Speculative fiction vs. science fiction

I don’t like the term “speculative fiction”. In fact, I hate it, and there are several reasons for this:

  1. It sounds pretentious. It seems like a way of avoiding the words “science fiction” or “fantasy”.
  2. It seems to be used as a way of collecting a variety of imaginative genres together in one taxonomical bucket. When I see “speculative fiction” I think of something that includes science fiction and fantasy and perhaps even horror. But why do these things need to be collected into the same bucket in the first place? Why can’t you simply have science fiction and fantasy and horror?
  3. It is a misnomer: to speculate means to form a theory or conjecture without firm evidence. But any fiction is speculative in that sense, offering up some theory or conjecture about the human condition and exploring that as part of the narrative.

I consider myself to be a science fiction writer and I am in no way ashamed of that. Tastes vary. Science fiction provides a convenient label for the tastes of one specific genre and I am thankful for that. I know what science fiction means to me. I love to read science fiction stories as much as I love to write them. “Speculative fiction” is too vague for me. It inclues things that I don’t like to read or write and is therefore, in my mind, a poor description of the genre that I love so much.

What bothers me most is that the term (which has been around for close to five decades now) feels like an attempt to rebrand the genre out of shame, in the same way that Comcast attempted to rebrand itself Xfinity. I see no reason to be ashamed of science fiction as either a reader or a writer. The best stories in our genre hold up to the best stories in any literature, in my opinion, and I see no reason to hide behind a false taxonomy.

I am a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, not the Speculative Fiction Writers of America, thank goodness. I don’t write speculative fiction and I don’t read speculative fiction. I write science fiction and I am proud of that. People who write fantasy should be proud of that, too. I think we’ve proven ourselves as a genre and it’s high time to put the “speculative fiction” label behind us.

ETA: I just discovered that Cat Valente has a post on this topic today as well. You should check out what she has to say.

11 thoughts on “Speculative fiction vs. science fiction

  1. You raise a good point–especially about the speculative fiction label as an attempt to rebrand SF into something more widely palatable. However, I like the spec fic label and here’s why. The stories I write are YA in the tradition of Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quartet books. They are not SF, as the science isn’t instrumental to the story. They are neither traditional fantasy (no elves/dwarves, et al) nor urban fantasy (no were creatures/zombies/vampires). You could say magical realism, but that’s an even more pretentious label than speculative fiction.

    Sure, they could just stand as YA, but that’s as vague as saying all SF and F are simply fiction.

    So I need a genre label for stories that take place in the real world and contain a single element of the unusual that influences the choices made by the characters. That’s where spec fic seems to fit for me.

    1. Funny, A Wrinkle In Time is one of the first books I remember reading and loving and I have always thought of it as science fiction. I think the problem, more generally, is in our taxonomy. As you point out, something might be science fiction and also YA. The way I look at it, science fiction is the genre and YA is an attribute of the story. I’ve said the same thing about “literary” fiction. The fact that a story is “literary” does not distinguish it from genre, it is merely an attribute of the story. You can have literary science fiction (“Flowers for Algernon”) just as you can have YA science fiction (“Have Space Suit, Will Travel”). My taxonomy would therefore be something like:

      1. Genre(s), e.g. science fiction, fantasy, horror
      2. Attribute(s), e.g., YA, literary, speculative

      “Speculative fiction” seems to me to attempt to add a zero layer above genre in that taxonomy and I don’t see why that is necessary. If anything, it should become an attribute of work.

  2. Thanks for the reply. Though I have to say, right now I’d be willing to call the genre ‘fred’ if that’s what it took to make a sale. :)

  3. Dang – your views coincide with mine. I was hoping you’d be taking the Margaret – ‘squids-in-space’ – Atwood position and I was looking forward to venting.

    Atwood would like to think that she’s writing “speculative fiction” as the term is ever so so much more academically acceptable than the name for what she really writes (beach novels for pretentious people who wouldn’t be caught dead holding a romance).

    I blame the ‘new wave’. They were looking for something that transcended SF, ended up seeing themselves in the mirror but tried to get the label to stick anyway.

    1. I think you’re right about the new wave. It’s all their fault. ;-) Certainly you can’t blame them for trying to make a buck by attempting to get greater exposure for the genre. But the fact is that the name they come up with does not describe what I like to read. (And it’s a poor description, at best, for what they were trying to convey.)

      Sorry to agree with you. A heated discussion would have been fun! ;-)

  4. It could also be a case of some writers who write Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance who don’t want to cop to it, so call it Speculative. I think the genre has become more respected lately as it is outselling a lot of other genres so maybe people will just call it what it is in the future.
    I thought your article was really thought provoking and I’m with you, I don’t care for the term.
    Also..I like the idea of blaming anything on the New Wave. (:

  5. If you write Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance and you don’t want to cop to it, I think you have bigger problems that have nothing to do with the name of the genre. And there is always the alternative of writing under a pseudonym. But calling it “speculative fiction” is a misnomer. What is “speculative” about paranormal romance that isn’t speculative about any other fiction? We are all asking “what if…”

  6. Jamie,
    I couldn’t agree more. But I have seen it on Author’s websites that are clearly UF/PNR.

    Back to your #3. When I hear the term, my brain always flashes to someone who is for example writing a script “On spec” and hoping to get it picked up, or a magazine article being written on spec. So it always throws me to see published authors using the phrase and then I have to remind myself it has another meaning, which goes to show…it isn’t a very good definition.

  7. As I remember, the term came about because the “hard science” SF writers who loved calling themselves the Grand Masters back in the late 1960′s and early 70′s insisted that there must be actual science in a tale of wonder. Others asked, “Well what about the social sciences?” Guys like Phillip K. Dick wrote wonderful stories that didn’t need to be proven through equations on a professor’s blackboard. These writers claimed to be “Speculating” about the future, hence Speculative Fiction. And they used the SF monicker just to peeve the obstinate hard science dudes. Hats off to them, I say. You shouldn’t need a doctorate degree to lie under a tree and see animals in the clouds.

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