All fiction is speculative to some extent, posing a “what-if” question, which serves as the premise and drives the plot. But for fantasy author Kij Johnson, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Award, the specific genre of speculative fiction adds its own special writing challenges: “A brilliant speculative story is harder to write than a brilliant realistic story, because it must do all the same things mainstream literature does – characterization, language, theme, and all the rest – and also, it needs to meet the requirements of the genre: accurate science, plausible worldbuilding, and the physiological triggers essential to a horror story.”
Before you set out to write any form of speculative fiction – whether fantasy, sci-fi, or horror – you must be aware of the meaning and application of this term. What exactly is speculative fiction?
We’ve turned to several seasoned writers of speculative fiction to answer this question plus others: What is the difference between sci-fi and fantasy, which are sometimes represented together as “SF/F”? How does YA speculative fiction differ from speculative fiction for adults? What makes good speculative fiction as a whole?
Then we’ll focus on the industry, asking several agents representing speculative fiction: What makes the cut in the modern publishing marketplace?
What is ‘speculative fiction?’
According to Lois McMaster Bujold, four-time winner of the Hugo Award for best novel, this literary term, a few decades old now, was meant to provide “an umbrella term to encompass both science fiction and fantasy and reduce the time wasted arguing over which category any given tale fell into.”
Johnson sees it as “an umbrella term for stories that operate outside reality in one way or another: they cannot happen or did not happen or cannot happen yet – at least, according to current understanding of the world.” It is often “consciously extrapolative – what would happen if reality were changed in X way? – but it doesn’t have to be.”
According to Johnson, the term has wide application to a number of genres: “science fiction, fantasy, supernatural horror, surrealism, irrealism, and some experimental forms.” Daniel José Older, bestselling MG, YA, and adult fantasy writer, adds magical realism and mythology to this list.
For fantasy writer Janice Hardy, speculative fiction is “about the fantastic, be it a magical world or a scientific idea.” In either case, she adds, “it explores the ‘what if?’ and speculates on things that aren’t real or aren’t real yet (as in the case of science fiction).”
Linda Nagata, author of both science fiction and fantasy and winner of the Nebula and Locus awards, also stresses the fantastic. “If a story reaches past the mundane world to include a fantastical element critical to the plot, then it’s speculative fiction,” she says. Like others, she sees the term as inclusive of several genres.
But is this term merely definitional? Bujold doesn’t think so. She believes its genesis was a “covert attempt to rebrand science fiction and fantasy into something more literary-sounding.” Rebranding or not, science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, multiple winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, sees the term as quite useful, in that “it’s a somewhat more accurate label for ‘science fiction,’ which often has very little science visible in it but which deals with ‘what if…’ speculations.” Even so, he says, “‘science fiction’ is the more familiar term, and I still prefer to use it.”
Science fiction versus fantasy
If you set out to write either science fiction or fantasy, you might wonder where your story or novel project fits in terms of these often-lumped-together genres. Is there a distinct line between sci-fi and fantasy?
Many readers might differentiate between the two with a sentence like “science fiction deals with technology; fantasy deals with the supernatural.”
But is the demarcation between these two that simple?
“There is a little bit of a gray area there,” says Older, “but I think of science fiction as generally and mostly focused on the technological aspect and fantasy focused on the magical aspect.” Yet he notes that this separation is a “little too easy.”
Perhaps a science fiction expert could give us a definitive answer.
“One answer, per science fiction scholar James Gunn, is that science fiction is about things that could happen or could have happened, and that fantasy could not happen, at least in our consensual understanding of what is possible,” Johnson says. But this definition is somewhat problematic, she states, since “this disregards a lot of things,” one being that “our understanding of what is possible changes regularly.”
Silverberg puts a different spin on the relation between these two genres. He sees science fiction as a subgenre of fantasy: “Though much of it involves so-called ‘hard science’ speculation impinging on physics and chemistry, most of its most common themes – time travel, for example, or faster-than-light interstellar journeys – are in the present scheme of things scientifically unattainable and perhaps impossible, so ultimately they must be considered to be a kind of fantasy, though different in tone from the kind of fantasy that deals in magic spells and rings of power.” His conclusion? “In the final analysis, most science fiction relies on magic concealed behind a screen of scientific jargon.”
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Bujold is with Silverberg in not seeing sci-fi and fantasy as two distinct genres, but she doesn’t view one as a subgenre of the other; instead, she sees them “as a continuum.”
“For me, a tale is on the fantasy end of the spectrum if, within the world of the story, the supernatural is real – magic, gods, demons, monsters, and so on,” Bujold says. “It’s on the SF end, even if it contains contrafactual elements such as faster-than-light travel or (a good example of a boundary case) telepathy, if the rationale for it within the story calls on purely material explanations.”
Nagata also endorses the continuum idea. “I see the genres as blending into each other, a blurry spectrum without a strict dividing line,” she says. “Some works are clearly science fiction – set more or less in the world or the galaxy as we know it, with events treated as explainable phenomena, even if we don’t know how to explain them – while the supernatural haunts the other end.”
Works not easily classified find themselves somewhere in between the two ends of this spectrum, and it may not even be up to the author to decide what to call it. Nagata says it’s “often a marketing decision” that determines whether a work gets categorized as science fiction or fantasy.