mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Margaret Atwood On Why We Need Science Fiction

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer who is probably best known for her book The Handmaid's Tale, about a future society which represses women. More recently, she published a book called Oryx and Crake, set in another dystopian future.

Atwood is famous for claiming that her work is not science fiction, but rather, speculative fiction. She has even said some derogatory things about science fiction, saying that it's all about talking squids and such.

Well, it appears that she may have changed her tune. Last Friday, she published an opinion piece, Aliens have taken the place of angels, in the Guardian (requires registration). The gist of the article is that science fiction "is where theological narrative went after Paradise Lost." She praises the ability of science fiction novels to do things that "socially realistic novels cannot do" with the following bullet points:

  • "They can explore the consequences of new and proposed technologies in graphic ways, by showing them as fully operational."
  • "They can explore the nature and limits of what it means to be human in graphic ways, by pushing the envelope as far as it will go."
  • "They can explore the relationship of man to the universe."
  • "They can explore proposed changes in social organisation, by showing what they might actually be like for those living within them."
  • "hey can explore the realms of the imagination by taking us boldly where no man has gone before."

(She expands on these in a little more detail, so I'd still recommend reading the full article.)

The fact is that those five bullet points should not be a surprise to anyone who's been reading science fiction their whole life -- I'd imagine this is why most of us who read and write the stuff find it much more fascinating than standard fare. But in the USA, at least, science fiction has always been marginalized as a literary form, even as it insinuated itself into film and television.

I think it was this marginalization that made Atwood previously reject the science fiction label for the two novels of hers I mentioned above. Particularly telling is this quote from the beginning of the article:

If you're writing about the future and you aren't doing forecast journalism, you'll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms - science fiction fantasy, and so forth - and others choose the reverse.

I've never met Atwood, and I know very little of her work. But it would seem to me that she's finally come to realize that the term "science fiction" should not be considered derogatory; rather, it's a label we give to some of the most imaginative works of literature ever created.
Tags: science-fiction

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