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.

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Apocalypse vs. Dystopia: Some Definitions

This essay briefly discusses The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood; 1985); The Children of Men (P.D. James; 1992); Oryx and Crake (Atwood; 2003) and The Year of the Flood (Atwood; 2009); The Gate to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988); Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm; 1976); Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). There are no spoilers beyond very brief summaries.

I have noticed that two sub-genres frequently get confused: the dystopian story and the post-apocalyptic story. While these two areas of future storytelling may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s define some terms, shall we?

We’ll begin with apocalypse. An apocalyptic story is one that depicts the end of modern human civilization as we know it, usually due to some cataclysmic event. A nuclear war, a meteor impacting the Earth, a zombie uprising, a 99-percent fatal epidemic — all of these things can usher in the apocalypse. A post-apocalyptic story concerns itself with what happens after that apocalyptic event, whether immediately following it or far, far in the future.

Often what happens is the rise of new societies. These societies may sometimes be dystopias. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopian society. Utopias are pretty much perfect, providing for the needs of all of their citizens. Dystopias, on the other hand, are usually oppressive, totalitarian, and violent.

Utopian and dystopian societies do not have to arise out of an apocalyptic event, however. 1984 and Brave New World are both classics of the dystopian sub-genre that do not contain an apocalypse. Or take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often mis-classified as post-apocalyptic. In that novel, a fundamentalist Christian group overthrows the current government and establishes a totalitarian society that enslaves women. Although environmental degradation has caused widespread infertility, no true apocalypse takes place. In fact, the primary point of view of the novel is of a future society looking back on this time in history.

From the movie version of The Children of Men.
From the movie version of The Children of Men; forced fertility testing is very dystopian.

Compare that with The Children of Men (or the movie based on it). In that case, although the apocalypse has not yet occurred, it is anticipated, because every person has lost the ability to reproduce and no children have been born in a generation. The novel could even be classified as pre-apocalyptic in that sense. This situation has directly created a dystopian government, which took power to enforce order on the growing chaos and anarchy occurring ahead of the apocalypse. So The Children of Men is an apocalyptic novel, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is not, even though the subject matter is similar.

atwood1
Apocalypse + dystopia taste great together.

Sometimes the dystopian society is the cause of the apocalyptic event. This is the case in Atwood’s companion novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The futuristic society she depicts is overwhelmingly consumerist, with a huge gap between rich and poor. One character takes it upon himself to engineer a virus to wipe out humankind and start all over again from scratch.

While I enjoy dystopian novels of all kinds, I am most interested in those dystopias that directly arise from an apocalyptic event. There are numerous examples of these, which may be why the two terms are so often confused. The Gate to Women’s Country is a dystopia masquerading as utopia, a common trope. After a devastating war, a society of walled cities based on ancient Greece arose. The cities are governed by women, while the men are forced to live outside the city walls as soldiers. Another good example is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, where the human survivors rely on cloning to reproduce. The cloned generations gradually change, losing their individuality and other essential human qualities, and oppressing anyone who differs from the norm.

Looks idyllic, doesn't it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.
Looks nice, doesn’t it? Cover art for Always Coming Home.

If it’s a true post-apocalyptic utopia you’re looking for, you might try Always Coming Home. Set in the far future California, it depicts an agrarian, idyllic society. Although they have access to technology — computer networks that survived the pre-apocalyptic civilization record their stories and occasionally provide information — they maintain an pre-Industrial Age way of life. Such an idealized lifestyle certainly seems unattainable without an apocalypse to first wipe the slate clean and allow us to start all over — and do it right this time.