Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, or Tim Powers, and instantaneously transport to a world of magic, heroes, and demons.

Speculative fiction is stimulation for the soul, whether reading it or writing it. Spec Fic can take you out of your daily routine and reawaken a sense of mystery and purpose and wider meaning in the world.

Speculative fiction is preparation for all futures. One of the purposes of science fiction, particularly hard SF, is to extrapolate from today and try to anticipate where we all will be one day, both as people and as societies. In that way, we can be better prepared for whatever comes, good or bad. That purpose doesn't apply for much of the rest of the broader category of Spec Fic, unless there are, as some claim, infinite universes -- thus maybe all fantasy and horror stories are merely reporting actual events in other worlds, far down the chain of alternate Earths (so I guess that's where authors get their ideas). Even so, speculative fiction stories, however fanciful, can have a big emotional and inspirational impact, teaching us much about ethics, bravery, kindness, good, and evil.

Lida E. Quillen of Twilight Times []
Some experts define speculative fiction as 'genre' fiction. A lot of readers think speculative fiction consists of science fiction and fantasy only. Other readers include horror, mystery and romance.

To me, it is writing that pushes the boundaries of the imagination. A good speculative fiction story would make you think, provide a new insight into human nature or even give you a new outlook on life. You can find such insights in the literature of today, such as cross-genre, New Age, magic realism and slipstream works as well as SF/F.

Read the works of such authors as Steve Lazarowitz, Kate Saundby, Jon F. Baxley, Patrick Welch, Melissa Michaels, Lazette Gifford, Sharon Lee, Alex Roces, Linda Suzane and Patricia L.White and you'll discover well written and entertaining speculative fiction.

Steve Tully of []
It is a format that informs, delights and educates a reader. It tells a story that is pleasing to the reader and at the same time opens disturbing questions. Ones that the reader may not be able to frame on their own, or even accept as valid questions in the context of their daily life.

It opens our minds to the greatness that is the human race. Even with all our flaws. Even in spite of our flaws. Because of our flaws.

It ask's the questions that need to be asked, 'What is it to be human? Why does that even matter?

Showing our weaknesses and our strengths at the same time. The reader is left to balance all comments within their own world view. What is good? What is bad and why is this so?

The great classics of Speculative fiction have always taken the human point of view. Putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

They reacted as they were wont to do in their times. Within the boundaries they were given by society at that time. But the great leap of reason and humanity came when they rose above their circumstance and became extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They rose above the moment. They became more human than before.

When we the reader can identify with the main character, then we are lifted to the level of that character. We, in effect, become, 'That Hero'. 'A Hero', 'Any Hero'. We become more than we are by living the life on the pages that we read.

This causes change in our own lives on a basic level that defies definition. It moves the soul to a better place. This is what all writers strive for. It is what all readers recognize inherently. It makes us more human.

It is not about 'Magic Swords' or even 'Shining Blast Tubes'. It is about humanity and what that really means to us all. Or even if it does mean anything at all to any of us.

So, what is 'Speculative Fiction'? It's about you and me.

At our best and at our worst. It's about that screen in your head. That one you saw as you read that story that gets you that tight spot in your chest because you know what it meant. It's about that blurry vision when the Hero dies and you know the dream does too.

Even though you won't admit it. You too, hold out for a better world for your children tomorrow. In some tomorrow, on some planet, at some time. Soon...

Why? Because we are all dreamers at heart.

This is what 'Speculative Fiction' is about.

Raymond M. Coulombe of Quantum Muse []
What is Speculative Fiction? The classic answer is that it's the fiction of 'what if?' What if we had a time machine? What if we had faster than light travel? What if there was a codified reliable system of magick? What if we had honest government?

For me, that is a nice place to start, and whole careers have been made writing nothing but 'what if?' stories. Writers could do worse. Sadly, many do.

As an editor at Quantum Muse, I also like to print speculative fiction that fits the 'what the f**k!' category. Think of those stories that are more edgy, perhaps weird, and maybe more than a little disturbing. There may be overtones of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, but the story does not fit comfortable into any one of those categories. At Quantum Muse, about a third of each issue is in our 'alternative' category. Sure, about half of those could be shoehorned into an established category, but for the rest, there is no place but alternative.

We see a lot of them. We've printed stories that other publications would not touch, not because they were bad stories, but because they just didn't fit established norms.

Which brings me to a sad point. Science fiction and fantasy are old. The ruts are deep and it takes an act of will to jump the tracks and really do something speculative. The conventions are so well established that it's speculative to make time travel impossible, space travel relegated to slower than light, and to have wizards whose magick doesn't really work all that well or at all. Wouldn't that be weird. Edgy. Alternative even. Tough to do though, but's that's what separates the truly gifted from the hacks.

For me, speculative fiction sees the world with new eyes. It can hit like a boot to the head. It can slowly invade your mind, like an infestation of termites that slowly chew away at your supports. Or it can surprise with unexpected delight, like striking a monster and discovering it's just a big Pinata. Speculative fiction is the fiction of unlimited possibilities.

To misquote the U. S. Supreme Court, 'I can't quite define it, but I know it when I see it.'

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