When it comes to literature, very few things spark more debate than the term "speculative fiction." Ask one person what it means and they might say it's a catch-all term that refers to the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything between.
Ask someone else and they might reply with something completely different—perhaps that speculative fiction is merely literary science fiction. Of course, the latter definition kicks off another debate regarding what separates literary science fiction from genre science fiction. Isn't it just a matter of taste and preference? Regardless of where you fall on the divide regarding that subject, we're still no closer a firm definition for this highly contentious 'speculative fiction' term.
The discussion around what constitutes speculative fiction is nothing new. Robert Heinlein is largely credited with coining the term in his 1947 essay, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction." He asserted that speculative fiction is fiction that focuses not on science and technology, but on human reactions to new situations caused by science and technology. In other words, speculative fiction revolves around human concerns versus technological wonders.
At first glance, Heinlein's definition appears useful. As readers, we can differentiate between a science fiction novel that focuses on adventure-laden space travel versus one that looks at how interacting with alien lifeforms illuminates the human condition. However, the more we compare Heinlein's concept of speculative fiction against existing works of literature, the more we run into issues.
For one, the narrow focus on science and technology limits speculative fiction to science fiction and its offshoots. Who says the fantastical can't also cause problems for people? Considering that Robert Heinlein is best known for writing seminal works of science fiction, his opinion hints at a certain bias.
For another, the idea of a human problem versus a technological one can be rather subjective. In many ways, this arbitrary measure seems like a convenient way to separate "worthy" science fiction stories from lowly pulp ones. Perhaps that was necessary during Heinlein's time, but surely we've moved past the need to denigrate certain works in order to elevate others.
Heinlein's restrictive yet subjective take might be why we have the other widely-acknowledged definition: speculative fiction as an umbrella category that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror, and every subgenre in between. You can't possibly be more inclusive.
The idea of speculative fiction functioning as a catch-all term stems from its own description. The adjective "speculative" comes from the verb, "to speculate." In other words, speculative fiction asks a question and then hypothesizes a scenario that answers that question. If we use this approach, then don't all science fiction and fantasy stories fit into the category of speculative fiction?
For instance, N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season asks what happens when a seismically unstable world wracked by apocalyptic events faces its final apocalyptic end. George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series asks how a world occasionally plagued by endless winters would cope with the dangers of the colder seasons while grappling for power.
On the other hand, by being so inclusive, speculative fiction becomes even more confusing and hard to define. If any work of science fiction and fantasy is speculative fiction, then why don't we just call it that and not worry about strict genre definitions? But if we adopt that way of thinking, wouldn't it become harder for readers to find what they like? Some readers prefer hard science fiction while others like second world fantasy. Eliminating these categories ultimately does readers a disservice.
Perhaps we can tackle the question of what speculative fiction is another way. Instead of using one of two extremes, maybe the best approach is somewhere in between. For a more useful definition, let's go back to the concept of speculative fiction asking a question and answering with a scenario.
Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven examines how art can survive in a world devastated by an epidemic. Denis Villeneuve's Arrival—itself a film adaptation of Ted Chiang's short story, "The Story of Your Life"—asks if you would make the same choices despite knowing those decisions would lead to future heartbreak and tragedy. The latter doesn't even sound like a science fiction or fantasy story, but as people who've seen the film know, this question is asked against the backdrop of first contact with aliens whose language alters humanity's perception of time.
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Maybe it's best to think of speculative fiction as narratives that examine the world as we know it and push its boundaries. Under this definition, spec fic looks at our world as it exists today and imagines what's possible. If we use this set of conditions, then the idea of speculative fiction becomes more defined. It eliminates stories that already exist within the confines of an existing genre.
For example, A Song of Ice and Fire, by virtue of not being set in our world, no longer falls into the category of speculative fiction. It doesn't need to. It is set in a secondary fantasy world and the label of epic political fantasy is more than adequate to encompass the kind of story it tells.
Meanwhile, speculative fiction becomes more useful as a descriptor for stories like Station Eleven and Arrival. Both narratives are science fiction, but that genre as a descriptor isn't very helpful in signaling to a reader or viewer what kind of science fiction story they are. And in the end, that's the true purpose of genre labels: to categorize stories in ways that make it easier for their ideal audience to find them.
But the reality is that the definition of speculative fiction shifts over time. Robert Heinlein defined it one way. The umbrella term definition later emerged in reaction. And now, yet again, we seek a balance between the two ends of the spectrum, to be more precise and useful. No doubt, the debate over speculative fiction will continue to rage on. At least, we join good company. Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin once had a famous debate about this very topic, after all.