Monday 10 March 2014

So what is speculative fiction? Writing Craft Post - Part 1

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
If I asked you to name the Top 10 Highest Grossing Films of all Time, how many do you think you’d be able to name?

You might surprise yourself and know many or even most of them. The Wikipedia list I used looks to be regularly updated so it’s most likely a reasonable guide for reference purposes.

How many of them did you enjoy? If you did enjoy them what particularly appealed to you about each movie?

What’s interesting is that 8 of the 10, if they were novels, could be deemed “speculative” by definition. Two were based on novels and five were based on comic strips and/or a theme park ride. The final one of the eight, Avatar, was created by James Cameron.

Now let’s think about the Highest Grossing Novels. It starts getting a little trickier due to the sheer volume of books that have been released since whenever. Once again there are some significant “speculative” novels that have sold in excess of 50 million copies:
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

  • Harry Potter series
  • Star Wars
  • The Vampire Chronicles
  • Twilight series
  • Hunger Games trilogy

Final one. Highest Grossing Christian Novels. I struggled to source a definitive list. The Wikipedia link above includes two mega hits:

  • The Lord of The Rings (plus The Hobbit)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia

Photo courtesy of
We can safely add to those Frank Peretti’s “Darkness” duo and The Shack, both of which have sold millions of copies.

All of these would be grouped under the “speculative fiction” banner.

It’s reasonable to make the statement that entertainment involving the speculative is appealing to the masses. And don’t get me started on television shows. The Walking Dead, Supernatural, Buffy, Charmed, oops, sorry, I said I wouldn’t get started.

A definition?

But what is speculative fiction and what differentiates it from other genres? Let’s start with defining it and then next week we’ll explore what are the key elements to grabbing a reader’s attention.

Our good friend Iola did a fabulous job outlining many of the sub-genres that exist within speculative and fantasy in a post she wrote last year.

It’s been interesting exploring various literary sites to find there are many varied definitions for speculative fiction. Marcher Lord Press, which is a Christian publisher, dedicated to speculative fiction splits the category between fantasy, science fiction and supernatural (including the paranormal). I read somewhere this definition for speculative fiction, which has lots of merit:

“A catchall for strange stories that don’t fit anywhere else”

I was able to find a definition on The American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) site under the “Genesis Contest” for unpublished fiction. It read:

Speculative: Novels in which the science fiction, the future, other planets, a fantasy world, or paranormal happenings are a major element of the plot or setting. This category includes speculative, visionary, science fiction, paranormal, futuristic, allegory, and alternate history fiction. 

However, I believe Orson Scott Card of “Ender’s Game” fame has captured it very simply:

"Speculative fiction includes all stories that take place in a setting contrary to known reality, namely:

  • Future,
  • Historical Past that contradict known facts
  • Other worlds
  • Stories involving aliens
  • Contrary to the laws of nature. This is a catchall for time travel, invisible man-style fiction and super heroes.1"

Different to Other Genres

Implicit in the various definitions above is the notion that, unlike many other genres, speculative fiction is not bound to follow any particular formula. Further, two characteristics that are essential to these novels are:

  1. The creation of an alternate setting or world, and
  2. The story being intrinsically bound to that alternate setting and vice versa.

Next week we’ll walk through some of the general characteristics of world creation and it’s link with the generation of the story line.

May I leave you with two questions to ponder and perhaps comment on:

  1. What appeals or doesn’t appeal to you about speculative entertainment?
  2. If speculative entertainment is so popular to the masses why do you think speculative fiction doesn’t appeal to more Christian readers?

Note: 1. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card, Writers Digest, 1990, pp17-18

Ian Acheson is an author and strategy consultant based in Northern Sydney. Ian's first novel of speculative fiction, 
Angelguard, is now available in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. You can find more about Angelguard at Ian's website, on his author Facebook page and Twitter


  1. Hi Ian

    Excellent post, and thought-provoking questions. Personally, I like dystopian and sci-fi, but don't enjoy fantasy as much (possibly because a lot of fantasy is allegorical, and I've rarely enjoyed allegory - no one matches CS Lewis).

    I read a lot of dystopian and sci-fi at high school. That's a time of life when we are exploring boundaries and forming our own world view and belief system, so I think it's natural to explore the "what-if's" speculative fiction offer.

    Why don't more Christians read speculative fiction? I don't know. Perhaps it's that they don't want to have their belief systems challenged, which would explain the popularity of Amish fiction in the US.

    Amanda Luedeke had an interesting post up last week, saying there is only one publisher in the Christian arena actively acquiring adult speculative fiction, and one more looking for speculative fiction for children and young adults. She also gives a list of things publishers aren't interested in - and as a reader, I think she's pretty much summed up what I don't want to read.

    1. Hi Iola

      Personally I distinguish between fantasy and allegory. A fantasy can have allegorical elements and an allegory can have elements of fantasy but I see them as different. Madeleine L'Engle talks about 'serving the work' but, in allegory, the characters, the plot, the theme, everything serves the allegory. There are no surprises and even the characters' names are usually dead giveways to their one-dimensional characters. To me, an allegory has to follow a certain plotline, regardless of whether that plotline is logical (usually in a psychological sense - the characters behave in ways that do not have sufficient motivation for an action).

      By contrast, good fantasy is dense with allusion, the characters are at least two-dimensional (if not three), the plots are full of surprising twists. Good fantasy (I don't necessarily mean "Christian" by this) references Judeo-Christian ideas all the time.

      I'm not particularly fond of sf - for the very simple reason I have a background in science and an sf story dates quickly according to how fast the idea/technology/theory has been superseded. Suspension of disbelief is harder when you know the concept is now scientifically impossible.

    2. Thanks Iola.

      It was interesting when I asked a few spec fiction readers why they read it, one key reason was such fiction gave them a greater sense of God. The main reason I write supernatural fiction at the moment is I enjoy exploring the spiritual realm and how it intersects with the natural.

      I read Amanda's post which just added to my surprise why there isn't more interest in speculative fiction in the Christian reading community. Good on Steve Laube for buying MLP.

    3. Hi again Ian
      I watched the rise and rise of MLP with interest. Basically Jeff Gerke (who started it) had worked for a couple of major publishers and had convinced them to take some great spec fic on board. The novels bombed. Jeff couldn't understand why initially - then came to the conclusion that readers who are interested in Christian spec fic do not frequent Christian bookstores - they quickly read through all the stuff such bookstores had to offer and, after a while, left in search of spec fic elsewhere. (Since this is pretty much my own experience, I was very curious to see whether Jeff was right when he started MLP.) He decided to put his own money where his mouth was in testing his theory that there really was a legion of fans out there - but beyond the borders of the average Christian bookstore. I think the fact Steve Laube has purchased MLP as a viable concern is indicative of the correctness of his views.

      The type of Christian publishing house that predominately caters to Christian bookstore clientele plays very safe. But spec fic fans are the very types who don't think safe... they are intellectual adventurers.

    4. Hi Annie

      Based on your comment, it would seem the fantasy I've read recently hasn't been "good", because it was certainly "serving the work". I guess that's my issue: if I can see the only reason the character made a certain choice was to push the plot in the required direction, that's a weakness.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Sorry typos - so I reposted the comment with corrections:)

  3. Hi Ian Thanks for your post. Some interesting questions raised - especially why speculative fiction is unpopular in Christian fiction given the stats you've given re the films and books and also the seminal role Christian authors Tolkien and Lewis have in the genre. To be honest, I can only speculate on the answer as speculative fiction, particularly fantasy and sci-fi is my favourite genre. It is also what I write - secondary world fantasy fiction - though (Iola) it is not allegorical. So I'll stick to your first question.

    What appeals to me about speculative fiction is 1) I love exploring new worlds, languages and cultures - in studying history & cross-cultural studies & in travelling internationally - and speculative fiction usually involves world building - as in Tolkien's Middleearth, Lewis' Narnia or his imaginative portrayals of Mars & Venus or McCafferey's Pern etc. This is also one aspect I love about writing fantasy - creating a rich, textured world. In a way, I feel like I'm walking in the footsteps of my Creator - something of course which all fiction writers do; 2) Speculative fiction - whether futuristic, dystopian or secondary world gives the opportunity to wrestle with the big philosophical & theological questions of life. This doesn't have to be "allegorical" though it can be. & 3) speculative fiction is fun - and allows you to do things you can't when confined to a more realistic framework. Have you ever imagined what it would be like to fly - not on a plane or even a balloon - but like a bird, soaring through the sky. Or what would it be like to travel back in time? Spec fiction lets you do that. Of course, the world has it's own rules and challenges to overcome but there is no limit to what you can imagine; 4) Spec fic is also very flexible and often has crossover elements - romance, suspense, on the edge of your seat thrills, explorations of history or the future, mystery, crime detection (my second book uses a clue to a double murder as a thread running through the book), travel, tragedy and comedy. Lewis's wardrobe - or his multiple pools in the world between the worlds - is very much a metaphor for speculative fiction so most of all speculative fiction gives me a sense of wonder - and awe at our Creator.

    1. Excellent comment, Jeanette. Thanks :)

    2. Fabulous comment, Jeanette. Thank you for going into such detail. I particularly enjoy the crossover element. Most specfic I read has a thriller/suspense element.

    3. Your enthusiasm is infectious, Jeanette. And informative. I have been dabbling in spec fic this year due because I recognise I need the exposure to it in order to write my next novel which is set in an historical past that doesn't conform to historical facts. Of the 5 I have read this year I finished only 2, but they blew me away! Rhonda.

  4. I agree, Jeanette. Wrestling with the big ideas is what spec fic is all about. Most people are uncomfortable with this. Many years ago, I read a comment by a psychologist who said the vast majority of people give up thinking in their early twenties - deciding that they will take the word of an acknowledged expert (one they choose themselves.) I remember challenging the thinking of an acquaintance once by saying, 'You gave up thinking when you were 23 and decided to follow Kevin's opinion from that point forward.' She was astonished and asked, 'How did you know?' And I said, 'It's what so many people do; it was a natural conclusion to make. You are not listening to the argument; you're following a party line.'

    And that's why, in my view, spec fic is not a favourite in Christian circles. It doesn't follow a party line. It exposes agendas and rattles our thinking. Christian readers want the thinking of non-Christians to be rattled, not their own.

    1. Anne, wow. So what happens when Jesus rattles a Christian's agenda or way of thinking?

      A passionate reader of specfic shared with me that he so enjoys reading all sorts of specfic because it gives him a greater sense of God and His love for mankind.

    2. Hi Ian - I've always loved fantasy and tv sf (once a huge fan of Blake's 7, Gerry Anderson's UFO and Space: Above and Beyond in particular. In fact, I confess I learned to write through fanfic in those areas. Lately, as I've been researching more into Hebrew covenants, I've been stunned to realise how often traces of long-lost aspects of them turn up in fantasy stories. And nowhere else. More and more, I understand my own love for fantasy stems from a deep sense that it was full of 'treasures of the deep'.

      And the thing about specfic is that you can rattle there. Fantasy - and not just Christian fantasy - has genuine covenantal imagery quite often. But I've yet to read about such an idea in a romance or a contemporary drama or a thriller or chick lit or... anything, really.

      As for what happens when Jesus rattles... well, you kinda look around your friends to check whether they've heard the same from God... and, when they haven't, well then you go a'questing.

    3. That makes a log of sense, that we don't want to be challenged (again, I see Amish fiction as Exhibit 1 in this case). For myself, I suspect I'm open to being challenged only in certain areas.

    4. Because I'm into writing about the Victorian Era, I am wondering why nobody has mentioned Steampunk. One fun person said' Steampunk is Gothic in sepia!' It's the Vistorians take on Sc know like Jules Verne's work. Victorians often wrote Si Fi with all sorts of amazing inventions which as we know didn't quite work in the future they visualized.

  5. firstly what is allegory?

    ok I have to say I Love watching sci fi but more the star gate or star trek sci fi and know quite a few Christians who also are big fans. I think part of the reason I don't read alot of it is I dont really know whats out there and some of it is dark or heavier stories. The Narnia series was wonderful and it captured my imagination as did the first few books by Eric Reinhold which was also for young teens. I read Broken Angel by Sigmund Brouwer and love it also although gave me an even bigger fear of rottweilers.

    I actually think more christian readers read the secular speculative fiction than we realise. I dont know how may christian homes I have been to that have read all the Harry Potter books and the twilight series. I have heard plenty of american Christians discuss the hunger games books. But I honestly couldn't name many Christian speculative fiction books.

    While I LOVE stargate all franchises I would not have read the books.

    1. The classic allegory is Pilgrim's Progress. The hero is Christian; he meets people like Faithful, Hopeful, Talkative, Giant Despair. The reader is in no doubt about their character. While modern allegory is not usually as obvious as this, it can be pretty transparent with the names.

      Many Christian writers are confused about the difference between fantasy and allegory. Whenever I get a fantasy to review that is really an allegory, I make a disclaimer up front about how much I dislike it. My reason is that the stories are 'theologically correct' in a particular way; thus, for instance, in one extremely well-written book one of the characters was tortured in hell, without any hope of escape, for failing to heed the directions of the "voice" her friend could hear but she couldn't. Her friend, however, didn't always heed the voice perfectly. It was all about obedience and election - and it is possibly one of the best-written books I've encountered in the last decade. Marketed as fantasy (in the vein of CS Lewis), it was in fact allegory.

      I also love watching sf on tv - but it is more like fantasy than serious hard core sf. In sf proper, the "idea" is as much a character as the characters are. I really like some of CS Lewis' sf series - especially That Hideous Strength - and it's interesting to note that the first book in that series was considered a watershed sf book. (See Three Tomorrows: American, British, and Soviet Science Fiction, which reminds me I must review it!) Out of the Silent Planet changed the face of British sf so that man was no longer a "superman", supreme in the universe. It was a revolutionary thought for the times - and influenced television sf in the US, long before it influenced print sf.

      This is my point about thinking. We look back on Lewis' sf series and are so used to the ideas we miss the impact they made at the time. Christian readers - generally speaking (at least from the publishers' perspective) - want 'safe'. They don't want to have readers boycotting a book as too controversial.

    2. Thanks Anne for your wonderful contributions. You really should be writing this series. I feel very under qualified. The Shack is allegorical, is it not?

      Jenny - I agree with you re: Christians reading Potter, Hunger Games, etc. I know many who have and enjoyed them immensely. I haven't read any of them. And you're right about the darkness in many specfic novels. There usually is a much stronger sense of good vs evil, even though the evil a lot of the time is simply a bad guy/gal being bad. I find it interesting seeing how authors & filmmakers create bad guys & what it is that has driven their particular brand of bad. For example, I find Criminal Minds (the TV show) fascinating because of how they get inside the bad person's head to solve the crime.

      Thanks Jenny for popping across.

    3. you know I would probably read a series or books set like Star Gate. its funny how they in very subtle ways do have comments on situations and even christian elements. They also had subtle comments on issues of today like power hungry nations wanting to get power at all cost regardless of the danger or effects on others. not all sci fi is dark. oh they have forces they have to fight but it doesn't have to be dark. I guess also it depends on what I consider dark. I dont like heavy suspense or horror and often see some of the books as that sort of a read when in truth they may not be. (I dont do gruesome). I have been known to want to see a bad guy in a lighter book hung, drawn and quartered and yes I know what they details! (I dont want to read the gruesome depiction of it). I guess its the way its marketed also.

      by the way I haven't read those books I mentioned or even seen the movies.

    4. Hi Jenny
      I've found that I like a book from a tv series if it happens to be written by one of the authors of the series (especially one whose episode I enjoyed).

    5. Hi Anne - your comment about Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet is interesting. I know the Narnia books have been very influential in the fantasy genre though probably not as influential as Tolkien but I didn't know that about Out of the Silent Planet. His space trilogy has strong Christian themes and That Hideous Strength has been prophetic (as also his non-fiction Abolition of Man). I'd be interested to know what you think of Lewis' Pilgrim's Regress and The Great Divorce - both of which are allegory (especially the first).

    6. Jenny - there is a lot of spec fic out there that isn't dark - and a wide range of styles and approaches. I must admit that most of my reading has been outside of Christian fiction - apart from Lewis & Tolkien. If it came to recommendations it's hard to know were to start. Stephen Lawhead and Ted Decker are two Christian authors that have done well in spec fic though I haven't read much of their works. Lynne Stringer writes Sci-fi (with strong romantic elements) & Paula Vince has written a fantasy series. I've enjoyed Anne McCafferey Dragonriders of Pern, or Ursual Le Guin's more philosophical approach - including her Earthsea Trilogy, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series, Julian May's Many Coloured Land. Some of the good books are Young Adult - I'm currently reading the Eragon series. I have a fantasy/sci-fi review blog though it is a bit neglected.

    7. Jenny, you might enjoy Anomaly and Luminary by Krista McGee - they are YA sci-fi, set on a futuristic Earth. Kathy Tyers has done a few sci-fi novels, set in an alternative future in which Jesus hasn't yet made his first appearance.

      Meredith Resce wrote a good allegory, but it was more graphic than I think you prefer to read. And, of course, there's Lynne Stringer's Verindon trilogy, starting with The Heir.

      I've read a couple of Christian sci-fi novels by NZ authors, but can't recommend either. One used quote marks for thought, which was distracting and felt like I was reading Enid Blyton again. The other had the potential for a good story, but it was about 300 pages too long and spent too much time in a thinly veiled diatribe against a specific NZ church.

    8. Loving all these recommendations, ladies. My TBR pile is ever expanding. I've read most of Dekker's work. He plays on some good themes around forgiveness and fear. He presents some good perspectives on how people can allow the darkness to overwhelm them. I must read some of Lawhead's work as his name pops up often.

    9. Hi Jeanette

      I'm not real fond of Pilgrim's Regress - though Great Divorce is a book I class as highly influential on my thinking. There's a scene in it (you'll know the one so I won't spoil it for anyone by mentioning it here) which made me think of an incident in an Old Norse saga about the coming of Christianity to Iceland. It made me think of a couple of names, including Jack. (Which happens to be Lewis' nickname.) Short step to noticing Lewis is derived from the name of the Welsh god of light, and means lion.

      I believe Lewis' books are so profound because they are more than Christian - they deal with a specific name covenant. Most Christian spec fic authors are too busy being theologically correct, not dealing with the covenant over their names.

    10. Hi Anne, I've just started reading your God's Poetry. I think I agree that often Christian spec fic authors "are too busy being theologically correct" and so it can come across as agenda driven rather than great stories informed by God's love and grace. And just remembered (how could I forget) Lewis' Screwtape Letters - as well as his Until We Have Faces - both very different from each other, both spec fic - and I found both thought provoking in different ways.

  6. Great post, Ian! I love speculative entertainment. The only reason I haven't written in the genre is because it comes in a very close second to my favourite genre, romance. However, I'm well aware romance fits into sf as well as it does anywhere, so who knows ...

    You've inspired me!

  7. Thanks Andrea. Just think of the amazing love stories you can write that involve time travel or different beings or whatever. Can't wait to see your take on it all.


    1. Quite right, Ian. There are plenty of romances with spec fic elements - Meredith Resce's For All Time springs to mind.

    2. I'm off to buy this one now, Annie. Thanks for the tip.

  8. Thanks, Ian. I learned a lot from your post. :)

  9. Ian, excellent post! I've also learned a lot about speculative fiction from the insightful comments. I haven't read a lot of Christian spec fic. Tosca Lee's books, Demon and Havah, were two books I enjoyed.

    I do like reading fiction books that challenge my way of thinking. But, there are times when I read for entertainment and I'm not interested in wrestling with challenging issues.

    Publishers choose so-called safe books for financial reasons. They can't afford to take too many risks with their bottom line. I'm looking forward to next week's post.

    1. Thanks Narelle. I've been loving all the comments. I've been wanting to read those first 2 of Tosca's for years but never got around to them. I've enjoyed her collaboration with Ted Dekker. I really enjoy Erin Healy's work. Erin is Ted's editor but writes suspense fiction with a "supernatural element". SHe has this wonderful expression of exploring the "thin places" between the natural and supernatural which I love and have borrowed from time to time.

      Thanks Narelle for asking me to write this series. I must admit I'm a little intimidated about next week's post.

    2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your article Ian as well as all the comments. To answer the 2 questions: Fantasy in all its forms left me cold even as a child, although I loved Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales for the very human realness of the psychology of the characters (even when they were animals!). Into adulthood I appreciated CS Lewis's SCiFi trilogy and read the Narnia books to my children, again because the spiritual realities and human psychology contained meant -for me - that there was no taint of shallowness or lack of logic. Other types of fantasy always seemed to be overloaded with dragons & witches, and with casts of thousands, all with impossible to remember names. All action and no psychology!
      But I think, too, many christians are anxious not to be hooked into what they believe might ensnare them in the occult. In the circles I once moved in, fantasy was on an occult-par with alternative medicine! Not a view I hold, now, I hasten to say.
      In my quest to read more spec fic (and to include elements of in my writing) I find I am most drawn to the category of 'the historical past that contradicts known facts.' The 2 best examples I have come across so far are 'The Mystery of Grace' by Charles DeLindt (Canadian) and 'The Waterboys' by Peter Docker (Australian). Neither of them appear to be christians writers but I was profoundly and spiritually affected by these two books and highly recommend them. Rhonda

    3. Thanks Rhonda for your delighted comments. I, too, am not a great fan of fantasy and struggled to read Lewis's Space Trilogy. I find them hard work to read with all the new worlds and such.

      Thanks for sharing the 2 recommendations.

  10. Ian, you're welcome :) I'm sure next weeks post will be great!


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