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.


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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