What Is Speculative Fiction? Defining and Understanding the Different Genres of Speculative Fiction

Written by MasterClass

Jun 21, 2019 • 3 min read

Books can immerse a reader in a world that is entirely different than their own with an exciting set of possibilities, new characters, and different rules. Unleash your creativity with the speculative genre of fiction.


What Is Speculative Fiction?

Speculative fiction is a literary “super genre,” which encompasses a number of different genres of fiction, each with speculative elements that are based on conjecture and do not exist in the real world. Sometimes called “what-if” books, speculative literature changes the laws of what’s real or possible as we know them in our current society, and then speculates on the outcome.

The History of Speculative Fiction

Writers have written about hypothetical events for centuries. Speculative fiction dates back to ancient Greece when playwrights like Euripides explored alternate versions of the truth. For example, in Medea, Euripides speculated a world in which a shamaness killed her own children, rather than them being killed by the Corinthians.

Stories like William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are also considered speculative fiction, even though the term did not exist at the time. A Midsummer Night’s Dream conjures a world in which characters move seamlessly through time and space in the woodland and the Fairyland; The Lord of the Rings speculates mythical creatures that do not exist in our world.

The term “speculative fiction” was used for the first time by Robert Heinlein in 1947. The terms was largely associated with only the science fiction genre in the late twentieth century, as science fiction is a widely-read genre that contains speculative elements. The term expanded in the twenty-first century to encompass more subgenres beyond just science fiction, like fantasy and dystopian literature. Today, speculative fiction is a blanket term for the stories that take place beyond our known world.

Margaret Atwood defines speculative fiction as literature that deals with possibilities in a society which have not yet been enacted but are latent. Margaret got the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale from a conversation she had with a friend in the early 1980s when, in reaction to the advances of feminism during the previous two decades, a strain of cultural conversation worried over how to get women “back into the home.” Margaret wondered what it would take to do that; what kind of regime might enact such a reversion. In Gilead, the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, certain women who have the now-rare ability to have children are deemed “handmaids,” and are allocated to an upper class families as reproductive slaves. Learn more about speculative fiction in Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass.

Sub-genres of Speculative Fiction

Most speculative fiction novels fall under at least one of the following genres. Some may fall into multiple genres depending on the story structure:

  • Science fiction: stories with imagined technologies that don’t exist in the real world, like time travel, aliens, and robots.
  • Sci-fi fantasy fiction: sci-fi stories inspired by mythology, folklore, and fairy tales that combine imagined technologies with elements of magical realism.
  • Supernatural fiction: sci-fi stories about secret knowledge or hidden abilities including witchcraft, spiritualism, and psychic abilities.
  • Space opera fiction: a play on the term “soap opera,” sci-fi stories that take place in outer space and center around conflict, romance, and adventure.
  • Urban fantasy fiction: fantasy stories that take place in an urban setting in the real world but operate under magical rules.
  • Utopian fiction: stories about civilizations the authors deem to be perfect, ideal societies.
  • Dystopian fiction: stories about societies deemed problematic within the world of the novel, often satirizing government rules, poverty, and oppression.
  • Apocalyptic fiction: stories that take place before and during a huge disaster that wipes out a significant portion of the world’s population. The stories center around characters doing everything they can to stay alive—for example, running from zombies or trying to avoid a deadly plague.
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction: stories that take place after an apocalyptic event and focus on the survivors figuring out how to navigate their new circumstances—for example, emerging after a global nuclear holocaust or surviving a total breakdown of society.
  • Alternate history fiction: stories that focus on true historical events but are written as if they unfolded with different outcomes.
  • Superhero fiction: stories about superheroes and how they use their abilities to fight supervillains.

Discover Margaret Atwood’s tips for writing great speculative fiction here.