What is a Speculative Fiction Novel?
A speculative fiction novel is one that takes the reader to an unfamiliar world. It often explores themes that go against commonplace, materialist laws such as faster-than-light travel.
Some readers disdain speculative fiction as unreal. Ask them to justify their prejudice and you will usually find they never read the likes of Gormenghast or The Lord of the Rings.
It’s difficult to separate science fiction from fantasy, because both genres deal in the ’what if’. Science fiction is the more logical version of speculative fiction, while fantasy explores what is impossible.
Generally, fantasy worlds are populated by mythical creatures that can’t be found in the real world. Characters often possess supernatural powers that aren’t explained through scientific or mathematical means.
Some speculative fiction works straddle the line between fantasy and sci-fi, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Another example is soft/sociological SF, where advanced technology plays only a minor role in the story and is used to examine social issues such as inequality or overpopulation. Animated movies such as Princess Mononoke and Laputa: Castle in the Sky are also examples of this type of speculative fiction.
Science fiction is a genre of fictional literature and films that imagine possible future technological and scientific advancements and their societal consequences. Often utilizing futuristic settings or imagining worlds that exist parallel to our own, sci-fi stories explore how advanced technology could go wrong for individuals or societies.
The “what if?” approach to the genre allows authors to examine earthly themes of love, loss, family, and morality through an intriguing, fantastical lens. For example, in her novel Elsewhere, Alexis Schaitkin takes the reader to a cloud village where women are programmed to serve as wives and mothers, but face a host of challenges that society downplays — like self-doubt and loss of bodily autonomy.
A debate exists over when science fiction began; while some consider Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein to be one of its earliest progenitors, the term itself didn’t emerge until 1926, when Hugo Gernsback published Amazing Stories. Today, the genre can be seen in everything from space operas to dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
As a subgenre of speculative fiction, horror is designed to scare, unsettle or horrify. It often involves gory, supernatural or otherwise scary content and has a dark, macabre focus.
The defining characteristics of this genre are that it is based on ideas rather than characters and that the story is designed to invoke an emotion in the reader or viewer. This is what separates horror from other speculative fiction genres, such as science fiction, which can be brilliantly written but if it fails to engage the reader or viewer emotionally then it fails.
Like its Great-Grandmother genre Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction can also use futuristic and supernatural situations as metaphors for discussion of real-world taboos. This is the approach taken by authors such as Octavia Butler, who wrote about a world in which mixed-race children are able to be born and live without prejudice; and more recently by N.K. Jemisin, Charlie Jane Anders and Colson Whitehead who use speculative fiction to explore the experiences of historically marginalised communities.
Despite some crossover with science fiction and fantasy, superhero stories are often considered to be a genre of their own. They usually take place in a world that looks quite familiar to our own with carefully chosen fantastical alterations, but with protagonists who have superhuman powers that defy logical and scientific explanation. Death is rare in this genre, and characters who do die are often brought back to life via supernatural means or by retcons (changes to established continuity), which have the effect of retroactively wiping out previous deaths.
Like horror and fantasy, superhero fiction often explores themes that go against commonplace materialist assumptions about the natural world. Stories centered around superheroes who fight supervillains can be both serious and relentlessly silly, but they are also frequently seen as heroically uplifting, which may explain their popularity during World War II when paper rationing sparked a need for simple tales of good triumphing over evil. A superhero’s secret identity is another common trope in this genre.