A Broad Look at Speculative Fiction

We’ve spent the past few months discussing point of view, scenes, and characters. I think it prudent to pause a moment and back up a bit. Before you can create your characters, decide on point of view, or start crafting scenes, you need to know what type of story you’re working on. So let’s talk about what speculative fiction is.

The beauty of a good book is getting to be transported to a different world. Sometimes that means our world through someone else’s eyes. But other times it literally means to a different world or a different version of our world. These latter two options tend to fall into the category of speculative fiction.

Defining Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction is a broad topic. To speculate is to “form a theory or conjecture, especially without firm factual basis”. And fiction is “an invented idea or statement or narrative; an imaginary thing”. So, speculative fiction is an invented narrative which explores a theory without firm factual basis.

You may be thinking, doesn’t this encompass most of fiction? Yes, it absolutely does, which is why some people find the term speculative fiction so confusing. So where do we draw the line? At what point does fiction become speculative fiction?

Well, speculative fiction is a genre that diverges from the accepted rules of our world. It is a catchall phrase to cover fiction dealing with elements that do not exist in the real world. Elements like magic, other realms of existence, monsters, speed of light travel, or any number of things that we can’t possibly experience in our current daily lives. This means that it is a genre with many subgenres including fantasy, science fiction, horror, alternate history, dystopian fiction, and magical realism.

Let’s Talk Genres

Fantasy, science fiction, and horror all have many of their own sub-genres which we will be taking a closer look at in the next few posts. For now, let’s focus on some broad definitions of genres that fall under the speculative fiction umbrella. I’ll also provide some examples of books written in these genres to help you get your bearings. (And to plump up your To Read piles).


The Fantasy genre typically contain elements of magic and the supernatural. These stories can be set in “our world” with magical or supernatural rules applied to them, or they can be set in a fictional world as different from our world as the authors likes.

Examples of fantasy books include The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, and Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor.

Science Fiction

The Science Fiction genre typically deals with the advancements of science and technology in a futuristic setting. These stories can be set on future Earth, in space, or on other planets.

Examples of science fiction books include Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, and The Electric Church by Jeff Somers.


The Horror genre is meant to frighten, scare, or make the reader feel ill at ease. Stories in this genre typically explore themes related to demons, spirits, death, and the afterlife.

Examples of horror books include Brother by Ania Ahlborn, The Troop by Nick Cutter, and Neverland by Douglas Clegg.

Alternate History

As the name implies, the Alternate History genre takes historical events and shows what the world may be like if that event had a different outcome. Alternate History doesn’t necessarily have any magical or futuristic elements, it simply speculates about what could have been.

Examples of alternate history books include Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, and The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

Dystopian Fiction

The Dystopian Fiction genre is set in an oppressive society that attempts to project its perfection through control (be it moral, technological, corporate, totalitarian, etc.). These societies are typically in decline and the story conveys characters inciting change in their circumstance.

Examples of dystopian fiction books include Trail of Lightening by Rebecca Roanhorse, Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler, and Unwind by Neal Shusterman.

Magical Realism

The Magical Realism genre is set in the real world but has undercurrents of magic. The magic in these stories is not the main focus; it is considered normal in the world and therefore is often left completely unexplained.

Examples of magical realism books include The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

Why is Genre so Important?

Understanding the different speculative fiction genres will help you categorize your novel. And there are so many reasons being able to categorize your own writing will be beneficial to your process.

Knowing which genre you’re writing helps when it comes to worldbuilding and plotting. This is because knowing your genre means you can figure out which genre conventions you should adhere to. Genre conventions are what define the genres and set reader expectations. They are the story elements such as character archetypes and setting that commonly appear in books of certain genres.

Genre conventions are important because if you pick up a novel, you have certain expectations of it before you even begin. If you pick up a fantasy novel, you’re going to expect a some form of magic or supernatural creatures. But if that book turns out to be about terra forming a new world, you’re going to be disappointed and probably fairly confused.

Still have questions about what speculative fiction is? Or about the importance of genre conventions? Leave them in the comments.

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