Speculative Fiction Is...
As the term Speculative Fiction becomes more widely used and accepted, there appears to be a division of the definition. Many believe Speculative Fiction to be a super-genre that encompasses any other genre that includes something speculative outside humanity’s current understanding – or proved as categorically impossible. However, some think Speculative Fiction is a narrowly-defined genre of stories with a speculative element outside the definitions of Science Fiction or Fantasy. Like a “What if?” situation where a small but impactful change affects today’s society.
I would argue that these are really the same thing as those specific “What if?” scenarios often fall into other genres. For example, what if the Bolshevik revolution had failed? That’s Alternate History. What if people could control fire with their minds? That’s Urban Fantasy and the plot of Stephen King’s Firestarter. What if we could splice dinosaur DNA into bird DNA and bring them back? That’s Science Fiction and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. What if an alien arrived on Earth and saved us from ourselves? That could either be Science Fiction like Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth or SuperHero like every Superman comic.
SuperHero is an interesting genre with clear aspects that are both Science Fiction and others that are Fantasy. For example, in the Science Fiction camp, Superman is an alien, Batman (or Bruce Wayne) uses technology to fight crime, and Spiderman is the result of DNA splicing with a spider. In fact, all the X-Men are genetic mutants. However, there are also many superheroes who belong in Fantasy like Doctor Strange or the Scarlet Witch that use elements of the mystical and magic.
The beauty of Speculative Fiction is that it pushes against being categorized any one particular way. Blending of genres is not only common but encouraged. For example, though most might consider Star Wars Science Fiction – or more accurately, Space Opera - the use of the Force (an inexplicable power to move objects and read minds) is much more rooted in Fantasy, leading to the use of a new genre term: Science Fantasy. And Star Wars is not alone. There are many works blending Science Fiction with magic as well as Time Travel with Alternate History, or Climate Fiction with both Hopepunk and Utopian elements.
And going even further, Speculative Fiction is ripe to be blended with other traditional genres such as Thriller, Mystery, or even Romance.
Speculative Fiction is a dynamic set of genres that are constantly growing, adapting, and blending. Having established the Speculative Fiction supergenre, here’s my best understanding of what each component genre and sub-genre includes:
Science Fiction – A broad genre which includes aspects based on science or current scientific theories. DNA splicing leading to mutants, aliens from other worlds, cures for diseases, geopolitical policies, etc. all utilize various scientific disciplines as their basis.
Space Opera – Epic tales of alien civilizations and space-faring races.
Utopian – Stories that examine idyllic human societies and what makes them such.
Dystopian – The fall of human civilization and the period that comes after.
Time Travel – Usually the travel of people to the past and the impact they have on the course of history, though there are also tales of traveling to the far future to learn about humanity’s evolution.
Cyberpunk – The rise of computing, artificial intelligence, androids, and the bio-integration of technology into human bodies.
Steampunk – Usually taking place during the Victorian period, has advanced technologies that are powered by steam instead of electricity.
Climate Fiction – Stories that focus on the issues facing the Earth’s climate and resulting changes, whether they can be addressed or not. High potential for blending with dystopian.
Solarpunk – Usually with a lighter, more hopeful tone where technologies are solar-powered and clean.
Grimdark – More of a tone than a specific genre, these stories are particularly dystopian, violent, cutthroat, and amoral.
Hopepunk – The opposite of Grimdark, Hopepunk promotes community, kindness, honor, and positive change.
Alternate History – Stories where an aspect of known history is altered and the resulting changes to society explored.
Weird West – Integration of out-of-place science, technology, horror, or magic into traditional old west settings.
Slipstream – Stories that push the boundaries of what is considered normal, i.e. making the normal seem strange or the strange seem normal.
SuperHero – Characters with amazing abilities brought on through scientific means who generally either try to dominate the earth or stop those who do. Characters that use magic or mysticism may fall under Fantasy.
Science Fantasy – Blending of magical elements into traditional science fiction settings.
Fantasy – A broad genre that includes elements that can not be scientifically explained, such as magic, thought control, or creatures that do not exist.
High Fantasy – Generally known for wizards, knights, dragons, and an evil threatening the world.
Urban Fantasy – Inclusion of many fantastic elements into proximity of a contemporary urban setting, usually within a secret or underground world that may seep into regular society.
Magical Realism - Integration of individual elements magic or fantasy into a modern, mundane setting.
Dark Fantasy – Fantasy with a darker tone that can include elements of horror or disturbing themes.
Fairy Tales – Usually but not always short stories that stem from folklore, contain unreal or magical creatures, and have a positive resolution, i.e. a fairy-tale ending.
Legend – Also stem from folklore but have elements that people may believe to be true or are part of a cultural fabric. Not all legends are speculative though many are.
Fable – Usually a shorter story that anthropomorphizes animals, plants, or forces of nature to teach a moral lesson.
Horror – A broad genre of stories that convey darker forces, impulses, or situations, usually intended to frighten or scare. Some sub-genres of horror, such as psychological horror, may not be speculative.
Supernatural – Stories with supernatural forces or unnatural creatures, including ghosts, witches, vampires, werewolves, zombies, and other monsters.
Gothic – A tone of stories that focus on fear and haunting of homes and castles that leverages the aesthetic of gothic architecture and the time periods it flourished, such as the Middle Ages or Victorian era. May also have religious overtones.
Slasher – More prevalent in movies than novels, stories that follow a deranged serial killer, often with supernatural abilities such as immortality or the ability to invade dreams, as they stalk a group of people which usually includes a “final girl” who defeats the slasher or at least evades death.
Psychological – Focuses on mental, emotional, or psychological states to frighten or disturb and, in some cases, may also be missing speculative elements.
As can be seen, there is significant overlap among the hallmarks of each of these genres and sub-genres, which is what makes Speculative Fiction so much fun to read and write.
Even with all the genres listed, did I miss any? Let me know in the comments.