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This term has come to mean many things, and in some ways, nothing. On one hand, it envelops science fiction and fantasy and other less mainstream genres, like horror. On the other hand, it might also be a small subset of science fiction, what deals with what could happen in the future without any great leaps in technology that is usually associated with science fiction. Distopian fiction is a big part of this.

The word speculative is related to conjecture, which is an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information. Basically, it is supposing what might happen if circumstances were different. Which is basically all fiction, any story not based on hard fact. Even a lot of history involves some conjecture. That’s why movies are based on true stories, and aren’t true stories themselves.

But in the literary world, it is used to label stories based on circumstances that are unlikely or impossible, hence fantasy and science fiction. Both of these try to explore how humans might react to things that haven’t been experienced yet: magic, alien invasions, exoduses to new worlds, etc. Since they’ve never happened, how can we know at all how people would react? We can’t, but we can guess. And all these things do have some basis in reality, anyway. Some authors even use these events as representation for things that have happened. Our technology is magical in a way. Ask your grandma if she’s still alive. There are people who have seen technology evolve from radios to television to computers to ipads. From cars and trains to rockets and space stations. From telephones to cell phones to iphones. From newspaper to news television to internet. This is magic. How many of us actually understand how the internet works, or their iphone, or biogenetics? The only reason we don’t call it that is because we have scientists telling us this all adheres to the laws of physics. Alien invasions exist as well, just in a different form that extraterrestrial life invading. We’ve had the Romans invade the Greeks, the English invade North America, the Spanish invade South America. United States culture invading the world. And there have been exoduses to new worlds: Moses to the promised land, Europe to America, Latinos to the United States, etc. Science fiction and fantasy are just taking these ideas and showing them through different worlds with different rules.

Some writers, like Margaret Atwood, write about distopian futures and take the label of speculative fiction for themselves. Orwell, Huxley, and others also wrote about the same, although I am only aware of Margaret Atwood separating herself from science fiction and saying she wrote speculative fiction (which felt a bit pretentious to me). Because their books don’t rely so much on technology, they prefer a more literary title (Margaret Atwoods thoughts are explained here). Basically, people often don’t take science fiction seriously, or fantasy for that matter, but there is literary quality work in both genres. Dune is one, The Once and Future King, and other novels have used these genres as ways to delve deeply into humanity. Others in the genres have given them bad names for their superficial treatment. In every genre there is good and bad.

For my preferences, though, we should call everything what it is and not worry about being called science fiction because you might not get some awards. People will see the quality or lack thereof and judge it that way, not by whether it is in some snooty literary genre. And people read to be entertained. Some are entertained by deep ideas, while others want to escape and experience an uncomplicated world. To each his own.

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