Examining Speculative Fiction

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Are you speculative fiction-curious? This sophisticated umbrella-genre likes to defy clear definition. It does, however, encompass the following genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Historical Fiction, to name just a few. If your writing has some of these classic genre elements but refuses to be pigeonholed into just one, you might be writing speculative fiction, commonly known as spec-fic.

Speculative fiction removes the mashed-up genre slash syndrome.

Even though at times, spec-fic has tones of the aforementioned genres, it exists because sometimes a novel does not like to be wedged into just one of those categories. In truth, a speculative fiction novel spans more than one genre. Spec-fic is a neat and tidy way of not saying, my novel is sci-fi slash horror slash fantasy with a little historical fiction in there, too.

When is it not just science fiction?

Margaret Atwood believes that her work, most notably in her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and The Maddaddam Trilogy, should not be classified as science fiction. She made the following point in her non-fiction book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination:

… for me, ‘speculative fiction’ means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such–things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second category: No Martians. Not because I don’t like Martians, I hasten to add: they just don’t fall within my skill set. Any seriously intended Martian by me would be a very clumsy Martian indeed.

This gets tricky. Ironically enough, based on Ms. Atwood’s definition, one could easily argue that Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, could be defined as spec-fic because it has not happened, but could (and will) most likely happen within the next two decades. However, The Martian has been categorized as science-fiction.

Rod Sterling summed up the classification of both fantasy and science fiction in this sentence:

Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.

Could the reason The Martian is not classified as spec-fic lie in the speculation of the author? Weir does indeed speculate on what is real and or possible–we will probably see a Mark Watney-type incident in our lifetime–however, Mr. Watney and his castaway-style event encompass the entire novel. This key definer is where spec-fic separates itself from the pack …

Spec-fic is more than just a single character or one event.

More specifically, the plot or the character’s reaction to an event is not the deciding classification factor in spec-fic. Instead, the author seeks to answer questions, exploring possible outcomes of a change to what is known or what could be in our agreed upon reality.

Let me clear that up. Andy Weir stranded his main character on Mars. This could happen and I think we can all agree on this because of today’s known science. Had his main character encountered a society of alien life-forms while attempting to grow potatoes in his own excrement, that would have been a different story. We can all agree that a society of alien-life is not part of our known world, however, growing potatoes in manure of our own making is completely plausible.

Answering the What if? and beyond …

Had Mr. Weir speculated on the possibility of alien life-forms terrifying Mark Watney, could we then safely say that The Martian was speculative fiction? What if the overall storyline contained more than just one event but instead encompassed an over-arching storyline of an alien race, one loosely based on Roman civilization? If this storyline paralleled alongside Mark’s predicament,  are we then dealing with just science fiction, or something else? Would this story still be the impossible made probable? Or is it now the improbable made possible?

In The Maddaddam Trilogy, Ms. Atwood presents a post-apocalyptic future where, among many other plots, genetically-altered animals run amock. However, the overall vibe of the story feels probable, not impossible. Sadly, the same can be said about The Handmaid’s Tale. Given our current political climate in America, circa 2019, I shudder to think that this could be a possible future.

There is no doubt in my mind that the edges of speculative fiction are indeed blurry at best. However, maybe that is where the answer lies. Speculative fiction begins here on Earth, in close proximity to our relatable, known existence. The author chooses to take what we all agree as known, and then turns it upside down with the following question, What if?  

Your speculative fiction homework.

Examine these examples of speculative fiction. How many classic genres could the following works of fiction span? Do these works go beyond one character’s reaction to a single event?

  • The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich
  • Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s 2002 comic book series

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website: www.heatherrigney.com

1 Comment

  1. I hear you and generally agree: writing speculative fiction is to speculate about a possible, if improbable future. Such spec-fic stories must adhere to known physics and reasonable biological expectations.

    • Spec-fic is never fantasy. In fantasy the laws of the natural world are violated (magic, time travel, multi-verse, paranormal, gods, monsters, etc.) (i.e. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Shanara).

    • In pure sci-fi, the laws of science are exceedingly stretched, but not broken. Additionally, the science in sci-fi must be so beyond our existing experience that to speculate that such technology and biology will actually exist is to appear foolish (i.e. Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Kim S. Robinson’s Aurora).

    Weir’s The Martian is much closer to speculation-fiction than anything else, although it does edge into sci-fi. And I agree that Atwood’s tales are also spec-fic.

    Speculative fiction is one of the hardest genres to write. You must put a prophet-like thinking cap on to come up with a reasonable future — whether gloriously equitable or horrendously dystopian — or somewhere in between. But it must be believable. It must exude a verisimilitude at which few would scoff.

    Here’s another topic which you might explore – YA. Young Adult means what exactly? Frankly I think the concept is bunk. We should be using the genre and then apply an age classification — like the movie or TV industries. Spec-Fic:PG-13.

    And what do G, PG, PG-13,R,NC-17 really mean? I actually came up with a content rating system that would not use age at all – but describe the content itself:


    Good topics. Thanks for posting.

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