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Speculative fiction

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Speculative fiction is an umbrella genre of fiction that encompasses all the subgenres that depart from realism, or strictly imitating everyday reality,[1] instead presenting fantastical, supernatural, futuristic, or other imaginative realms.[2] This catch-all genre includes, but is not limited to, science fiction, fantasy, horror, slipstream, magical realism,[3] superhero fiction, alternate history, utopia and dystopia, fairy tales, steampunk, cyberpunk, weird fiction, and some apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. The term has been used for works of literature, film, television, drama, video games, radio, and their hybrids.[1]

Distinguishing science fiction from other speculative fiction[edit]

"Speculative fiction" is sometimes abbreviated "spec-fic", "spec fic", "specfic",[4] "S-F", "SF", or "sf".[5][6] The last three abbreviations, however, are ambiguous as they have long been used to refer to science fiction (which lies within this general range of literature).[7]

The term has been used by some critics and writers dissatisfied with what they consider to be a limitation of science fiction: the need for the story to hold to scientific principles. They argue that "speculative fiction" better defines an expanded, open, imaginative type of fiction than does "genre fiction", and the categories of "fantasy", "mystery", "horror" and "science fiction".[8] Harlan Ellison used the term to avoid being pigeonholed as a science fiction writer. Ellison, a fervent proponent of writers embracing more literary and modernist directions,[9][10] broke out of genre conventions to push the boundaries of speculative fiction.

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.[11][12][13]


Statue of Euripides in front of titles of his works

Speculative fiction as a category ranges from ancient works to paradigm-changing and neotraditional works of the 21st century.[14][15] Characteristics of speculative fiction have been recognized in older works whose authors' intentions, or in the social contexts of the stories they portray, are now known. For example, the ancient Greek dramatist, Euripides, (c. 480 – c. 406 BCE) whose play Medea seems to have offended Athenian audiences when he speculated that the titular shamaness Medea killed her own children, as opposed to their being killed by other Corinthians after her departure.[16] Additionally, Euripides' play, Hippolytus, narratively introduced by Aphrodite, Goddess of Love in person, is suspected to have displeased his contemporary audiences, as his portrayal of Phaedra was seen as too lusty.[17]

In historiography, what is now called "speculative fiction" has previously been termed "historical invention",[18] "historical fiction", and other similar names. These terms have been extensively noted in literary criticism of the works of William Shakespeare,[19] such as when he co-locates Athenian Duke Theseus, Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, English fairy Puck, and Roman god Cupid across time and space in the Fairyland of the fictional Merovingian Germanic sovereign Oberon, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.[20]

In mythography the concept of speculative fiction has been termed "mythopoesis", or mythopoeia. This practice involves the creative design and generation of lore and mythology for works of fiction. The term's definition comes from its use by J. R. R. Tolkien, whose novel, The Lord of the Rings,[21] demonstrates a clear application of this process. Themes common in mythopoeia, such as the supernatural, alternate history and sexuality, continue to be explored in works produced within the modern speculative fiction genre.[22]

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 modes since as early as Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fl. 5th century BCE), for his Histories,[23][24][25] and was already both practiced and edited out by early encyclopedic writers like Sima Qian (c. 145 or 135 BCE–86 BCE), author of Shiji.[26][27]

These examples highlight the caveat that many works, now regarded as intentional or unintentional speculative fiction, long predated 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, and responds to it by creating imaginative, inventive, and artistic expressions. Such expressions can contribute to practical societal progress through interpersonal influences, social and cultural movements, scientific research and advances, and the philosophy of science.[28][29][30]

Robert Heinlein

In its English-language usage in arts and literature since the mid 20th century, "speculative fiction" as a genre term has often been attributed to Robert A. Heinlein, who first used the term in an editorial in The Saturday Evening Post, 8 February 1947. In the article, Heinlein used "Speculative Fiction" 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".[31] A variation on this term is "speculative literature".[32]

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, as well as other writers and editors in connection with the New Wave movement. However, this use of the term fell into disuse around the mid-1970s.[33]

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, who wrote The Handmaid's Tale, which is a feminist piece of speculative fiction, continue to distinguish "speculative fiction" specifically as a "no Martians" type of science fiction, "about things that really could happen."[34]

Speculative fiction is also used as a genre term that combines different ones into a single narrative or fictional world such as "science fiction, horror, fantasy...[and]...mystery".[35]

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database contains a broad list of different subtypes.

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.[36]

Academic journals which publish essays on speculative fiction include Extrapolation and Foundation.[37]


Speculative fiction may include elements from one or more of the following genres:

Subgenres of speculative fiction
Name Description Examples
Fantasy Includes elements and beings originating from or inspired by traditional stories, such as mythical creatures (dragons, elves, dwarves and fairies, for example), magic, witchcraft, potions, etc. The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, The Legend of Zelda, A Song of Ice and Fire, Magic: The Gathering
Science fiction Features technologies and other elements that do not exist in real life but may be supposed to be created or discovered in the future through scientific advancement, such as advanced robots, interstellar travel, aliens, time travel, mutants and cyborgs. Many sci-fi stories are set in the future. Halo, Godzilla, Anime, Trilogy, Revisions, The Time Machine, Cyberpunk 2077, Mass Effect, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terminator, Pacific Rim: The Black, Blade Runner, The Expanse, Transformers, The Three-Body Problem, Stargate, Babylon 5, Andromeda, Dune, Star Trek
Science Fantasy Hybrid genre within speculative fiction that simultaneously draws upon or combines tropes and elements from both science fiction and fantasy. Star Wars, Space Dandy, ThunderCats, Masters of the Universe
Superhero Centers on superheroes (i.e., heroes with extraordinary abilities or powers) and their fight against evil forces such as supervillains. Typically incorporates elements of science fiction or fantasy, and may be a subgenre of them. DC Universe, Marvel Universe, Masked Rider, My Hero Academia, Super Sentai, Metal Heroes,
Space Western Hybrid genre within speculative fiction that simultaneously draws upon or combines tropes and elements from both science fiction and the genre of Western. The Mandalorian, BraveStarr, Firefly, Outlaw Star, Space Dandy, Trigun, Bucky O'Hare, Cowboy Bebop, ThunderCats, Masters of the Universe, Buck Rogers, Dan Dare, Flash Gordon, Duck Dodgers,
Western Genre of fiction typically set in the American frontier between the California Gold Rush of 1849 and the closing of the frontier in 1890, and commonly associated with folk tales of the Western United States, particularly the Southwestern United States, as well as Northern Mexico and Western Canada. Wagon Train, Dollars Trilogy, Annie Oakley, Bucking Broncho, Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Dance, Lasso Thrower, Mexican Knife Duel, Sioux Ghost Dance,
Supernatural Similar to horror and fantasy, it overlaps with Paranormal Romance, Contemporary Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Occult Detective Fiction, and Paranormal Fiction. It exploits or requires plot devices or themes that often contradict commonplace, materialist assumptions about the natural world. The Castle of Otranto, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Big Wolf on Campus, Teen Wolf, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Stranger Things, Paranormal Activity, Dark, Fallen, The Vampire Diaries, Charmed, The Others, The Gift, The Skeleton Key
Horror Focuses on terrifying stories that incite fear. Villains may be either supernatural, such as monsters, vampires, ghosts and demons, or mundane people, such as psychopathic and cruel murderers. Often features violence and death. The Exorcist, Cthulhu Mythos, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Us, Books of Blood, The Hellbound Heart, Resident Evil, Scream
Utopian Takes place in a highly desirable society, often presented as advanced, happy, intelligent or even perfect or problem-free. Island, Ecotopia, 17776
Dystopian Takes place in a highly undesirable society, often plagued with strict control, violence, chaos, brainwashing or other negative elements. Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1984, Brazil, The Handmaid's Tale, A Clockwork Orange, The Hunger Games
Alternate history Focuses on historical events as if they happened in a different way, and their implications in the present. The Man in the High Castle, The Last Starship from Earth, Inglourious Basterds, The Guns of the South, Fatherland, The Years of Rice and Salt, Wolfenstein, Gravity Falls
Apocalyptic Takes place before and during a massive, worldwide catastrophe, typically a pandemic or natural disaster of extremely large scale or a nuclear holocaust. On the Beach, Threads, The Day After Tomorrow, Birdbox, 2012, War of the Worlds
Post-apocalyptic Focuses on groups of survivors after massive worldwide disasters. The Stand, Mad Max, Titan A.E., Waterworld, Fallout, Metroid Prime, Metro 2033, The Last Of Us, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Wasteland, Z213: Exit.
Speculative evolution Focuses on hypothetical future or alternative evolution of animals and/or humans. Expedition, After Man: A Zoology of the Future, The New Dinosaurs: An Alternative Evolution, Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future, Snaiad,

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Oziewicz, Marek (2017). "Speculative Fiction". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.78. ISBN 978-0-19-020109-8. Archived from the original on 18 October 2022. ... a super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating "consensus reality" of everyday experience. In this latter sense, speculative fiction includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but also their derivatives, hybrids, and cognate genres like the gothic, dystopia, weird fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, ghost stories, superhero tales, alternate history, steampunk, slipstream, magic realism, fractured fairy tales, and more.
  2. ^ "speculative fiction". Dictionary.com Unabridged (Online). n.d. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  3. ^ Henwood, Belinda (2007). Publishing. Career FAQs. ISBN 978-1-921106-43-9. Archived from the original on 5 January 2023. Retrieved 29 December 2022.
  4. ^ "SpecFicWorld". SpecFicWorld. Archived from the original on 14 January 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  5. ^ "A Speculative Fiction Blog". SFSignal. Archived from the original on 10 February 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  6. ^ Vint, Sherryl (16 February 2021). Science Fiction. The MIT Press. ISBN 9780262539999. Retrieved 1 May 2023.
  7. ^ "The Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy". The SF Site. Archived from the original on 29 August 2006. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  8. ^ "Citations and definitions for the term 'speculative fiction' by speculative fiction reviewers". Greententacles.com. Archived from the original on 26 January 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  9. ^ Watts, Peter (Summer 2003). "Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt" (PDF). On Spec. Vol. 15, no. 2. pp. 3–5. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  10. ^ Davies, Philip. "Review [untitled; reviewed work(s): Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching by Patrick Parrinder; Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays by Notable Science Fiction Writers by Martin Greenberg; Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction by H. Bruce Franklin; Bridges to Science Fiction by George E. Slusser, George R. Guffey, Mark Rose]. Journal of American Studies Vol. 16, No. 1 (April 1982). pp. 157–159.
  11. ^ Izenberg, Orin (2011). Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 210.
  12. ^ Leitch, Thomas M. What Stories Are: Narrative Theory and Interpretation University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986; p. 127
  13. ^ Domańska, Ewa (1998). Encounters: Philosophy of History After Postmodernism. Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia. p. 10.
  14. ^ Barry Baldwin, Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, "Ancient Science Fiction", Shattercolors Literary Review
  15. ^ "逆援助紹介PARADOX!". paradoxmag.com. Archived from the original on 28 July 2010.
  16. ^ This theory of Euripides' invention has gained wide acceptance. See (e.g.) McDermott 1989, 12; Powell 1990, 35; Sommerstein 2002, 16; Griffiths, 2006 81; Ewans 2007, 55.
  17. ^ See, e.g., Barrett 1964; McDermott 2000.
  18. ^ "Mark Wagstaff – Historical invention and political purpose | Re-public: re-imagining democracy – english version". Re-public.gr. 17 January 2005. Archived from the original on 16 January 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  19. ^ Martha Tuck Rozett, "Creating a Context for Shakespeare with Historical Fiction", Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 46, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 220–227
  20. ^ Dorothea Kehler, A midsummer night's dream: critical essays, 2001
  21. ^ Adcox, John, "Can Fantasy be Myth? Mythopoeia and The Lord of the Rings" in "The Newsletter of the Mythic Imagination Institute, September/October, 2003"
  22. ^ Eric Garber, Lyn Paleo Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, 2nd Edition, G K Hall: 1990 ISBN 978-0-8161-1832-8
  23. ^ Herodotus and Myth Conference, Christ Church, Oxford, 2003
  24. ^ John M. Marincola, Introduction and Notes, The Histories by Herodotus, tr. Aubrey De Sélincourt, 2007
  25. ^ Lendering, Jona. "Herodotus of Halicarnassus". Livius.org. Archived from the original on 18 January 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  26. ^ Stephen W. Durrant, The cloudy mirror: tension and conflict in the writings of Sima Qian, 1995
  27. ^ Craig A. Lockard, Societies, Networks, and Transitions: A Global History: To 1500, 2007, p. 133.
  28. ^ Heather Urbanski, Plagues, apocalypses and bug-eyed monsters: how speculative fiction shows us our nightmares, 2007, pp. 127.
  29. ^ Sonu Shamdasani, Cult Fictions: C.G. Jung and the Founding of Analytical Psychology, 1998
  30. ^ Relativity, The Special and the General Theory by Albert Einstein (1920), with an introduction by Niger Calder, 2006
  31. ^ "Dictionary citations for the term "speculative fiction"". Jessesword.com. 28 April 2009. Archived from the original on 7 December 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  32. ^ "The Speculative Literature Foundation". Speculativeliterature.org. Archived from the original on 4 February 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  33. ^ "New Wave". Virtual.clemson.edu. Archived from the original on 22 January 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  34. ^ Atwood, Margaret (2011). In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-385-53396-6.
  35. ^ Canton, James; Cleary, Helen; Kramer, Ann; Laxby, Robin; Loxley, Diana; Ripley, Esther; Todd, Megan; Shaghar, Hila; Valente, Alex; et al. (Authors) (2016). The Literature Book (First American ed.). New York: DK. p. 343. ISBN 978-1-4654-2988-9.
  36. ^ Crisp, Julie (10 July 2013). "SEXISM IN GENRE PUBLISHING: A PUBLISHER'S PERSPECTIVE". Tor Books. Archived from the original on 30 April 2015. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  37. ^ "SF Foundation Journal | The Science Fiction Foundation". Sf-foundation.org. Retrieved 1 April 2020.[permanent dead link]

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