speculative fiction

What is Speculative Fiction: A Complete Guide to the Encompassing Genre

By Jason Boyd


You might be asking yourself what is speculative fiction? 

Speculative Fiction is a super-genre of fiction. In essence, it encompasses other genres of fiction. Namely, those containing elements that don’t exist in reality, recorded history, nature, or the present universe. The speculative genre also encompasses myriad themes, including supernatural, futuristic, and many other imaginative topics.

Under this umbrella category, sub-genres include science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, superhero power story, and more. Many attribute the term to Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in 1949, “Speculative fiction (I prefer that term to science fiction) is also concerned with sociology, psychology, esoteric aspects of biology, the impact of terrestrial culture on the other cultures we may encounter when we conquer space, etc., without end.”

A Brief History of Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction has been around for centuries; one could even consider Homer’s epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad speculative works. After all, they involve fantastical creatures, like the cyclops, which do not exist. Similarly, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream could also be considered an early example of speculative fiction. The famous play features a reality where characters move freely through time, space, and fairyland.

As far the origins of the term “speculative fiction” goes, while he is often given the credit, it’s debatable whether Robert A. Heinlein coined the phrase in his 1947 essay, “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” 

Why the doubt? Because the first use of “speculative fiction” can be traced to 1887. That’s when the term first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine from the pen of M. F. Egan, who wrote, “Edward Bellamy, in ‘Looking Backward,’ and George Parsons Lathrop, in a short story, ‘The New Poverty,’ have followed the example of Anthony Trollope and Bulwer in speculative fiction put in the future tense.”

Disagreements in Usage

Interestingly enough, although the term today is often considered inclusive of fantasy, Heinlein disagreed in 1949. He wrote, “Speculative fiction is not fantasy fiction, as it rules out the use of anything as material which violates established scientific fact, laws of nature, call it what you will, i.e., it must [be] possible to the universe as we know it. Thus, Wind in the Willows is fantasy, but the much more incredible extravaganzas of Dr. Olaf Stapledon are speculative fiction—science fiction.”

Within In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood says she considers speculative fiction and science fiction nearly interchangeable. In the book, Atwood cites fellow author Ursula K. Le Guin‘s opinion, saying that science fiction becomes speculative fiction when the story’s contents could happen. Those that couldn’t happen, Le Guin considers “fantasy.”

Today’s Usage

Today, the term is considered a “super genre.”

Similarly, the Speculative Literature Foundation considers the genre a “catch-all” term. It writes, “Speculative literature is a catch-all term meant to inclusively span the breadth of fantastic literature, encompassing literature ranging from hard science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to horror to folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern myth-making — and more. Any piece of literature containing a fabulist or speculative element would fall under our aegis, and would potentially be work that we would be interested in supporting.”

Modern literary scholars have written on the evolving term and subject. One essayist, Marek Oziewicz, wrote in 2017, “A collection of genres and culturally situated practices, speculative fiction is effectively what Pierre Bourdieu has called a cultural field: a domain of activity defined by its own field-specific rules of functioning, agents, and institutions.”

How Does Speculative Fiction Differ from Other Genres?

The genre of speculative fiction includes science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian theory (ranging from Gulliver’s Travels to Ayn Rand‘s Anthem) as well as apocalyptic/postapocalyptic work such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Alternate histories also fall under speculative fiction, including Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell.

There may be some overlap between other categories depending on the perspective; for example, horror fiction may overlap with supernatural fiction and psychological thriller.

Speculative fiction overlaps with other broad categories of literature. These include science fantasy and sword and sorcery. One can read the other side of the spectrum as well. Such as gothic novels like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, dark or macabre tales from Edgar Allan Poe such as “The Black Cat”, ghost stories such as The Turn Of the Screw by Henry James; and folktales about witches for children called fairy tales.

It’s difficult to convincingly define what falls into this category of literature. Because many aspects can be found in any number of genres. It is similarly difficult to define what makes speculative fiction different from other genres; they are not all mutually exclusive.

For example, J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series falls into both fantasy and science fiction categories. One might balk at the idea of Harry Potter being science fiction. But look at its many present themes of dystopian/utopian theories, which fall under science fiction.

Themes, Tropes, Archetypes, and Commonalities Found in Speculative Fiction Stories

Stories focused on speculative elements present a theme in which one can suspend disbelief for entertainment purposes. Similarly, speculative fiction stories often contain common themes and tropes, such as the use of magic or advanced technology. 

For example, some stories explore speculative elements like artificial intelligence or genetic modification. Others may center around vampires, werewolves, ghosts, which represent supernatural forces at play (or not playing) in our world.

There is also a wide variety of genres with different themes and tropes present within them. For example, dystopian novels that examine what could happen if we continue down the same trail we’re currently on; alternate history pieces where events turn out differently than what happened; and horror stories, which focus primarily on fear and its effects on people’s psyches. Just to name but a few.

Each of these sub-genres has its own unique set of themes, elements, plots, and characters. For example, alternate history is a genre that focuses on the “what if?” questions. What would happen today if something had changed in the past?

Fantasy literature typically deals with magic or supernatural events while horror fiction often includes topics such as ghosts or monsters.

One can view science fiction through many lenses. This includes utopias and dystopias where societies have been significantly transformed by science. Themes may also include time travel to the future to see how society will evolve or journeys into outer space.

Common Misconceptions About Speculative Fiction

The most common misconceptions about speculative fiction are that it is simply science fiction or fantasy.

The truth is that there are many other subgenres of speculative fiction beyond sci-fi and fantasy. 

One reason for the spectrum being so broad? Modern definitions of speculative fiction do not include any limitations of what it can be about. The term’s definition is simply that it involves “ideas and stories based on someone’s imagination.”

Different Subgenres Under the Umbrella Term “Speculative Fiction”

There are almost too many to count. Except, we tried to count them in another article. Go check out our guide to fiction genres for a more complete list.

Go check our resource linked above for a more exhaustive take, but let’s cover some popular sub-genres.

Science Fiction

Editor Hugo Gernsback, who believed he could create new markets, coined the term “science fiction.” He championed stories centered around the scientific advancements of the time.

Science fiction is a vast speculative genre that usually has no connection to reality as it is today. Science fiction touches upon a vast array of topics, including ecological disaster, time travel, and the future.

Essentially, science fiction features an imaginary world. One where people and things can have bizarre properties not present in our present galaxy (think Star Wars). Some authors label their work as science fiction as a broad descriptor. Why? They may want to explore concepts such as time travel, space exploration, robotics, or artificial intelligence without attributing specific sub-genres.

Superhero Fiction

Superhero fiction’s setting is an alternate universe where superheroes exist, sometimes due to advanced science (think Superman). The superhero genre can include stories about ordinary people who possess extraordinary abilities; these individuals don’t always use their powers for good as some might choose to become villains, such as Dr. Doom

Utopian/Dystopian Fiction

Utopian fiction assumes that there will be perfect societies in the future. Ones that offer happiness and satisfaction for everyone. Conversely, dystopian fiction represents nightmarish futures where absolute power has corrupted society into an oppressive regime. These two genres often explore how we got from good to bad.

Alternative History

Alternative history is a genre of fiction dealing with what might have happened had one historic event gone differently. For example, a story may depict a society where Nazi Germany won World War II. Another may see Cleopatra escape an early death and rule Egypt as queen until her death at 80 years old. It also includes those who explore events that may have been more peaceful without any major change to society. Examples include the Roman Empire never falling. 

Biographical Alternate History

Some authors include novels about real-life individuals. For example, a reality where someone assassinates Abraham Lincoln before he became president of the United States. One would call this type of story a biographical alternate history. Why? Because it has some connection with reality but differs by exploring an event that didn’t happen. Specifically, an event that centers around a single prominent historic figure.

Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction features a setting post-disaster. One that wiped out nearly everything, such as nuclear war, pandemic, or asteroid impact. The civilization might lay in ruin with no hope of rebuilding (Mad Max). Or the survivors got by on meager resources and must fight to stay alive (War of the Worlds). 

Challenges and Limitations for Speculative Fiction Authors

Writing speculative fiction is not for the faint of heart; it requires a lot more than coming up with imaginative characters, settings, and encounters. The author must create an alternate world that can stand on its own merits as something believable to their readership

Authors need to be mindful of how they depict different cultures in speculative fiction. Are any aspects offensive? Is there cultural appropriation or misrepresentation? These issues have come into greater focus in recent years. Partly due to authors writing about other cultures without doing enough research.

Writers also need to consider whether they are using too much jargon. Too many made-up words may make reading difficult. Even though some readers enjoy this element

How to Read Speculative Fiction

The speculative fiction genre is broad and encompassing. So, it’s important to know what you like to enjoy the best of what this category can offer.

Two questions that may help: 

  1. Is there something supernatural happening? 
  2. Does my imagination run wild with possibilities?

If your answer was “yes” to either question, you may be interested in imaginative stories set against different backgrounds/scenarios. This includes horror fiction, dystopian novels, and science fiction. Basically, any story where anything seems possible because we are entering new territory within its universe.

Speculative genres often include strong themes. These include hope for better futures or fear of uncertain ones, depending on the writer’s point of view.

To read speculative fiction well, it can be helpful to know what genre you’re reading. When figuring this out, look for clues such as a strong sense of place or setting. An ominous mood that sets itself apart from other genres. And unusual behavior. This might manifest as people who don’t seem human, advanced technology with no explanation given, etc.

You might also notice that the dialogue in these stories is often pointedly odd. People are not behaving quite how they do in real life. At times, made-up languages may appear. The prose can sometimes be poetic but yet somehow off compared to regular speech we hear all day long.

Works of Speculative Fiction Worth Reading or Watching

While by no means an exhaustive list, these works of speculative fiction are standouts. Together, they show off the multifaceted nature of this umbrella genre.

Classic Examples

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

A novel considered by many a science fiction landmark, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? depicts a post-apocalyptic world where autonomous androids are slaves to humans. Many know the movie adapted from the source, Blade Runner. But the literary equivalent is even more potent with questions of reality, identity, and more.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale‘s setting is the near-future United States of America. In this future, extremists conquered and renamed the area The Republic of Gilead. The hit Hulu series of the same name takes the story past the novel.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is a satirical novella set on an English farm where animals behave like humans. It resembles a fantasy story merged with dystopia. Some theorize it may even have other elements of science fiction. For instance, perhaps it depicts a future where humans have died off due to war.

Modern Examples

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

A collection of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others contains tales that run the gamut of speculative fiction. The short story “The Story of Your Life” is better known as its movie version, Arrival.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

The stories in the short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline don’t even feel like speculative fiction. They’re much closer to literary absurdism, which itself is arguably closely tied to speculative fiction. Nevertheless, there are elements of fantasy and science fiction that abound, as much of Saunders’ work. 

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Taking place after a climate apocalypse, Trail of Lightning features gods, monsters, and a monster hunter endowed with supernatural abilities. There are so many elements from across speculative fiction, all in one story.

What’s Next for Speculative Fiction?

As our world and society continue their advancement, the digital age will only serve as inspiration for speculative fiction.

The future of reading, in general, is unknown. Some believe that our culture will be more interactive on screens than with printed books while others see ebooks becoming a thing of the past due to increasing environmental concerns over paper usage.

Yet, more dystopian novels are being written now than at any other time in history. As always, they reflect what many feel about today’s society. These types of stories may become even more popular if predictions come true, such as climate change.

Future children might have an easier time building an idea from their virtual worlds in other ways. For instance, they might prefer to explore speculative concepts in physical models or drawings. This could create new forms of storytelling.

Many expect virtual reality will play a major role in the future of immersive entertainment. This alone may lead to new ways of delivering speculative fiction.

Conclusion: Speculative Fiction

At this point, you should have a sound understanding of speculative fiction.

One can summarize speculative fiction as fictional works set outside known reality. Instead, they explore imaginative topics like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and many more. Underneath these broad categories are sub-genres that cover everything from utopian and dystopian, to apocalyptic stories with alternate histories.

Regardless of where you turn, something new will await your ponderous imagination!

We hope you found this article helpful. Now, it’s your turn. How do you describe Speculative Fiction? Drop a comment below!


  • Jason Boyd

    Jason Boyd is a science fiction author, geek enthusiast, and former cubicle owner. When not working on his MA in Creative Writing, he's trying to figure out how magnets work.

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