Journey into the Unknown: What Is Speculative Fiction?

This post contains affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support! Read more.

Speculative fiction has evolved over time, adopting different definitions and interpretations. From its origins in the early 20th century, speculative fiction has grown to include a wide range of styles, themes, and media.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the evolution of speculative fiction — from its early roots in science fiction to its current status as a broader category that includes not only literature but also film, television, and video games. We will delve into its origins, and discuss some of the most influential works in the genre.

Let’s dive in.

What is speculative fiction?

That’s the million-dollar question.

The definition of speculative fiction has proven to be elusive for such a popular genre. There have been three main definitions of speculative fiction in the last 80 years or so.

So, let’s start from the beginning.

what is speculative fiction
Illustration by Jean-Marc Côté c. 1900. Futuredays: A Nineteenth-century Vision of the Year 2000

Heinlein and the shift from tech to the humans controlling it


The term ‘speculative fiction’ was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” Since then, its meaning has shifted with the changes in the academic and literary world.

According to Heinlein, speculative fiction is a genre of science fiction that focuses on human problems arising from technological advances.

In his time, pulp science fiction speculated about the technical progress of humanity and what it’d look like. This left out the human component of the story — the implications of new technology for individuals and society.

“Much so-called science fiction is not about human beings and their problems, consisting instead of a fictionalised framework, peopled by cardboard figures, on which is hung an essay about the Glorious Future of Technology.”

In his essay, Heinlein criticised the pulp sci-fi of his time as he believed they were of poor quality. While it served to bring attention to higher-quality works, his definition could also be seen as exclusive. It left out not only pulp science fiction but also other adjacent genres like fantasy and horror.

Heinlein’s definition became more and more restrictive by the 1960s when the new medium of television pushed boundaries in science fiction storytelling.

While his proposed definition fell into disuse, it hasn’t disappeared completely. By the 1970s, a new generation of writers embraced the speculative fiction label to describe works that incorporated imaginary worlds and possible futures with elements of literary fiction.

Atwood and the game of probability

Canadian author Margaret Atwood is one of the best-known speculative fiction authors of our time. For her, there is a clear distinction between sci-fi and spec fic. In an interview with The Guardian, she explained: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”

For example, her novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a portrayal of the several ways women have been oppressed in different societies throughout history. And in her novel “Oryx and Crake,” she combined a biological apocalypse with a genetically engineered genesis, while acknowledging “a number of personal debts in terms of research and background, but also scrupulously offers a list of documentary sources at a web address.”

Atwood’s distinction lies in probability. The story in “The Handmaid’s Tale” has happened, and there’s no guarantee it won’t happen again. While stories about alien invasions are unlikely to happen, if not impossible.

While Atwood’s definition helped her describe her own work, other authors, academics and readers haven’t adopted it. The main issue with it is its reliance on probability. Science fiction is more concerned with testing the limits of human imagination rather than making accurate predictions of the future.

In the prologue to her novel “The Left Hand of Darkness,” speculative fiction novelist Ursula K. Le Guin explains: “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. (…) Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”

Also, as technology progresses, ideas that would have been considered impossible are now within the realm of possibility.

Take Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian.” Its thorough research and focus on the technology used to bring the crew to Mars and the subsequent rescue of the stranded astronaut places the novel firmly in the hard sci-fi category, but the situations it portrays are far from impossible.

As explained by aerospace and astronautics engineer, Dr Robert Zubrin, “we’re much closer today to being able to send people to Mars than we were to sending people to the Moon in 1961.”

From literary genre to super category

In the 21st century, the attempts to label speculative fiction as a genre gave way to a new understanding of it. For many authors, researchers and readers, speculative fiction is a category that encompasses works in different genres and formats.

Visual storytelling like video games, animation and film brings new ideas and themes to the field of speculative fiction. It also helps enrich literary works in the genre by promoting dialogue and collaboration. It also helps classify and conceptualise works that blur the lines between genres.

This change is a reflection of the current changes in society, technology, creative processes, and ideas about art and literature, which now include works previously overlooked by Western literary studies.

As a category rather than a genre, speculative fiction moves away from the approval of traditional literature. Also, it puts speculative fiction in a better position to portray modern issues creatively.

It also positions itself to better portray modern struggles than more traditional genres.

There’s one big criticism of this new super category — it’s too broad, making it hard to determine even what ‘speculative means.’

Create your on definition of speculative fiction

The definition of speculative fiction is flexible enough to include a broad range of works.

As a writer, understanding what speculative fiction means has helped me understand my work better.

I consider myself a speculative fiction writer because my work takes elements from magical realism, science fiction, and literary fiction. It makes it easy for me to incorporate into my work the literary traditions I grew up with.

If you’re not a writer, it can still help you understand what matters to you when it comes to art and literature, and what you want to get out of it.

what is science fiction
Credit: Phil Beard. Modern Wonder December 11, 1937.

What is the purpose of speculative fiction?

That was a lot, wasn’t it? Let’s recap.

Spec fic is an umbrella term that includes fictional works in different formats. It deals with what-ifs scenarios on possible, but not yet real, societies and futures.

Now that we know the definition of speculative fiction and what makes something speculative fiction, we have a better idea of its purpose.

Firstly, by exploring alternative realities and new perspectives, speculative fiction expands our understanding of the world and encourages us to question the status quo.

As Reedsy founder, Emmanuel Nataf, explains: “Because speculative fiction and media takes place in worlds with different “rules” than our own, it allows people to imagine different kinds of societies — including those where anyone can go after their dreams, no matter who they are or where they come from.”

In this more interconnected world, speculative fiction has become a powerful tool for portraying the society we live in by depicting possible fictional scenarios. The genre redefines its relationships with visual media — art, film, and videogames.

Speculative fiction allows us to explore complex issues such as climate change, politics, and social justice in a way that’s accessible and engaging. It helps us to imagine and create a better future, and it inspires us to take action in the present to make that future a reality.

Speculative fiction authors

Here are a few examples of the best-known speculative fiction authors and some of the new and exciting voices in the genre today.

Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797 – 1851) was an English author of historical fiction and Gothic novels.

While she used historical fiction to explore the gender issues and political institutions of her time, it was her Gothic that garnered her popularity. In these works, she also dove deep into more personal topics, like loneliness and abandonment.

Her novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” is a moving tale about the need to belong, and how badly rejection and solitude damage individuals.

In 1826, Shelley published a lesser-known novel, “The Last Man”, about the last survivors of a global pandemic in 21st-century Europe. Considered among the first pieces of dystopian fiction in Western literature, it was one of her favourite works even though it was not as popular in her time.

H.G. Wells

speculative fiction authors
Portrait of Herbert George Wells by George Charles Beresford, 1920.

No list of speculative fiction writers is complete without. H.G. Wells (1846-1946). He was a prolific writer with a background in biology, and his interest in social issues gave his science fiction work a human dimension.

His writing explores the consequences of scientific progress and the tension between individualism and collectivism.

One of his most popular novels, “The War of the Worlds”, is among the first to depict a conflict between humans and aliens. In the novel, the population of Britain reckons with an alien invasion and its immediate aftermath. One interpretation of the story is as a criticism of British colonialism and the prejudices in the Victorian era.

Wells left a significant legacy as a pioneer of the science fiction genre, and he became an inspiration to generations of speculative fiction writers.

Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018) was a prolific author whose work spanned several genres. Her speculative fiction novels have been a cornerstone of the genre since the 1970s.

Le Guin’s writing style was lyrical and poetic quality, with a focus on character development and introspection.

Her most famous work (and one of my favourite novels of all time), “The Left Hand of Darkness,” part of her Hainish Cycle, was a groundbreaking exploration of gender and sexuality — topics she delved into throughout her career and helped her redefine the boundaries of science fiction. And in “Voices,” she uses a coming-of-age story in an occupied fictional world to explore religious and cultural conflicts.

Indra Das

Speculative fiction is thriving in the 21st century thanks to authors like Indra Das.

His debut novel “The Devourers” is unflinching, at times a brutal tale that explores themes of gender and violence. A university professor meets an intriguing stranger in Kolkata, India, and begins to tell him a story. Desperate to know the rest, the professor agrees to transcribe a collection of mysterious writings.

Of course, this list of only a small sample of what the genre has to offer. A longer, more diverse lineup with authors from different decades and countries is an idea for a separate post.

At the core of speculative fiction is the question — what if? What if we used these imaginary worlds as a tool to understand ours, and find ways to make it better? Some of the most popular speculative fiction books are both now staples of and a snapshot of the culture that produced them.


Mary Shelley’s grim, Gothic stories served not only as means of self-expression but also as challenge to the society of her time. Likewise, eco-fiction and solarpunk authors today use their work to draw attention to modern problems like climate change and the destruction of our natural resources.

In that respect, speculative fiction is arguably one of the most exciting genres of our time.

Leave a Reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.