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What is Speculative Fiction?

What is speculative fiction?

Most of us have come across speculative fiction through some medium. Harry Potter is speculative fiction. So is Back to the Future and 1984.

All novels and movies that go beyond the fundamental laws of our world are examples of speculative fiction.

All the alternate history books you’ve read, horror movies you’ve seen, they’re all speculative fiction.

A definition for speculative fiction

Let’s start with the definition. What is the correct way to define speculative fiction?

Speculative fiction refers to all works that run beyond the seams of reality as we know it. Any story that deals with themes that contradict observable reality is classified under the umbrella of speculative fiction. 

That’s it.

Fantasy, horror, science fiction, supernatural, and historical fiction; they’re all parts of speculative fiction.

It is not wrong to call it one of the primary supergenre of literature and art. Given the deep influence of speculative fiction on our culture and worldview, it’s only natural to discuss it.

The following sections delve deep into the meaning of speculative fiction and cover a range of topics related to the genre.

The history of speculative fiction

People tend to go back to HG Wells and Mary Shelley when they first think of the earliest forms of speculative fiction. The furthest we generally look back for speculative stories are old tales of Merlin which birthed during the Dark Ages.

The true history of speculative fiction goes much further back. Back in the time of Greek writers and dramatists in 480 BC, plays like Medea and Hippolytus speculated certain parts of ancient myths. This angered the general public at the time because they took those myths seriously and didn’t want writers to take liberty with their contents.

We call this historical fiction nowadays, a key tenet of speculative fiction.

The likes of Shakespeare also took great liberties with history. Some of his best plays like Julius Caesar greatly exaggerated historical events. Richard III is an example of the same.

Early speculative fiction writers took a lot of inspiration from history. The focus on historical fiction shows as much. However, the arrival of authors like Jules Verne, HG Wells, and Mary Shelley changed this trend. Their ideas speculated about the future of the world and didn’t bother with history.

Also read 11 Misconceptions About Fantasy And Science Fiction Writing

It is fair to say that the history of science fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy goes back to a time when speculative fiction was not a defined term. Writers at the time considered these types of stories as just another form of expression.

Also read Indian Fantasy Novels: The Best Fantasy Fiction From India

Exaggeration has always been a large part of literature. To make a point and explain something to the audience, writers often exaggerate. 1984 and A Handmaiden’s Tale are examples of the same.

Also read The Power Of Eventual Doom: Why We Love Dystopian Fiction

There are disagreements amongst writers and readers about the genres that make up speculative fiction. For instance, writer Robert Heinlein called speculative fiction a synonym of science fiction in a 1947 editorial. Many would disagree with such a definition today. He even explicitly stated that the genre did not refer to any kind of fantasy fiction.

As a term, speculative fiction was popular during the New-Wave movement that sought to open up sci-fi to more audiences. It again fell into obscurity until the 2000s when it began to be used as an umbrella term for a lot of genres.  

Speculative fiction now

Discussing the current state of speculative fiction is interesting for a number of reasons. The explosion of speculative fiction in the last decade only underlines the relevance of this genre.

Take the superhero movie trend as an example. The deep cultural impact of the MCU, and not just American cinema, but the world is hard to discount. These stories go beyond reality and manage to amaze the most technologically advanced generation of human history.

In 2020, certain parts of speculative fiction show great promise. Science fiction is a prime example. Technology is at a crossroads after years of innovation. We are again in a buffer zone where new technologies are on the horizon but not within grasp. AI and machine learning are examples of the same.

Ideally, such a situation works for sci-fi writers.

We have also seen fantasy become a hot button genre in the last few years. Fantasy writers have always led the way when it comes to entertaining the masses. The 80s belonged to Tolkien and the LOTR trilogy. Harry Potter took over in the late 90s and continued until the early 2010s. Game of Thrones has been one of the most popular books and TV shows in recent memory.

These are only the popular names. There are numerous examples of other less-talked about series and books that have a huge fan base.

Other subgenres of speculative fiction have also flourished. Horror has been as popular as ever and continues to invite audiences with its innately exciting nature. Dystopian and utopian novels, although very common, are not becoming as popular as they once were. This is probably due to the uncertainty of the times we live in.

Where does all this leave speculative fiction as a genre?

Readers change. Viewers change. Writers also change because they belong to the same ecosystem as well. As a genre, speculative fiction is not going anywhere simply because both writers and readers enjoy it. The freedoms writers enjoy when writing speculative fiction are very unique and give them the best shot at appealing to readers.

The success of magical realism points to the same. The genre typically aims to introduce fantastical concepts in a highly reality-based practical setting.

Magical realism can be viewed as a compromise between speculative fiction and other reality-based narratives. It only highlights how much readers in general value a mystic and surreal entity when reading a story or watching a movie. This speaks to the impact of speculative fiction on the overall literary space. Writers like Murakami are popular because they can balance surreal mysticism with modern and practical life.

The best examples of speculative fiction (A very subjective affair)

There can never be a comprehensive agreement on the best examples of speculative fiction. Entire fandoms exist solely to debate the same.

Studying some of the best and more popular examples of speculative fiction can help us understand the genre better.

We have covered three examples here, restricting ourselves because this section can practically go on forever.

#1 – The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Yes, there are many examples of speculative fiction. Most of them overtly use fantastical themes to appeal to the general audience. These themes and their elements are generally used to wow the audience.

We see this a lot in superhero movies these days. The unreality elements of a story are not used to make a point or drive the story. They ARE the story. McGuffin madness seems to grip much of speculative fiction now.

Franz Kafka and the Metamorphosis are an antithesis to our modern style of speculative fiction. It uses the absurd and unworldly elements of speculative fiction to tell a very human story of pain and suffering.

The story is also an example of what the New Age movement in the 60s and 70s tried to do in literature. Rather than ramp up the McGuffin madness, the movement sought to use fantastical themes solely to support the story.

The Metamorphosis came many decades before the New Age Movement and was a major force behind its popularity. Kafka uses unreality in the story to dive into deeper themes related to human shame and empathy. The entire story shows the protagonist going through different stages of humiliation.

The biggest reason this is a great example of speculative fiction is its clever use of unreality. The fact that the protagonist turns into an insect is not the headline. The pain and suffering that takes place after the incident are more important.

#2 – A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

We are big fans of Murakami here at Binge Mad. We have written many posts on the Japanese writer and will probably keep writing many more when inspiration strikes.

A Wild Sheep Chase flirts the line between reality and unreality, a recurring theme in most magical realism fiction. However, it manages to break free from the self-important approach of many other works from the same genre.

The novel itself is very similar to a typical detective story. The unnamed protagonist travels across Japan searching for a special kind of sheep that apparently possesses some mystic powers. All the quirks one associates with Murakami’s work come to life in A Wild Sheep Chase. An impending sense of doom and the calm protagonist to face it make for a phenomenal spectacle.

As an example of speculative fiction books, A Wild Sheep Chase presents unreality with the seriousness it deserves. Many common works of speculative fiction these days make unreality so common that it is taken for granted. The entire superhero genre is an example of the same.

Murakami carefully crafts his story to let the make the absurdity of unreality come to the surface.

#3 – Inception

Inception is one of the most original films made in recent memory. It takes the entrapments of typical heist films such as Ocean’s 11, changes the tone, and brings in interesting concepts like lucid dreaming and consciousness.

A lot has already been said about the Nolan classic and nothing we add here will make the story any more acclaimed.

In terms of methods and tactics, Nolan veers away completely from the key tenets of the New Age movement. The story is extremely dense in detail and not an easy watch for someone used to watching their phone while watching a movie.

The reason Inception is important to speculative fiction is that it’s very original and new. We are currently in a space where writers and directors are recycling and repackaging old ideas. The superhero craze is a prime example.

Is there really a need to remake Batman every ten years? Can’t we make new superheroes or experiment with other ideas?

It’s not an obvious speculative fiction film thanks to Nolan’s adherence to grounded reality. Nevertheless, it brings to the fore concepts and ideas that are extremely new and give other writers inspiration to do something different.

The different genres within speculative fiction

We know how big speculative fiction is. Here’s a cool graphic summarizing the prominent genres within speculative fiction.

Why do we need speculative fiction?

We talked about the necessity of exaggeration in literature in a previous section.

Ask yourself this – what are the big stories that have survived the test of time and remained relevant?

Look at the Bible as an example. Biblical texts are still relevant to millions of Christians around the world. The same is true for sacred texts of other religions.

It is safe to say that all these texts contain some degree of unreality. Jesus turned water into wine and returned from death. Hanuman uprooted an entire mountain to save Laxman from death. The examples are endless.

We are not questioning the authenticity of these texts. Instead, we are trying to show why ideas and stories that live on for thousands of years and generations contain elements of unreality.

Speculative fiction is not something new. It’s been a part of our culture for a long time. We might have created the term only recently, but writers have always used exaggeration as a tool to make a point.

Superhero movies today will be retold a thousand years from now just as we now read about Achilles. Their impact on culture cannot be understated.

The need for speculative fiction is not born from the need for joy and amazement. It comes from a deeper need to explore fantastical themes to know our own limits.

The Metamorphosis tells us about the cruelty we are capable of showing, even to ones closest to us. It uses a radical concept to make a general point. A Wild Sheep Chase uses a detective story template and supernatural theme to enable the protagonist to go on a life-changing journey. Inception revamps the old concept of a heist film with new concepts like lucid dreaming to literally show us the mind of the protagonist.

Writing speculative fiction

Writing speculative fiction is a challenge for a number of reasons. The freedom to include unreal elements can often become a curse as writers fail to balance so many elements together.

There are no real rules when it comes to writing speculative fiction. Since there are so many subgenres within the field, it’s difficult to prescribe specific guidelines. Writing in many ways is too complex to box into a set of guidelines and rules.

Here are a few points writers must nevertheless remember while writing speculative fiction. These tips come from authors with all the expertise and success in the world.

Margaret Atwood – Taking Ideas from Reality

In her writing lessons, Atwood advises writers to take ideas from the real world. This is very common advice and we cover extensively in our article discussing the misconceptions of sci-fi and fantasy writing.

The selling point of a speculative fiction book or movie cannot be the spectacle. Take Star Wars as an example. There are many fantasy and sci-fi elements the writers use to amaze the audience. However, Star Wars works because it is a family saga at the end of the day. The background of space magic and spaceships elevates the overall family saga and never supplants it.

The lesson is this – the essential parts of your story, such as the conflict and the plot should come from a familiar place. You naturally can exaggerate real-life examples to make a point. Atwood exaggerated the cruelty of a patriarchal society to its extreme in A Handmaiden’s Tale. Tumbbad takes the idea of greed to its extreme.

The idea, however, is something recognizable and human.

George Lucas – Never Be Afraid to Change

Speculative fiction writers have to take care of a number of different elements while writing their story. The pressure to make fantastical themes not appear absurd and unrelatable is ever-present.

George Lucas has advice for writers on this subject – never be afraid to change.

A book is not a start-up. You can’t get a MVP in the market and hope to get away with a few bugs. A great story is a finished article. This means you have to keep making changes until everything works.

This doesn’t mean you have to chase after perfection. Doing that is another mistake you should avoid. The goal of a writer should be to ensure the story and plot work as a whole. Perfection is the end of a rainbow no writers ever discovers. A functional plot and story can be a reality and Lucas presses writers to follow this path.

Christopher Nolan – Collaborating with Experts

Working within speculative fiction, there is a good chance you’d be dealing with complex topics. While writing a historical fiction novel, you are dealing with a particular historical period. Writing a script for a futuristic film on AI and robotics will require a foundational knowledge of the same.

You can’t just read a Wikipedia article and hitch your entire story based on that. Dealing with big concepts requires a lot of research.

Talk to experts. This doesn’t mean you have to find someone nearby whose an expert in the field you’re interested in (although it’s advised). Join community groups online that talk about the subject you’re interested in. Engage and become part of their sub-culture. There is no better way of doing research.

In Conclusion

Speculative fiction occupies a defining place in the world of literature and film. The craze for superhero films only underlines its influence on our culture.

The piece above provides a glimpse into the main tenets of speculative fiction.

From speculative fiction books to writing and genres, we cover all aspects of the field. Readers will not just get insights into reading and writing speculative fiction, but also its history and importance.

1 thought on “What is Speculative Fiction?”

  1. This article was exactly what I was looking for. Please feel free to forward any information or tips regarding sci-fi speculative writing.


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