What determines genre? Over the course of this column, we've discussed the wide ranges of authors who have written under the “science fiction,” “speculative fiction,” or “fantasy” genre. Figuring out what falls into each of these broad headings is an ongoing conversation within genre communities, cause for continual debate and, at times, controversy. One author, Margaret Atwood, found herself at the head of that conversation when she dismissed science fiction as a genre that was all about "talking squids in outer space," and that she wrote “speculative fiction,” which could actually happen.
Atwood was born in Ontario, Canada, on November 18, 1939. Her parents were both scientists, her father a biologist and her mother a nutritionist, which instilled her with an early knowledge and understanding of science and the state of the environment. From a young age, she tore into science fiction: In her book of essays In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Atwood says that she "read a lot of SF. As I proceeded through high school, I dug into the John Wyndhams—The Day of the Triffids came out in 1951, The Midwich Cuckoos in 1957. I devoured any Ray Bradbury I could get—it was the 1950s, so The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 were both available." She attended Victoria College and the University of Toronto, where she earned her B.A. in 1961, and continued to study at Radcliffe and Harvard Colleges in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From there, she went on to teach English as a lecturer at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, as an instructor at Sir George Williams University, Montreal, and the University of Alberta; and as an Assistant Professor of English at York University in Toronto. From there, she held a number of Writer in Residence posts at a variety of institutions around the world.
Her first novel, The Edible Woman, appeared in 1969, and was followed by several other nongenre works, such as Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Life Before Man (1979) and Bodily Harm (1981), and she continued to publish poetry and short fiction throughout this time. Atwood became best known for her novel The Handmaid's Tale, published in 1985. The novel depicted a dystopian future in the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States. The country is taken over by religious fundamentalists, who strip women of their rights. Women are forbidden to read and society is aligned along extreme Christian ideology. The novel's central character, Offred, is part of a handmaiden class used to provide the country's elite with children. Atwood's novel examines the hypocrisy of this society, and uses it to shine a light on the subject of women's rights.
The book, she noted, was a risk: the risk of a well-known literary author jumping over to speculative fiction. Atwood writes this in her book of essays: "I began the book—after a few earlier dry runs—in Berlin in the spring of 1984. I had a D.A.A.D. fellowship, and in a program run by West Berlin to encourage foreign artists to visit, as the city was at that time encircled by the Berlin Wall and its inhabitants felt understandably claustrophobic...I wrote most of the book back in Toronto, and completed it in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the spring of 1985, where I was the holder of an M.F.A. chair.”
Atwood also noted that the book was one of her more realistic ones: "My rules for The Handmaiden's Tale were simple: I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime or for which it did not already have the tools." Atwood wrote The Handmaiden's Tale as a reaction to the utopian/dystopian works that she had read, and drew in references from Puritanical New England, as well as books such as George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and "the sayings of right-wing religious groups in about 1983." The novel went on to receive acclaim, and earned the first ever Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987, as well as Locus and Nebula nominations.
Atwood continued to publish and received more acclaim for three other books: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013), a trilogy that examined life in a post-apocalyptic Earth, described by Atwood as a work of speculative fiction. Atwood's approach to speculative fiction has ruffled some features within traditional genre communities. After the release of Oryx and Crake, she drew a line in the sand: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen," she told interviewer Robert Potts of the Guardian. This distinction, between the plausible fantasy and the grounded potential future, is a topic often debated within genre circles. While Atwood was roundly condemned within science-fiction fandom, she highlighted an approach to the style of literature that largely falls under the speculative fiction banner. Certainly, there's been any number of terms to describe science fiction, from scientific romance to scientifiction to sci-fi. She also raises a valid point: how do you distinguish what is certainly not possible from stories that do retain some potential for actually happening?
What Atwood's argument doesn't cover is the actual writing of science fiction: examining science fiction, it becomes clear that this is a genre that could not exist in its present form without the help of technological advances, whether that be the invention of the printing press, the wide-scale publishing and sales, and the development of new mediums such as paperback novels, not to mention the numerous scientific advances that are frequently the subjects of the stories. Early science-fiction novels took fantastic events and placed normal people in their midst, in an exercise to see how people would react.
The Handmaiden's Tale doesn't match up all that well with the books of space opera authors. Yet, both tend to be lumped together with the same general heading: science fiction. Defining the genre has preoccupied much discussion among fans. Atwood points to the level of realism, whether that be hard science or history, an approach that is linked to books that have a considerable amount of science-fiction content, but are marketed as “literature” or “fiction” because of the style of writing, the general plot and intent of the novel, or simply the publisher's desire to bring the book to a wider audience. See novels such as Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel or California by Edan LePucki for more recent examples. Indeed, Atwood's Onyx and Crake was a finalist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize shortly after it was published. In many ways, science fiction belongs to genre fandom, while speculative fiction belongs to a much wider audience. Atwood, by pushing away the science-fiction label, angered fans for dismissing them. This doesn't seem to have harmed her career, however, and she continues to remain one of the genre's luminaries, whether they agree with her approach or not.
It's ironic, because in some ways, Atwood's approach to science fiction mirrors that of some of its earliest creators. Authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne each looked at the world around them and based their writing and approach to fiction with as much realism as they could, stretching into the imagination by extrapolating. It's arguable that this is something that is done with each science-fiction novel. Atwood’s stories might be the present extrapolated into the future, but what she’s managed to do is use that technique to create some of the genre's most relevant and uncomfortable futures, forcing us to examine the consequences of our actions. This isn't too far off from what Verne and Wells accomplished with their own stories.