Imaginative / Speculative Literature

Leave a comment


Imaginative Literature

This is the first of an occasional series of essays on Imaginative Literature. Today, we will begin with an overview of the whole subject, and then in the future, explore individual aspects of the different sub-genres of Imaginative Literature. For the purposes of these essays, we will examine both written literature, and stories told in other media, including film, television and the Internet, as during the 20th century, these became genuinely important cultural sources and expressions.

I do all of this, not to make a fun subject dull, but rather, I hope to introduce old fans and new to some of the wealth of human creativity that this genre manifests. First and foremost, the author must make sure that her or his story is “a good read,” as Professor Tolkien insists in his preface to the first American Edition of The Lord of the Rings

As I use the term, the genre of Imaginative Literature (sometimes called Speculative Fiction) includes the following sub-genres (and I am looking forward to adding or modifying these as the discussion continues). There are times when a work straddles the border of more than one division.


High Fantasy (set entirely in a Secondary World) Ex: The Lord of the Rings. Also known as Mythopoeic Literature.

Low Fantasy (fantastic events, persons, etc., in our–Primary–world) Ex: Carnivale

— There are several fascinating sub-sub-genres that have become popular in media: Magical Realism (Like Water for Chocolate), Fantasy Tabloid Reporting  (Kolchak, the Night Stalker), Fantasy Police Enforcement (Men in Black), and probably others, some cross over into Science Fiction’s territory.

— Cross-over Fantasy (moving from the Primary World to a Secondary World) Ex: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Sword and Sorcery (Can also be one of the three above) Ex: Conan the Barbarian

— An associated genre is Alternative History, in which real history is altered by the author to speculate about “what if…” Ex: In the Balance. What differentiates mainstream Alternate History from Science Fiction Alternate History is the lack of fantastic or SF elements.  Alternative History also has a significant Science Fiction sub-sub-genre, that of Time Patrol, in which a future civilization guards the timeline from changes (a number of Star Trek franchise episodes have been in this category).

Science Fiction:

Science Fiction has been thoroughly analyzed during the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. It essentially uses imagined future developments to explore human history, psychology, spirituality, and just about every other aspect of human life. Wikipedia very effectively lists the sub-genres of Science Fiction, including

  1. 3.1 Hard SF
  2. 3.2 Soft and social SF
  3. 3.3 Cyberpunk
  4. 3.4 Time travel
  5. 3.5 Alternate history
  6. 3.6 Military SF
  7. 3.7 Superhuman
  8. 3.8 Apocalyptic
  9. 3.9 Space opera
  10. 3.10 Space Western
  11. 3.11 Other sub-genres


Horror Literature within Imaginative Literature (Speculative Fiction) is distinguished from political / spy or other thrillers, crime novels, detective and mystery fiction, and courtroom dramas by having fantastic or Science Fiction elements as important parts of the plot. When we explore this genre, we will find many significant crossovers between Imaginative Mystery novels, Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.

Horror fiction is an immense field, with some landmarks to guide us. Naturally, some of those include the works of Edgar Allen Poe, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Clive Barker. Monster Horror (Vampires, Werewolves, etc.) is incredibly popular. Ghost Stories are perennially best sellers, and have even spawned a reality TV genre, Ghost Adventures / Ghost Explorers. The critical scholarship on Imaginative / Speculative Horror Fiction is one of the best in existence, and world phenomena such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer are taken very seriously in academic circles.


Even though much Mystery fiction does not have Fantasy, Science Fiction or Horror elements, there are enough similarities to include it here. By the early 21st Century, Mystery fiction and media are one of the largest industries in the field.

There are many sub-genres of Mystery, including the Wikipedia list of

Traditional mystery

Legal thriller

Medical thriller

Cozy mystery

Police procedural


…and of course, Spy Fiction.

Some notes before we conclude today:

— Children’s and Youth Literature: All of the genres above have significant works primarily intended for children and youth. Many of these have also become adult favorites. While we will certainly mention this branch of literature and media within each genre and sub-genre, we will also look at the huge field of children’s and youth Imaginative Literature and Media in its own right. After all, the old tradition was conveyed by nannies to young people by means of “Fairy Tales.”

— Humorous Works:  Each of these genres also have works whose purpose is mainly comedic. Among the best examples are a number of the works of Douglas Adams and of Esther Friesner-Stutzman. (I had the honor and fun of performing with Ms Friesner-Stutzman at Yale in a stage adaptation of Tom Jones. Another player in the production was none other than Stone Phillips, our Quarterback, whose sister Minta is one of the most talented, intelligent and gracious people I know.)

— Blended Genres: Perhaps more than in some other areas of creative work, the sub-genres of Imaginative / Speculative Literature and Media are very open to works that combine and blend different types. As we will see, there are Science Fiction Mysteries, Alternate History Magical Detective stories, Horror Mystery novels, Science Fiction Westerns, Science Fiction Sword and Sorcery, and just about any combination you can imagine.

— Graphic Novels:  A burgeoning field for all of these genres (as well as many others) is that of the Graphic Novel and its media adaptations. I must admit that, while I like them very much, I am very far from an expert in this area, and will depend on you, the readers, to fill that gap in the Comments to each post! Thank you in advance!

Well, that sets the stage! Let’s have fun exploring!

— Steven A. Armstrong

Tutor, Editor, Consultant