Let Them Eat Crake

So, Margaret Atwood. Canadian literary icon. In my book, she earned serious points for her recent efforts in Toronto, playing a part in rallying public opinion against major cuts to libraries. But this isn't a blog about Canadian politics, much as I could fill no end of space pontificating about all the various quirks and questionable decisions going on in the various capitols scattered through the Great White North. This is a blog about, amongst other things, science fiction. And when it comes to science fiction, well, Ms. Atwood and I rather sharply part ways.

I09 has the introduction to Atwood's new book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, and quite frankly it's a lot of stuff and nonsense. While Atwood again claim's her resistance to having her books classified as scifi isn't about avoiding the literary ghetto, nothing in her opening argument does much to back that up. That she starts off initially by conflating science fiction with the shallow worlds children invent isn't damning, but it's hardly an opening that suggests a respectful take on the genre. But it is her attempt at defining 'nomenclatural allegiances', or a 'system of literary taxonomy', that is the real problem here. One cannot help but suspect that Atwood sat down with the conclusion that her books are not science fiction, and constructed this article backwards, from conclusion to thesis, in order to justify it. Which is why this argument contains the strangest, most hair splitting definition of science fiction I think I have ever seen.

"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 fiction" 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."

So, for Atwood there is 'science fiction' and 'speculative fiction', and unlike nearly everyone else who uses the term 'speculative fiction' it is not a subset of science fiction, but its own distinct genre. This is a curious argument to make, because to the best of my knowledge 'speculative fiction' is not a genre well-known by any particularly large group of people, and many of those who do recognize the term will hardly recognize Atwood's definition. For most science fiction fans, speculative fiction will be a type of science fiction, usually set 'Next Tuesday, A.D.' as it were, which involves some small but relatively important invention that allows the author to explore how society would change. Ralph Peters' War in 2020 is speculative fiction, for example, because it's about tracing the geopolitical impacts of foreign policy decisions and pandemic outbreaks to a potentially logical conclusion. It's also science fiction, because it involves fancy gunships with railguns and some sort of audio/EM weapon that puts victims in a permanent coma. It's both, at the same time, because speculative fiction is a subgenre of science fiction itself. Atwood then tries to muddy the waters, by claiming that

"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." [...] 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."

To some extent, of course, it is true that science fiction is often defined as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart did pornography; 'I know it when I see it'. Atwood mentions 1984, and wonders whether it is science fiction, and in some cases it's fair to wonder. Is Cormac McCarthy's The Road science fiction? What about The Book of Eli? Or Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Libeowitz? Or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Or Brazil? The borders are a bit blurred at times, and it's not always easy to determine exactly where some works fall. For Atwood, I would even give her The Handmaid's Tale as not being science fiction, since there's nothing inherently science-y in it. But the entire story of Oryx and Crake is driven by genetic engineering, with the storyteller taking to a species of newly-created and newly-sentient cat-people who were created in a laboratory to replace humanity. Nothing in that is 'speculative', as Atwood means it, because none of it could actually come to pass in any kind of reasonable way. You'd have better credibility classifying it as fantasy than some potential future for humanity, though I can't imagine the fantasy crowd would much want it wandering in their midst.

Of course, I don't particularly want it in science fiction, either. But it is, and the sooner Atwood stops trying to split the finest of hairs to try and escape it, the better off we'll all be.

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