Fictional writing taking place in the future which uses established scientific principles to describe an event. Usually, this is some future society, and speculative fiction shows how the society works with the new technology. Similar to sci-fi, but this category generally excludes ideas known to be physically impossible. All hard SF could qualify as speculative fiction, but not all speculative fiction is hard SF.

In 6th grade, the reading instructor started a unit on speculative fiction. He gave what I consider to be the one of best and most useful definitions of it:
Speculative fiction is fiction that asks the question "What if..."
This definition envelops alternate history, plain science fiction, hard sf, soft sf, horror, and fantasy (both alternate world and sword and sorcery) quite readily. It could arguably be pushed to envelop historical fiction and most other fiction, but the "What if..." involved might get quite unwieldy. Speculative fiction tends to push on concepts of reality — or focus on what is essential about our own humanity. The term appears to have been coined by Robert Heinlein, based on a brief search of that fountain of knowledge, Google.

Some examples of What if:

As far as I understand it, speculative fiction was a term first used by writers in the second half of the 1960's who wanted to distinguish their work both from more conventional 'hard' SF, and the turgid Science Fantasy genre then gathering pace. They quite consciously retained the magic initials 'SF' in order to acknowledge their 'heritage', but disparaged the un-literary and superficial tales of either the "whizz-bang", rocket-wars end of the genre or the sub-Lovecraftian "ew-splatt" variety. The writers who had worked within, but transcended, the traditional SF forms were their starting point and inspiration (though many claimed inspirations more within the traditional literary canon, such as James Joyce and Franz Kafka.)

A transatlantic alliance of new writers formed, including Michael Moorcock, Norman Spinrad, John Sladek, Donald Barthelme - who at first could only find an outlet for their more unusual pieces in the Moorcock-edited New Worlds magazine, which would publish works using unconventional and experimental narrative forms and styles, and was more interested in talking about people and societies than about technologies or weird slimy creatures.

Typical of this were the sequence of Jerry Cornelius stories published there. Moorcock invented the character, and a way of writing fiction - purposely otiose, using obscure references without stating them, parodic of 60's culture, blending newspaper headlines and current news items with the 'action' - and several New Worlds writers took up the baton and ran with it, writing their own Cornelius stories and paying little regard to any superficial consistency between their respective efforts.

The genre 'arrived' in the States in 1972 with the publication of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology, and its sequel Again Dangerous Visions, containing stories from many 'new wave' American writers such as David Gerrold (for such he was, then) and Carol Emshwiller, as well as contributions from 'older wave' writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut (The Big Space Fuck) and Ray Bradbury (Christ, Old Student in a New School) trying their hand at the 'new thing'. Philip K. Dick, somewhere in between these two generations, contributed the outstanding Faith of our Fathers, which caused a furore, and had a damaging effect on Dick's career, when Ellison claimed in the accompanying preamble that it had been written under the influence of LSD (which PKD always denied).

As things have turned out, SF has evolved into something of a continuum, between straightahead adventure writing set in the future, and the more social and literary concerns of today's speculative fictioneers, but it's unlikely the best contemporary writers operating between the two (I would name Greg Egan leaning towards one side and Iain M. Banks towards the other) would be creating works with the depth and relevance that they do, without those pioneering efforts.

As I understood as a term, Speculative fiction is a term used not to differentiate, but to include all literature that takes place in a universe slightly different from our own. In essence it includes all the sub genres of both science fiction and fantasy, including Hard SF, Alternate History and Sword and Sorcery. Writers from each sub-genres often cross over to the other in search of a good story. David Brin's novel The Practice Effect effectively straddles both disciplines as does Ron Sarti's The Chronicles of Scar. Orson Scott Card once described the difference as being whether the writer chooses to use spaceships and aliens in his story, as opposed to trees and elves. Or vice versa.

Traditional sword and sorcery tends to romanticize elements of the Arthurian Legend, mythology and medieval chivalry. I enjoy much of the genre, but it looks to the past and often glosses over the less desirable disadvantages of those lives, such as serfdom. After all, somebody had to clean Lothlorien’s latrines!

I think this romantic view almost necessary to enjoying the literature. While many of us can be gripped by great ideas, the romance of warping through space or dining with Tom Bombadil is part of what draws us to the literature. We get to imagine ourselves doing great things, and/or exploring new, fresh worlds. In this literature we get to recapture the thrill of discovering our world. It also frees writers to pursue their own personal vision. It is hard to imagine Gene Wolfe's brilliant imagination flourishing within the mainstream, though some of his work, like Peace defies categorization.

Science fiction is much more a literature of ideas. Larry Niven once wrote that while contemporary literature centered on character studies, SF was oriented on characters acting to affect their world, rather than simply reacting to this. In essence, he referred to it as a literature of action rather than being.

But Speculative Fiction in all its forms gives authors the ability to ask relevant questions about our society in a way that would prove provocative in more mainstream forms. The alternate universe or civilization provides an emotional and intellectual distance that permits a more dispassionate thought process. Ursula K. LeGuin used her hermaphroditc Gethenians to explore gender in her masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness. Brin turned "The Island of Dr. Moreau" on its head with his Uplift series of novels. JR Dunn's challenging Days of Cain presents the Holocaust as a horrific lesson necessary for human social evolution.

In the introduction to the religious section in his short story anthology, Maps in the Mirror, Card described SF as the last true bastion of religious literature. To paraphrase him, most contemporary religious fiction preaches to the converted, it shows people who discover God and all their problems go away. Or they sin and are wrathfully punished. This simplistic approach may please true believers, as it reifies their beliefs. But it doesn’t ask the more relevant questions, which concern the implications of faith. Faith can lead many to good works, but as we have seen with al-Quaeda its misapplication may lead to horrible violence. Card explored the dark side of faith in his novel Children of the Mind where the smartest person in the universe is trapped into self destructive behavior by her belief. For all her intellect, she cannot accept new data when it attacks her strongly held beliefs.

Speculative Fiction in all its forms is a literature of freedom, freedom for the author to lose the chains of conventional thought, and freedom for the reader to lose themselves in discovery

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