In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Speculative Fiction

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Critical Theory and Companion Guides
  • Criticism of Race in Mainstream Speculative Fiction
  • Criticism of Black Speculative Fiction and Subgenres
  • Afrofuturism
  • Gender and Sexuality in Black Speculative Fiction
  • Primary Sources: Anthologies
  • Primary Sources: Fiction Pre-1947
  • Primary Sources: Fiction Post-1947
  • African and Black Diasporic Writers of Speculative Fiction

African American Studies Speculative Fiction
Esther L. Jones
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0030


Speculative fiction is a cover term for a diverse range of genres, linked by their utilization of nonrealist narrative strategies. This includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, utopian fiction, futuristic fiction, alternate histories, and other forms of literature that employ literary devices, strategies, and/or settings that diverge from the empirical reality that mimetic fiction uses as its foundation. As the debate has raged over the definition of what is and is not science fiction, the term speculative fiction has emerged as a curative, for some, to the problems of origins and classification that have plagued scholars since the term science fiction was first coined in the 1930s, and since it entered critical academic discussion in the 1940s. For many, the terms science fiction and speculative fiction are interchangeable. However, many continue to debate the relation of these loosely linked genres to each other. Likewise, black science fiction is often used interchangeably with Afrofuturism. The term Afrofuturism refers to the appropriation of technological themes in black popular culture, especially that of rap and hip-hop. Since the1990s, the concept has broadened to capture a black expressive tradition emergent in the 1970s that challenges the absence of blacks in futuristic imaginings by white writers, crossing both generic literary and intellectual disciplinary boundaries. Afrofuturism is expressed in a broad range of creative modes of black expressivity such as film, visual art, and music as well as literary works. This concept is distinct from the notion of astrofuturism, coined in 2003 as a challenge to the notion that science fiction, as a mostly white-authored genre, rarely envisions futures with blacks or racial minorities in significant ways. While astrofuturism suggests that certain works inspired by the technological and engineering advances of the 1950s posit space as a utopian frontier of imperialist expansion that provides possibilities for bettering the problematic race and gender-based social relations plaguing contemporary society, Afrofuturism resists the imperialist impulse by generating specifically black visions of the future. While Afrofuturism is a useful concept to identify a broadly cultural sensibility and aesthetic, the term black speculation seeks to broaden the historical scope of Afrofuturism. Black speculation predates the 1970s, especially in the area of literature. African Americans were engaging in what we now identify as speculative writing as early as 1859. This tradition has been rendered visible since the 1990s with growing attention given to it by scholars as a field of study.

General Overviews

Defining science fiction and speculative fiction has been an ongoing project. Coined in Heinlein 1964 (originally published in 1947), the term speculative fiction became popular in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s as an alternative to science fiction among writers who sought to articulate the kind of work they thought they were doing. It has reemerged in contemporary critical discourse as a means of capturing in a single term the range of genres that Kincaid 2005 argues share certain “family resemblances” in what Rabkin 1976 calls a “super genre.” Such subgenres constituting this “family” of genres include science fiction, fantasy, horror, utopian fiction, futuristic fiction, alternate histories, and other forms of non-mimetic fiction. Distinguishing speculative fiction from naturalistic or mimetic fiction has been a key element of criticism since the 1940s. Eshbach 1947, an edited collection generated from a symposium of the top writers in the field at the time, was published as a handbook for the then-burgeoning field that offers advice from the most successful writers on how to write good science fiction. Delany 2009 (originally published in 1977) is a groundbreaking collection of essays and lectures, illuminating the distinctive language of science fiction that requires different reading and analytical strategies, thereby fundamentally distinguishing it from mundane, or mimetic, fiction. Suvin 1979 provides an incisive study of the genre whose theories and terms remain a mainstay for those attempting to define the genre today. Dery 1994 names and defines the specifically black iterations of science fiction and technoculture with the concept of Afrofuturism, which engendered a rapidly growing field of study in subsequent years. Notably, attempts to define the genre are often linked to efforts to historicize the genre. Identifying originary texts to establish a coherent tradition contributes to the efforts to define what constitutes speculative fiction. Gunn and Candelaria 2005 historicizes science fiction criticism and compiles a core of influential essays that have shaped debates on the origins of the genre as well as have attempted to define the form as an object of inquiry. Unsurprisingly, these attempts at definition and historicization continue to be debated.

  • Delany, Samuel R. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Rev ed. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

    Originally Published in 1977. A groundbreaking collection of essays that brings literary theory to bear on the study of science fiction. It argues that science fiction is fundamentally different from mundane fiction because of its approach to language. The volume dramatically shifted thinking in science fiction criticism away from delineating content and themes.

  • Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” In Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Edited by Mark Dery, 179–222. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

    The groundbreaking essay that coined the term Afrofuturism and initiated the ongoing critical intervention that recognizes black speculation as a cultural phenomenon. This work inspired much of the critical growth that examines specifically black contributions to the speculative tradition.

  • Eshbach, Lloyd Arthur. Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing. Reading, PA: Fantasy Press, 1947.

    Positioning itself as the authoritative work on speculative fiction of its time, the book includes essays by the leading writers and thinkers in the field, most notably Robert Heinlein’s much-referenced essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” Also recognized as the first practical guide or handbook for writing the genre.

  • Gunn, James, and Matthew Candelaria. Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

    An anthology of essays that chronicle the myriad attempts at defining and historicizing science fiction by some of the genre’s most reputable critics. The text includes foundational essays reprinted from earlier works of critics, providing snapshot perspectives of the changing perspectives on science fiction’s definitions and theories. An excellent introductory text.

  • Heinlein, Robert. “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” In Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing. Edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, 13–19. Chicago: Advent, 1964.

    Originally published in 1947. A frequently referenced essay in which one of the field’s most renowned writers and scholars coins and defines the term speculative fiction and offers suggestions on how to write good speculative fiction from a “human interest” perspective.

  • Kincaid, Paul. “On the Origins of Genre.” In Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Edited by James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria, 41–53. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

    An important essay that challenges the notions of an originary text that could contain all the elements that have come to constitute the field of science fiction. Kincaid appropriates philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblances” to capture the constant state of flux and impermanence of patterns in the genre.

  • Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

    An examination of the mechanisms that differentiate fantasy from realist literature. Rabkin’s chapter on “The Fantastic and Genre Criticism” develops the concept of the super genre (overlapping genres, distinct in some ways, but possessing shared characteristics in others) referenced by many critics.

  • Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

    An important critical and philosophical study of the science fiction tradition that advances the key concept of cognitive estrangement and other definitions relied upon today to articulate the distinguishing characteristics of the genre. The text produces an in-depth history that bolsters the author’s efforts at definition and evaluation of the field.

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