Le Guin on Atwood

I would like to believe that the gambit Ursula Le Guin deploys in her review of The Year of the Flood works:

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.

Who can blame her? I feel obliged to respect her wish, although it forces me, too, into a false position. I could talk about her new book more freely, more truly, if I could talk about it as what it is, using the lively vocabulary of modern science-fiction criticism, giving it the praise it deserves as a work of unusual cautionary imagination and satirical invention. As it is, I must restrict myself to the vocabulary and expectations suitable to a realistic novel, even if forced by those limitations into a less favourable stance.

Since she ends up calling the book “extraordinary”, however, it seems that it doesn’t count for that much in the end. On the other hand, she calls the book “extraordinary”, which bodes well for me as a reader.

7 Responses to “Le Guin on Atwood”

  1. Martin Says:

    It is not an approach I agree with, although given LeGuin’s previous reviews for the Guardian it is not one which surprises me. But as you say, it doesn’t count for much so perhaps the irony in that second paragraph is greater than I am able to decode.

    What most interested me about the review was this sentence: “The personality and feelings of characters in Oryx and Crake were of little interest; these were figures in the service of a morality play.” This is very different to my reading of the novel.

  2. Richard Morgan Says:

    Goddamn it, that is exactly the kind of considered maturity and intelligence I’ve come to expect from that bloody woman. Why can’t she just rant and blow raspberries like the rest of us, eh?

    When I grow up, I want to be as mature and thoughtful as Ursula Le Guin – it’s good to have something to aspire to in life. But for now, where Atwood is concerned, I’ll settle for a huge, rude farting noise and a sneer along the lines of Caaahm off it, Maggie. Wot are you on? Genetic engineering and future catastrophe but it’s not SF? ‘N I spose Martina Cole’s not writin’ crime neever. Gaarn – you gunna come choirly or wot?

    Which is possibly why I don’t get to review for the Guardian…..

  3. Niall Says:

    (I’m assuming David was aiming for this post.)

    The thing that gets me about the Atwood situation is that she has, quite a while ago now, cheerfully admitted that other people have different definitions of science fiction:

    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. Here are some of the things these kinds of narratives can do that socially realistic novels cannot do.

    And, you know, that’s fair enough. So at this point I can enjoy the responses to Atwood’s work from various quarters purely as a kind of theatre.

    (Further, unlike another author who doesn’t think she’s written sf that I could name, Atwood is happy for her books to be considered for the Clarke Award, which gets her points in my book.)

  4. Martin Says:

    (I’m assuming David was aiming for this post.)

    Nah, I think he got the post he was after and, to be honest, I agree with him.

  5. Niall Says:

    It was the Le Guin mention that made me think it should have been over here, but reading it again you may be right.

  6. Foxessa Says:

    Atwood is in my top ten favorite novelists.

  7. Ian McDonald Says:

    “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. ”
    So Margaret Attwood, in that same blithe spirit with which many mainstream writers reinvent the tropes of SF, reinvents the Mundane Manifesto.


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