“We are only constrained by the boundaries of our imagination”
Humans are storytellers. It’s one of the oldest and most cherished parts of human culture. We huddle around fires, the tiny light pushing back on the encroaching darkness and wilds, listening to tales woven from pure imagination. Tales of what might have been, why things are as they are, and even tales of what might be.
These stories are passed down orally from parent to child while others are passed down in other forms. Some are found painted on the walls of caves, others carved into stone edifices, yet more written on various forms of parchment and paper. These stories help us understand our history, the desires and needs of our religions, current events, or even the laws of the land.
Speculative fiction allows us to explore things that are unknown. It provides a path to explore the places that are out of reach. Sometimes this is because those places only exist in our imaginations, while other times they are places we can’t physically get to yet. It also gives us glimpses of where the world of technology might go.
When Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas (Magasin d'éducation et de récréation [The Magazine of Education and Recreation], March 1869-June 1870) submarines were a technology out of reach for most of the world. Today, submarines are a common vehicle, used for the military, research, and even sightseeing in places. Though not common yet, the technology is no longer out of reach. On the other hand, the portable ultraphones used by Buck Rogers in Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2491 A.D.(Amazing Stories, August 1928) and the portable phone used by Matt Dodson in Robert A. Heinlein’s Space Cadet (Scribner’s Sons, 1948) bear striking resemblance to the now not-so-modern flip phone and Bluetooth earpieces regularly used with smartphones.
On the other side of speculative fiction is fantasy, a genre focused on exploring a form of reality that, as far as we know, doesn’t exist. It is a style that introduces magic, peoples from realms on the other side of the veil, or from distant lands such as Álfheimr, Middle Earth, or Hyboria, and fantastic creatures including unicorns, dragons, and sea serpents. The works range from books written about travel to distant lands through unusual means such as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (George M. Hill Company, 1900) to magic in our own world like Jim Butcher’s Storm Front (Penguin Putnam, 2000).
But where does one draw the line? Where does the influence of the fantastic or unexpected technology move the story from general fiction to speculative? Is there a clear point when a person can say “This is speculative fiction” and brook no argument?
Are the tales of mythology from Greece and Rome fantasy? Or are they only religious writings? What about the Eddas and the Sagas of the Norse? The four Vedas (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda) of Hindu? Is a Hallmark Christmas movie a fantasy because the solution to the problems of the town seems to come about through some miraculous manner?
Is an action-adventure story like Moonraker science fiction because it has laser weapons and a stealthed space station? What about the gadgets seen in the other James Bond films? Do they elevate the others to the level of science fiction or are they only science fiction elements of general fiction?
On another front, are horror stories speculative fiction? They oftentimes involve creatures of nightmares…in the case of the Nightmare on Elm Street and its sequels, literal creatures of nightmares. They may also include magic in the form of witches or darker rituals to summon beings from dark places. Horror stories can even take what are considered creatures of fantasy (Leprechaun, Troll, or Gremlins) or the constructs of science fiction (Chopping Mall, Who Goes There? [found in the collection The World Turned Upside Down ] and use them as the horrific element.Does this make them a form of speculative fiction, or are they in their own wheelhouse, separate and distinct from fantasy and science fiction?
I don’t believe there are any definitive or absolute answers to these questions. I see there are some genres that rely on specific plot elements to exist. Without these elements, the story is usually not considered part of the genre. For example. the mystery, comedy, and romance genres all have distinct plot requirements.
It is my opinion that speculative fiction, on the gripping hand, doesn’t tend to have specific plot element requirements. I see the genre as more settings that can be layered on top of any plot, regardless of what the primary plot is. A backdrop that can change the thrust of the story or bring new and inventive parts to it, but isn’t specifically a plot itself.
These kinds of mixing of plot and settings lead to fantasy mysteries (“The Eyes Have It”, Randall Garrett), science fiction romances (The Ship Who Sang, Anne McCaffery), comedies from both (Another Fine Myth, Robert Asprin and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams), and even speculative fiction westerns (Zeppelins West, Joe R. Lasndale or Territory, Emma Bull).
What is your boundary? Where does the speculative fiction genre end and others begin?