What is Speculative Fiction? 5 Examples from Books and Film

Explore this flexible term for non-realist writing, and discover iconic examples from sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism

All fiction requires imagination, bringing worlds and characters to life on the page—but some can even transport a reader to parallel dimensions!

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for any writing about non-realistic worlds. Here, we'll explore how it is defined, which subgenres are involved, and where to find inspiration for your own storytelling, with the help of author Andrea Chapela (@alcs99).

Some of Andrea Chapela's literary works.

Andrea is the author of the fantasy tetralogy Vâudïz. Born in Mexico, she studied Chemistry at UNAM, and received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. Her other work includes essay collection Grados de miopía (Degrees of Myopia), and short story collections such as Un año de servicio a la habitación (One Year of Room Service). She also teaches workshops and contributes to magazines like Este País and Literal Magazine.

Though she thinks of each of her books with a specific label, such as “sci-fi” or “fantasy”, she groups her overall work under the term “speculative fiction”.

What is speculative fiction?

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for non-realist genres.

In essence, all speculative fiction asks “what if” questions that imagine a world distinct from our own. Often, it has a specific purpose: an idea it wants to explore through the eyes of another world.

This could mean setting a story in the far future, on an alien planet, or even in our world but with a distortion of reality. It could be a single difference: Andrea notes that in Men in Black, New York functions almost as it does in our reality, except it adds aliens into the mix.

Still from "Men in Black" (1997).
Still from "Men in Black" (1997).

What speculative fiction is not!

We can also consider speculative fiction in opposition to what Andrea terms “mimetic fiction”. Anything that “happens in our real world, as it is”, is mimetic. Novels and stories that are purely romance, contemporary, action, crime fiction, and so on, fall under this bracket. They are stories about events that (even if rare) could actually happen in the world as we know it.

What is the difference between science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction?

If speculative fiction means all fiction that is non-realist, then it has many subgenres. Sci-fi and fantasy can be called subgenres of speculative writing. Other examples include cyberpunk, science fiction, steampunk, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, magical realism, and others.

Of course, each of these subgenres has its own conventions, but when you take a step back, they have a lot in common. You could even include biblical fiction as a member, as it incorporates what some may call magic, as well as imagining realms outside of our own, such as Heaven and Hell.

Books and films recommended by Andrea in her course.
Books and films recommended by Andrea in her course.

Here are some further thoughts on the subgenres, all tied together by that central “what if” question.

1. Science fiction asks “what if” using science and technology (often future-based).

2. Fantasy asks “what if” using magic, imaginary settings, and mythical creatures.

3. Horror asks “what if” using supernatural occurrences, often with a gothic or gory focus.

4. Magical realism asks “what if” with real-world problems and the real human experience, but expressed using magic (see the next section to learn more).

These definitions are brief and incomplete, as each genre is rich with history and diversity.

It’s worth noting that these genres can be slippery, and many writers adjust the definitions to suit their unique work. Some people refer to F&SF, some say “non-mimetic fiction” as the umbrella term. Acclaimed author Alberto Chimal (@albertochimal) coined the term “genre of the imagination”.

And some writers aren’t fans of the term speculative fiction either—sci-fi icon Ursula Le Guin was concerned it watered down hard science fiction and tried to make it “more palatable” to a mass audience, erasing the rich tradition.

Ursula Le Guin pictured in 2009 by Marian Wood Kolisch, via Wikipedia.
Ursula Le Guin pictured in 2009 by Marian Wood Kolisch, via Wikipedia.

Is magical realism speculative fiction?

Magical realism as a distinct movement flourished in the twentieth century in Latin America, and though defining it exactly is tricky, it generally refers to stories that feature magic and supernatural occurrences embedded in realist, everyday life. Usually, the magic reflects a real-world problem.

Magical realism is an interesting member of the speculative fiction group. Andrea shares an essay by Alberto Chimal in which he posits that speculative fiction can be a useful term for sci-fi, magical realism, and other non-realist works in “countries and cultures where there are no markets that can actually support specialized authors, and in which a fantastic imagination is used, necessarily, for other reasons”.

Fiction that resists the “concrete” future proposed by some extremist politics and ideology has existed in Latin American literature for decades if not centuries, often parodying or choosing fantastical lenses through which to examine corruption and lack of freedoms.

Examples of speculative fiction

So speculative fiction can serve a number of purposes using a range of fantastical storytelling devices. Andrea recommends several books, series, and films throughout her course, to help you better understand the breadth of possibilities. Here are just a few to inspire you.

1. Studio Ghibli

The films of Studio Ghibli, directed by Hayao Miyazaki, offer ethereal animated experiences, often through the eyes of a child or young person. Man’s relationship with nature is a key theme, with the wisdom and divinity of the natural world appearing through magical creatures and gods. Try Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, or Spirited Away.

Still from Princess Mononoke (1997).
Still from Princess Mononoke (1997).

2. Ursula Le Guin

Known for her focus on anthropology and philosophy, Le Guin explored life under drastically different political circumstances for humans around her fictional galaxies. Taoism, feminism, and the subversion of older tropes can be found throughout her work. Try The Left Hand of Darkness, the Earthsea series, or The Dispossessed.

3. Jorge Luis Borges

Constructing dreamlike explorations of humanity through mythology and philosophy, Borges’s short stories are essential members of the magical realist canon in Latin America. His best-known works are two short story collections, Ficciones (Fictions) and El Aleph (The Aleph).

4. The Chronicles of Narnia

A magical land in perpetual winter filled with talking animals is discovered by a girl inside a wardrobe: that was the setup for fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, written for children by C. S. Lewis. The seven-book series features many biblical references, and has been adapted into several films.

5. Ted Chiang

Winner of many sci-fi fiction awards, author Ted Chiang explores notions of free will through scientific and philosophical concepts. Read Story of Your Life, a novella about language and memory (and aliens!) which was later adapted into the first-contact movie, Arrival.

Aliens and humans attempt to communicate in this still from "Arrival" (2016).
Aliens and humans attempt to communicate in this still from "Arrival" (2016).

But there are so many other examples. You might also want to check out works by George Orwell, Gabriel García Márquez, Philip K. Dick, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, N. K. Jemisin, and the thousands of others writing in this tradition!

Speculative fiction is always shifting and impossible to nail down—but the term is a useful tool for understanding fiction’s relationship to reality, and its flexibility allows for exciting experimentation.

Learn more about creative writing

As well as our range of writing courses from acclaimed authors and screenwriters, we’ve conjured up a few ideas for where to take your imagination next.

1. Decide which medium you want to tell your narratives in, by learning the difference between a novel and a short story.

2. Unlock your creativity with six free creative writing tutorials, whatever writing level you’re at.

3. Learn about the life of one of the earliest science fiction novelists, Mary Shelley.

4. Deep-dive into narrative writing with this introductory course by Alberto Chimal.

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