Five Characteristics of Great Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction explores the unknown, the impossible, and the extraordinary. The genre (which includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, superhero fiction, dystopian, utopian, and other stories with supernatural and/or futuristic elements) allows us to venture into the uncharted territories of our imagination, and delve into worlds that challenge our understanding of what is possible. I write speculative fiction because it enables me to think beyond our reality and dissect the human psyche at a different level. Also, speculative fiction is super fun to read and write!

The following are five characteristics that make good speculative fiction, with specific examples from Black authors whom I believe have mastered the genre.

1. Imaginative world-building

One of the hallmarks of speculative fiction is the creation of a world that is vastly different from our own. The best speculative fiction creates a world that is so immersive and vivid that readers can easily lose themselves in it. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is a prime example of this. Jemisin creates a world where earthquakes are a constant threat, and the people who live there have the power to control the earth. This world is so well-developed that it feels like a character in its own right.

2. Unique premise

Speculative fiction takes the familiar and twists it into something new and exciting. A good speculative fiction novel has a premise that is both intriguing and thought-provoking. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of a young Black man named Hiram Walker who has a magical power that allows him to teleport through space and time. Hiram is a slave on a plantation in Virginia, but he dreams of freedom and uses his powers to help others escape.

3. Diverse characters

Speculative fiction has often been criticized for its lack of diversity, but Black authors have been pushing back against this stereotype for decades. A good speculative fiction novel has a diverse cast of characters that reflects the world we live in. Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is a great example of this. The novel takes place in an alternate version of Africa, where a group of colonists has established a utopian society. The novel features a diverse cast of characters, including African, Asian, and European characters, as well as LGBTQ+ characters.

4. Social commentary

Speculative fiction can explore complex social issues in a way that is both engaging and thought-provoking. A good speculative fiction novel contains social commentary that is both subtle and impactful. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is set in a dystopian future where climate change, economic collapse, and social breakdown have created a world of chaos and violence. The protagonist, a young Black woman named Lauren Olamina, has a rare condition that allows her to feel the pain of others. She sets out on a journey to create a new society based on empathy and cooperation, and her journey is both harrowing and inspiring.

5. Strong themes

Speculative fiction often explores big ideas and themes that are relevant to our world. A good speculative fiction novel has themes that are both universal and powerful. Tananarive Due’s The Good House is a perfect example of this. The novel explores the legacy of slavery and racism in America, as well as the power of family and community. The novel uses supernatural elements to tell a story that is both powerful and deeply moving. Dawn by Octavia Butler is the first in Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, and it tells the story of a young Black woman named Lilith who is saved from the brink of extinction by an alien race known as the Oankali. Lilith must help the Oankali repopulate Earth, but she soon discovers that their plan involves genetic engineering and a loss of human autonomy. The novel is a powerful exploration of identity, power, and the ethics of genetic engineering.


Overall, great speculative fiction requires imaginative world-building, unique premises, diverse characters, social commentary, and strong themes. Black authors have been pushing the boundaries of this genre for decades, and our work continues to inspire and challenge readers around the world. For those (like me) who are new to writing speculative fiction, my best advice is to READ READ READ as many speculative fiction authors as you can find. Read authors from an array of backgrounds. You’ll quickly notice some recurring characteristics that make these novels enjoyable, engaging, and enlightening.

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