Science Fiction vs Fantasy vs Speculative Fiction

Yesterday (1/2) was National Science Fiction Day. It might not have caught my attention except I just recommended a novel to my sister. It was Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey. For those of you who don’t know the book, it is a skewed pulp Western. The main character Esther stows away on a librarian’s wagon to escape an arranged marriage. Not only does she find unexpected allies but also a new purpose.

My sister was good-to-go until she looked at the categories for the book at Amazon. “Wait a minute. This says science fiction. I don’t want a book with aliens!”

Let me set the record straight, I would never ever recommend a book with aliens to my sister. Never. Ever.

But I would recommend an alternate history which is a type of speculative fiction. And, the book was actually listed under “science fiction and fantasy” although that would not have helped.

The terms science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction can be confusing for those who don’t read all three. Here are some ways to tell one from the other.

Science Fiction

Books in this category are based on science of the future. The things in them may not be possible yet but they are still scientific. Think Star Trek with space travel, communicators, and “beam me up, Scotty.”


Books in this category include magic. It doesn’t matter if they are set in times past or the present, either can be fantasy. Harry Potter? Fantasy. Lord of Rings? Also fantasy. Magic is the key.

Speculative Fiction

These books are set in a place other than the real world. They can be futuristic but slightly skewed, involving science and magic. Star Wars? Speculative fiction. Alternate history is a type of speculative fiction. These are books set in the past that is somehow different than the past we know. This is where Upright Women Wanted fits.

It doesn’t help that there is a lot of overlap. Upright Women Wanted is alternate history with no skewed science or magic. The Gunnie Rose books by Charlaine Harris have both skewed Wild West history and magic. They are speculative and fantasy.

Any time you aren’t sure which category a book fits under, fantasy, science fiction, or speculative fiction, I would simply call it speculative fiction because it is the broader category. And it doesn’t necessarilly include aliens.

But, it could.