Speculative fiction is a broad category of narrative fiction that includes elements, settings and characters created out of imagination and speculation rather than based on reality and everyday life. It encompasses the genres of science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, horror, alternative history, and magic realism. It typically strays strongly from reality and so may feature fictional types of beings like mythical creatures and supernatural entities, technologies that do not exist in real life like time machines and interstellar spaceships, or magical or otherwise scientifically inexplicable elements. The term's popularity is sometimes attributed to Robert Heinlein, who referenced it in 1947 in an editorial essay, although there are prior mentions of speculative fiction, or its variant "speculative literature".
Speculative fiction as a category ranges from ancient works to both cutting edge, paradigm-changing and neotraditional works of the 21st century. Speculative fiction can be recognized in works whose authors' intentions or the social contexts of the versions of stories they portrayed is now known, since ancient Greek dramatists such as Euripides (ca. 480–406 BCE) whose play Medea seems to have offended Athenian audiences when he fictionally speculated that shamaness Medea killed her own children instead of their being killed by other Corinthians after her departure, and whose Hippolytus, narratively introduced by Aphrodite, Goddess of Love in person, is suspected to have displeased his contemporary audiences because he portrayed Phaedra as too lusty.
In historiography, what is now called speculative fiction has previously been termed "historical invention", "historical fiction", and similar names. It is extensively noted in literary criticism of the works of William Shakespeare as when he co-locates Athenian Duke Theseus and Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, English fairy Puck, and Roman god Cupid across time and space in the Fairyland of its Merovingian Germanic sovereign Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
In mythography the concept of speculative fiction has been termed "mythopoesis" or mythopoeia, "fictional speculation", the creative design and generation of lore, regarding such works as J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Such supernatural, alternate history and sexuality themes continue in works produced within the modern speculative fiction genre.
The creation of speculative fiction in its general sense of hypothetical history, explanation, or ahistorical storytelling has also been attributed to authors in ostensibly non-fiction mode since as early as Herodotus of Halicarnassus, (fl. 5th century BCE) in his Histories, and was already both practiced and edited out by early encyclopaedic writers like Sima Qian (ca. 145 or 135 BCE–86 BCE), author of Shiji.
This suggests the caveat that while many works now considered to be intentional or unintentional speculative fiction existed before the coining of the genre term, its concept in its broadest sense captures both a conscious and unconscious aspect of human psychology in making sense of the world, reacting to it, and creating imaginary, inventive, and artistic expressions, some of which underlie practical progress through interpersonal influences, social and cultural movements, scientific research and advances, and philosophy of science.
In its English language usage in arts and literature since 20th century, "speculative fiction" as a genre term is often attributed to Robert A. Heinlein. In his first known use of the term, in editorial material at the front of the 2/8/1947 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, Heinlein used it specifically as a synonym for "science fiction"; in a later piece, he explicitly stated that his use of the term did not include fantasy.
However, though Heinlein may have come up with the term on his own, there are earlier citations: a piece in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1889 used the term in reference to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000–1887 and other works; and one in the May, 1900 issue of The Bookman said that John Uri Lloyd's Etidorhpa, The End of the Earth had "created a great deal of discussion among people interested in speculative fiction". A variation on this term is "speculative literature".
The use of "speculative fiction" in the sense of expressing dissatisfaction with traditional or establishment science fiction was popularized in the 1960s and early 1970s by Judith Merril and other writers and editors, in connection with the New Wave movement. It fell into disuse around the mid-1970s.
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database contains a broad list of different subtypes.
In the 2000s, the term came into wider use as a convenient collective term for a set of genres. However, some writers, such as Margaret Atwood, continue to maintain a distinction between "speculative fiction" as a "no Martians" type of science fiction, "about things that really could happen."
Distinguishing science fiction from other speculative fiction
"Speculative fiction" is sometimes abbreviated "spec-fic", "specfic", "S-F", "SF", or "sf" but these last three abbreviations are ambiguous as they have long been used to refer to science fiction, which lies within this general range of literature, and in several other abbreviations.
The term has been used to express dissatisfaction with what some people consider the limitations of science fiction, or otherwise to designate fiction that falls under readily stereotypical genres so that it can be pigeonholed within such categorical limits as "fantasy" or "mystery". For example, in Harlan Ellison's writing, the term may signal a wish not to be pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, and a desire to break out of science fiction's genre conventions in a literary and modernist direction, or to escape the prejudice with which science fiction is often met by mainstream critics.
The term "suppositional fiction" is sometimes used as a sub-category designating fiction in which characters and stories are constrained by an internally consistent world, but not necessarily one defined by any particular genre.
According to publisher statistics, men outnumber women about two to one among English-language speculative fiction writers aiming for professional publication. However, the percentages vary considerably by genre, with women outnumbering men in the fields of urban fantasy, paranormal romance and young-adult fiction.
Speculative fiction genres
Speculative fiction may include elements of one or more of the following genres:
|Fantasy||Includes elements and beings from human cultural imagination, such as mythical creatures (dragons and fairies, for example), magic and magical elements, sorcery, witchcraft, etc.||The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter|
|Science fiction||Features technologies that do not exist in real life (but may be supposed to do in the future), including time travel, interstellar travel, flying cars and also beings and societies from other planets (aliens).||Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Star Wars|
|Horror||Somewhat similar to fantasy, but focusing on terrifying, evil and often powerful beings, such as monsters and ghosts. Also aims to transmit actual fear and confusion to the reader/watcher.||A Nightmare on Elm Street, Case 39|
|Utopia||Takes place in a highly desirable society, often presented as advanced, happy, intelligent or even perfect or problem-free.||Island, Ecotopia|
|Dystopia||Takes place in a highly undesirable society, often plagued with strict control, violence, chaos, brainwashing and other negative elements.||1984, Brave New World|
|Alternate history||Focusing on historical events as if they happened in a different way, and their implications on the present.||Fatherland, The Tales of Alvin Maker|
|Apocalyptic||Takes place before and during a massive, worldwide disaster.||The Day After Tomorrow, 2012|
|Post-apocalyptic||Focuses on groups of survivors after a massive, typically worldwide disaster.||Waterworld, Metro 2033, The Stand|
|Superhero||Centers on superheroes (i.e. a hero with extraordinary abilities or powers) and their fight against evil forces such as supervillains. Typically incorporates elements of science fiction and/or fantasy, and may be a subgenre of them.||Spider-Man, Avengers|
- List of science fiction themes
- A small subset of speculative fiction incorporates the following themes:
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