What is Speculative Fiction? Some Thoughts on Genre

I drafted this post back in January when I was trying to add a genre label to Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. I didn’t know what to tag it, so I took to Google and came across the term specfic, short for speculative fiction. I thought, “Aha, yes, that must be right! Wait, what about the other books I’ve labelled scifi? Is spec fiction a better label? What’s the difference…” Oops, now I find myself wading into this debate.

I didn’t realize speculative is such a hotly contested word. Some say speculative encompasses anything “created out of imagination and speculation rather than based on reality and everyday life” (Wiki), some say it’s a pretentious term for SF&F, some say it has a distinct meaning of its own. I fall into that last group. Speculative fiction for me means a story outside the traditional realms of science fiction, fantasy or horror. A speculative fiction book has fantastic (in the “imaginative or fanciful; remote from reality” [Oxford Dictionaries] sense) elements, but not necessarily wizards and magic, aliens and spaceships, monsters and gore. (I realize what I’m saying doesn’t really have a lot to do with the actual meaning of speculative. If we take speculative’s meaning at face value, I agree that it would be a catch all for any fiction. Perhaps the real solution to this labelling problem would be to find a better word in the first place! But for now I’m going to run with speculative.) Unsurprisingly, specfic is difficult to define! I feel I know it when I see it. That’s why I started wondering about it after reading Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day. It’s a book with fantastic stories but you won’t find it shelved with SF+F and it likely won’t be your first recommendation for someone who loves George R.R. Martin or Arthur C. Clarke. Catherynne M. Valente (one of my favourite authors) doesn’t really like the term specfic and says it excludes her (though she’s not sure about scifi or fantasy, either), but for me and my personal definition of the term, specfic better than fantasy describes a story like Palimpset or In the Night Garden.

I took a look at the reviews I’ve labelled scifi to see if specfic is a more accurate label for them. The only one I thought I might change is The Southern Reach trilogy. It’s definitely science fiction but it’s got a lot more going for it. But then I realized I had labelled it scifi and dystopia, so I think it fits my labelling system without me adding specfic. 

For myself, I’ll use specfic as a catch-all term for future oddball reads, that don’t fit neatly into the traditional genre categories. I’ve long used the term eerie in a similar way. Eerie for me replaces horror, which doesn’t really fit the kinds of stories I read. Some of the books can be accurately described as terror, but a lot of them aren’t even really that, they’re just…spooky, or ghostly, or eerie ;P

So what have I concluded from all this? People will define genre however they like and use whatever terms they feel comfortable with. Whether this is good or bad is not something I’m concerned with. I wrote this post to hash out what I mean what I use a genre term. I know I use my own classification system (as I think everyone does to some extent) and I don’t expect all readers to use all genre labels in the exact same way. Heck, I’m sure there are plenty of readers who don’t even care about labelling books in such a manner.

This post has spiralled a bit beyond the two paragraphs I initially thought it would be! Ultimately, any differentiation between scifi, fantasy and spec fiction won’t really impact what I choose to read. I’ll still choose books based on their description or reviews. I don’t think it really matters to me what genres others use to differentiate their reading. I just really like metadata and organizing my reading, so it’s something I enjoy thinking about 😛 Keeping track of reviews by genre helps me connect similar books and find new related reads.

 Do you think about genre as much as I do? Or is it irrelevant for you?

PS – Here are the webpages I visited while researching terms:

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