Defining Speculative Fiction

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

First, I’d like to announce that KRISTA QUINTANA was randomly selected as our winner for the Starbucks gift card for participating in the survey. Congratulations to Krista!

We had more than 370 people respond to our survey and we are so grateful to you all. We are going to be able to use the information gathered from that survey to improve our blog and it was encouraging to hear that so many of you like what you are reading here already.

One of the survey questions asked about which genre you write in and it was obvious from the responses that the Speculative genre is a mystery to many people. The survey was anonymous so I don’t know who you are, but I’d like to talk about Speculative fiction with you today :)

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for the fantastical fiction genres. I think it’s common to think about Speculative as the genre for a project like The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or House by Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti, where there’s an element of the supernatural in the story without the project being a true sci-fi or fantasy. But the term speculative fiction is much more broad than that.

It includes all science fiction, fantasy, books with supernatural elements, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, “weird” fiction (ghosts, vampires, witches, etc.), and books with fictional alternate history. I’ve even seen horror included in the definition of Speculative, but I’m not sure I would go that far.

Knowing that Speculative Fiction includes all of these types of books, which speculative books are your favorites? Which type of Speculative is your favorite?

If your favorite is Twilight, we will not judge. :) Or maybe you love The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia?

I don’t like sci-fi much at all, but I do enjoy fantasy and books with an element of the supernatural in them–not angels and demons–but something that takes me out of the way the normal world works–like the 7 Hours project that was my client James Andrew Wilson’s idea.

I look forward to your responses!

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57 Comments

  • My favorite speculative novel I’ve read recently was Oath of the Brotherhood by C.E. Laureano. Couldn’t put it down!

  • “Out of the Silent Planet”, hands down.

    It’s interesting that more Christian writers and readers don’t embrace speculative fiction. There are amble hints in Scripture – and sometime’s it’s explicitly said – that our world intersects with one in which Power and Glory manifest as miracles.

    There’s the opposite, too – look at the process by which the Gadarene swine came to take their fatal plunge. Scary stuff, best viewed with a strong Friend at our side.

    I recoil from it, too. I feel safer moving along the two-dimensional pathways of my Flatland world, knowing about what’s Up There by seeing the shadows that pass over my page, but never really looking Up.

    And fearing to look down.

    • Well said, Andrew. Following your line of thought, I’m a Flatlander, albeit one who loves the symbolism imbedded in Scripture.

      I admit to being a Narnia fan. My children will tell you I quoted Aslan often, especially “that is someone else’s story.”

      • I love Narnia, too, though I didn’t read it until I was an adult, and young enough to appreciate it.

        I wonder, though, if Narnia and Lewis’ Space Trilogy are ‘tame lions’; they’re fun because we know that they are removed from anything that is remotely likely to happen to us in our lives.

        Picture yourself in this story…a gang member shoots your child, and, overcome by the enormity of what he’s done, sincerely gives himself to Jesus…and is given the power to restore your child to life, through Jesus’ holy name.

        How would you feel? What would you do?

        What would the courts do? (How would Grisham deal with it?)

        This kind of speculative fiction would be a burr under the saddle blanket for me. Not because the concept’s uncomfortable, but because it may point out the limits of my faith and love as being a lot further from Christ’s example than I like to think.

      • Andrew, it seems like I’ve heard on the news way back about something similar to this happening. Because the offender was sincerely repentant, the parents of the victim asked for him to be released of charges. Think he became like part of their family … his life changed. Nothing less than God at work.

      • Wow, Shelli – that is one I’ll have to look up.

        God does have His ways. Jacob DeShazer was captured by the Japanese after the Doolittle raid on April 18, 1942, and kept in horrible conditions. He was a walking skeleton when he was freed in 1945.

        When he regained his health, he returned to Japan as a missionary.

        The speculative part of this – what would have happened if a man in DeShazer’s position had resisted God’s call, at least at first? Such a strong mission that God wanted…what would He have done?

      • You are asking those “what if” questions, Andrew! Sounds like a good story line to me!

    • Christine Dorman says:

      You make very good points, Andrew. There is speculative fiction–both fantasy and sci-fi–which acknowledges that “there is more to heaven and earth, Horatio….” Also, many fantasy and some science fiction novels have Christian messages even if the messages / values are hidden behind the veil (Tolkien and Lewis are particular examples; JK Rowlings’ writings as well).

      As you say, though, there is the other side. There is speculative fiction that is focused on the demonic. It’s generally quite easy to tell from the back cover blurb which way a novel is focused. I have no desire to spend my time reading about devils and demons, thanks very much, but I love hanging out in the Harry Potter / LOTR / Star Wars worlds were evil exists but is always conquered by goodness.

    • Jim Lupis says:

      Andrew, you would really love the story of Ernest Gordon, an amazing man of God. You may already know about him. The movie “To End All Wars” is about his time in a Japanese POW camp. He was also surrounded by some wonderful Christians who changed his life.

    • “That Hideous Strength” is my fave. Well, Narnia gets the top spot, but then THS. :-)

  • I never used to read speculative fiction, until my teenage daughter decided she loved dystopian novels. Since I often screen her books, I read a lot of dystopian YA and young adult. I’ve really ejoyed some of them. My husband is really into apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. I’ve tried reading his recomendations, but they don’t capture my interest. Thanks for clarifying spec fiction, Rachel! You answered several questions I’ve wondered about.

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      You are welcome! And thanks for screening what your daughter is reading. I wish more parents would do that. :)

  • Jumping on the Harry Potter Platform Nine and Three-Quarters took me forever. But I have enjoyed learning from JK Rowling.

    More than likely, reading vampire books will never be the order of my day. My sister loved vampire movies when we were small, and my mother would let her watch them … with me sitting at her side. These were grown-up movies, and I was under nine and three-quarters. I learned a long time ago not to put anything into my mind that made me go to sleep with the covers over my head or fearful of what might be lurking down the shower drain! :)

    Rachel, if my middle grade fiction has an angelic element (my characters “think” they have seen an angel) … would that make it speculative?

    Very informative post.

    Congratulations, Krista! :)

  • Jill Kemerer says:

    First, congrats to Krista! Woo-hoo!!

    I enjoy the occasional speculative fiction. I couldn’t put down the first book in the Game of Thrones series. And I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy!

    Have a fun weekend!

  • Christine says:

    Great post! Thanks for clarifying. Who knew this is a genre I love. Some of my favs: Graceling, The Selection, Cinder, Poison Study, and Eona.

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      I need to re-read The Selection so I can read books 2 and 3! I’m not a big fan of cliffhanger endings, so I wanted to wait for the whole series to release before continuing on. It’s time now!

  • Angela Mills says:

    I’ll admit it, I liked Twilight! This Present Darkness is one of my favorites, if that’s speculative. I’m still not 100% sure how it’s defined. I do like many of the YA dystopian books, too.

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      I will admit that I love the Twilight movies. For some reason they make me so happy. They are so silly that I can’t help but feel better after watching them. I like them better than the books because the books were so serious. The movies try to be serious, but it is just laughable.

  • I don’t like ghosts and vampires, but I’ve always liked Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, dystopian novels, and some supernatural-type stuff, so I guess I do like speculative fiction. I’ve read some great dystopian YA. I am one of those who wasn’t sure of the definition before. Thanks for clearing that up, Rachel! :)

  • Christine Dorman says:

    Congratulations to Krista and thank you to Rachel and all of the Books and Such agents for asking for feedback on the blog. It’s a brave move and shows a genuine interest in wanting to be of service.

    I, of course (since I write it), love fantasy, especially anything to do with unicorns, dragons, or enchanted forests. My favorite fantasy novels are those written by J.R.R. Tolkien, not just the Lord of the Rings (which I consider one of the best novels ever, but The Hobbit and The Silmarillion as well. The Silmarillion has wonderful theology in it, by the way, for those who are not familiar with the book. I also am quite fond of The Chronicles of Narnia. Star Wars did not start off as literature, but the movies were novelized and there is a galaxy of Star Wars novels. I love the original characters and the celebration of selflessness and goodness in the series. Also, I love George Lucas’ prologue to the novelization of the original Star Wars. He talks about the great republic which once had been and which now has been taken over by the evil empire. He says that the tree (the republic) was so strong that it could withstand any enemy from without, but that it corrupted from within. I always felt he was talking about the United States, and I’m afraid to say that, judging by somethings that are going on today, he might have been prophetic. On a more positive note, though (as Star Wars is so optimistic) I love how the stories emphasize the belief in a power greater than oneself that, if listened to, can give one the power to defend the helpless and bring about peace and justice. I also like that going over to the Dark Side is a choice, not a fate.

    I came to the Harry Potter books slowly, but now I love the characters and what the overarching story is about. Harry’s willingness to die for the sake of others and so that goodness will be victorious is so Christian in its message.

    Star Trek is another piece of speculative fiction which started in an non-book form but has moved into literature. Star Trek has always taught important moral lessons in a way that engaged its audience to an extent that they let their defenses down and let the messages sink in. That, to me, is the great value of sci-fi and fantasy: it can address important social and moral truths (as well as theology in the case of Tolkien and Lewis and others) without coming across as preachy. Thus it can reach an audience that might otherwise be closed to the messages. The other value for me, as you mentioned, Rachel, is it lets me go play for a while in another wonderful world and opens me to the realization that I have a lot in common with those who might seems alien to me.

    A blessed Memorial Day weekend to everyone! :)

  • Sheila King says:

    I enjoy reading speculative fiction and recently finished a middle-grade novel featuring benevolent doppelgangers. I think that would count as speculative.
    The genre seems pretty broad, and I am curious if all futuristic stories are lumped in. For example, “Shipbreakers” and “The Road” are dystopian and futuristic although they have no SciFi bent.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    I believe we need to be very cautious with speculative fiction, especially as Christians. It is exciting to stretch our imagination, but not at the expense of the Word of God. Some speculative fiction I have read have crossed
    that line.

    We do not change the Word of God. The Word of God changes us.

    Very stimulating post, Rachel.

    • Very good point, Jim.

      I think that the best speculative fiction looks at how we might react to things that are Scriptural, and yet are out of our daily experience.

      Looking at “What if Jesus returned today?” invokes something of a problem in that regard, as we’d have to try to animate Jesus’ actions on the pages of OUR book, and it would be too easy to cross the line of writing our preferences instead of His.

      We have plenty of material we can use, though, both from Scripture and from events in life that are congruent with Scripture.

      As a small example, I read recently of a Navajo code talker, Samuel Tso, who was on Iwo Jima, and was rightly convinced that he was going to die. (It was the Marines’ costliest battle – ever.)

      And then he had a dream that a young Indian woman came to him., handed him something, and said, “Here, wear this, and you’ll come back to us.”

      When he woke, he skipped breakfast, thinking on the dream.

      Mail call came, and Tso didn’t go – his family was illiterate, and there was no one who wrote to him.

      But a friend came to him with a letter, addressed to Tso, and with no return address.

      Inside was a necklace, made of cedar tree berries arrayed on a string, with a cross of cedarwood.

      He never found out who sent it.

      And he survived the war, and the peace.

      (From Larry Smith’s “Iwo Jima: WW II Veterans Remember The Greatest Battle Of The Pacific”.)

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      Great point!

  • I love speculative fiction – both sci fi and fantasy.

    My favorite is space opera (as opposed to hard sci fi). Space opera is all about the characters, and the fantastical setting just lets you put the characters in new and unique situations. Love it! (Lois McMaster Bujold is the best at this, IMHO.)

    • Rachel Kent Rachel Kent says:

      I’ve never heard of space opera before! I don’t usually read any sci-fi, so it’s an unknown genre to me for the most part.

      I have read Ender’s Game.

      • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

        Ooh, The Honor Harrington books are Space Opera. So is Star Wars (hubby just informed me) The Honor Harrington books always have a huge amount of world and plot building that drops clues slowly up until this huge showdown with lots of shooting and blowing up of spaceships at the end. Very fun books, if you can wait patiently for the big ending.

  • Congratulations, Krista! Don’t forget to try a pumpkin scone with your coffee!

    Rachel, I adore Chronicles of Narnia! I also swoon over Somewhere in Time (wish it was a book) with Jane Seymour the late Christopher Reeve, and I recently ordered The Lost Horizon DVD because I remembered being intrigued by it as a child. I’ve never read the book, but I’d like to.

    And I must admit—I have read the complete Twilight series—and liked it. It’s the love story, people! Now, that being said—I’m not into “vampire” books or The Night of the Living Dead TV series. Or is it The Waking Dead? No, maybe it’s The Walking Dead. Lol

    Yes. I write Heartfelt, Homespun Fiction. But I also think writers should be well-read. (Except for the Fifty Shades kind of thing. Yuck. Whole ‘nother post!)

    Have a great weekend, everyone!

  • Elissa says:

    I believe in the power of myth. I don’t mean “myth” as in falsehood, but rather the idea of things greater than ourselves. A common theme in fantasy is a character who must tap into a power greater than himself (or herself) to defeat corruption, often requiring a sacrifice of some kind on the hero’s part.

    Is it any wonder that many fantasy novels can be seen as Christian allegories even when they weren’t intended as such?

    • Unintended..? Depends on who holds the intent.

      Christian thought has informed many a pen wielded by an unwitting hand.

      Sure, and doesn’t God sometimes draw straight with crooked lines?

      • Elissa says:

        You hit my meaning straight on, Andrew.

      • I love that, Andrew! “God draws straight with crooked lines” and He can just color right out of those lines! Our minds can’t wrap around the awesomeness of Him. And I bet He can get away with using adverbs, too! :) Could not resist that! :) (JK Rowling uses them … not too many though!)

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Goodness,
    So many books to love. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas, The Lord of the Rings, The Beyonders Trilogy, The Lightning Thief, The Hunger Games, Artemis Fowl, How to Train Your Dragon, InkHeart, Ender’s Game, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Selection, and yes I did enjoy Twilight as well…some Christian Speculative that I love: In the Hall of the Dragon King by Stephen Lawhead, Failstate by John Otte, and Daughter of Light by Morgan Busse, I also enjoyed This Present Darkness back in the day.

  • I never cared for speculative fiction. Too frightening, I think. But you mentioned Chronicles of Narnia, Rachel. Maybe I have dipped my toes in….

    • Meghan, a lot of people have dipped their toes in and don’t even realize it. ;-)

      That’s the unfortunate thing about genre divisions. People think, oh, I don’t read . . . until someone mentions a few titles.

      Becky

  • Congratulations, Krista.

    Speculative fiction remains a mystery to me. I think that’s because fantasy, sci-fi, and dystopian have never been my favorite genres.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say my favorite is The Stand by Stephen King, which though I’ve always kind of thought of as horror is really more dystopian in nature. Government accidentally releases an uber flu germ that wipes out a majority of the population. The survivors end up meeting in one of two places–Boulder, Colorado (the good guys) and Las Vegas, Nevada (the not so good guys)–to start life over again before the final face off.

    My daughter is enthralled with the Divergent series.

    Thanks for wiping away some of the mystery, Rachel.

  • Sue Harrison says:

    I appreciate the definition of speculative fiction. I really didn’t realize it included all those genres. I just finished reading WOOL. I can’t say it is my favorite of speculative fiction that I’ve read, but I was totally intrigued by the unusual world the author created.

  • Thank you!

    I really love all types of speculative fiction, I don’t know that there’s an easy way to choose.

    Probably on the Science fiction side, I would have to say Ender’s Game. I can still start reading that and be enthralled.

    On the fantasy side, well, there’s just way too many to choose.

  • Bonnie Doran says:

    I enjoy a lot of speculative fiction novels in the general market. In many of them, the author either ignores religion completely or makes up his own. I’m enjoying a novel by Stephen Lawhead who writes in the general market with a Christian worldview. I intend to submit my science fiction novel to the general market because that’s where the Christian message needs to be.

    • Bonnie, thought you might be interested, Stephen Lawhead’s latest books, the Bright Empires series, which is multiverse science fiction/alternate history is published by Thomas Nelson. It’s a five book series and book five is probably coming out this fall. If I remember, book one is The Skin Map. I think the series is Lawhead’s best.

      Becky

      • Bonnie Doran says:

        That’s the series I’m reading, Becky! I’m on the second book. I think it’s Well of Souls. Thanks for letting me know that there are at least four books already published in the series.

  • Jennifer McGinnis says:

    I love a lot of the books mentioned, and since the series I’m going to mention is by Stephen King, I’ll also point out from the message above about the stand – the end of The Stand is very allegorical to Christian good v evil. Including the sacrifice and everything.

    So my favorite spec fic is The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. It’s a mystical, magical, world-hopping, spaghetti western, fantasy, hero’s journey kind of novel that also pits good against evil, but in much grayer ways than many spec fic or Christian allegorical novels. It fits into so many genres – not everything SK does is horror, and this has a bit of that in it, but is on so many levels spec fic.

    And I like that the ending is…well, the ending is unexpected and intriguing, to say the least. (oh, and some meta fiction in there to shake things up)

  • Marian O'Brien Paul says:

    I concur with your comment:
    “I don’t like sci-fi much at all, but I do enjoy fantasy and books with an element of the supernatural in them–not angels and demons–but something that takes me out of the way the normal world works ….”

    I have a short novel set in Ireland that plays with taking the main character “out of the way the normal world works.”

  • My favorite speculative genre is epic fantasy. I really enjoyed Patrick Carr’s A Cast Of Stones (nominated for several awards, including the Clive Staples and the Christy, Visionary Category). Karen Hancocks are still some of my favorite Christian speculative, especially her Guardian-King series. I also like Jill Williamson’s dystopian, the Safe Lands series (book one is Captives). I’m not a big fan of Arthurian legend stories and yet I love Robert Treskillard’s The Merlin Spiral series.

    I’m also not a big sci fi fan, but whenever I read one, I end up enjoying it: Kathy Tyers Firebird, Chris Walley’s Lamb Among The Stars trilogy, John Otte’s Numb (also up for the Christy Award).

    Then there are Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s fairytale fantasies (another Christy finalist, and she’s already won two). So unique and so well written.

    Lots of good Christian speculative fiction these days.

    Becky

    • Lacee says:

      I agree, Becky! There are lots of good choices out there now.

      Pretty much all Christian fiction I read is speculative and there are some wonderful choices out there. They encourage me to trust God through any difficulties when I see the heroes fighting impossible battles.

      Patrick Carr and Anne Elisabeth Stengl are my favorites.

  • Preslaysa says:

    Hmm, I love novels about fairies. One of my faves is Wings by Aprilynne Pike

  • I write speculative fiction.

    I write Romance with magic, and I write otherworld Fantasy (aka fantasy that takes place somewhere other than Earth. Think Narnia, MiddleEarth, etc.).

    I love the escapist nature of speculative fiction.

  • I’ve come to the conclusion that my current series IS indeed speculative fiction — which is what I thought in the first place. It’s a futuristic re-telling of the Biblical story of Nehemiah, but starts with him at 13 instead of adulthood like the Biblical narrative. The setting is a post-apocalyptic Europe, where kings rule once again.

    The very first query contest I entered it into a couple months back, the slush-pile peeps told me (through a generic Twitter post), “People, Speculative Fiction is not a genre!” I argued back of course, but they had already disqualified me for the “mistake” — and their explanation was that you can’t go into B&N and find it labeled as such on the shelves. Can’t tell ya how frustrated I was.

    BUT, I love how you describe it here, Rachel. My question is, what is the market for this genre — and IS it labeled like that in book stores?

  • Lynn Johnston says:

    I have same concerns. I write speculative fiction (inspirational stories with a touch of sci-fi or super natural elements) Is there currently a market for such a genre?

  • Bonnie Doran says:

    In my opinion, speculative fiction is a tough sell in the Christian market, especially science fiction. A publisher accepted my first novel because it is technically a science thriller. It’s set in current times with existing technology. However, because it’s right on the edge, my sci-fi friends enjoy it as well. Markets change, however. What’s hot this year might not sell next year. Publishers have to make a living.

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