Speculative Fiction – isn’t all fiction speculative?

I was recently asked to contribute to, and act as compiling editor of, an anthology of new Speculative Fiction being published by Elsewhen Press.  The book, [Re]Awakenings, contains a collection of short stories from a number of authors, with examples of science fiction, fantasy and paranormal stories, some quite serious, some satirical, and some downright funny.  In the process of selecting the stories, choosing the running order and eventually trying to write the foreword, I thought long and hard about the distinctions between the different stories and whether they should be labelled in some way.  I decided to avoid giving each story some sort of restrictive tag, on the grounds that a reader should have the opportunity to enjoy the story without preconceived notions of what to expect.  As it is, the readership will already have self-selected as fans of one or more of the flavours of Speculative Fiction.

I understand the motivation, especially for a publisher or retailer, behind finding a label or categorisation to encompass genres that have much in common and are often enjoyed by the same readers.  The Venn diagram of readership of Science Fiction / Fantasy / Paranormal / Horror and most of the other genres and sub-genres that are considered to be included in Speculative Fiction, is likely to consist of more overlap than not (if you see what I mean).  The cluster of readers is also likely, in general, to be distinct from those whose preferences veer towards, say, Romances or Westerns.  However, that doesn’t mean that the styles, techniques, topics, or tropes used in one popular genre need be necessarily distinct from those used in another – a crossover superbly demonstrated by Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

What I worry about, though, is the use of the word ‘speculative’.  Clearly, a common feature of the genres encompassed within the Speculative Fiction umbrella is telling a story that’s not quite consistent with everyday life (because it’s set in the future, in an alternative world / dimension / timeline, etc…).  The essence of such a story is to explore the implications of that inconsistency, speculating on the effects and outcomes.  Fair enough, good Speculative Fiction should therefore be speculative (and not solely to justify the title).

But how is that different from other types of fiction?  By their very nature, fictional stories are telling us about something that isn’t true (even if some authors try to suggest that it is!); authors consider the possibilities of a situation and choose one that achieves the effect for which they are striving.  Isn’t that speculative too?

One of the problems that we have as writers in these genres, is that our work is frequently dismissed by the literary world as irrelevant or inferior.  Very few science fiction books have ever won literary awards (and then mostly for authors who work hard to claim they are not actually writing science fiction).  So one of the purposes in trying to recast our work under a different label may be to have it taken seriously.

After all, Speculative Fiction can trace its history back through modern classics such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; via gothic classics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Enlightenment classics such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Bishop Godwin’s The Man in the Moone; late Renaissance classics such as William Shakespeare’s Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kit Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Thomas More’s Utopia; early Renaissance classics such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy; to classical works such Lucian’s True History and Aristophanes The Birds; and right back to one of the earliest known works of literature The Epic of Gilgamesh.[1]  So, clearly, speculative writing is not novel (if you’ll pardon the pun).  Most of us have surely read at least some of the titles in that short list, perhaps as a child (surely I can’t be the only one who delighted in Rabelais as a teenager?).  Did we consider them to be Speculative Fiction, a breed apart from other books?  Unlikely.  We read them as exciting and thrilling stories, some humorous, some scary, some thought-provoking and some downright rude.  But all entertaining and, after surviving so many years, all deserving of that overused epithet ‘classic’.  I don’t believe any of these classics deserve the opprobrium that is so often heaped on Speculative Fiction by the literary establishment.

So if all good fiction is inherently speculative why are we appropriating the term as an umbrella for our genres?  Could it be that it’s an umbrella in more ways than one: erected to keep us dry as scorn is poured on us by the literati.


[1] In a bid to pre-empt any complaints that I have not included recent classics of the genre, my purpose here was to look back into the earlier and earliest days of fiction to find the speculatives (as it were).  Since Tolkien there has been no doubt that Fantasy fiction has become a force to be reckoned with; Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker did as much as anyone to bring horror to a wide audience; and even those who aren’t science fiction fans have heard of Orwell, Huxley, Wells and Verne.