Speculative fiction is an offshoot genre from science fiction. It’s an interesting genre that skirts around the definitions of science fiction, attempting to shake off any negative connotations that the label of science fiction can potentially bring.
While some authors seek to adhere to the label of speculative fiction, rather than science fiction, some books naturally fall into this category without action.
If you enjoy science fiction, perhaps those novels with a more political edge, then you will likely also enjoy speculative fiction as well.
But if you prefer the fantastical descriptions of spaceships and alien technologies, as well as fantasy beasts and enslaving alien races, then speculative fiction might not be for you.
In this article, we will discuss the definition of speculative fiction and include some of our favorite examples of this smaller genre, what they have to offer, and why they are worth your time. Keep reading to learn more about speculative fiction and what it has to offer.
What Is Speculative Fiction?
Margaret Attwood, who wrote the famed The Handmaid’s Tale, as we will get into, is an author who really typifies the distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction.
She actively resists the label of science fiction in her stories in order for her political messages to shine, and not to be undermined by the fantasy of science fiction. Attwood is often identified as the main generator of the term ‘speculative fiction’.
As she puts it, science fiction is no more than “talking squids in outer space”, to the outrage of many of her fans.
She identifies the main difference between the two genres is that science fiction “has monsters and spaceships” while speculative fiction “could really happen”. Put simply, science fiction often edges into the genre of fantasy.
Doctor Who relies on time travel being possible, The War of the Worlds relies on an alien invasion, neither of these things are speculative but in fact, relies on some logical dissonance to be taken seriously.
Speculative fiction shows us a world that could in fact exist and is very possible, allowing more concrete political and anthropological messages to be made.
Speculative Fiction Novels
Here are some of the most important speculative fiction novels that define the genre.
This is a really popular novel among many readers but is arguably the novel that helped create the label of speculative fiction, mainly due to Atwood actively resisting the label of science fiction.
The Handmaid’s Tale shows how utopias are formed within a dystopian, pre-apocalyptic world. The world of The Handmaid’s Tale is shaped by totally plausible decisions made by a government in the face of an imminent apocalypse.
The state of Gilead seeks to slow the human extinction with the Handmaid’s program, where fertile women are effectively enslaved in order to maintain the human population.
What Attwood is trying to show in the novel is how small, logical steps from a government can lead us into a dystopian world, showing a plausible reality of how the world may look, and how the government may operate in the face of extinction.
While the actual cause of imminent extinction in the novel is not really outlined and, instead, left to the reader to piece together, Atwood makes sure that everything in the novel is actually based on certain historic atrocities in our own world.
Nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale is impossible and instead tries to ward us away from the very plausible reality that is depicted, which would be undermined by the inclusion of anything purely fantastical and logically impossible as we might find in a science fiction novel.
- Unique storyline
- Compelling main character
- Dark material
This novel was turned into a popular film of the same name you may have seen, the novel and the film are similar but the novel provides a wider lens with which we can view the imminent apocalypse that James presents us with.
James’ world has become infertile, but his main character comes across a pregnant woman.
With the potential to save humanity by protecting the last fertile woman, an adventure ensues amongst civil unrest where the main character has to navigate the pre-apocalyptic world to ensure its potential savior gets where she needs to be.
Much like The Handmaid’s Tale, Children of Men shows the plausible decisions a government may make when faced with the reality of human extinction.
While Gilead in Atwood’s novel is proactive in their attempts to cull the extinction, James instead presents a government that concedes defeat, allowing the world to rot and creating a government that makes life comfortable while its people await the inevitable, offering assisted suicide plans, and trying to ignore imminent extinction to uphold what worldly pleasure and happiness there may be left.
- Commentary on modern life
- Interesting relationships with characters
- The main character can be melancholic
Suzzanne Collins’ series known as The Hunger Games is a very popular film series now, but these books fit perfectly within the definitions of speculative fiction.
Particularly the recent prequel novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, set 64 years before the events of the original trilogy is more focused on the government that eventually led to what we see in the trilogy.
Much like Atwood and James’ imagined worlds, The Hunger Games, and its titular event, do not rely on any logical inconsistencies.
Like the previous pre-apocalyptic worlds the dystopia of The Hunger Games is not caused by some alien interference, but once again is the result of political reaction to a very plausible apocalypse.
All three of these novels skirt around the true causes of the apocalypse without really giving clear explanations but all of them seem to suggest that climate change, ecological disasters, and global conflict are the main causes of the apocalypse.
In The Hunger Games civilization has collapsed, with Panem being the only habitable area on the planet, leading to the dystopian government that creates the titular spectacle in which the main trilogy centers around.
Nothing that occurs in The Hunger Games is impossible, the horror of this novel, and the others mentioned, is that it depicts a world that is not unimaginable, but very close to our own.
Again, there are no logical inconsistencies in the novel, simply a government reacting to an imminent apocalypse.
- Lots of action
- Being young adult fiction certain readers may not enjoy the tone
This popular novel is an interesting one in the list which shows that speculative fiction has been around a long time, even before Attwood’s more thoughtful descriptions of the genre.
The world that Orwell presents is a totally plausible reality that doesn’t rely on any scientific invention, but once again depicts a world shaped by a government’s decisions.
Interestingly the dystopian world that Orwell presents is not actually apocalyptic in the ways we usually think. There is no imminent extinction but a reality where civil unrest and war alone has ravaged the world beyond repair.
Orwell presents us with a world where peace is unattainable and unrest can only be quelled by the oppression of independent thought itself, we are left to speculate how far away our current reality is from the dystopia in the book.
- Extremely well written
- Considered one of the best novels of all time
- Heavy on politics
While not necessarily so obviously apocalyptic as Children of Men or The Handmaid’s Tale Bradbury’s novel tells us the story of a society that uses gatekeeping of knowledge as a tool of oppression.
Depicting a society that has broken down due to the government essentially banning the reading of any books or media not sanctioned by the government.
The novel effectively speculates more widely around historical events that have already happened, speculating how society would look if knowledge and literature was actively eradicated and withheld from its people.
Bradbury is asking the reader for a small speculative leap to envision a society that our own history suggests could have been a reality, rather than envisioning an apocalypse caused by some alien race or impossible disease.
- Important message about books themselves
- Obvious references to WWII events
Ready Player One is a clever example of speculative fiction from Cline that allows him to embrace classic sci-fi tropes while still framing the novel in a speculative and plausible reality.
Set in the future when the world is gripped by an energy crisis due to global warming most seek escapism in a virtual reality game.
The main character of the novel seeks out an ‘easter egg’ within this virtual world with the promise of inheriting the game’s creator’s inheritance.
The completely fictitious events that occur in virtual reality are totally unimaginable in real life, Cline shows how we find comfort in this sort of escapism, in the same way we do with science fiction.
But the reality of the world outside this virtual reality is a very plausible reality of a world ravaged by climate change, perhaps not so far from the real world that greets us when we lift our eyes from the novel.
While the real world in the novel is totally plausible, Cline can still embrace science fiction, without undermining his main political message, through the virtual reality of OASIS.
- Unique storyline and plot
- Feels modern
- Lots of video game references some won’t enjoy
Andy Weir is known for his realism within a wider genre of science fiction. The events of Artemis happen in the first city on the moon, but as in all his other novels, Weir heavily researches what is plausible versus what is impossible.
In the novel we see Weir speculate on what society may be like on the moon itself, something not completely outside the realm of possibility.
While the novel is purely based on well-researched speculation from Weir, some may still argue it is science fiction due to the current impossibility of a martian colony.
Yet, imagining life on a martian colony is something many modern readers will be faced with, and isn’t something completely impossible.
Again, as with the other novels, Weir asks us to make a mere speculative leap rather than imagining something outside the realms of possibility.
The novel at its heart is a heist narrative, following the main character as she is caught up in a conspiracy for control of this initial martian colony, named Artemis.
I think that this is more speculative fiction than science fiction as Weir’s message relies on the plausibility of a martian colony existing, and in turn, deals with the previous and real history of colonization and how we as humans approach the governing of previously unexplored areas.
To quote Weir himself: “In Artemis, literally everything there is stuff that is real. All the technology shown in Artemis is real. It exists today. In that form too.”
- Very well researched
- Fun heist narrative
- The plot jumps around too much for some
As you can see the definitions of speculative fiction are quite broad, fiction by nature is speculative so you can arguably group any fictional work as speculative.
The important distinction here, that sets speculative fiction apart from science fiction, and other genres, is that speculative fiction is mainly asking its reader to make a plausible jump from something real to something speculative, rather than asking for a full disconnection from reality that science fiction does.
Many of those who write speculative fiction are relying on the plausibility of the worlds they create to help readers make more realistic connections between what occurs in speculative fiction to their own lives.
The world of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale is only so poignant and harrowing due to how plausible it is, whereas if more of a logical leap was required it becomes more of a work of fantasy where a political message can be undermined or lost by this fantasy.
Put simply, speculative fiction imagines worlds that are not so far from our own, with the main goal of preventing these worlds from occurring by allowing us to imagine them with a degree of realism.