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On the Term “Speculative Fiction”

by Phoebe Wagner

Writers have argued and continue to argue over the term “speculative fiction.” I first used the term as a college freshmen—a way to say I wrote fantasy but sound more “artsy” or important. My creative writing professor quickly said that all fiction is speculative and it was a bad term. Regardless of general opinion, the term has stuck, and, I believe, been transformed and reclaimed by the genre community. It’s not so easy as it was in the sixties when there seemed to be two brands of speculative genre—science fiction and fantasy. Even then, science fiction was a catchall term most writers ground their teeth over.

Currently, the genre has grown to such proportions that a term is necessary. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror 22125258cannot contain the multitudes of the genre tree. Is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower science fiction because it’s set in the future, or due to the lack of hard science, is it a fantasy? How does one classify a collection of Kelly Link’s work? Often shelved in “literary fiction” her latest collection Get in Trouble spreads across the genre realm from alternate history to fairytale. So the term speculative fiction comes in handy.

Typing in the term on Google displays its depth, a list populating with everything from Atwood to Le Guin to Joanna Russ. The term has become established since Robert Heinlein debuted it in 1941. Or so I thought.

In graduate school, I was informed in no uncertain terms that Margaret Atwood had created the term in reference to her work. While this moments is a great example of academic ignorance (which I discussed in more depth here), it also speaks to the underlying battle still being duked out in the genre world, most notably by Atwood and  Le Guin.

Atwood’s essay collection, Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, speaks to her desired distinction more fully. She recognizes the breadth of genre while calling for a distinction:

“Are [my] books ‘science fiction’? I am often asked. Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much ‘science fiction’ as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much ‘science fiction’ as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.”

By: Tom

While I might personally say that yes, those novels are both a type of science fiction (especially since they speak to concerns of that time period, the only difference being a slightly different color palate, as it were), but these discussions cut out the backbone of the speculative genre: the working writer. In graduate school, my rejoinder to my professor’s adamant declaration was regardless of how Atwood used the term, it meant something different to working writers trying to sell stories they believed in.

To writers without multiple bestselling books, the term “speculative” helps them find markets and discuss their work—especially if it doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of science fiction or fantasy. This genre has always been about imagination, and having an umbrella term allows writers to dream beyond the limits of science fiction or fantasy, to speculate. The crazy and unique ways the genre has grown beyond the term “sci-fi” is a testament to the creatiity of humanity. Trying to pin down a specific definition seems wasteful of our imagination. My professor was right—all fiction is speculative, but if the literary world doesn’t want to take advantage of the wildness and freedom of the term, why shouldn’t we?

A bit about the columnist:

Phoebe Wagner cannot imagine moving to Mars because she still hasn't adjusted to living in Iowa (like Mars, there is no water and no trees). She is a student in the MFA in Creative Writing and the Environment at Iowa State University. Her work can be found at Rose Red Review, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Hearth Magazine. Visit author page

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