Is Margaret Atwood a Science Fiction Writer?

Margaret Atwood says “now is not the time for realistic fiction,” but is her writing science fiction? She would deny it, preferring the more nebulous term, “speculative fiction.” Regardless, in many of her novels, even her more mainstream ones, she deals with what-if’s and what-might-be’s, rather than what is.

On the subject, Atwood says:

“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.”

Atwood is generally considered a literary writer by critics who wouldn’t dream of dipping into the genre ghetto, but she gets away with writing fiction that could easily be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.

handmaidscoverConsider, for instance, Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which was nominated for the Booker Prize but won the Arthur C. Clarke Award the very first time it was given out. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women. Its dystopian, futuristic setting place it squarely in the science fiction tradition.

I think The Handmaid’s Tale was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept.

the_blind_assassin_by_ekonkThe Blind Assassin (2000), which won the Booker Prize, is not as straightforward in terms of genre, but it does contain science fiction elements. Its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters and develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Regardless, Atwood is comfortable using tropes of the genre in exciting and unusual ways when it suits her.

maddaddam1__140604211942With her more recent MaddAddam trilogyAtwood has a harder time making the case that she is not in fact writing science fiction. The dystopian future she imagines relies on the products of genetic engineering. A genuine mad scientist applies his eugenics research to create a race of people, then releases a bio-engineered virus to bring about the apocalypse. Her most recent novel, The Heart Goes Last, is another dystopia that was originally published in installments on the Internet.

I enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Atwood’s fiction may transcend labels, but she speaks to those of us who love science fiction and its speculations on what might be.

First Impressions: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

These are my first impressions after reading Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie; 2013) in August 2014. I will be discussing Ancillary Justice in a future essay.

At one time, the artificial intelligence Justice of Toren was the brain of a massive starship as well as of the crew members on-board and the security forces keeping peace on a conquered planet, inhabiting the bodies of human prisoners-of-war, called ancillaries, whose brains have been wiped clean and repurposed. But now the AI, called Breq, is confined to just one of her ancillary bodies, as she doggedly pursues revenge against the one who betrayed her while becoming embroiled in a complicated struggle for power over the galactic empire.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAncillary Justice brings a new and unique flavor to the sub-genre of space opera. The story jumps great distances in time and space as it comes together, which may leave the reader feeling untethered at first–but stick with it. Leckie is building a complex empire, and she takes her time with it, allowing us to gradually become immersed. By the time Breq’s ship is destroyed, a heart-stopping moment, I was enthralled and couldn’t wait to keep turning the pages.

Beyond all the political machinations, the betrayals and conspiracies, I enjoyed this book for its interesting take on gender and for its completely unique point of view. Breq, the narrator, is at one point the mind for many bodies as well as a spaceship that can observe everything happening on-board. As such, the point of view is nearly first-person omniscient, which I don’t think I’ve seen done before. After the spaceship is destroyed and the AI is confined to only one body, Leckie continues to thwart narrative norms. For instance, Breq was created in a gender-neutral society where everyone is referred to as “she,” so she cannot distinguish between the genders and uses the same pronoun for everyone she meets, male or female. The effect on the reader is disconcerting, and leads us to question some of our assumptions about gender, especially in science fiction. This is just one of the many interesting questions Leckie raises in this multi-faceted novel.

I always enjoy it when a skilled writer takes overly familiar tropes and tries twisting them in new ways. 

Ancillary Justice won the Nebula, Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, and Locus awards.

First Impressions: Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

These are my first impressions after reading Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985) in October 2008. I will be discussing Always Coming Home in future essays. Spoilers.

Always_pbAt first, I didn’t think I would like this unusually structured book, but it very gradually and completely captured my imagination. It is a collection of writings–poems, songs, stories, and essays–about the life and culture of a group of people living in California far in the future, long after our own civilization has collapsed and been almost obliterated. It is not clear who has collected these writings, but it seems to be a character named Pandora, an emissary from our present time who is perhaps merely dreaming this utopian future society.

The Kesh, as these people are called, are in many ways very primitive, with a Native American-style culture that revolves around seasonal celebrations, growing crops, caring for livestock, hunting and gathering, and taking care of all the work of life. The Kesh’s society is the opposite of capitalism, in that wealth comes through giving things away, not owning them, and everyone shares in the village’s resources.

But the Kesh are not entirely primitive. Though all fossil fuels are gone, they have electricity (sun-, wind-, and water-powered, no doubt), as well as access to a network of computers–a network that extends around the globe and into outer space via unmanned probes and satellites–that store all of human history and knowledge. The Kesh just don’t seem interested in progressing past their idyllic state, and they refer to societies like ours as “people with their heads on backwards.”

Not that life is perfect for the Kesh. They suffer from a high rate of birth defects and early mortality due to radiation and chemical poisoning, leftovers from our defunct civilization, which keeps the population from growing too large. And their stories reveal that they suffer from human nature just like any of us.

One such story–the longest in the collection, almost a novel–presents a dystopian alternative to the Kesh. A warlike society called the Condor people come to the Valley where the Kesh live, and one of the soldiers marries a Kesh woman and fathers a daughter, Stone Telling. When she gets older, she chooses to accompany her father to his home. Her story is the only knowledge the Kesh have of how the Condor people live. They hold slaves, are ruled by a dictator, and worship a single powerful god. The women have no rights and are not allowed to leave their homes without completely covering themselves. They are obsessed with war and building war machines that they don’t have the fuel to power, at the expense of feeding their people. Eventually, Stone Telling escapes back to her own people, but we get the sense that the Condor people are well on the path to self-destruction.

It took me a while to get caught up in the stories of the Kesh. Stone Telling’s long memoir, broken into three parts and interspersed by other writings, helps anchor the book. I gradually found myself enchanted and fascinated by the Kesh as I learned more about them, especially their spiritual practices and the important ritual dances they hold at significant times of the year. Mostly, I admired their approach to life, without judgment or a strict moral code, respectful of both the individual and the whole, which includes the animals, plants, stones, earth, stars, everything.

I have lately felt overwhelmed by depressing world events, our materialistic culture and the problems we felt, particularly our environmental problems. This book offered both an escape and an alternative way of thinking about those problems.

Always Coming Home won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. It was nominated for National Book Award for Fiction, Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.