The term "speculative fiction", like most genre names, does not have a clear-cut or universally agreed-upon definition. The term appears to have been coined by Robert A. Heinlein, a popular and respected writer of "hard-core" science fiction (i.e. science fiction that relies on the scientific accuracy of the problems and solutions included in the work). In an essay written in 1948, "On Writing of Speculative Fiction", he explicitly used the term as a substitute for "science fiction." Once the term went into popular use, editors, readers, academics and some writers developed a tendency to think of speculative fiction as an umbrella term covering everything from science fiction and fantasy to magical realism. Under this definition, every novel that is not highly invested in "realism" could be called "speculative fiction." People who embrace this term, e.g. the prolific on-line reviewer of speculative fiction, D.D. Shade, argue that the excessive sub-genres within genres like science fiction and the growing tendency of writers to draw from several sub-genres and genres within their work makes a more general term useful.
At the same time, writers have also used the term to distinguish their work from the very genres the term is supposed to cover. In other words, writers who feel that the literary world looks down upon science fiction and fantasy want to distinguish their work as different from those styles of novels, and consequently prefer the term "speculative fiction." The use of "speculative fiction" to express dissatisfaction with the genre of science fiction was popularized in the 1960s and early 1970s by Judith Merril and other writers and editors in connection with the New Wave movement. It fell into disuse around the mid 1970s, but just as New Wave arts have enjoyed a slight return to popularity in the 2000s, the idea of speculative fiction as distinct from other genres has once again entered the general parlance.
The use of the term "speculative fiction" has been intertwined in a complicated way with issues of women writers of genre fiction. In 1996, the journal Femspec was founded to combat the "collectively perceived lack of attention to science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and supernatural works in feminist journals and audiences; the lack of consistently developed levels of feminism in science fiction criticism; and the inadequacy of magical realist publishing outlets and forums in the United States." In the 1960s and 1970s, women both became much more prolific as writers of science fiction and fantasy, and achieved much higher levels of acceptance amongst their peers, readers, and reviewers. Women began winning the top science fiction writing awards (The Nebula and The Hugo) and much more frequently published under their own names (previously almost all women writing science fiction and fantasy published under pseudonyms or used only the initial of their first name). As these women pushed for more acceptance in the world of science fiction, many also wanted to raise the level of importance of the genre itself. Those who wanted to be perceived as writing a more literary and even more "realistic" type of science fiction often referred to their work as "speculative fiction."
Margaret Atwood is one of these writers, and her use of the term "speculative fiction" generates strong reactions from her own readers as well as from science fiction readers in general. Atwood stresses the idea of speculative fiction is different from science fiction, for she sees science fiction as "filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that." Atwood seems to view science fiction as inferior to speculative fiction in that science fiction seeks only to entertain, whereas speculative fiction attempts to make the reader rethink his or her own world based on the experiences described the novel. The controversies around both the meaning of the term "speculative fiction" and the importance of science fiction and fantasy novels continue even today. When examining this conflict, it is important to recall that when the novel first began its rise to the top of all literary forms, it was considered merely "cheap entertainment" and went by a different title altogether: the romance novel.