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[ profile] grahamsleight points out an article by Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction that's too good not to relay:
If you're writing about the future and you aren't doing forecast journalism, you'll probably be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hyphenated forms - science fiction fantasy, and so forth - and others choose the reverse.

I have written two works of science fiction or, if you prefer, speculative fiction: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake.
If she keeps this up we're going to have to stop mocking her for not getting it, aren't we?

[ profile] ninebelow has a roundup of her previous statements on the relationship of her work to sf here.
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You've got to love the global communications network.

There I was last night, quietly minding my own business, when suddenly I get a call from an unknown number. At the other end of the line is an enthusiastic [ profile] applez: "Turn on Radio 3!" he said. "There's a show you have to listen to!"

This perhaps has more impact if you know that [ profile] applez is and was in San Francisco, listening via the internet. It made my evening, anyway, and Tom was also impressed.

The show in question was Nightwaves, Radio 3's daily 'culture and ideas' slot:
So why do we still need to maintain the distinction between the literary and the generic, and how do you define the two? That's the big question for the Undercurrents panel on Nightwaves tonight. Mulling over this weighty topic will be writers Brian Aldiss, Justina Robertson, Professor Valentine Cunningham and philosopher and Man Booker judge A.C. Grayling.

You can see why Zac thought I may be interested. And it was a good show: I spammed several of you about it last night, but anyone else who's interested can listen to it here and read the inevitable Third Alternative message board thread here. Zac's also posted about it over in [ profile] ousfg, here.

Points I'm filing away for future reference:

  • Aldiss hints that when he met Margaret Atwood she was quite happy, even keen, to be thought of as a science fiction writer. He then mentions that he thinks this was before she was published...

  • JG Ballard is referenced as saying 'the day science fiction is taken seriously, it will be dead'. Aldiss questions whether science fiction, as an effectively self-invented description, is relevant any more, and even whether it ever did more harm than good. Kim Newman suggests that people unconciously associate science fiction as an american phenomenon, and therefore as crap.

  • Some interesting discussion about whether genres are imposed by readers rather than writers (along with a healthy dose of the usual science fiction reader stereotype, although that was entertainingly rebutted by Robson). Also mention of the obvious influence of publishers. On the other hand, you do get people who want to write SF, or mystery, or [insert description here].

  • Some talk of authors such as Bulgakov (who is a fantasist, not a science fiction writer) and Borges (who has written science fiction and fantasy, but is not a science fiction or fantasy writer).

  • Comments from Ian Jack, the editor of Granta, saying 'he himself is not entirely sure why he wants to exclude fantastic literature'. Trying to reason it out, he suggests that writing within science fiction is self-limiting, and that maybe it lacks the scope of 'non-genre' writing. Justina Robson is asked to comment; you can almost hear her going slightly purple. :-)

  • The inevitable debate about the importance of characterisation. Literary merit is best defined by pointing at it (like science fiction!); strong characters can be one reason a work endures, although they may be stylised rather than multidimensional. Characterisation is not the only dimension of a novel's value.

  • The discussion is chaired by China Mieville. Every so often, I got an image of everyone else playing nice so that he didn't lean over and bang their heads together. :-)


May. 24th, 2003 10:21 am
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I was going to let it lie, but this (courtesy of a far too early-morning text message from Naomi) is too good to ignore. You want 8:48am:
Presenter: [Margaret Atwood] describes her new book Oryx And Crake as 'speculative fiction' because she says it could happen. Well, is she right? Bryan Appleyard, the author and Sunday Times journalist is writing a book about aliens; we're also joined by D J Taylor, the author and Orwell biographer. Good morning to you both.

Both: Good morning.

Presenter: Bryan Appleyard, do you think it's a fair distinction - this 'speculative fiction'/'science fiction'?

Bryan Appleyard: No, I think it's petty literary snobbery. [...] The whole reason it's called science fiction is because it's credible, it's possible, and Margaret Atwood seems to me to be evidently writing science fiction. And no reason why not - there's some very great science fiction writers.

Hurrah for Bryan Appleyard! And boo to DJ Taylor (sample quote: "JG Ballard is not a writer of science fiction; he's someone who merely projects certain elements of his moral and political universe in futurist terms...")


May. 22nd, 2003 10:46 am
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So, last night Naomi and I went to Oxford to see Margaret Atwood being interviewed by Peter Kemp (fiction editor for The Sunday Times). All in all, I was pleasantly surprised. She was an entertaining interviewee, much given to wit and digression (one of the questions later, from someone clearly looking for the answer for his A-level coursework, was 'how easy do you find it to write in a broken style?' I didn't fully understand it, either, but based on the interview I'd have to go with 'very easy', because she clearly thinks that way anyway). Of course the matter of speculative fiction vs science fiction ('things we already have' vs 'made up things') came up very early on - unprompted by Kemp, even. But she didn't sound derogatary in the way the interviews I've been quoting made her sound. She clearly evinced a fondness and respect for, say, HG Wells, but at the same time wanted to distance her own work from that tradition. Indeed, she says she makes a point of dipping into pretty much every genre now and then - Western, Crime, Mills & Boon, you name it - just to see what's going on.

Then it came to the questions session, and I asked: "Was Oryx and Crake influenced by any other contemporary speculative fiction authors, and if so, who? And whether it was or it wasn't, in general which other contemporary speculative fiction authors would you recommend?"

The three authors she named were Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson, and John Wyndham. Points lost for not being hugely contemporary (although to be fair, she did admit that herself) - but points gained for recommending John Wyndham. Not just because I also think he's a wonderful writer, but because it basically confirms to me that she is playing the definitions game, which I can't really find it in myself to get that worked up about. You see, as rigorous as Wyndham is, he does include elements that are clearly 'made-up things'; telepathy in The Chrysalids, for instance, not to mention the invasion from the depths of the sea in The Kraken Wakes. So as long as she's not being actively derogatory towards science fiction, I'm happy to let her call her own books what she likes.

Afterwards, there was a signing. I had my copy of Oryx and Crake dedicated 'to the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, best wishes, Margaret Atwood', explained that the society has been around for donkey's years and was founded by Brian Aldiss, assured her that no, we don't think Star Trek is any good, and in turn received a recommendation: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I'm sure this will make Mike very happy (it made Naomi quite happy, too, since she'd recommended it to me a while back).

All in all, a fine evening out.
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Maybe I should just rename my journal 'AtwoodWatch' and be done with it. Thanks to [ profile] flyingsauce for this one; she was on this morning's Today program, insisting as usual that Oryx and Crake is speculative fiction, not science fiction. You can listen here. It's the first item in the 8:30-9:00am segment; I'm afraid I can't work out a more useful URL, and they don't seem to have provided it as a separate clip yet.

The interview also involved Steve Jones; one of the first things he says is "Well, actually, I would have described it as science fiction." I've always liked him. :-)

Also, on the day's other hot topic: What he said. Aside from the parts about his girlfriend.
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Atwood- and genre-related quotes of the day, from TIME:
Literary fiction is all about nuance. Science fiction is an open invitation to moralizing. In a genre that lets you create your own world, who can resist the temptation merely to blow it all up while shaking a head at what fools these mortals be? Not Atwood. What's missing here is the emotional sinew of Cat's Eye, the complex mortifications of Alias Grace.

And from the New York Times:
I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital 'L,' and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility. Some will ask, of course, whether there still is such a thing as 'Literature with a capital 'L.'' I proceed on the faith that there is. Are there exceptions to my categorical pronouncement? Probably, but I don't think enough of them to overturn it.

Is Margaret Atwood's new novel, Oryx and Crake, science fiction? Insofar as the term has any practical meaning, yes.

Yes, the implied assumption in the second of those is that 'psychological nuance' is inherently superior to, and more worthy of exploration than mere 'conceptual matters'. Forget objectivity; subjectivity is what counts. Sheesh.


May. 4th, 2003 11:28 am
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More from Margaret Atwood, this time in New Scientist:
What do you make of science fiction?

A lot of science fiction is fantasy. It's people flying around on dragons, other worlds of strange life forms. Some of them are quite well thought through, they know what the strange creatures eat, they know that life could be sustainable. Others are just having fun.

Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Speculative fiction is when you have all the materials to actually do it. We've taken a path that is already visible to us. In 1984 and Brave New World, you could see all the elements that were farther down that particular path. I don't like science fiction except for the science fiction of the 1930s, the bug-eyed monster genre in full bloom.

(Did I mention that I'm going to see her talk in a couple of weeks? Suggestions for questions I should throw at her gratefully received...)

Anyway, after I've finished banging my head on my desk I'm off to Oxford for the day. And given that I plan to go to tonight's library meeting, probably a non-trivial chunk of the night, as well.
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In the Guardian:

Margaret Atwood's latest novel, Oryx and Crake , is not, she insists, "science fiction" but "speculative fiction". It is a distinction she has also made about her earlier dystopian book, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), currently being staged as an opera in London.
"Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen," she explains. Her work is always researched: Oryx and Crake, a novel blending a biological apocalypse with a genetically engineered genesis, acknowledges a number of personal debts in terms of research and background, but also scrupulously offers a list of documentary sources at a web address.

And then there's the Radio 4 review, from people who clearly have never read any other science fiction. Or paid attention to science news for the last five years.

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