In general terms, I like Margaret Atwood. She’s not my favourite author by any stretch – I’ve only ever finished one of her books, the wonderful Handmaid’s Tale – but I respect an author who’s diverse, seemingly willing to write whatever she feels like without being bound in by audience expectations. The fact she’s a successful Canadian author is a nice bonus. The Longpen may be kind of weird, and she’s a bit odd in general, but I can respect that.
But sometimes, it appears she’s kind of a dick.
Take, for example, this interview in the Globe and Mail about her new novel, The Year of the Flood. The article describes the novel thusly:
In the post-apocalyptic future Toby inhabits, maggots are both food and medicine. Indeed they are one of the few wholly benign creatures left in a world teeming with the misbegotten results of genetic tinkering – Day-Glo sheep, pigs with human brain power and dangerous “liobams” created by a literal-minded religious cult determined to make the lion lie down with the lamb.
Survival is no metaphor in The Year of the Flood. It is the immediate priority of all humanity – at least the fraction that survives the flood in question, called “waterless” by the fictional cultists who predicted it. Atwood describes the event as something like a worldwide outbreak of the Ebola-Marburg virus, producing “a hemorrhagic, dissolve-from-the-inside kind of fever.”
And yet, the Globe points out, Atwood insists it’s not a science fiction novel.
“Science fiction takes place “somewhere in space, far, far away in a distant galaxy,” she explains. … But “speculative fiction” of the sort she writes deals strictly with things people can experience on Earth “without being stoned,” she says. “It has to be based on real technology, real science, real possibility.”
Now, I can appreciate the desire of an author to avoid a genre label. Write the book you want to write, and let others decide in which category it belongs. And I suppose I can even understand wanting to avoid being stuck in a genre ghetto – science fiction books seldom win major awards or rack up the huge sales of a “literary” novel.
But this is just silly. I understand when someone says they don’t consider Star Wars to be “science fiction”, as there’s very little science in it. But Atwood seems to be going off in a completely different direction – unless there’s no basis for the existence of other planets in “science”? One wonders what Atwood might think of Alastair Reynolds, who writes stories about adventures in far-off outer space that nonetheless have a very strong basis in science thanks to a career spent working for the European Space Agency. Instead, her definition of science fiction as “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today” would seem to rule out any associations with the Reynolds or Iain M Banks of the world, and set her books on the shelf next to Terminator.
Now, I can get behind a label like “speculative fiction”, since it’s much broader and open to more diverse interpretations. But when you get right down to it, to “speculate” merely means to engage in thought or reflection, which would seem to cover a great deal of fiction.
Atwood clearly doesn’t want to be restrained by labels, but she’s labelling herself with her outright rejection of labels. It’s one thing to call your book what you like, but entirely another to reject others’ descriptions of it, particularly when those descriptions make rather a good deal of sense.