Speculative Literature and imagination

Jan Kotouč

Psychology Department

This semester, UNYP students had the opportunity to select the new course Speculative Literature for the first time. What do we mean by Speculative Literature or Speculative Fiction?

This semester, UNYP students had the opportunity to select the new course Speculative Literature for the first time.

Historically, it means works “speculating” on what could potentially happen. In the scholarly discourse of literature, it refers to stories that went beyond the boundaries of what was known at the time, stories that focus on myths, supernatural phenomenon or scientific progress, stories that speculate about the shape of future society. 

In contemporary usage, the literary term “Speculative Fiction” has expanded to include the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy and connected genres like Horror, Utopia and Dystopia, Alternate History or Post-Apocalyptic literature – stories that can easily be summarized as “something is different.” 

Speculative Fiction is nothing new. The very first known literary story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, can be considered within the gender, as well as essentially the entire mythology of the human race. As a genre, Sci-Fi and Fantasy started to become distinct in the 19th century with authors such as Mary Shelley, E. A. Poe, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells considered the first science fiction authors. Fantasy as we understand it today derives mainly from the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. 

Why it is important to know and teach about the Speculative Fiction genres? These genres can help people to develop imagination, open their minds and think beyond the boundaries of what is known. Sci-Fi and Fantasy authors often take it as part of their job to expand human horizons and to “speculate” on possible future and changes, whether good or bad. 

Most key scientific discoveries in the 20th century first appeared as original ideas in a Sci-Fi story. For example, speculations about landing on the Moon have featured in literature since the beginning of the Renaissance, and more so in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Wernher von Braun, the engineer who constructed the famous Saturn V rocket used in the moon landings, claimed to be inspired by Jules Verne. 

On a less optimistic note, H. G. Wells very accurately predicted the use of tanks and their influence on warfare in his 1905 story The Land Ironclads. He also imagined the advent of aerial warfare and even nuclear weapons. 

Speculative Fiction has also predicted numerous social changes and developments. Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel The Starship Troopers included women in most military occupations. Similarly Heinlein often wrote about ethnically diverse characters in the 1940s and 1950s when this certainly wasn’t encouraged by society or publishers. The very first kiss between a white man and a black woman on television appeared on Star Trek in 1966, and three decades later, one of the very first same-sex kisses on TV was again on Star Trek

Speculative Fiction offers a sense of wonder, the idea of going beyond what we know. Ideas in Sci-Fi and Fantasy books have influenced scientists, engineers, astronauts and also social progressives and politicians to follow their chosen career path. I am therefore very glad that UNYP students can now study the course Speculative Literature. As the UNYP slogan says, “expand your limits” — and the only real limit is our imagination.

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