Genre Story Engineering

Speculative Fiction – a new approach to genre and subgenres

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

As my portfolio starts to expand (the complete Divided Elements series is published next year, and my standalone gothic novel will be either self-published or on submission), and as I make my way through the WIPs-in-waiting (so many, so, so, so many), I’ve been thinking about genre. Specifically, what genre my writing fits into. My stories are definitely speculative fiction, but that is a broad church – the great-grandmother of all the niche SFF sub-genres out there -and I want a more specific descriptor for my works, even if that descriptor doesn’t match the dedicated bookstore shelf-space categories (or Amazon categories).

[Disclaimer: What follows are my ideas and perspectives on genre, particular speculative fiction genres – what they are, how they relate to one another, what defines them.]


Speculative Fiction

To understand the range of speculative fiction subgenres, we must first understand the great matriarch herself. For me, Speculative Fiction is the subverting of current reality, presented in the past, in contemporary times, or in the future.

In all fiction, writers tell stories of imagined people and events (as opposed to non-fiction, which present faithful retellings of real people and events). In speculative fiction, writers tell stories of imagined people and events in an imagined world. That’s not to say spec fiction stories can’t happen on Earth or in downtown Ballarat – worlds are more than just locations; they are natural and built environments, socio-economic and political structures, laws of nature, technological frameworks, and scientific realities.

Speculative fiction takes these current realities and subverts, contorts, and reworks them into a reimagined reality; where walking back in time is as easy as walking to the corner shop, where conjuring the spirit of a dead man is as easy as popping up toast before it burns in the toaster, where controlling water with your mind is as easy as using your hand to turn on a tap, and where shifting into a new species is no less incredible than shifting the pitch of your voice.


Science Fiction and Fantasy

On the next rung of the genre family tree, just below Great-Grandmother Speculative Fiction, are Science Fiction and Fantasy. Both inherit their mother’s tendency of subverting reality, but Science Fiction is your Type 1 – all laws of nature still apply, whereas Fantasy is your typical Type 7 – anything goes so long as you’re having fun. And then there’s Science Fantasy, the Type 9 of the group, who doesn’t know if it wants to be Sci-Fi or Fantasy and ends up straddling the line between both of them.

Essentially, Sci-Fi stretches the boundaries of what could be real in a broad range of spatial and temporal dimensions, without breaking the immutable laws of science – Newton’s laws of motion, Mendel’s law of inheritance and segregation, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Planck-Enstein law of wave-particle duality, the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty… The key phrase in all of this is ‘without breaking’ – good sci-fi does not slavishly follow scientific principles; it pokes and prods at the dark spots and cracks and picks at the edges, looking for loopholes and ambiguities and conflicts with other theorems and principles – the places where fiction can worm its way in and create a speculative narrative.

Fantasy, on the other hand, has no regard to scientific laws that set constraints on what realities can be imagined – no one puts Baby in a corner! Fantasy is only limited by internal coherence and consistency. Essentially, a fantasy writer is the Creator God of their world, where science fiction writers still obey the Ultimate God of the universe.

Science Fantasy is a trompe l’oeil that fakes you into thinking fantasy elements are scientifically valid (‘I haven’t broken any laws, I’ve just heated them up and stretched them A LOT’ (jks – I totally broke them)). It’s the snake oil merchant, selling you fantasy under the guise of science. It’s the gold plated option – enough of the real deal on the surface, but only layers of silver underneath. This sounds like I’m quite anti- Science Fantasy, but I actually love it. It can be highly entertaining to read and very liberating to write. Some of my favourite books to read and movies to watch fit this sub-genre.


SFF Sub-Genres

Science fiction, fantasy and science fantasy each have their own progeny. [Disclaimer: these are not the sub-genres you’d typically see in these kinds of discussions. I’ve created my own taxonomy, my own SFF family tree, and I wanted to move beyond descriptors of story-telling (e.g. Epic Fantasy) or spatial/temporal descriptors (e.g. Urban Fantasy, Space Opera), to get to the heart of what makes these sub-genres tick.]

Fantasy:

  • Sorcery – where magic, curses, charms, spells, and necromancy abound. Magic is the cornerstone of this subgenre and magical principles are set up as the laws of nature (in contrast to the scientific principles we see in our reality). Sorcery stories can also explore various magic users and classes. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is a classic example.
  • Mythical Races – featuring worlds where there is a vast array of humanoid diversity – mythical species that could be close cousins to homo sapiens – elves, fairies, goblins, brownies, satyrs, ogres, sirens, sprites, pixies, nymphs, sidthe, mermaid, imps, gnomes, cyclops, centaurs. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a good example of the Mythical Races subgenre.
  • Mythical Beasts – which reimagines the animal kingdom with some extraordinary additional species (typically featured in folklore and ancient mythology), often with paranormal abilities (mindreading, elemental manipulation, flying in spite of limited biological capacity to do so) – unicorns, kraken, griffins, chimera, dragons, basilisks…
  • Supernatural – which feature events and entities that exist outside our natural dimension. Typically, supernatural stories reference the divine and otherworldly – gods, demons, miracles, fate and destiny, wish fulfillment, death and the afterlife, lucid dreaming, etc.
  • Magical Realism – where everything is ‘normal’ and as to be expected, except for one fantastical element, which (because it is surrounded by normalcy) is viewed as normal for this world. Like animals who can speak, people who can levitate, twin moons in the sky, babies able to communicate with their mothers in the womb, body parts made of glass, trees that bear golden apples. Most fairy tales are magical realism stories – the ugly duckling (animals speaking), little red riding hood (wolf impersonating grandmother), princess and the pea (being able to perceive the imperceivable), beauty and the beast (a cursed prince). Leanne Hall’s This is Shyness is a great, modern and Australian example of this – a fictional city in the real world.
  • Speculative Worlds – which stem from the creation of a new ‘world’ in a completely imagined reality (with no links, reference, or connection to our own pan-dimensional reality (that is, the array of planets, galaxies, dimensions, etc that could (even fantastically) be part of the reality we exit in). Marie Rutotski’s The Winner’s Curse is an example of this.

Science Fantasy

  • Paranormal – whose prefix comes from the Ancient Greek word pará, meaning adjacent (beside, near, alongside) and contrary to. In other words, ‘not quite’. Which makes paranormal, not quite normal (but close enough to see some link). There are different types of paranormal sub-genres and features (you know, the ‘great grandchildren’):
    • Transitional and Evolved: things that were ‘normal’ and have shifted to the next state of existence – think vampires, zombies, shapeshifters, superheroes (who weren’t born with their powers), ghosts, mutants. Things that were once ‘normal’ and have shifted to the next state of existence
    • Approximate: things that are ‘normal enough’, ‘mostly normal’, or ‘close enough to normal’ – like telekinetics, oracles, superheroes (who were born with their powers), and aliens.

      [Inverted commas, because what is ‘normal’? Am I right?]

      Note how easily the features in each of these sub-genres could shift more towards fantasy or science fiction, depending on the laws that govern their characteristics, powers, etc and how rigorously they are applied.

  • Era-punk – this is my descriptor for all SFF punk genres that are set on Earth and in a particular (historical) time period, where the technology of the time has been hacked to infuse elements and applications from other times – so that, while the story has the aesthetics of a particular age, its science and technology timeline is non-linear.

    As such, the scientific principles are not always robust, but there is a big focus on science and technology as either a narrative driver, worldbuilding feature, or story backdrop. There are heaps of era-punk subgenres, with the most popular including Candlepunk (Medieval era), Steampunk (Victorian era), Dieselpunk (Post WWI), and Atomicpunk (space race and nuclear age).

Science Fiction

  • Galactic Empire – which tell stories of space exploration, colonisation of new planets and galaxies, and first contact with indigenous species of those new worlds.
  • Speculative Futures – that project current trends and innovations into an imagined future. Here, the emphasis is on showcasing the impact of the pathways humanity has taken (the policy decisions, technological innovations, and scientific discoveries) on human existence and its environment. The traditional sub-genres of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fit this category.
  • Alternative History – where a historical event never occurred or occurred in a radically different way than it did in our reality, so as to forever change the future timeline that emanated from it. Alternative history stories can be set in the past, (revised) present, or future. PKD’s Man in the High Castle, is a great example of alternative history.
  • Hacker – this is a big subgenre, and definitely one of my favourites. The hacker sub-genre comprises stories that hack a scientific reality – time, biology, information and communication technology, engineering, robotics, etc – to create a different reality with serious consequences. Cyberpunk books hack the internet, Bugpunk books hack the physiology of insects (one of my favourites!), Inter-dimensional and time travelling books hack spatial and temporal boundaries, Biopunk and genetic engineering books hack the biology of humans.

What about all the other genres and subgenres?

What do you mean ‘the others’? I captured them all. Ohhh, you mean traditional genres and subgenres like Horror, and Grimdark, and Sci-Fi Romance. Yeah, they’re not genres. But, wait! Before you reach for your pitchforks or laser beams, let me explain.

For any given genre, there are a multitude of lenses that can be applied to their stories. Essentially they are like spectrums or dials you can move up or down to create an entirely different feel and reader reaction. These are some of the typical ones I’ve identified in the books I read and movies I watch:

  • TIMESCALE – Historical – – – Contemporary – – – Futuristic
    This is about the time period your story is set in, e.g. Urban Fantasy, is just Sorcery or Paranormal or Supernatural set in modern times)
  • SUBTLETY – Soft – – – Moderate – – – Hard
    This is all about how subtle your fantasy or science-fiction elements are. Magical realism is typically at the soft end of the spectrum, Galactic Empires is typically harder.
  • MOOD – Love – – – Comfortable – – – Anxious – – – Fear
    This refers to the emotion you are trying to elicit from your reader. Romance sub-plots gravitate toward the Love end of the spectrum, Horror towards the fear end. To give a more complex example, Gothic stories are Supernatural fantasy with an Anxious mood.
  • TONE – Bright – – – x – – – Dark
    This is about the aesthetic you bring to your stories. Stories with morally depraved characters, harsh environments, dark symbolism, etc will lean toward the dark end (Grimdark being a classic example). Tone and Mood are typically related (notable exceptions being satire (Anxious + Bright) and erotica (Love + Dark))
  • ARC – Drama – – – x – – – Tragedy
    This is all about the ending and the path to it. Is the protagonist redeemed at the end? Is there a HEA or HFN? Or does it all turn to mud?
  • ACCESSIBILITY – Trade – – – x – – – Literary
    I call this lens ‘accessibility’ because it reflects the effort required of the reader to engage with the narrative. Narratives that use a lot of literary devices (similes, metaphors, allegory, allusions, etc), novel POVs (second person, directed first person, etc), unfamiliar vocabulary, and challenging concepts are likely to be more inaccessible and closer to the literary end of the scale.

What do you think?

Have I got it right? Have I missed a subgenre? Or miscategorised one? Are there speculative books or movies that don’t fit into my taxonomy for speculative fiction? Let me know in the comments!

IMAGES courtesy of various artists on Unsplash


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