Octavia Butler's Dawn is most often classified as science fiction. However, others—such as literary analyst Jess Whatcott—have also referred to the work as speculative fiction. Which one is it? And what is the difference between the two genres?
Speculative fiction is a broad category of fiction that actually includes science fiction. It also includes other genres, such as fantasy, horror, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, and more. Speculative fiction contains elements that do not or have not existed in real life. Science fiction, on the other hand, is much more specific: science fiction stories generally deal with futuristic concepts, such as advanced science and technology and extraterrestrial life.
Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid's Tale, has proffered a new definition for speculative fiction. Rejecting the idea that her books The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake are science fiction, she said to The Guardian in 2003 that they are speculative fiction instead: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do. . . speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth."
Because Dawn is set on an alien ship that is orbiting earth populated by a race of alien beings called Oankali, it can easily be classified as science fiction. However, some might argue that there is more at work within the text. In many ways, Dawn is a social commentary on human nature and sexism (these ideas are explained in detail in the "Analysis" sections of this guide). In fact, while Butler wrote Dawn, the threat of nuclear war—that which killed almost the entirety of the human race—was terrifyingly real. The United States was enmeshed in the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war hung over every American's head. In an interview with In Motion Magazine, Butler stressed the relationship between her work and Reagan's security regime: "I thought there must be something basic, something really genetically wrong with us if we're falling for [the idea that nuclear war could have winners]."
In the end, Dawn can be classified as both science and speculative fiction (according to Atwood's definition). Butler includes fantastical elements that we will never see in the real-world, yes, but the social forces the novel depicts are hauntingly real.