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Margaret Atwood vs SF

It has for some time been 'common knowledge' amongst SF fans that Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale is a prime example of the 'literary establishment' that derides SF and recoils in horror should you suggest that their work might fall within the remit of SF. This opinion seems to be based on various interviews Atwood has given, like this one from a few years back:

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.

Now, quotes like that fairly make my blood boil, because it looks exactly like the worst kind of literary snobbishness: SF is ray guns and spaceships, and serious fiction can't possibly work that way! Not to mention that extrapolation from and twists on existing society are exactly what SF do best...But then I came across this review of Ursula Le Guin, written by Atwood, in which she says the following:

"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.

Quibbles about her top-level definition (I'd go for 'speculative fiction' as the bridging term, with the various science fiction and fantasy subgenres nested below that) and the vaguely pejorative use of the word 'proper' aside, she actually seems to have gained a fairly mature understanding of the genre, its scope and what it is about. A charitable man would even suggest that what appears in the early interview to be disdain for science fiction comes not from disdain, but merely from the application of what was initially an overly narrow definition of the term.

Disclaimer: concerns about the validity of classification by genre are left for a subsequent discussion, or possibly as an exercise for the reader. :-)

This page was written by Niall Harrison.