Good morning (or evening depending on which hemisphere you’re in), and welcome back to my blog. Today I thought I’d delve into my favourite genre of fiction, and one many people don’t fully understand or perhaps haven’t even heard of – speculative fiction.
Broadly speaking, speculative fiction deals with what might be, or what could have been, and encompasses a wide range of genres including science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural and dystopian, as well as alternate histories.
Speculative fiction has been around for centuries, but it’s still often dismissed as ‘genre fiction’. Genre fiction is also known as ‘popular fiction’, and tends to refer to plot-driven books written to fit a particular genre and attract readers who are already familiar with and fans of that specific genre. It’s most common in crime, fantasy, romance, sci-fi, horror and westerns.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with genre fiction, it serves to provide readers with content they want to read, entertainment and escapism, and that’s no bad thing. It’s more or less the opposite of literary fiction, which tends to be less easy to pigeonhole as one genre or another, and provides a means to better understand the real world via direct references, rather than using metaphors and allegories. Some high-brow literary fiction fans turn their nose up at genre fiction, but it boasts just as many brilliant authors (think Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin) and just as many, if not more sales.
But, not all speculative fiction falls into the category of genre fiction.
Let’s have a look at a few examples of speculative fiction novels and how they fit into the genre:
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for decades, you’ve definitely heard of Jurassic Park, whether that’s due to the blockbuster movies or Michael Crichton’s original novel. The basic premise is “what if dinosaurs could be scientifically engineered today?” and the results are, well, catastrophic to say the least. But the science is credible, Crichton has really put some thought into his story, and that makes the books even scarier and more gripping.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Another one you’ve undoubtedly come across, again possibly because of the movies, but the source material is much deeper and more detailed than the on-screen version. Rowling started with the question “what if magic was real?” and really ran with it, imagining every possible creature, spell and magical object and combining them in an elegant allegory about good and evil.
MARY: The Summoning by Hillary Monahan
We’ve all heard some version of the Blood Mary story, you might even have played the game as a teenager, saying her name into the mirror, scaring yourselves silly for a good laugh. Monahan’s dark YA novel asks “what if the legend of Bloody Mary was real?”. Who was Mary, and why is she out for revenge against teenage girls?
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Dystopian novels often look at a potential, but far-fetched future, focusing on the current day issues we face and asking, ‘what’s the absolute worst case scenario if we continue down this road?’. Atwood’s popular novel has recently been adapted into a brilliantly close-to-the-bone TV series, updated to reflect today’s reality (the original novel was published almost thirty years ago in 1985). The question Atwood focused on is “what if religious fundamentalists took control of the country?”, and her conclusion is equally credible and horrifying.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Written in 1948, Orwell’s novel speculated about a communist future for Britain, setting the story in 1984 (he literally just swapped the digits round to get his time period) and getting so many things scarily right. Whilst he might be partly to blame for Big Brother, his vision of a future dominated by television and surveillance/visibility is shockingly prescient.
And I Darken by Kiersten White
White’s YA historical fantasy novel asks the question, “what if Vlad the Impaler had been female?”, and how would the gender swap impact on the legend we all know? The story highlights the inequalities between men and women in the Ottoman Empire, and imagines what would have happened if a bold, empowered woman like Lada had been the daughter of the Wallachian king.
Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
Probably one of the most interesting ‘what ifs’ possible: “what if the Nazis had won World War Two?”. Graudin’s novel has Hitler surviving and the combined powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan winning the war. With some fantastical elements thrown in, this is a fascinating glimpse of what might have been if the Allies had lost and Nazism survived.
The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare
If you haven’t read the books or seen the 2013 movie with Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower, you might have seen the TV series Shadowhunters with Katherine McNamara and Dominic Sherwood. With the sheer number of supernatural creatures involved, and the vastness of Clare’s fictional world, spanning both space and time over the three series so far (with a fourth in the pipeline I believe), the question The Mortal Instruments centres around is, “what if all the myths and legends were true?”. Mixing urban fantasy with classic supernatural elements, Clare looks at the possibilities in a world where demons, angels, vampires, werewolves, faeries, warlocks, and everything in between, exist.
Speculative fiction isn’t reserved for these genres, if your story looks at what could be, what might have been, or what would happen if, then it might just be a piece of speculative fiction.