Writer Margaret Atwood on science fiction, and the power of sci-fi to shape our engagement with the world.
Poet and novelist Margaret Atwood has written some of the most hair-raising, dystopian tales of our time. Of apocalypse, wild social decay, women sent back into virtual slavery. Reality-bending, piercing views of the world and its future.
But in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Oryx and Crake” and more, she never embraced the label “science fiction.” Now Atwood’s going straight at science fiction, with an exploration and celebration of its extraordinary power to shape the way we see and engage the world.
This hour On Point: Margaret Atwood, on what science fiction does.
From Tom's Reading List
Publishers Weekly "Atwood has a long and complex relationship with science fiction, and this mix of essays and short fiction represents her most sustained examination of the genre to date. Famously having refused the label “science fiction” for such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale, she prefers to call her work “speculative fiction,” though she here reveals herself to be both friendly to and well-read in genre SF. "
Associated Press "Margaret Atwood is at least upfront with readers in this collection of essays, some old, some new. "It is an exploration of my lifelong relationship with a literary form," she writes about the book. That form is science fiction, or SF, as she calls it for short."
SF Signal "Well-written, engaging discussions of the interplay between imagination and cultural ideas; a fascinating, often playful look inside Atwood's life and creative process; some shrewd musings on the nature of thought and communication."
I’m a ﬁfty-three-year-old writer who can remember being
a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an
In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science ﬁction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not deﬁni¬tive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practising academic or an ofﬁcial guardian of a body of knowl¬edge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.
I say “lifelong,” for among the ﬁrst things I wrote as a child might well merit the initials SF. Like a great many children before and since, I was an inventor of other worlds. Mine were rudi¬mentary, as such worlds are when you’re six or seven or eight, but they were emphatically not of this here-and-now Earth, which seems to be one of the salient features of SF. I wasn’t much inter¬ested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish. Several-headed man-eating marine life seemed more likely to me, somehow, than Spot and Puff.
Our earliest loves, like revenants, have a way of coming back in other forms; or, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother to the woman. To date—as what I am pleased to think of as an adult—I have written three full-length ﬁctions that nobody would ever class as sociological realism: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Are these books “science ﬁction”? I am often asked. Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science ﬁction” as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much “science ﬁction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.
Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy. Back in 2008, I was talking to a much younger person about “science ﬁction.” I’d been asked by the magazine New Scientist to answer the question “Is science ﬁc¬tion going out of date?” But then I realized that I couldn’t make a stab at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science ﬁction meant anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences that separate what is clearly “science ﬁction” from what is not, or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way? If you put skin-tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jetlike ﬂames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work “science ﬁction”? What about dragons and manticores, or backgrounds that contain volcanoes or atomic clouds, or plants with tentacles, or landscapes reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch? Does there have to be any actual science in such a book, or is the skin-tight clothing enough? These seemed to me to be open questions.
This much younger person—let’s call him Randy, which was in fact his name—did not have a hard and fast deﬁnition of “sci¬ence ﬁction,” but he knew it when he saw it, kind of. As I told New Scientist, “For Randy—and I think he’s representative—sci-ﬁ does include other planets, which may or may not have dragons on them. It includes the wildly paranormal—not your aunt table-tilting or things going creak, but shape-shifters and people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body.” Here I myself would include such items as Body Snatchers—if of extraterrestrial rather than folkloric provenance—and Pod People, and heads growing out of your armpits, though I’d exclude common and garden-variety devils, and demonic possession, and also vampires and werewolves, which have literary ancestries and categories all their own.
As I reported in my New Scientist article, for Randy sci-ﬁ includes, as a matter of course, spaceships, and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong. Plain ordinary hor¬ror doesn’t count—chainsaw murderers and such. Randy and I agreed that you might meet one of those walking along the street. It’s what you deﬁnitely would not meet walking along the street that makes the grade. Randy judged such books in part by the space-scapes and leathery or silvery outﬁts on their covers, which means that my speculations about jacket images are not entirely irrelevant. As one friend’s child put it: “Looks like milk, tastes like milk— it IS milk!” Thus: looks like science ﬁction, has the tastes of science ﬁction—it IS science ﬁction!
Or more or less. Or kind of. For covers can be misleading. The earliest mass-market paperbacks of my ﬁrst two novels, The Edible Woman and Surfacing, had pink covers with gold scrollwork designs on them and oval frames with a man’s head and a woman’s head silhouetted inside, just like valentines. How many readers picked these books up, hoping to ﬁnd a Harlequin Romance or reason¬able facsimile, only to throw them down in tears because there are no weddings at the ends?
Then there was the case of the former Soviet Union. No sooner did the Wall come down in 1989 than pornography ﬂooded across the one-time divide. Porn had hitherto been excluded in favour of endless editions of the classics and other supposed-to-be-good-for-you works, but forbidden fruit excites desire, and every¬one had already read Tolstoy, a lot. Suddenly the publishers of serious literature were hard-pressed. Thus it was that The Robber Bride appeared in a number of Soviet-bloc countries with covers that might be described as—at best—deceptive and—at worst—as a Eurotrash slutfest in ﬂagrante. How many men in raincoats purchased the Robber Bride edition sporting a black-satin-sheathed Zenia with colossal tits, hoping for a warm one-handed time in a back corner, only to heave it into the bin with a strangled Foiled Again! curse? For the Zenia in my book performs what we can only assume is her sexual witchery offstage.
Having thus misled readers twice—inadvertently—by dint of book covers and the genre categories implied by them, I would rather not do it again. I would like to have space creatures inside the books on offer at my word-wares booth, and I would if I could: they were, after all, my ﬁrst childhood love. But, being unable to produce them, I don’t want to lead the reader on, thus generat¬ing a frantic search within the pages—Where are the Lizard Men of Xenor?—that can only end in disappointment.
My desire to explore my relationship with the SF world, or worlds, has a proximate cause. In 2009, I published The Year of the Flood, the second work of ﬁction in a series exploring another kind of “other world”—our own planet in a future. (I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an inﬁnite number of roads lead away to “the future,” each heading in a different direction.)
The Year of the Flood was reviewed, along with its sibling, Oryx and Crake, by one of the reigning monarchs of the SF and Fantasy forms, Ursula K. Le Guin. Her 2009 Guardian article began with a paragraph that has caused a certain amount of uproar in the skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities—so much so that scarcely a question period goes by at my public readings without someone asking, usually in injured tones, why I have forsworn the term science ﬁction, as if I’ve sold my children to the salt mines.
Here are Le Guin’s uproar-causing sentences:
To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things sci¬ence ﬁction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science ﬁction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science ﬁction, which is “ﬁction in which things happen that are not possible today.” This arbitrarily restrictive deﬁnition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.
The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names. (If winning prizes were topmost on my list, and if writing such books would guarantee non-wins, my obvious move would be just to avoid writing them.) What I mean by “science ﬁction” is those books that descend from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters—things that could not possibly happen—whereas, for me, “speculative ﬁc¬tion” means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such—things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second cat¬egory: no Martians. Not because I don’t like Martians, I hasten to add: they just don’t fall within my skill set. Any seriously intended Martian by me would be a very clumsy Martian indeed.
In a public discussion with Ursula Le Guin in the fall of 2010, however, I found that what she means by “science ﬁction” is speculative ﬁction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classiﬁes under “fantasy.” Thus, for her—as for me—dragons would belong in fantasy, as would, I suppose, the ﬁlm Star Wars and most of the TV series Star Trek. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might squeeze into Le Guin’s “science ﬁction” because its author had grounds for believing that electricity actually might be able to reanimate dead ﬂesh. And The War of the Worlds? Since people thought at the time that intelligent beings might live on Mars, and since space travel was believed to be possible in the imaginable future, this book might have to be ﬁled under Le Guin’s “science ﬁction.” Or parts of it might. In short, what Le Guin means by “science ﬁction” is what I mean by “speculative ﬁction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science ﬁction.” So that clears it all up, more or less. When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance.
Bendiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping, and inter-genre visiting has been going on in the SF world—loosely deﬁned—for some time. For instance, in a 1989 essay called “Slipstream,” veteran SF author Bruce Sterling deplored the then-current state of science ﬁction and ticked off its writers and publishers for hav¬ing turned it into a mere “category”—a “self-perpetuating com¬mercial power-structure, which happens to be in possession of a traditional national territory: a portion of bookstore rack space.” A “category,” says Sterling, is distinct from a “genre,” which is “a spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a coherent aesthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an ideology if you will.”
Sterling deﬁnes his term slipstream—so named, I suppose, because it is seen as making use of the air currents created by sci¬ence ﬁction proper—in this way:
. . . I want to describe what seems to me to be a new, emergent “genre,” which has not yet become a “category.” This genre is not “category” SF; it is not even “genre” SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a “sense of wonder” or to sys¬tematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science ﬁction. Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.
His proposed list of slipstream ﬁctions covers an astonishing amount of ground, with works by a wide assortment of people, many of them considered to be “serious” authors—from Kathy Acker and Martin Amis to Salman Rushdie, José Saramago, and Kurt Vonnegut. What they have in common is that the kinds of events they recount are unlikely to have actually taken place. In an ear¬lier era, these “slipstream” books might all have been ﬁled under the heading of “traveller’s yarn”—stories like, for example, Herodo¬tus’s accounts of monopods and giant ants or medieval legends about unicorns, dragons, and mermaids. Later they might have turned up in other collections of the marvellous and uncanny, such as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or—even later—the kind of You¬-won’t-believe-this-hair-raiser to be found in assortments by M. R. James or H. P. Lovecraft or—occasionally—R. L. Stevenson.
But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, through a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy, and Slipstream Fiction: all of them might be placed under the same large “wonder tale” umbrella.
But where does all of this come from—the reading, the writing, the engagement, and especially the wilder storms on the wilder seas of invention? Everyone wants to know this about writers: What is your inspiration, what put you up to it? They’re never satisﬁed with such explanations as “Because it was there” or “I don’t know what came over me.” They want speciﬁcs.
So let me try this:
As a young child, living brieﬂy in the winter of 1944–5 in an old house in Sault Ste. Marie, I used to get up before anyone else was awake and climb to the cold but spacious attic, where in a state of solipsistic bliss I would build strange habitations and quasi-people with a bunch of sticks and spools called Tinkertoy. What I really wanted to make was the windmill pictured on the box, but my set didn’t have the necessary parts, and as it was war¬time I was unlikely ever to possess the missing items.
Some say that the art one makes as an adult supplies the absence of things longed for in childhood. I don’t know whether or not this is true. If I’d been able to create that windmill, would I have become a writer? Would I have become a writer of SF? We’ll never know the answer to that question, but it’s one theory.
Meanwhile—in gravely altered form—here is the windmill. I hope you have as much fun with it as I have had.
1 The quotation by Octavia Butler appears in the About the Author note at the back of her novel Parable of the Sower.
1 Dick and Jane was a school reader series of the 1940s.
2 The New Scientist article appeared in the November 18, 2008, issue, under the general heading “The future of a genre.”
4 “The Wall” is the Berlin Wall.
4 The Lizard Men of Xenor appear in my novel The Blind Assassin, in the chapter of that name.
5 Ursula K. Le Guin’s review appears in the Guardian, August 29, 2009.
6 The public discussion with Ursula Le Guin took place in Portland, Oregon, on September 23, 2010, as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series.
7 Bruce Sterling’s essay “Slipstream” was originally published in SF Eye #5, July 1989.
8 Des Knaben Wunderhorn was a collection of German folkloric material pub¬lished between 1805 and 1808.
11 Tinkertoy was a pre-Lego assembly set.
Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. Copyright 2011 by O.W. Toad Ltd.
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