Defining a genre often leads to muddled ramblings about what that genre should or shouldn’t be, and normally ends up leaving something important out in the process. That said, there are certain genres that are fairly clear cut. Romance, for example. If you are a romance novelist your readers expect all the joys and sorrows that come with the games of courtship and marriage. However, when it comes to other genres the definitions are unclear and confused. One genre label, which I personally subscribe to, that sadly falls into this unfortunate area of ambiguity is speculative fiction.
So, and I have to ask this: what is speculative fiction exactly? In my mind, speculative fiction is the literary cousin of many popular genres including science fiction, fantasy, dystopia, paranormal fiction, and horror.
I, personally, love to dabble in the realms of science fiction. It allows me to tweak real science and spin it into something wonderful and positive or horrible and macabre. It exists in the world of imagination and has inspired a countless number of people to become scientists and inventors in a bizarre place called the real world. And despite the fact that sci-fi is so wildly popular, it is often criticized (and rightfully so) for missing strong, real characters. In fact, the genre itself is defined by its lack of rich characters, and instead is said to focus on how technology can shape our future. So the primary difference appears to be the focus. Speculative fiction uses the best elements of science fiction, but tends to bend toward the literary. The characters here are meant to be rich, complex, and the focus of the story. In sci-fi, (with plenty of exceptions)the characters are the back drop; in speculative fiction, the science is the backdrop.
But is the science in speculative fiction really science, or is it more akin to fantasy, sci-fi’s older brother?
Fantasy is best described as any fiction where the world the characters inhabit is ruled just as much by magic (or some supernatural force) as it is by the laws of physics. To me, there is a fine line between magic and the pseudo-science that is at the heart of so much of science fiction. For example, The Doctor’s sonic screw driver (from Doctor Who) is often used more like a magic wand than a tool. Even Harry Potter’s wand isn’t as versatile. Speculative fiction doesn’t always define how the magic or the pseudo-science works; it may give an explanation, but only insomuch as is needed to reflect the themes or connect bigger ideas to the characters.
The truth of the matter is that every story is an entity all to itself. Genres only provide vague guides to buyers so that they know what to expect.
What is your take?
CN James’ short story The Dark Room won honorable mention in the 78th Annual writer’s Digest Writing Competition for genre short story. He teaches college writing as well as guitar, and enjoys jazz, alternative rock, watching 80′s cartoons, and experiencing stories with monsters in them.
He holds a Master’s Degree in English Education and a Bachelor’s Degree in Music (Jazz Guitar), and has enjoyed success with his first novel, Bone Machine. Learn more at his networked blog and his website: cnjamesfiction.com.