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Speculative Fiction Writing

What is Speculative Fiction?

What is the speculative fiction writing genre exactly? What does it include and exclude?

We are Manchester Speculative Fiction, a writing group focussing on speculative fiction. We’re often asked by writers who are thinking of joining us what exactly we mean by ‘speculative fiction’.

So, here’s our definition of Speculative Fiction (which you might also hear referred to as Spec-Fic or Spec Fic).

Speculative Fiction: Definition

The thing that makes speculative fiction different from general fiction is that it focuses on things that don’t exist in the everyday world. It might:

  • Include things that don’t exist in the real world and imagine what those things would be like.
  • Change the laws of physics, or otherwise ignore what’s really possible.
  • Alter human reality (e.g. change society, history, etc.).

But Isn’t All Fiction ‘Speculative’?

Yes, but not in the way we’re talking about.

Clearly, all fiction includes things that don’t exist—that’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction. But Speculative Fiction as a genre doesn’t include novels that ‘speculate’ about the fate of some imaginary characters.

For example, a romance novel is not speculative fiction, because romance is mundane—it exists in the everyday world.

Similarly, the author of a technothriller might have a new secret aircraft in their novel, but although that aircraft is imaginary, aircraft are still common in the everyday world.

Speculative Fiction Genres

Speculative fiction is a ‘super-genre’ or category that includes several other genres. The three most popular genres that it includes are:

  • Science-fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Supernatural Horror

In fact, in a bookshop you’ll often only see a section marked ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy’. Other speculative fiction novels get lumped in with these or in ‘General Fiction’ or even ‘Crime’.

Here are some other genres that are also included in Speculative Fiction:

  • Ghost stories
  • Fairy tales
  • Superhero stories
  • Utopian/dystopian/apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic stories
  • Alternative History
  • Cyberpunk
  • Steampunk
  • Magical Realism
  • Weird Fiction
  • Slipstream

Is Horror Really Speculative Fiction?

Our view is that only some horror counts as speculative fiction. That’s because horror shades into crime.

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, for example, is a horror novel, but there’s nothing in it that isn’t ‘mundane’. The killer in Silence of the Lambs kills in horrific ways, but he kills using everyday objects, like knives. It’s not a speculative fiction novel.

In contrast, Carrie by Stephen King is both horror and speculative fiction because the protagonist kills using her telekinetic powers.

What About Literary Novels?

There are plenty of literary novels that are speculative fiction. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, for example.

Similarly, slipstream as a genre exists on the border between literary fiction and speculative fiction, often having limited speculative elements. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is an example, as are some of William Gibson’s novels.

Some literary novelists don’t like their work being ‘pigeon-holed’ as speculative fiction. Margaret Atwood, for example. But our view is if the writing meets the definition, then it’s speculative fiction and we’re happy to accept slipstream and literary/speculative fiction.

Interested in Speculative Fiction?

If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction and you live within travelling distance of Manchester, then please contact us about coming along to one of our meetings.

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By Graeme Shimmin

Graeme Shimmin has been a member of the Manchester Speculative Fiction Writing Group since 2012 and edited its first two anthologies. His novels have won, or been listed for, multiple prizes including the Terry Pratchett Prize, YouWriteOn Book of the Year and Arthur C. Clarke Award.