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Margaret Atwood On Science Fiction

Writer Margaret Atwood on science fiction, and the power of sci-fi to shape our engagement with the world.

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood listens to questions during a presentation at the London's annual Book Fair, Sunday March 5, 2006. The Booker Prize-winning author on Sunday unveiled her new invention: a remote-controlled pen that allows writers to sign books for fans from thousands of miles away. (AP)

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood listens to questions during a presentation at the London's annual Book Fair, Sunday March 5, 2006. The Booker Prize-winning author on Sunday unveiled her new invention: a remote-controlled pen that allows writers to sign books for fans from thousands of miles away. (AP)

Poet and novelist Margaret Atwood has written some of the most hair-raising, dystopian tales of our time. Of apocalypse, wild social decay, women sent back into virtual slavery. Reality-bending, piercing views of the world and its future.

But in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Oryx and Crake” and more, she never embraced the label “science fiction.” Now Atwood’s going straight at science fiction, with an exploration and celebration of its extraordinary power to shape the way we see and engage the world.

This hour On Point: Margaret Atwood, on what science fiction does.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Margaret Atwood, Booker Prize-winning author, her newest book, a collection of essays and five short stories exploring science fiction, is “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Publishers Weekly “Atwood has a long and complex relationship with science fiction, and this mix of essays and short fiction represents her most sustained examination of the genre to date. Famously having refused the label “science fiction” for such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale, she prefers to call her work “speculative fiction,” though she here reveals herself to be both friendly to and well-read in genre SF. ”

Associated Press “Margaret Atwood is at least upfront with readers in this collection of essays, some old, some new. “It is an exploration of my lifelong relationship with a literary form,” she writes about the book. That form is science fiction, or SF, as she calls it for short.”

SF Signal “Well-written, engaging discussions of the interplay between imagination and cultural ideas; a fascinating, often playful look inside Atwood’s life and creative process; some shrewd musings on the nature of thought and communication.”

Excerpt

Introduction
I’m a fifty-three-year-old writer who can remember being
a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an
eighty-year-old writer.

OCTAVIA BUTLER

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not defini¬tive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practising academic or an official guardian of a body of knowl¬edge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.

I say “lifelong,” for among the first things I wrote as a child might well merit the initials SF. Like a great many children before and since, I was an inventor of other worlds. Mine were rudi¬mentary, as such worlds are when you’re six or seven or eight, but they were emphatically not of this here-and-now Earth, which seems to be one of the salient features of SF. I wasn’t much inter¬ested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish. Several-headed man-eating marine life seemed more likely to me, somehow, than Spot and Puff.
Our earliest loves, like revenants, have a way of coming back in other forms; or, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother to the woman. To date—as what I am pleased to think of as an adult—I have written three full-length fictions that nobody would ever class as sociological realism: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Are these books “science fiction”? I am often asked. Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science fiction” as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.

Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy. Back in 2008, I was talking to a much younger person about “science fiction.” I’d been asked by the magazine New Scientist to answer the question “Is science fic¬tion going out of date?” But then I realized that I couldn’t make a stab at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction meant anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences that separate what is clearly “science fiction” from what is not, or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way? If you put skin-tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jetlike flames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work “science fiction”? What about dragons and manticores, or backgrounds that contain volcanoes or atomic clouds, or plants with tentacles, or landscapes reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch? Does there have to be any actual science in such a book, or is the skin-tight clothing enough? These seemed to me to be open questions.
This much younger person—let’s call him Randy, which was in fact his name—did not have a hard and fast definition of “sci¬ence fiction,” but he knew it when he saw it, kind of. As I told New Scientist, “For Randy—and I think he’s representative—sci-fi does include other planets, which may or may not have dragons on them. It includes the wildly paranormal—not your aunt table-tilting or things going creak, but shape-shifters and people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body.” Here I myself would include such items as Body Snatchers—if of extraterrestrial rather than folkloric provenance—and Pod People, and heads growing out of your armpits, though I’d exclude common and garden-variety devils, and demonic possession, and also vampires and werewolves, which have literary ancestries and categories all their own.

As I reported in my New Scientist article, for Randy sci-fi includes, as a matter of course, spaceships, and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong. Plain ordinary hor¬ror doesn’t count—chainsaw murderers and such. Randy and I agreed that you might meet one of those walking along the street. It’s what you definitely would not meet walking along the street that makes the grade. Randy judged such books in part by the space-scapes and leathery or silvery outfits on their covers, which means that my speculations about jacket images are not entirely irrelevant. As one friend’s child put it: “Looks like milk, tastes like milk— it IS milk!” Thus: looks like science fiction, has the tastes of science fiction—it IS science fiction!

Or more or less. Or kind of. For covers can be misleading. The earliest mass-market paperbacks of my first two novels, The Edible Woman and Surfacing, had pink covers with gold scrollwork designs on them and oval frames with a man’s head and a woman’s head silhouetted inside, just like valentines. How many readers picked these books up, hoping to find a Harlequin Romance or reason¬able facsimile, only to throw them down in tears because there are no weddings at the ends?

Then there was the case of the former Soviet Union. No sooner did the Wall come down in 1989 than pornography flooded across the one-time divide. Porn had hitherto been excluded in favour of endless editions of the classics and other supposed-to-be-good-for-you works, but forbidden fruit excites desire, and every¬one had already read Tolstoy, a lot. Suddenly the publishers of serious literature were hard-pressed. Thus it was that The Robber Bride appeared in a number of Soviet-bloc countries with covers that might be described as—at best—deceptive and—at worst—as a Eurotrash slutfest in flagrante. How many men in raincoats purchased the Robber Bride edition sporting a black-satin-sheathed Zenia with colossal tits, hoping for a warm one-handed time in a back corner, only to heave it into the bin with a strangled Foiled Again! curse? For the Zenia in my book performs what we can only assume is her sexual witchery offstage.

Having thus misled readers twice—inadvertently—by dint of book covers and the genre categories implied by them, I would rather not do it again. I would like to have space creatures inside the books on offer at my word-wares booth, and I would if I could: they were, after all, my first childhood love. But, being unable to produce them, I don’t want to lead the reader on, thus generat¬ing a frantic search within the pages—Where are the Lizard Men of Xenor?—that can only end in disappointment.
…..

My desire to explore my relationship with the SF world, or worlds, has a proximate cause. In 2009, I published The Year of the Flood, the second work of fiction in a series exploring another kind of “other world”—our own planet in a future. (I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an infinite number of roads lead away to “the future,” each heading in a different direction.)

The Year of the Flood was reviewed, along with its sibling, Oryx and Crake, by one of the reigning monarchs of the SF and Fantasy forms, Ursula K. Le Guin. Her 2009 Guardian article began with a paragraph that has caused a certain amount of uproar in the skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities—so much so that scarcely a question period goes by at my public readings without someone asking, usually in injured tones, why I have forsworn the term science fiction, as if I’ve sold my children to the salt mines.

Here are Le Guin’s uproar-causing sentences:

To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things sci¬ence fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today.” This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.

The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names. (If winning prizes were topmost on my list, and if writing such books would guarantee non-wins, my obvious move would be just to avoid writing them.) 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 fic¬tion” means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such—things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second cat¬egory: no Martians. Not because I don’t like Martians, I hasten to add: they just don’t fall within my skill set. Any seriously intended Martian by me would be a very clumsy Martian indeed.

In a public discussion with Ursula Le Guin in the fall of 2010, however, I found that what she means by “science fiction” is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under “fantasy.” Thus, for her—as for me—dragons would belong in fantasy, as would, I suppose, the film Star Wars and most of the TV series Star Trek. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might squeeze into Le Guin’s “science fiction” because its author had grounds for believing that electricity actually might be able to reanimate dead flesh. And The War of the Worlds? Since people thought at the time that intelligent beings might live on Mars, and since space travel was believed to be possible in the imaginable future, this book might have to be filed under Le Guin’s “science fiction.” Or parts of it might. In short, what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.” So that clears it all up, more or less. When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance.

Bendiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping, and inter-genre visiting has been going on in the SF world—loosely defined—for some time. For instance, in a 1989 essay called “Slipstream,” veteran SF author Bruce Sterling deplored the then-current state of science fiction and ticked off its writers and publishers for hav¬ing turned it into a mere “category”—a “self-perpetuating com¬mercial power-structure, which happens to be in possession of a traditional national territory: a portion of bookstore rack space.” A “category,” says Sterling, is distinct from a “genre,” which is “a spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a coherent aesthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an ideology if you will.”

Sterling defines his term slipstream—so named, I suppose, because it is seen as making use of the air currents created by sci¬ence fiction proper—in this way:

. . . I want to describe what seems to me to be a new, emergent “genre,” which has not yet become a “category.” This genre is not “category” SF; it is not even “genre” SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a “sense of wonder” or to sys¬tematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.
His proposed list of slipstream fictions covers an astonishing amount of ground, with works by a wide assortment of people, many of them considered to be “serious” authors—from Kathy Acker and Martin Amis to Salman Rushdie, José Saramago, and Kurt Vonnegut. What they have in common is that the kinds of events they recount are unlikely to have actually taken place. In an ear¬lier era, these “slipstream” books might all have been filed under the heading of “traveller’s yarn”—stories like, for example, Herodo¬tus’s accounts of monopods and giant ants or medieval legends about unicorns, dragons, and mermaids. Later they might have turned up in other collections of the marvellous and uncanny, such as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or—even later—the kind of You¬-won’t-believe-this-hair-raiser to be found in assortments by M. R. James or H. P. Lovecraft or—occasionally—R. L. Stevenson.
But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, through a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy, and Slipstream Fiction: all of them might be placed under the same large “wonder tale” umbrella.
…..
But where does all of this come from—the reading, the writing, the engagement, and especially the wilder storms on the wilder seas of invention? Everyone wants to know this about writers: What is your inspiration, what put you up to it? They’re never satisfied with such explanations as “Because it was there” or “I don’t know what came over me.” They want specifics.
So let me try this:

As a young child, living briefly in the winter of 1944–5 in an old house in Sault Ste. Marie, I used to get up before anyone else was awake and climb to the cold but spacious attic, where in a state of solipsistic bliss I would build strange habitations and quasi-people with a bunch of sticks and spools called Tinkertoy. What I really wanted to make was the windmill pictured on the box, but my set didn’t have the necessary parts, and as it was war¬time I was unlikely ever to possess the missing items.

Some say that the art one makes as an adult supplies the absence of things longed for in childhood. I don’t know whether or not this is true. If I’d been able to create that windmill, would I have become a writer? Would I have become a writer of SF? We’ll never know the answer to that question, but it’s one theory.

Meanwhile—in gravely altered form—here is the windmill. I hope you have as much fun with it as I have had.

NOTES

1 The quotation by Octavia Butler appears in the About the Author note at the back of her novel Parable of the Sower.
1 Dick and Jane was a school reader series of the 1940s.
2 The New Scientist article appeared in the November 18, 2008, issue, under the general heading “The future of a genre.”
4 “The Wall” is the Berlin Wall.
4 The Lizard Men of Xenor appear in my novel The Blind Assassin, in the chapter of that name.
5 Ursula K. Le Guin’s review appears in the Guardian, August 29, 2009.
6 The public discussion with Ursula Le Guin took place in Portland, Oregon, on September 23, 2010, as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series.
7 Bruce Sterling’s essay “Slipstream” was originally published in SF Eye #5, July 1989.
8 Des Knaben Wunderhorn was a collection of German folkloric material pub¬lished between 1805 and 1808.
11 Tinkertoy was a pre-Lego assembly set.

Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. Copyright 2011 by O.W. Toad Ltd.

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  • Wm. James from Missouri

    I like to think of science fiction as a type of meditation that fertilizes a stagnant mind.

  • Zero

    …they sketch
    transitory lines rigid as wooden borders
    on a wall in the white vanishing air

    tracing the panic of suburb
    order in a bland madness of snows.

    • ShowMeNot

      Just beautiful…thanks.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Literary science fiction, as opposed to the television or movie variety, is correctly abbreviated s.f., not sci-fi.

    • ShowMeNot

      I consider most fiction a meditative science that stagnates a fertilized mind.

      • Cory

        Bummer, dude.

        • DoubleEntendre

          Folks above, look below at ShowMeNot’s comment to Zero’s post.

          Your interpretive powers rapidly jumped to your conclusions.

          Explanation: 

          stagnates a fertilized mind = quiets a mind full of crap

          meditative science = highly skilled, ‘zen-like’, creative abilities.

          Took Wm. James from Missouri comment used the same words but played with them – turned them around and inside out…

          • Terry Tree Tree

            Cute!

      • Nick

        Wow!  Someone’s creative powers are constipated today.

      • Terry Tree Tree

        Science Fiction shows the possible, which often becomes fact.  THAT should stimulate, and fertilize your mind!

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Sci-fi is harder to mis-interpret.  I like both, and have seen Sci-fi used in several older, literary references to the genre.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        I’m quoting Isaac Asimov here, one of the early writers in the modern genre.

        • Terry Tree Tree

          One of the early Science Fiction magazines, pre 1950, used Sci-Fi.  As you can see, I have high respect for the SF and non-fiction of Isaac Asimov.  I sincerely hope his three laws of robotics are kept!

    • JayB

      I usually see it as “SF”, but angsting over the phrase “sci-fi” is one way to keep the fandom entertained.

      I do appreciate the introductory essay here, as it turns out I may have unjustly relegated Atwood to the ranks of literary carpetbaggers who write novels on themes the rest of the genre left behind in the Seventies.  It’s good to see her actually having a dialogue here.

  • Dave

    Looking forward to the show — though I have observed in the past that science fiction seems to be one of the few relatively weak spots in Tom’s cultural background. (And especially Japanese anime, Tom. You need to make the time for a lost weekend with some GAINAX sometime. GuuunBUSTER!!)

  • nick

    In a lot of ways, Science Fiction is our hope, our salvation for the future or maybe just our testing ground for the future.  How we react to predictions in science fiction both tells us about our selves or warns us,

  • Rusalka

    I have fond memories of being a student at the University of Toronto and seeing the giant portrait of you that hangs in Northrup Frye building. I sort of imagined your image there as a modern day, secular saint. I have read several of your books and enjoy them, espeically Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. My question is this: I am American and I lived several years in Canada. I enjoyed living in Canada, and often look back with a mixture of nostalgia and longing…But one thing that really tired me was the incessant anti-Americanism in Canada. Simply because I was born in America doesnt mean that I love everything the US does (I was not complicit in chosing my station or place in this world-but to my knowledge no one else was)! It bothers me that sometimes comments you have made seem to play in to national pride (which in Canada sometimes manifests as anti-Americanism.)I feel like literature’s role in society is to trancend assumptions and national boundaries. How do you feel when people call you a great “Canadian” writer? (I feel the same reservation about the term great “American” writer…. so I am not singling Canada out).
    What do you think the role of nationalism is in the future?

    • Rusalka

      I meant to ask what do you think the role of nationalism in literature will be in the future? 

  • Anonymous

    When is the third book in the Oryx and Crake/The Year of the Flood series being published?

  • Brett

    I hope some discussion is allowed on the differences between literary science fiction and the pulpier, pop varieties, a distinction many lovers of science fiction seem not to recognize (and many seem offended at the distinction).  

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and MANY others, not only have characterized the human condition, but have ACTUALLY predicted the future!!  Verne’s submarine that went 20,000 leagues under the sea, his 300 mph car, and many other concepts that were a hundred years ahead of his time, show this!  George Orwell’s 1984 predicted a lot of 2011!
        Want to see the future?  Read Sci Fi!!

  • at

    There is SciFi and there is SciFi. There is the pulp waste of time that is little more than a comic book without illustrations, there is the kind of pop culturally hip comment like Stephenson and William Gibson turn out. Then there is the revelation of an alternative or emerging paradigm like Orwell, and Huxley authored. A current author in this later category (and the only living author of this type I have come accross that stuffs the perennial philosophy into SciFI pajamas is Carlos Dwa.  His SciFi novel Xellex:The unwritten book is a must read for anyone who likes this higher form of SciFi.

    • at

      Sorry that should be Xellex: The Unwritten Book

      From the inside cover:

      The night air held an invigorating hint of autumn briskness.
      Here, within the galaxy’s central disc, seething energies undulated in the heavens, adorning the night with a shimmering glamour. The sky was filled to the brim with stars, like crystals that had condensed from the supersaturated void, and the pale blue light of Xellex’s triple moons shone down upon the genius and depravity that mark the passage of man.
      Somewhere between the glittering corporate towers of the Ozone, and the concessionary apocalypse of the free
      zone Trenches, lies the transplanted heart of an ancient mystery. In all the nine quadrants only one lost and desperate soul has the wile that is necessary to save its dying light.  But he is to find that this irreplaceable human treasure can only be redeemed by the homicidal grace of an insane god.

      • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

        at, I haven’t heard of Dwa, so I’m curious: what about his writing puts him in that Orwell and Huxley category? What kind of emerging paradigm does he reveal? (He sounds interesting in any case.) Also, you seem to be down on Stephenson and Gibson (and comic books!). Do you think they have any value in at least describing and analyzing cultural trends?

        • at

          Sam, um, I haven’t the time to actually answer your questions in the detail and with the attention they deserve. I will however state that Stephenson and Gibson are two of my favorites and am really sorry if I was unclear on that. Also was a great fan of comics and at one time I actually owned two copies of the first Action Comics which was the first Superman. However next to Dwa’s stuff I find them kind of boring these days.
          Anyhow even though amazon says it is out of print they seem to still have a look into the book functon on Xellex: The Unwritten Book. So you can look into it yourself. Note however that the first part of the book is just a glossary of terms used in the novel ala’ Clockwork Orange, so you will have to search further into the book if you want to actually skim the novel.

          • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

            Fair enough; I’ll check it out!

      • CliftonCrow

        Damn, talk about approaching the ineffable, did you read the entire copy from that createspace link? Here is a disclaimer it contains.

        Warning: This novel contains graphic descriptions of SEX, DRUG USE,
        VIOLENCE, and potentially unstable* SNACKS FROM ANOTHER DIMENSION, that
        have been adapted to entice the metabolic substrate of consciousness
        with neurolinguistic and neuroimagic caresses, and has been designed to
        evoke the emotive force of latent archetypes to penetrate and
        temporarily dispel the overgrazed feedback loops of habitual mental
        forms.

        I have the feeling that Dwa does not lack for a sense of humor.

    • CkCK

      AT — I just looked this up on Amazon and it said it was out of print.  Isn’t this a new book?

      • at

        I don’t know what is going on at amazon. It is new, and you can still look into the novel there. Anyhow I bought mine here:

        https://www.createspace.com/3549638

        Where it is still on sale

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

    Good science fiction is like a three course meal for the imagination, fueling dreams and desires for better and bigger things than the present may provide for us. It is a creation engine for hope and the longing for greater things.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Perhaps Ms. Atwood ought to read Carl Sagan to see awe in response to what science gives us.

  • http://typewriterblues.tumblr.com Eric Shaw

    I have a question for Ms. Atwood. As a writer who has produced works in so many mediums, is there one that she prefers over the other, and if there is one she feels is the most representative of herself, or her natural inclination to write. Is there more enjoyment in writing poetry or fiction? Which are you most proud of?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    H. G. Wells predicted strategic bombing and nuclear weapons and was dismayed by the thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Loring-Palmer/100000673381066 Loring Palmer

    Thank you, Margaret Atwood.
      Please:  yes, we need an updated creation story that can unify the world.  Are you working on this?  Are you familiar with the updates presented by Andrew Cohen, in EVOLUTIONARY ENLIGHTENMENT, and the “Big Story” offered by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow?

  • Danny

    I like Ms Atwood’s comments about the currency of SF. The works are about the NOW, current events reflected in a mirror, distant or only slightly displaced.. they are comments about who we are.

  • Sam, Buffalo, NY

    Can Ms Atwood please speak of the difference between ‘bad’ sci-fi and good sci-fi.

    Back in the day, you had collections and editors that put together stories and novels.
    It just seems to be all going down the drain nowdays.

    Especially with sci-fi shows/movies.

    What does Ms Atwood think of Strugatski brother’s writings and does she have any sci-fi writers from other countries that she enjoys reading?

  • Sam, Buffalo, NY

    Well, right now you can get genetic testing. It’s very expensive, so only those who have the means to do it, can afford it.

    So, we’re already “in the future”.

  • ymc

    I’m happy that Ms. Atwood decided to consider and then embrace (and then expand?) the genre category of SF. I could understand why many “mainstream,” “literary” authors shy away from what is so often seen as a pulpy niche, but as a fan of all sorts of “pulpy” genres nothing makes me a happier reader than genre fiction really, really well done.

    (Having more women SF writers is also huge, imo.)

    By the way, Ms. Atwood and Ms. Le Guin’s discussion is an edifying, fun listen: here’s a link! http://www.opb.org/programs/podcast.php?litarts

    • Terry Tree Tree

      I love the Ursula Le Guin books that I have read.  Janet Isaamov is no slouch, either!  Science Fiction was improved by women, ever since ‘Frankenstein’!

  • Musor Moi

    Strugatski brothers have an excellent novel on the subject matter of – what makes humans humans. Specifically in regards to genetic modification.

  • Sam, Buffalo, NY

    Can you PLEASE post the list that Ms Atwood just recited!?

    Thank you

  • Zubie

    Just caught this broadcast by luck (on edge or broadcast range).

    I’m glad to hear this discussion on SF on the radio, particularly given that on “On Point’s” predecessor, Harlan Ellison memorably stormed off the show at the mere mention of the words “Science Fiction”. Given the understandable frustration of many writers being bracketed in a genre, I sense from this discussion that Ms. Atwood is not afraid of this. Does she feel this is a hurtful niche in any sense for new writers who may want to do things that are more subtle than simply what people may generally think SF is about.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Harlan Ellison isn’t such a good example to use.  His profession is filing lawsuits and picking fights these days.

  • DM

    Re: the moral neutrality of tools, I was happily reminded of Ani Difranco’s, “Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”

  • Jscallen

    I find it disheartening that all of these comments show no recognition for the greatest early intellectual sci-fi author, Olaf Stapledon. “The Foundation Trilogy is a mere footnote to Stapledon” said its great author. He was an avid pen pal with HG Wells, and Wells aspired to write as well as Olaf.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Thanks for the heads-up.  I’ll try to find and read some!

    • at

      Notable for his thought. His writing and sense of drama are quite thin.

  • Bill

    Nehemiah Scudder 2012 – given Perry’s run at the White House, sometimes science fiction can come scarily close to real life.

  • Meredith

    thanks for letting my be on the show! it was great!

  • Meredith

    thanks for letting me be on the show! it was great!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    The word for novel in German is Roman–a romance.

    • http://mergelefttoday.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

      Same as in French.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Excellent point–a book is well written or not; genre doesn’t matter.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      I heartily agree!

  • Guest

    I never liked sci-fi works.  A sermon by someone who thinks he/she has vision or super knowledge.  If I want to hear a sermon, I can go to church.  I did enjoy some Ray Bradbury tales, Rod Serling, some of Maragret’s writings, but still they hammer a message.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      You can read for the message, for the Great Escapist story, or a lot of other reasons!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    I saw an argument that Dracula was a story about fears of Slavic peoples coming into western Europe and bringing communist ideas with them.

    • Cristobaldelicia

      Dracula was written 1897.  Karl Marx was German, in fact grew up on the western edge of present day Germany.  Engles was also “west” German. Not Eastern European. The October Revolution in Russia was 1917. The argument you saw is badly flawed.

      • at

        Karl Marx was not German.  In fact when he was born, the country of Germany did not yet exist. He was born in Tier which was part of France until three years before he was born and then became part of The Kingdom of Prussia just before he was born. The folk of that area are descended from the Germanic tribe called the Almanni, later to be called Renish then when conquered by the Franks, Franko-Renish. Saying Marx was German is like saying that Darius the King of Kings was Iranian. Besides Marx’s family was Jewish genetically, and actually came from a long line of Rabbis. So he was neither German nor Germanic.

  • Mark in Waltham

    What I particularly like about Margaret Atwood’s books, particularly “The Year of the Flood” and “Oryx and Crake,” is how her excellent sense of humor can be felt even as she describes a rather grim future.  ”A NooYoo” indeed!

  • Emory

    I
    am an engineer working on a defense related research program. In my experience,
    one great obstacle to scientific progress is procuring research funding. This
    process involves selling the customer on the idea that the research can produce
    useful tools, equipment, weapons, and gadgets for the future. Often, this
    involves rethinking the very nature of military operations. In a government
    where gristly old, snake-eater generals (men who only believe in chow and ammo)
    hold the purse strings, it is often difficult to sell such elaborate visions of
    future conflict. It has occurred to me while listening to this program that
    that a science fiction writer would have the skills necessary not only to
    create a believable vision of the future, but to engage the audience. Has your
    guest ever considered a job as a grant writer?

    • Cuvtixo

      Good God!!! Obviously you haven’t read her books.  “Oryx and Crake” and “Year of the Flood” are about the world ending from a genetically engineered bioweapon invented by a “mad scientist.” One which no one is able to stop, certainly not militarily. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Atwood (who is Canadian) is interested in helping develop weapons, defensive in nature or not.  Many SF writers remember what happened to Oppenheimer. Bad business.

      • Terry Tree Tree

        Oppenheimer and many others, in many ways! 
            Science Fiction writers are usually trying to guide us against our worse side!

  • http://mergelefttoday.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

    I’m so grateful Margaret Atwood has come around on SF. She’s so clearly worked in the genre with novels such as THE HANDMAID’S TALE and ORYX AND CRAKE. It’s always been upsetting how many “mainstream” writers disdain SF without understanding just how vast and diverse a genre it is. Way to go, Margaret!

  • http://mergelefttoday.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

    I’ve never met Atwood but I did meet Ursula K. LeGuin once, and she is no liar:  she is not bad company at all.

  • http://mergelefttoday.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

    Hmm … Verne or Wells? To me, Wells is far superior, for the very reason that he “made things up.” He used his imagination to speculate about other realities, other times, other forms of humanity. Verne was just a techno-gee-whiz kind of writer–lots of fun to read (especially if you’re a young boy) but not so much of a literary giant.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Submarines that could circumnavigate the world, submerged, flying machines, autos that could exceed 300 mph, SCUBA, a spaceship trip to the moon, retro-rockets, and other technology a hundred years into his future, in the time of horse and buggy, the Hunley, and iron-clad wooden ships, and Verne had no imagination for other times and other realities?

      • http://mergelefttoday.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

        Verne had terrific technical foresight, no doubt about it.  But he just didn’t have much to say about the human condition, unlike Wells.

  • http://mergelefttoday.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

    What Margaret Atwood says about 19th century Utopian visions being put into practice in the 20th century is absolutely true. However, it hardly started there. Christianity and Islam had both been doing the same thing for centuries.

  • http://mergelefttoday.blogspot.com Joshua Hendrickson

    To me, SF is something that hasn’t happened but could happen, while fantasy is something that hasn’t happened and can’t happen. My own novels really fit the fantasy definition better than SF–I am chiefly concerned with the working out of myth in a modern or modernized context–but I really appreciate the challenges and hard work involved in writing good SF, while thinking that much modern fantasy coasts too far on formula.

    By the way, vampirism (since DRACULA was brought up) is, I think, just a metaphor for sex … which is what made those damned TWILIGHT books so stupid and irritating (aside from the bad writing). I mean, abstinent vampires–what’s up with that?

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Vampirism sounds to me like bad sex!  Granted, I like to nibble a lady’s nape and neck, but for her pleasure!  This gets her permission to nibble and nuzzle elsewhere!

  • Jason Williford

    Richard Matheson is a good example of an author that is not classified correctly. Often his work is found in a generic fiction category, when in fact he writes Sci-Fi and Horror.

  • Bin

    People who like SF generally have faith in man and reason. People who dislike SF have a rather more primitive spiritual outlook.

  • Slipstream

    Great show!  It was excellent to hear Ms. Atwood discussing SF in general, her work, and the works of others.  And the callers said interesting things too.

  • Pingback: Margaret Atwood Reflecting on SciFi « Eneryvibes's Blog

  • Slipstream

    I think some of the best writing comes out of literary genre fiction, and Atwood is one of the best examples of this.  The categories of literary SF and mystery contain some superb writers, and it seems like Atwood is one of the ones who is helping to blur the boundaries between haute literature and popular genre writing.  And I think that is great.

    A few words on naming genres.  No serious fan is totally satisfied with the name science fiction & fantasy (same goes for mystery).   It includes an awful lot of disparate writing, yet the name has stuck, and so that is why I tend to use it – not because it is a flawless name, but because people will know what I am referring to when I say it. 

  • CRose

    Thank you for your writing Margaret. I enjoyed even your doom and gloom speech at my graduation in 2010. It fits right in with you talking about your writing here! Sometimes you can only have so much cheerfulness in one day. Thanks for the realistic insight. I’ll keep reading your (and Ursula’s) books. They help.

  • Pingback: The ABC of Reading (What to Read Next) | Reading Women

  • Oosdkeobloer

    This means when you’re in action you get warm. So you should dress yourself appropriately in your ‘action suit’.bj and bear dvd set An action suit is usually a thermal baselayer, lou grant dvd set a fleece type midlayer and a shell on top.my wife and kids dvd Thin and not too bulky to climb in, but not all that warm either.

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