What is Speculative Fiction, Anyway?

Scott SummersGuides & Lists, On Writing

When you hear the term “Speculative Fiction” what comes to mind? Spaceships? Monsters? Wizards? Speculative Fiction is all of those things (and more)!

Chances are, if you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or anything that leans toward the supernatural, you’re probably dealing in Speculative Fiction. It’s a broad category that — by the modern definition — encompasses most of the fantastical elements of literature. But it didn’t start that way.

A Brief History of Speculative Fiction

The term “Speculative Fiction” finds its origin in a 1947 essay entitled “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” by Robert A. Heinlein, often dubbed the grandfather of science fiction. In the essay, Heinlein discusses the craft of writing and distinguishes what makes science fiction differ from other genres and stories.

In Heinlein’s definition, Speculative Fiction only included science fiction, stating in the 1957 essay Science Fiction: Its Nature, Faults and Virtues:

But the term “science fiction” is now part of the language, as common as the neologism “guided missile.” We are stuck with it and I will use it . . . although personally I prefer the term “speculative fiction” as being more descriptive. I will use these two terms interchangeably, one being the common handle, the other being one that aids me in thinking—but with the same referent in each case.Robert A. Heinlein

Here’s Where It Gets Weird

So here’s where we are. Today’s Speculative Fiction genre covers (very broadly, including sub-genres):

  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy Fiction
  • Horror Fiction
  • Misc. (Weird or fantastic tales & oddball text without a home)
    Depending on your point of view, this is either a great or terrible thing. Understand that, from its inception, the literary merit for science fiction was tenuous.

In the same essay mentioned above, Heinlein mentions that, while speculative fiction should be judged by “the same standards which apply to any other field of fiction”, he also points out:

How well does the field of speculative fiction measure up to these conventional literary standards?

Not very well, I am afraid, in most cases. However, there are extenuating circumstances and the accused now throws himself on the mercy of the court. A goodly number of us who write it have had no formal training in writing; we are self-taught and the fact often shows. Regrettably, not too many people have both extensive scientific training and intensive literary training—and good speculative fiction calls for both. However, many excellent writers in many fields have been self-taught; this alone is not sufficient excuse.Robert A. Heinlein

As the definition has expanded to include multiple genres, speculative fiction works are often derided by the academic and literary community. And why not? The genres housed by Speculative Fiction are often places for extreme fandom (which has come into the mainstream in the last decade).

There’s Hope for You Yet!

Fear not, friends. If you’re choosing to write under the umbrella of speculative fiction, don’t worry about the critics. Worry about telling a good story that will be judged by the merits of every other story.

In his 1947 essay, Heinlein writes in his opening remarks:

The editor suggested that I write on “Science Fiction in the Slicks.” I shan’t do so because it is not a separate subject. Several years ago Will F. Jenkins said to me, I’ll let you in on a secret, Bob. Any story–science fiction, or otherwise–if it is well written, can be sold to the slicks.” Will himself has proved this, and so have many other writers– Wylie, Wells, Coyote, Doyle, Ertz, Noyes, many others. You may protest that these writers were able to sell science fiction to the high-pay markets because they were already well-known writers. It just ain’t so, pal; on the contrary, they are well-known writers because they are skilled at their trade. When they have a science fiction story to write, they turn out a well-written story and it sells to a high-pay market.Robert A. Heinlein

I think the long and short of it is pretty simple: A story is a story. Speculative fiction has characters, plot, conflict, and all the other great tenants of mainstream and literary fiction dating back to antiquity. It just has one small difference: The warning label might read: May contain spaceships.