When you hear the words “science fiction”, you may get a very particular image in your head, whether it be the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a strange, alien planet, or the vast, starry void of space. Science fiction has very strong visual and aesthetic elements, many of which have influenced real-life design and architecture. There is the futurism inspired by Jules Verne at the turn of the century; the sleek, space-age stylings of the mid-century; the neon colors and dingy corners of cyberpunk.
But what does science fiction really look like? How can you say if a visual piece of art or design is speculative or not? Does it need to be in space? Does it have to be in the future? Does it have to conform to a preexisting science fiction or futurist aesthetic? That seems rather limiting. The problem with trying to define speculative fiction as a particular set of visuals or aesthetics is that speculative fiction is too broad a category.
Personally, my favorite type of speculative stories and imagery usually stem from the ordinary. Whether it by science fiction, fantasy, or horror, I love pictures and plots that begin with something familiar. It could be a place, like a coffee shop, or a library, or a music store, or an era, like the 1960s. Then, slowly but subtly, the speculative trope is introduced, and an alternate world is created.
But there is a complete opposite realm of speculative literature and design, (created by people vastly more creative than me), which imagines the unimaginable. Some science fiction, fantasy, and horror creators have the ability to dive into the depths of otherness and strangeness. Their aliens are far more than green-painted humanoids. They are truly alien. Their fantasy worlds are not mere allegories for our political climate. Their monsters are monstrous because they show how much we really don’t understand about the world.
Both are good. Both are speculative. Both can provide culturally meaningful images and narratives that shape the minds and ideas of fans. And the same goes for all the shades and nuances that fall somewhere between these two camps.
So, what does speculative fiction look like? I suppose the most specific thing that we can say is that it looks like otherness. It may be an otherness that at first glance seems normal, but causes an unease that demands a second glance. It may be an otherness that is awe-inspiring, and all-consuming. But it is that otherness that lies at the very heart of speculative fiction. It causes us to look up from ourselves, and our routines, and imagine what else might be out there.