The When of Speculative Fiction

Speculative Fiction and Time

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When is the best time to read speculative fiction? When does it take place? How do we determine the when? Speculative fiction has an unusual relationship with time.

In brief, science fiction takes place in the future; fantasy in a mythical, pre-technological past.

Of course, this is an oversimplification. A lot of fantasy takes place in the present and even in the far future (Science fantasy/Dying Earth stories).

Likewise, there are lots of science fiction stories written in the past (steampunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, etc.).

Likewise, there is a whole subgenre of speculative fiction about rewriting history by one single event (alternate history).

In effect, the central premise of speculative fiction is what if, not when. Does it matter when our stories take place? It should not.

As we previously discussed, science fiction is never about the future, but about us, now. The future is just a metaphor, window dressing to discuss our present issues.


Nonetheless, the distance provided by speculative fiction, whether past or future, provides authors with coverage to explore delicate and controversial topics. Furthermore, it gives us readers a different context.

But smart readers can read between lines and see the parallels.

For example, Cygnus-7 in the 33rd-century or Middle Earth is nothing but allegories for modern Washington and London.

Whether we agree with the cyclical theory of time and how “history repeats itself” or the premise that time is linear and we cannot go back (chrononauts might disagree), speculative fiction’s relationship with time plays with the kind of stories we tell.

And yet, the period does not tell the full story.

When Do We Encounter Speculative Fiction?

grandfather and grandson reading together, IStock Photos

Most of us encounter speculative fiction at a young age. In fact, it is usually our first literature, fairy tales, stories of dragons and wizards, knights and princesses, monsters and ogres.

Conversely, because it is our first literature, there is the misconception this is childish literature, something we are supposed to grow out off and move on into more adult, literary fiction.

Nothing further from the truth since speculative fiction is for all ages.

Moreover, I don’t think modern classics like Old Man’s War, The Poppy War, The Fifth Season, or The Three-Body Problem are child-friendly or teen-friendly.

Even tie-in media like Star Wars: Thrawn is not for kids. (Do yourself a favor and read it).

image: Wallpaper Access

Nevertheless, when we encounter speculative fiction matters.

When I go to cons I see young fans and older fans. No, they rarely read the same stuff. It is okay. Reading should be personal.

For example, those who encounter it at a later age often wonder, what else I’d been missing.

And those of us like myself, who returned to it after a long gap, are surprised about how mature it is compared to what we used to read in high school.

Still, age is not the when of speculative fiction, although it influences it too.

When Should We Read Speculative Fiction?

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So, if it is not age or setting, what is the when of speculative fiction? If you ask every fan, you will get different answers.

Your when is determined by your lifestyle, your tastes, and your mood.

And yet, considering this is stimulating, imaginative, thought-provoking, entertaining, fun, and yet, challenging fiction, when we read it matters too.

There is never a bad time to read speculative fiction. Similarly, there are best times for it.

When should we read speculative fiction? Here are my choices:

man reading on a bus. Image: Pixabay

  • When in your work commute (if you take public transportation) before the routine of the workplace dulls your imagination.
  • When it is your bedtime, so you can dream of better worlds of possibility.
  • When you are down and depressed, to remind you we can fight back.
  • When you are feeling weak or people disappoint you it reminds us that heroes exist.
  • When times are bad and people are jackasses to remind us monsters can be vanquished.

    image: Necronomicon comic

  • When the economy crashes, our civil liberties are under attack, and there are whispers of war, to remind you dystopian regimes always fail.
  • When you are bored or have cabin fever so you can understand there is a world of adventures and thrills waiting outside.
  • When people don’t understand so we can discover there are planets and secondary worlds where they do.

Because life is not easy and capitalism sucks the soul and joy out of us.

Escapist literature? Let’s call it a coping mechanism.

In brief, it does not matter when we read speculative fiction as long as we do.

Reader, what is your when? When do you prefer to read speculative fiction? Share in the comments.

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March 2023