What is speculative fiction?

What is Speculative Fiction? Definition and Writing Tips

What is speculative fiction? Take a look at objective reality. Now, change something about that reality—put it on Mars, in the year 3,000, add some magical mayhem, etc. Speculative fiction is all about extraordinary circumstances, where characters have to navigate conflicts that don’t exist in our reality.

Many types of genre fiction fall under the category of speculative fiction: fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism, dystopian fiction, and so on. But, other genres, like romance and mystery, are firmly outside of the speculative realm, so it’s important not to conflate “genre fiction” with “speculative fiction.” We’ll clarify the distinction in this article!

Why should we turn our attention to other worlds? This article answers that question, with speculative fiction examples and tips on how to write speculative fiction. Along the way, we’ll examine how supernatural elements create complex themes and metaphors for the reader to uncover.

But first, let’s tackle what this genre is and isn’t. What is speculative fiction?

What is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction describes any piece of fiction that has non-realistic elements. By non-realistic, we mean the following:

  • Non-real or extraterrestrial settings.
  • Magical elements, creatures, or powers.
  • Futuristic elements, including imagined dystopias/utopias or apocalypses.
  • Alternate histories or mythologies.
  • Fictional elements in nature, such as made up plants or monsters.
  • Characters with special or unusual powers.

Speculative Fiction definition: any piece of fiction that has non-realistic elements.

So, this doesn’t describe all types of genre fiction. A murder mystery, for example, would not be speculative fiction on its own. Unless, of course, the victim was a famous historical figure who was not murdered in real life. If you wrote a murder mystery about the fictional assassination of President Gerald Ford, then that would be an alternate history, which makes it speculative fiction.

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Genres Associated with Speculative Fiction

Literary theorists typically separate literary fiction and genre fiction into two distinct categories.

Literary fiction aims to resemble real life without the use of tropes, conventional plot structures, or supernatural elements. A piece of lit fic should feel as though it actually happened in real life, and it should drive the plot forward with a focus on character flaws and character development.

Genre fiction, of course, can resemble real life too, and it should have characters that develop as a result of their flaws and blindspots. The key difference is that different fiction genres have their own tropes, conventions, and plot structures, at least some of which the writer will use by writing in genre.

Neither one is inherently better than the other: both categories can produce surprising, moving, and necessary works of fiction.

Speculative fiction falls under the category of genre fiction, but not every genre of genre fiction is speculative. The below genres can be classified as speculative:

  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy (including Urban Fantasy)
  • Supernatural Horror (not, necessarily, Psychological Horror)
  • Dystopian Fiction
  • (Post) Apocalyptic Fiction
  • Magical Realism
  • Alternate History
  • Superhero Stories
  • Fairy Tales

Other genres, like mystery, romance, and thriller, aren’t speculative, unless the story also rewrites history or incorporates supernatural elements.

Speculative Fiction Vs Science Fiction & Fantasy

It’s easy to conflate speculative fiction with sci-fi and fantasy, but these two genres are only categories that fall under the realm of speculative.

Science fiction is a genre in which fictional science and technology plays an important role in society. By exploring how these futuristic technologies shape human behavior, those technologies become metaphors for our own social predicaments.

Fantasy, by contrast, describes stories that involve some form of magic. These could be magical worlds, magical powers, or magical creatures. The world being developed must be clearly fantastical, even if it’s set somewhere on Earth; these fantasy elements also drive the story forward, and can also be metaphors for real human conflict.

[Speculative fiction vs science fiction and fantasy: Speculative fiction is a category of genres where unnatural, futuristic, or supernatural elements drive the story forward. Science fiction and fantasy are types of spec fic.]

Speculative fiction encompasses these genres, but it also encompasses any genre where unnatural, futuristic, or supernatural elements exist within and are essential to the story.

Speculative Fiction Examples

The following speculative fiction examples demonstrate the many possibilities of spec fic. Let’s look at four distinct speculative fiction short stories from different genres, with careful attention to the storytelling elements that make these stories work.

1. “I Sing the Body Electric” by Ray Bradbury

Retrieved here.

Speculative Fiction Genre: Sci-Fi and Futuristic Fiction

Premise: Bereaving the death of their mother, a family hesitantly replaces their lost parent with a robot Grandmother.

Analysis:

This piece of speculative fiction actually imagines a world in which technology serves the needs of society. The story even addresses this—the robot Grandmother says that much of human history has been a reaction to technology, and her purpose is to guide people towards their best selves. (No wonder most sci-fi is about tech going wrong!)

In the story, a family of three kids and a father decide to buy a robot Grandmother to replace the kids’ recently deceased mother. Two of the kids warm up to her quickly, but Agatha, the only daughter, remains ambivalent about Grandmother for most of the story.

The narrator, Tom, marvels at Grandmother’s mystery, and continues to do so at the story’s climax. Agatha runs into the street when she confronts Grandmother, because Agatha is still grappling with the trauma of her mother’s death. If parents can leave without warning, why wouldn’t Grandmother, too?

Grandmother then realizes that this is why Agatha won’t trust her. Thus, Grandmother’s response to this is the crux of the story: that wisdom comes from learning how to love one another. In this story, the speculative fiction genre is the vehicle for this wisdom, reflecting on life’s many twists and turns and our ability, through all of it, to be good and loving towards one another.

2. “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado

Retrieved here. 

Speculative Fiction Genre: Romance and Magical Realism

Premise: A woman’s relationship runs its course, symbolized by her husband’s strange attraction to the ribbon around her neck—which no one, not even he, is allowed to touch.

Analysis:

This haunting story doesn’t seem like speculative fiction until the very end. For most of it, we simply observe a woman’s relationship start and slowly disintegrate. She commands the attention of a boy as a teenager; they marry young, have a child, and settle into their new home. The story is characterized by the narrator’s strong sense of self, her curiosity about desire, and the mysterious ribbon tied around her neck.

Her lover, who later becomes her husband, wants to untie this ribbon. For what reason? Perhaps because he can’t—it is the one thing about her body that is off limits, and he is face to face with a curiosity even more arousing than his wife herself. When she finally lets him untie it, she has come to terms with the end of her relationship, and willingly lets her husband face the consequences of his own insatiable want.

This story is a perfect example of the magical realism genre. The story is set in the real world, with real life characters and actions. Only a dash of the fantastic is used as a metaphor—in this case, that metaphor is the ribbon.

What does the ribbon represent? It’s up to the reader’s interpretation. Perhaps it represents gendered inequalities in heterosexual relationships: the man—who, the narrator admits, is not a bad man—believes his marriage gives him claim over his wife, which includes claim over the ribbon that he’s not allowed to touch. The years of coercion and marital ennui finally break the wife down into letting him untie the ribbon, even though she knows the consequences. There is much to be analyzed about how this dynamic rings true for many unhappy married couples, and, perhaps, how this dynamic is rooted in gendered differences.

3. “A Shinagawa Monkey” by Haruki Murakami

Retrieved here.

Speculative Fiction Genre: Magical Realism

Premise: A man meets a talking monkey who has the ability to steal the names of women he loves.

Analysis:

This story is peak Murakami, a Japanese author who often infuses elements of magical realism, absurdism, and/or Japanese folklore into his work.

In it, a nameless narrator stays at a shabby inn and meets a talking monkey. After they share a few drinks, the monkey reveals that, aside from speaking human language, he has the ability to steal the names of women he loves. By procuring an ID or some other physical object with the woman’s name on it, he can concentrate really hard and absorb her name into his heart. When he does this, the woman often forgets her own name; he has stolen 7 names from women he’s fallen in love with, but has vowed to never do it again.

Years later, the narrator meets a woman for a work meeting. She has to take a call, and she asks the narrator what her full name is. After the narrator asks her a few questions, it becomes very clear that the Shinagawa monkey has returned to his old ways and stolen this woman’s name.

What does it mean? What does it all mean?! Murakami is an author who both entertains and baffles in equal measure. There’s something striking to be analyzed in the monkey’s ability to steal peoples’ names—but, why a monkey?

Perhaps the monkey lets us think about love more objectively. Perhaps we are all just as lonely as that monkey, unable to relate to people of our own species, desperate to kindle some small flame that keeps our hearts warm. However you interpret the monkey’s actions, it might reflect something intrinsic about yourself—thus being the magic and beauty of the metaphor, and showcasing the possibilities of speculative fiction.

4. “Warm Up” by V. E. Schwab

Retrieved here.

Speculative Fiction Genre: Fantasy

Premise: After he dies and is revived from a freak avalanche, David Lane wakes up with the ability to burn things just by touching them. Almost 300 days after this incident, and after breaking off from his wife and child, he decides, hesitantly, to step out into the real world again.

Analysis:

This story almost reads as magical realism, until the ending cements this piece of speculative fiction firmly as fantasy. David’s ability to burn things is a strong metaphor for the self-protective behaviors some people use to keep their loved ones at bay. David’s personality is one of an ascetic loner, so his newly acquired ability is hardly surprising, considering he’s always kept people at a distance.

On the day this story takes place, David has reached a point where he’s ready to start a new life, which means taking the first steps outside. He does this, then walks through his city and ends up flirting with a woman at a bar. He’s drunk and feels good and, for once, thinks he can actually live a normal life.

The end of the story is what moves this story beyond the realm of realism. A man claiming to be a representative of Heaven attacks David. The man’s flesh heals itself from David’s burning touch, and the story ends with David dying on the ground, cold and quiet.

Was David’s assassin really from Heaven? An angel? Or something else? We’ve certainly moved into a mysterious realm of magical creatures, and although the story doesn’t explain these elements, they work to drive forward and conclude the plot.

Contemporary Speculative Fiction Authors

If you’re interested in writing and publishing spec fic, knowing who’s writing in this genre will help you learn how to write speculative fiction for a contemporary audience.

This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, but they’re authors that I’ve read and recommend for their creativity, style, and skill. Read these writers like a writer yourself!

Whether you plan on following the rules or breaking them, pay attention to how these contemporary speculative fiction authors approach the genre:

Sci-Fi Speculative Fiction authors:

  • Elisa Bonnin
  • Ted Chiang
  • Indrapramit Das
  • Nancy Kress
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Helen Oyeyemi
  • Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Ken Liu

Fantasy Speculative Fiction authors:

  • V. E. Schwab
  • Briana McGuckin
  • Micah Dean Hicks
  • N. K. Jemisin
  • Madeline Miller

Magical Realism Speculative Fiction authors:

  • Carmen Maria Machado
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Aimee Bender
  • Amy Bonnaffons
  • Ploi Pirapokin
  • Brenda Peynado

Dystopian Speculative Fiction authors:

  • Margaret Atwood
  • Hilary Leichter
  • Jacqueline Stolos
  • Jean Hegland
  • Lois Lowry
  • Dave Eggers

Supernatural Horror Speculative Fiction authors:

  • Stephen King
  • Anne Rice
  • Ramsey Campbell
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Samanta Schweblin

Alternate History Speculative Fiction authors:

  • Colson Whitehead
  • Philip Roth
  • Hanya Yanagihara
  • Stephen Fry
  • Nisi Shawl

5 Tips on How to Write Speculative Fiction

Because speculative fiction varies widely by genre, many of the rules for writing good stories depend on the genre you’re writing in. Nonetheless, the following 5 tips on how to write speculative fiction apply to writers of all genres and backgrounds.

How to Write Speculative Fiction: Know Your Genre’s Tropes

Genre fiction tends to use certain tropes in order to tell a story. These tropes are agreed upon rules in plot, setting, and character development that set a story up for success, while making the story familiar to avid readers of the genre.

This, of course, varies widely. Science Fiction and Fantasy will have a lot more tropes than, say, Magical Realism. But, where genres like Magical Realism are lacking in tropes, they still have rules that make a story successful, such as the use of the fantastical as metaphor, as well as the focus on realism and the world we actually live in.

In this article, we’ve included contemporary speculative fiction authors, and below this section, we’ve included a list of where to submit speculative fiction. Read the authors and journals in your genre, and you’ll see what tropes show up again and again.

You can also find common tropes in all genres of fiction at this site: https://tvtropes.org/

You certainly don’t need to use your genre’s tropes—but it’s best to know the rules before you break them.

How to Write Speculative Fiction: Use Genre as Metaphor

The tropes and conventions of different speculative fiction genres allow writers to construct metaphors for the world we live in. Science Fiction tropes might build metaphors about our relationships to technology. Alternate History plots can be metaphors for contemporary social issues, taken to their logical extremes. Whatever the case, don’t just use genre for the sake of genre—it’s metaphor that makes meaning.

Take, for example, Murakami’s “A Shinagawa Monkey,” listed in the speculative fiction examples we shared. The fantastical element of the story is a talking monkey who steals the names of women he falls in love with. What is that a metaphor for? And did Murakami write this story with metaphor in mind?

There are many ways to analyze the meaning of the monkey—including that the monkey has no meaning, which leans into the absurdist genre that Murakami also loves. Nonetheless, the monkey might be a metaphor for loneliness: stuck between two species and with no way to satisfy his own needs, the monkey tries to create as little damage as possible in keeping his heart warm. How might that resonate with the reader?

Of course, it might be a metaphor for something completely different. How you interpret the monkey’s place in the story might teach you something about yourself as the reader, too.

Metaphor is something that happens at both the sentence level and the structural. Storytelling elements, like plot and setting, can act as metaphors themselves. Indeed, as Jeff Lyons explains, all stories, including speculative ones, are metaphors for the human experience.

To learn more about employing metaphor in your work, read our article on similes, metaphors, and analogies.

How to Write Speculative Fiction: Write Towards Complex Themes

The use of genre tropes and metaphors allow speculative fiction authors to write towards complex themes.

What is theme? Theme tells us what the story is “about.” In other words, it describes the deeper ideas, social issues, and philosophical arguments put forth in the story.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction is a perfect example of how tropes and metaphors lend themselves to themes. In her novel Oryx & Crake, a mad scientist develops a drug called BlyssPluss, which promises health and happiness, but secretly sterilizes its consumers, before later killing them in a manufactured pandemic. This story is told through the eyes of Snowman, a survivor of the apocalypse who knew intimately the person responsible for this drug.

The novel itself is a cautionary tale about technology, genetic engineering, and the climate. This drug in particular, however, represents our ambivalent relationships to things which feel good in the short term, but destroy us in the long term, and are perhaps even engineered that way. What could we compare BlyssPluss to in the modern day? Perhaps social media, disinformation, vapes and e-cigs, or even broader social issues and ideas. No, TikTok probably won’t be the end of society, but it might not be helping us, either.

Regardless, Atwood’s dystopias employ metaphors that apply to the world around us. When we analyze these societal parallels, we come across themes that concern modern society and our relationships to science and ideology. Atwood is only one example of the many ways we can use speculative fiction to write about the real world.

How to Write Speculative Fiction: Create Rules for Your Fictional World

A fictional world needs fictional rules. Whether your protagonists are jumping into spirit worlds, navigating underground monster dens, or surviving in post-apocalyptic wastelands, there needs to be a structure to the world you’re building—a set of do’s and don’t’s, causes and effects.

In short stories, these rules don’t need to be complicated. Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric” sets pretty straightforward rules. The story is set in the future, where robots have achieved a likeness to human intelligence and learning, and people might be transported in private helicopters from their own suburban homes. Additionally, this world is not dystopian—technology is being used for good here. Simple, straightforward, and allows the story to happen.

In longer works of speculative fiction, these rules might be more complicated. Take, for example, the novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones by Micah Dean Hicks. The novel is set in Swine Hill, a dying small town that’s been overrun by ghosts. As a result, the town becomes possessed: sometimes, houses and abandoned buildings are infested with ghosts, and sometimes it’s the people themselves who get infested.

These ghosts sometimes confer special abilities to their hosts. One protagonist gains the ability to read other people’s thoughts; the other protagonist blacks out and can build highly technical contraptions and biological machines—including a frankensteined pig man.

Finally, these ghosts have no intention of leaving Swine Hill. In fact, they can’t. If a possessed person tries to leave, the ghost will make it as hard as possible; once that person goes past a certain point, they are disconnected from their ghost, and will probably never come back to Swine Hill ever again.

These rules guide the story forward, with the threat of possession and the ghosts’ strange powers constantly looming over a townsfolk too scared (and, often, too poor) to leave. Swine Hill’s haunting becomes a metaphor for the literal ghost town. More importantly, it represents the challenges of small town America, overrun with poverty, corporate strangulation, and an “Us Vs. Them” mentality.

The rules of the novel allow these metaphors to move towards complex themes. In other words, don’t just create rules willy-nilly, but use them as a tool for moving towards theme, constructing complex meanings for the reader to interpret and disentangle.

This advice applies less to genres like Alternate History and Magical Realism, which are more concerned with representing the world and its people as true to the real world as possible. Nonetheless, fictional rules apply. What are the politics of this new alternate world? Or, how do people react to the element of fantasy inserting itself into everyday life?

How to Write Speculative Fiction: Lean Into the Unknown

The above being said, don’t reveal the rules of your world all at once. Mystery is an essential force in building tension and intrigue as the story moves forward.

Let readers grapple with what they do and don’t know. We know that there’s a spirit world—but how do you get in and out? Who’s chasing you? Or, we know that robots are assisting humankind—but who built those robots? What are they capable of? Do they have morals, feelings, agendas?

Hint at these details, particularly the ones that relate to your story’s metaphors and themes. Use foreshadowing, but don’t reveal these facets all at once. Keep the reader guessing at what’s to come, and let your world surprise, delight, horrify, captivate, mystify.

Where to Submit Speculative Fiction

The following journals are great places to submit your speculative fiction short stories to:

Be sure to read these journals before you submit to them—you’ll get a sense of whether your story will fit on their pages, and also get a sense of the speculative fiction people are writing these days. For more fiction journals to submit to, check out our article!

Learn How to Write Speculative Fiction at Writers.com

The classes at Writers.com will help you master the art of writing speculative fiction. Whether you’re learning the ropes of Sci-Fi and Fantasy or building fantastical worlds, our upcoming fiction courses are sure to help you write the story you’ve dreamed about.

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