Many of her casual readers, and most critics of her work, are aware by now that Margaret Atwood got herself into a spot of bother after the publication of her pulpish dystopia Oryx and Crake (2003), when she disassociated her text from the conversation of SF, the underlying megatext of conventions, phrases, solutions, tags and cliches which honest Science Fiction writers both acknowledge and make new in their works, and which has evolved enormously over the years. Despite her conspicuous use of SF topoi copied holus-bolus as they existed half a century ago — i.e., the Superman Mad Scientist who Ends the World while Simultaneously Creating a New Species to Inhabit the Remains — she claimed in 2003 that what she wrote was not Science Fiction at all, because Science Fiction was all about squids in space. What she was really writing was something decently grown-up, something akin to Speculative Fiction of a utopian/dystopian bent. In 2003 this reviewer (for one) waxed enthusiastically indignant — given the patently condescending disingenuousness of what she said — about what seemed not so much misprision as trahison des clercs. I argued that a person who had attained a public voice had a public responsibility, as a member of a clerisy whose voice could be heard for good reason, not to allow offhand comments to be understood as discourse. Solipsism in a clerk — clerisy being the committee of the whole of the literate members of a conversing society — is a form of tyranny.
In 2003, Ursula K. Le Guin — a writer of singular importance to the field not only for her fiction but for her critical work — made it clear that the squids-in-space bon mot was genuinely discourteous. But her measured rebuke seems to have made little difference. Atwood has now reiterated her claim almost unmodified, in her latest book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. It may be that like a lobster in a trap who cannot find the exit door, Atwood cannot work her way out of the perplex of ill-judged subjectivity in which she had trapped herself: perhaps because, as with any statement of belief as opposed to argument, her “definition” of SF is as unfalsifiable as any sermon.
Here is a central passage from the introduction to In Other Worlds:
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 [Atwood is presumably not thinking here of novels like Hector Servadac (1876) that transparently contradict her description of Verne’s work] — things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.
“Speculative fiction” is a term long-used in SF, and...read more