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Speculative Fiction: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Paranormal

What they share and how they’re different.

June 13, 2018

BC Marine, CAO, Authors 4 Authors Publishing

A several weeks ago, we looked at what genres are and the definitions we at Authors 4 Authors Publishing use. This week, it’s an overview of speculative fiction.

Why Speculative Fiction?

As we’ve noted in previous posts about other genres, depending on context, any genre can have varying definitions. Speculative Fiction is no different. Some might define it narrowly as part of a spectrum of science fiction, but it can also be defined as a sort of super-genre or an umbrella under which several others can be classified. Though it might seem counter intuitive, we find the latter definition much more useful.

Why?

Because the genres that it encompasses are so fluid that they often have trouble staying in their boxes. Having a wider definition captures stories that would otherwise be difficult to contain in those genres.

To summarize, speculative fiction is any fiction that asks “what if” and makes up a world or scenario that, while plausible, isn’t possible in our world.

The Elements of Speculative Fiction

So what are these fluid genres? Over the next month, we’ll go over each of these one-by-one, but for the sake of understanding this article, here is a quick overview of all four:

  • Fantasy - While the genre has only been defined since the mid-20th century, fantasy elements have been in stories for as long as they’ve existed. Talking animals, magic, mythical creatures, and imaginary lands are staples of fantasy. Stories feature the impossible and often strive for a sense of wonder. If something does not and could not exist in the real world, it is likely to be fantasy.
  • Science Fiction (sci-fi) - Dating back to the 19th century, science fiction extrapolates scientific concepts and technology beyond their current scope. Space travel, time travel, cloning, genetic enhancement, and robots are staples. Stories feature the not-yet possible and often strive for a sense of wonder. If something does not exist in the real world, but maybe could someday, it is likely to be science fiction.
  • Horror - Like fantasy, elements of horror have existed as long as stories have, but the genre came into its own some time around the 18th century. At its simplest, a horror story seeks to scare the reader. Monsters, psychological fears, and the darkness of humanity are staples. Stories feature anything from the improbable to the impossible and strive for a sense of terror. If something is disturbing or insomnia-inducing, it is likely to be horror.
  • Paranormal - Again, paranormal and supernatural elements have existed throughout history. Ghosts, angels, some monsters, UFOs, and legendary creatures are staples. Stories feature the unexplained and improbable and strive for a sense of wonder or mystery. With the exception of deities, if something has never been proven to exist in the real world yet still has believers, it’s likely paranormal.

Common Ground and Blurred Boundaries

As you probably noticed, there is a lot of overlap between these genres. If you think hard enough, you might even able to name a story that qualifies as all four! Sometimes, especially with an ongoing series that may dip in and out of the genres at points, it can be easier to simply classify it as speculative fiction and move on. Also, when looking for new books, readers are often led to a general selection of speculative fiction because it’s not uncommon for fans of one of the genres to like the others as well.

Common Cross-Genres

All that said, some of the crossover between these fluid genres can defined in popular subgenres.

Science Fantasy

These stories combine magic with technology. Ever heard people debate whether the top two movie franchises in the world are science fiction or fantasy? Star Wars has laser swords and spaceships (sci-fi) as well as heroes that wear robes and wave their hands like wizards to do what is essentially magic (fantasy). The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, has aliens and power armor (sci-fi) as well as sorcerers and illusions (fantasy). They have the improbable with the impossible and and overall sense of wonder. They’re science fantasy.

Time Travel

This is typically a sci-fi subgenre, but it’s worth noting that it often shows up in fantasy as well. Usually, the method of travel will indicate whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy. If it’s a machine, it’s probably sci-fi, and if it’s a spell, talisman, or ritual, it’s probably fantasy. But sometimes, the travel itself is not the point of the story, and so the method isn’t made clear. If there are no other indicators in the rest of the story, it might just be time travel speculative fiction.

Dark Fantasy

The child of fantasy and horror, this genre generally has all the trappings of fantasy but intends to disturb and frighten readers. A story with dragons and wizards but also terrifying spider demons? That would be dark fantasy.

Dystopian and Space Horror

Science fiction and horror can combine in a few different ways. Dystopian stories have settings in which the world or society has been ruined, usually via technology in the wrong hands. Space horror explores the more frightening possibilities of alien life or planets or even space travel itself. Both look at the advancements of sci-fi in the worst possible scenario.

Paranormal Horror

This is one of the most natural pairings. When people think of ghost stories, they tend to assume they’ll be scary. The divergence of the two genres is relatively recent, but they are different. A paranormal horror story is the classic ghost story, unknown and frightening.

One Weird Family

Like family members, fantasy, science fiction, horror, and paranormal are all different, but they all have something in common. Speculative fiction stories are all a little strange. It’s what makes them speculative. Their authors look at the world and fundamentally change it for their stories. It’s all a matter of what they change.

Next Time

Over the next few weeks, we’ll delve deeper into each of these genres. Look for next week’s post on fantasy. Have a favorite to read? Let us know on Facebook which of these genres you want to see more of!