If you’re not familiar with the term “Speculative Fiction,” your first reaction might reasonably be, “Is there any other kind?” I’m not quite sure why anyone came up with this term. Some people just can’t get enough genres, I guess. But now we’re stuck with it and if you want to blather on about it over beers with friends or, similarly, lead a workshop on the subject, it’s good to have some kind of handle on it and how it relates to other kinds of fiction.
If science fiction revolves around extrapolated science of the here and now, that’s a concept I can get my head around. Miniaturized electronics, implantable computers, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, sub-light speed space travel, 3-D printing of anything you can think of – that’s the stuff of science fiction. Speculative goes further into the realm of “what if?” Once you introduce warp drive, anti-gravity, time travel, aliens – that’s not science fiction in the classical sense. Ditto for mind-reading, psychokinesis, ghosts, zombies, vampires…and so on. So it’s easy to say what is NOT science fiction. But is it spec fiction? Yes, but spec fiction is more than that. It encompasses all of the fantasy genre, as well as parts of slipstream, steampunk, alternative history, horror. That’s why spec fiction is not considered a genre by some, but rather a genre of genres. I find it a useful category for fiction that doesn’t fit comfortably anywhere else. Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” for example.
But then you read something like William Gibson’s “The Peripheral,” which incorporates many “hard science” principles and extrapolations…but also time travel – in a sense. The transmission of information back and forth through time…combined with the technology to transfer consciousness into an avatar…and bingo – you have something nearly indistinguishable from physical time travel, but which breaks fewer rules. So is that sci fi or spec fi?
When in doubt, I go with spec fi. Because bedrock science fiction is based on proven scientific principles. Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is a good example. It’s an adventure on Mars, but nothing that couldn’t happen today, given enough resources and good luck. So if that is true science fiction, every extrapolation is slightly less so, until you reach that fuzzy zone of debate and disagreement, beyond which is the peaceful realm that is unequivocally speculative.
I’d say it’s fun living on the edge, only there is no edge, per se. Just a slippery talus slope that gives way under your boots, as you try to steady yourself and convince others that you know what you’re talking about. Sort of.