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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.


Thanks for posting this link -- it's a nice essay. I do get tired of speculative fiction writers (and I use the term as an umbrella for sf/fantasy myself) trying to deny that this is the sandbox they're playing in, though Atwood bothers me less than most because her books *are* clearly more literary and philosophical than sfnal, to my mind -- she's less speculating about "what would happen if" and more in using the freedom of speculative fiction to illustrate a particular outcome she wants to talk about, as the essay itself suggests. Terry Goodkind claiming his work isn't fantasy annoys me much more.
When I say "science fiction," I'm always thinking "science fiction and fantasy." I should probably try to use both terms. The problem is that after a while it gets unwieldy.

Definitions are difficult to play with, but I agree that it is annoying when a writer tries to claim that "My work isn't SF or fantasy!" That's because what they're really doing is condemning the rest of us. A friend of mine one had a writing teacher who claimed that anything SF/F was bad. This same teacher praised "Flowers for Algernon." When my friend pointed out that that story was SF, the writing teacher said that it wasn't, because it was good.

I'm also reminded of the writer on a panel who claimed that her fantasy novel was "hard science fiction." The other panelists pointed out that it wasn't, and she was adamant that it was. It turned out later that she thought they were being insulting, when all they were doing was categorizing. Apparently, she had gotten the idea from someone else that if your spec-fic work wasn't "hard science fiction," then it wasn't good. That story did have a happy ending, as the other writers explained to her that her preconception was incorrect.
I agree with you that Atwood is trying to redefine the term "speculative fiction" so she can claim it for her own work, and avoid having her work categorized under the term "science fiction." But given the way she has eschewed the terms before, it almost seems like she's slowly coming to see things our way...
The more Atwood sells, the more she can call herself what she wants and still sell instead of feeling the need to distance herself from the (perceived) "bastard stepchild" of publishing that is SF/F. In the Big Publishing House world, SF/F is seen as not selling nearly as well as "literary"/mainstream stuff. (Because, um, it doesn't. Nevermind that SF/F tends to stay in print longer: they look for the big bang in the beginning, all or nothing.) I hate to (but must) acknowledge that Atwood wouldn't have sold nearly as well in the beginning if she'd had SF/F on the spines of The Handmaid's Tale, futuristic as it was/is. Too many people out there unfortunately won't even pick up a book with SF/F on the spine/corner to even read the back cover, let alone buy it. :(

So yeah, I just think Atwood was denying her works are SF because she felt/knew she wouldn't sell nearly as well. She, or probably more to the point her agent/marketer/etc.
This all makes me angry at Atwood, mind you. Rather hypocritical if you ask me.
I've always been a little annoyed at Michael Crichton, for doing exactly the same thing. Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park are clearly SF, but since they get marketed differently they end up selling a lot more.
Interesting that her definition of speculative fiction seems to fall squarely into the Mundane SF area.
I doubt she's aware of the recent Mundane SF movement, though. I think she was just trying to find a way of explaining why her own works shouldn't be categorized as science fiction but as speculative fiction.

December 2016

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