May 10th, 2004


Giant Squids In Spaaaaaaaace

My review of Margaret Atwood's Oryx And Crake is now up at The Alien Online. Part of the review touches on Atwood's notorious remarks about science fiction so, as a special treat, I have assembled a collection of links to what she has actually said.

Q: It's hard to pin down a genre for this novel. Is it science fiction?

A: No, it certainly isn't science fiction. Science fiction is filled with Martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that. That isn't this book at all. The Handmaid's Tale is speculative fiction in the genre of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nineteen Eighty-Four was written not as science fiction but as an extrapolation of life in 1948. So, too, The Handmaid's Tale is a slight twist on the society we have now.
Q: Do you have any entirely trivial pastimes?

A: I watch peculiar science-fiction films.
"When people think 'science-fiction' they usually think Star Trek, or they think Star Wars, or they think War of the Worlds - you know, talking squid - talking cannibalistic squid. And I saw a huge range of sci-fi B-movies in the 50s: the glory days, those low budget ones with names like The Creeping Eye, which was quite good until you actually saw it! You could see the tractor tied underneath as it crept along! So that's what people think of when they think 'science-fiction'. And Oryx and Crake is not that because as I said there's nothing in it that we can't do. The location is Earth. The characters are us." [WARNING: PDF!]
"A lot of science fiction is fantasy. It's people flying around on dragons, other worlds of strange life forms. Some of them are quite well thought through, they know what the strange creatures eat, they know that life could be sustainable. Others are just having fun.

Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Speculative fiction is when you have all the materials to actually do it. We've taken a path that is already visible to us. In 1984 and Brave New World, you could see all the elements that were farther down that particular path. I don't like science fiction except for the science fiction of the 1930s, the bug-eyed monster genre in full bloom."
Although some reviewers have categorized the book as science fiction, Ms. Atwood considers it speculative fiction, and to clear the air she defined those two forms and also defined fantasy fiction.

Fantasy, she said, is "largely mythic and Celtic in inspiration" and deals with "dragons, magic swords and chalices that glow in the sky." She offered "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Harry Potter" series as examples. Science fiction, she said, deals with "technologies we don't yet have, other universes," as in "Star Trek" and "Star Wars."

In contrast, speculative fiction is "this planet," she said. It doesn't use things we don't already have or are not already developing. `Beam me up, Scotty' is not speculative fiction. We don't yet have the ability to disintegrate people and have them reassembled in some other place."

Then she said about "Oryx and Crake," "Had I written it 20 years ago, I would have called it science fiction, but now it's speculative fiction, believe me." [WARNING: PAID CONTENT!!]
""Science fiction" is the box in which [Le Guin's] work is usually placed, but it's an awkward box: it bulges with discards from elsewhere. Into it have been crammed all those stories that don't fit comfortably into the family room of the socially realistic novel or the more formal parlor of historical fiction, or other compartmentalized genres: westerns, gothics, horrors, gothic romances, and the novels of war, crime, and spies. Its subdivisions include science fiction proper (gizmo-riddled and theory-based space travel, time travel, or cybertravel to other worlds, with aliens frequent); science-fiction fantasy (dragons are common; the gizmos are less plausible, and may include wands); and speculative fiction (human society and its possible future forms, which are either much better than what we have now, or much worse). However, the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm."

"Sci-fi is sometimes just an excuse for dressed-up swashbuckling and kinky sex, but it can also provide a kit for examining the paradoxes and torments of what was once fondly referred to as the human condition: What is our true nature, where did we come from, where are we going, what are we doing to ourselves, of what extremes might we capable? Within the frequently messy sandbox of sci-fi fantasy, some of the most accomplished and suggestive
intellectual play of the last century has taken place."
"I myself have written two works of "science fiction" or, if you prefer, "speculative fiction," The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake."