Atwood, Le Guin & SF

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

One book has captured the spirit of present and near-future USA like no other, and that is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (1985). On writing ‘1985’ I am astonished that it is so old, obviously America has been growing into Atwood’s predictions for some time. The TV series of the book premiered in 2016, and the sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019.

A Handmaid’s Tale sits over us, over all discussions of the rise of the Right in the US in particular, as Animal Farm, 1984 and Brave New World did over discussions of Communism and totalitarian government – not always accurately – when I was a young man (in the 1960s and 70s).

Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) and Margaret Atwood (1939- ) were friends, east coast gals with a university – Radcliffe “in the pre-Second Wave years” – in common.

Seated on little divans in front of over 2,000 people [in Portland, 2010], they seemed like two old school chums swapping gossip even when they were deconstructing modern realism and debating whether or not the human race is doomed.

Claire L. Evans — Space Canon, Gizmodo, September 28, 2010

Le Guin, the queen of SF, however is forced to tiptoe round Atwood’s refusal to acknowledge that she writes Science Fiction. Atwood argues science fiction is for space travel and things we can’t yet do, while what she does is speculative fiction, stuff that we have the means to do right now, right here on Earth (Moving Targets).

That is to say, she – and these days any number of writers of “dystopian” fiction – choose to write within one strand of SF, which has a history going back more than a century, while disclaiming all their antecedents and preserving, in their own minds anyway, their literary purity.

In her summary of the two writers’ discussion, Evans offers this breakdown: “could happen (speculative fiction), couldn’t happen yet (science fiction), could never happen at all (fantasy).”

If you’re still one of those who cling to the myth that there is ‘literary’ fiction and there is genre fiction, Le Guin was fierce that “realism is a genre like any other, and that all writing is by definition literary“. Further, “realism is limited in terms of what it can actually discuss. The modern realistic novel, she lamented, has devolved into tales of well-off East Coast people with problems” which might come as a shock to writers in the rest of the world. Atwood and Le Guin did agree that “speculative and not-quite-real fictions have more freedom to tackle sweeping subjects unavailable to the realist.”

Le Guin’s strongest critique of Atwood was a year earlier, in a review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009).

To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction.

Le Guin, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009

Le Guin makes the point that in ‘realistic’ fiction we expect characters of some complexity, while in genre fiction we expect ‘types’, though “the supposed distinction is so often violated in both directions as to be nearly meaningless”. She then goes on to explain why all Atwood’s characters are ‘types’, “these were figures in the service of a morality play”. Le Guin does not say, but it’s true, that one of the great strengths of her own Science Fiction is the complexity of her central characters.

A year after Portland Arts & Lectures 2010 Atwood defends herself at some length:

Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science fiction” as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.

Atwood, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011

There she goes again, distinguishing one branch of SF from another, and then attempting to claim the branch she likes as anything but SF. In one hundred years time when Earth’s remnant population is living on Mars will she move The Martian Chronicles over to her side of the ledger? At what stage does The Postman change sides, or Neuromancer, or The Matrix? If the US somehow doesn’t become a fascist theocracy after these midterms or 2024, does A Handmaid’s Tale then become SF in Atwood’s mind?

Basically, she says I write in the tradition that extends forward from Jules Verne. I just don’t wish it to be called SF. Sorry, MA, you don’t get to choose.

And because I am a Le Guin fan, let me end with something Atwood wrote on Le Guin’s death in 2018

Not only was she one of the literary greats of the 20th century – her books are many and widely read and beloved, her awards are many and deserved – but her sane, committed, annoyed, humorous, wise and always intelligent voice is much needed now…

Isn’t it, just? And, Atwood goes on ..

In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing ..

Atwood writes from a different angle, but in her ‘speculative’ works she is clearly asking the same question. Atwood and Le Guin, two greats of SF.

This post is both a lead in to the problems of defining ‘dystopian’ (no, no, no, not SF) fiction in AWW Gen 5, and my contribution to Marcie/Buried in Print’s MARM 2022.

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Image:
Portland Arts & Lectures 2010: Margaret Atwood & Ursula K Le Guin, reported in Cultural SF and Movie Learnings, 30.09.2010 (here). Literary Arts recording (here)

Essays referenced:
Claire L. Evans, ‘Space Canon’, Gizmodo, 28 Sept., 2010 (here)
Ursula K Le Guin, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009 (here)
Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin bring off-the-wall humor to Portland Arts & Lectures, the Oregonian (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘The Road to Ustopia’, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011 (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘Ursula K. Le Guin’, Guardian, 25 Jan., 2018 (here)

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36 thoughts on “Atwood, Le Guin & SF

  1. Oh I do like a good definition barney, because it helps us tease out what we think about reading and writing. I don’t really care to come down on any categorical side. Who cares if Atwood says she’s not writing SF but writing SF – haha. I like that she admires Le Guin because it says, what she admires is good thinking and good writing. What’s in a name after all.

    I will say though that I don’t agree with Le Guin’s definition of “literary” or that “realistic” exactly equates with “literary”, though I can see her point to a degree. For me, the departure comes from here: “Le Guin makes the point that in ‘realistic’ fiction we expect characters of some complexity, while in genre fiction we expect ‘types’”. I would say that in “literary” fiction we expect characters (and writing, structure and/or plot) to have some complexity, and in straight/traditional genre we expect types and formula. By my definition genre fiction can be literary if it breaks the rules and offers complexity in some or all of its areas.

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    • I think ‘literary’ is about writing, but also about character development, as you do. It’s an interesting idea, that Le Guin and Atwood were developing, that realism can be a straight-jacket.

      Atwood says straight out that she had been reading SF and wished to experience some of that freedom. Le Guin says she – MA – tended towards writing morality plays where she needed stock figures to take certain postions. My opinion is that Le Guin was much more comfortable in her imagined environments and so was able to use more energy on developing her main characters.

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      • Might be a straight jacket for them but as a reader I am very comfortable with realism.

        I can’t comment on Le Guin’s being more comfortable with imagined environments because I’ve not read her.

        BTW I agree that literary is about writing but what do you mean by “writing”? Defined broadly, as I would, I think that includes character development?

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      • Have I mentioned that you’re really missing something by not reading Le Guin.

        Literary and writing, for me, are about using the right words. As abstract painting is about colour and shape. Representation comes second.

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      • The pressure is becoming irresistible Sue. Neil, what would you say – my favourite is Left Hand of Darkness, but do you think Sue should start with The Word for World is Forest? It’s a long time since I read it. Or are you, heaven forfend, an Earthsea fan.

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  2. Brilliant. And interestingly, two SF (or not) writers who I will read, and I won’t read many, perhaps because they both ask that question. (I’ve only read Handmaid and Testament, though Matthew has read the Oryx and Crake novels).

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    • I’m sure Matthew agrees MA writes SF. Women’s SF generally is much – I was going to say easier reading, but let’s go with more relatable, because it’s much more character driven.

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  3. For a SF novice this is a really insightful discussion, Bill. I do like that quote from Evans about the differences between the genres. On that basis, Project Hail Mary which I’ve just read would be classed as science fiction. But Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel could be “speculative fiction”? I’ve seen it mostly described as dystopian….

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    • Dystopian seems to be the most common word used for the recent-ish trend of ‘literary’ fiction set in the near future. Atwood attempts to use ‘speculative fiction’ – and she may well be the origin of this usage – to distinguish her writing from straight ‘pew-pew’ SF, but there have always been streams within SF.

      One of the essays I reference discusses including within SF the postmodern stream of Philip K Dick, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs etc and that is something I’d like to tease out at a later date.

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      • This might be another fun alley to explore, the question of ‘dystopian’ and ‘post-apocalyptic’ whether viewed through a speculative fiction or a science-fiction lens. That pair of terms is one that i constantly have to re-settle in my mind, words like ‘jealous’ and ‘envious’ with subtle distinctions that make all the difference.

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      • Marcie, feel free to devote a week in January to distinguishing between the two terms as they apply to current Australian women’s fiction. Does the Canadian outback library service have a book for you for AWW Gen5-SFF week? Elizabeth Tan maybe? Or Claire G Coleman.

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  4. A really interesting post – I would tend to agree with Le Guin that all genres of fiction can be literary – which I would put down to character complexity and having intentional underlying themes, though in the past few years I have felt like “literary” is just used as a synonym for “grim”. (In fact I tend to avoid any books shelved as “literary” in my local bookshop because they seem to feel it’s a synonym for “this book is full of abusive people treating each other terribly”).

    Kazuo Ishiguro is another very accomplished novelist who is very specific about none of his books being science fiction, even though Never Let Me Go clearly is (and Klara and the Sun too, I think, though I haven’t read that yet). It irritates me because I know people who are quite scathing of genre fiction, but love Ishiguro and Atwood!

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    • My bookshop has genre categories, and new, alphabetical and classics. It annoys me by not having either Western Australian or Australian as a category, but nor does it have literary or I guess I should argue more with the staff than I do already. I wonder who’s cheerful and literary – David Lodge maybe.

      SF had faithful adherents for so many years, and we spent so much energy defending it, it’s no wonder, now that everyone and their dog wants to write SF that we are insistent that they acknowledge their antecedents. I don’t suppose we’ll win though.

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  5. I think the reason that you and I have slightly different takes on this, is that I have known, for as long as I’ve been reading MA, that she grew up devouring science-fiction comics and stories (I believe one of her early sci-fi comics that she drew and write was recently reprinted by House of Anansi in Toronto a few years back, yes, it looks like the kind of thing a parent might have pinned to the fridge door). It seemed like the strangest thing to me because, back then, I hadn’t read anywhere near as much sci-fi myself. And writers “are supposed to read” the “classics”, right? So when this debate first arose with UKLG (and you know I also greatly admire her…hmmm, there should be an UKLG month!!) I never felt like MA was trying to stand apart from science fiction, even though at first I also didn’t really grasp the kind of distinction she was making either. Or the kind of chicken-egg matters that arise in the course of that discussion. (The discussions here are so great, I love that!) Mostly I think my own position on all of this is that the author does get to decide how she views her own work. But I also think that authors who recognise reading as a collaboration between storyteller and reader understand that a reader accepts a story on their terms. I think MA and UKLG would both be pleased to think that you were passionate enough about literature to think about all this as much as you have. I can’t remember if I’ve asked this before: have you read MA’s book of essays In Other Worlds? Maybe that’s one harder to find overseas and, by now, it’s older (2011).

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    • I’ve seen that young MA was a consumer of SF. At a time when the SF community was isolated from mainstream lit. Perhaps that isolation frightened her and she determined to be on the other side of the boundary, and perhaps, as she started out writing mainstream fiction she thought that as she introduced SF into her writing she could somehow stay mainstream. I guess she succeeded. But only by repudiating a whole heap of great writers who chose to stay on the SF side of the fence and drag the whole genre forwards – not least Le Guin of course, but also Lessing – who also started out mainstream – Ballard, Vonnegut, Dick.

      No, I haven’t read her essays, and I thought when I started this project I might come across a bit more variety, but on reflection my search term nearly always included both writers, so that might be my fault. Still, I’m sure your learned analyses on BIP will keep me up to speed (I know I’m a sarcastic bastard, but I meant that as a compliment).

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      • So, your take on this, is that she views science-fiction negatively somehow? I don’t see that. Maybe I have missed something she’s said or written that suggests that’s true. Something from her directly, not what someone has interpreted her as having said. Everything I’ve read has given me quite the opposite impression (but there’s tonnes I haven’t read, especially when it comes to interviews). I also don’t see her as being concerned about being a mainstream writer; was she actually aiming for stardom when she was reading poems in hippie bars downtown Toronto and just had very strange ideas about glamour and fame? Heheh Not that I think Canadian novelist would have seemed a grandiose career choice either, but surely the poetry and short stories that she published initially were stronger indicators of her being interested in writing rather than in being a superstar? 🙂 On a related note, I had to call the local library to ask for a hold to be extended for a day and the librarian started a conversation with me about MA (cuz she saw I’m waiting for the new essay collection) and volunteered that she loves her science-fiction books best.

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      • I think MA views SF positively but for reasons of her own, which may be commercial she doesn’t want the SF she writes to be called SF. I have no doubt A) that MA is a writer; and B) that you know far more about her than I do.
        I think in the interview I quoted ULG ‘agreed’ with her because that’s what women do, but I have no doubt she was certain in her own mind, as she wrote, that MA writes SF.
        When Sf was a silo that non-geeks wouldn’t enter, we encouraged all sorts of writing, not just pew-pew and spaceships, and as you might be able to tell, it upsets me and a lot of others besides – despite MA poking fun at us – that she should pick the thoughtful, non-spaceship bits out and claim that it is not and never was SF, just because that is the sort of fiction she wants to write.

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  6. […] The spoiler bit comes in the final pages of the story, when Christine comes to realise something about the young man and about her response to him and her ideas of what life is like on “Mars.” (It’s also not a spoiler to say that the story has nothing to do with Mars and that’s not where he’s from. Although, if you want to think more about Margaret Atwood and science-fiction, check out Bill’s post for MARM.) […]

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  7. I’m listening to a podcast series, and it’s all about the evolution of horror movies. Basically, the host takes a subgenre of the horror genre and breaks it down into recognizable themes by analyzing the movies. I don’t see why Margaret Atwood wouldn’t acknowledge the same thing about science fiction novels. Essentially, she’s writing a subgenre of sci-fi. Of course, she’s not writing about lasers that go pew pew pew, but Oryx and Crake is definitely science fiction. It’s all about the genetic shaping of animals to make food more widely available. And then, the whole world collapses and all the science is lost, but the remnants of it are still hanging around–literally, there are mutated animals running through the woods.

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  8. This post and comments is a great read, Bill!
    My take on MA’s views of her own work being viewed as “speculative fiction” is that she wants to impress upon us readers that everything she puts in her books is fact – it either has been seen/done before, or it is being seen/done in laboratories. Maybe she worries if she’s viewed as SF, this distinction will go unnoticed?

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    • I appreciate you and Marcie are very protective of Atwood, and I can see she’s a good (ie. liberal) person. And I even appreciate the distinction she makes between ‘speculative’ fiction and futuristic SF, that’s an interesting point for her to make. But I will not allow that she can single handedly redefine SF so that it doesn’t include the near future, already possible fiction that she, and Orwell in 1984, and many recent authors write.

      And I am bewildered, and Le Guin was bewildered, that anyone who grew up reading SF like all the rest of us geeks would even want to.

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      • Lol! We do sound protective, don’t we?
        I will be the first to admit that I don’t know the ins and outs of SF at all because I don’t read enough of it – so I will not try to change your mind, I promise! 🙂

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      • Well I can’t speak for Naomi, but we have certainly read a lot of MA over the past few years, and while we hosted MARM together we did a lot of MA reading together too. If she and I were a Venn diagram, there’d be an overlapping Edible-woman-cake-coloured blob between us, I’m sure!

        If I sound defensive, it’s not so much to do with this specific conversation; it’s in response to the trend of accusing writers of thinking or believing things that aren’t actually evidenced in their own words. Maybe that’s not the case here, hence my many questions, but it happens a lot. And, anyway, that is actually something we agree on: wanting accountability and fairness to prevail.

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    • Thanks for looking. I would imagine that The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood would be the most likely to be in your library. There are plenty of others listed here

      AWW Gen 5 – SFF


      and see also Kimbofo’s comment which contains more that I haven’t read. Alexis Wright is Nobel prize level genius, so please read her one day (when you have a lot of time). But Ellen van Neerven’s Heat & Light is pretty good (and a good example also of innovative Indigenous writing) and also Krissy Kneen, An Uncertain Grace.

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    • She’s mentioned this so often in interviews and panels over the years, I’m sure you’ve heard it as often as I have, the whole thing about how she has always read the newspaper from the back page (it used to have the science on the back of the first/politics section in the Toronto papers, years ago), and how she took her ideas directly from those pages and, then, as years passed, she watched those news items move towards the front of the paper (insert talk of gene splicing and manipulation, stuff that I don’t really understand, here) and they became part of people’s everyday reality. It always just left me feeling guilty that I never read the newspaper! lol (Eventually, I did adopt that habit. But I don’t usually make it to the back page.)

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  9. I can’t find any reference online or in print that Atwood herself has said anything disparaging about SF; I’ve only seen other people claiming she did, either headlines (mostly) to that effect and even when in the body of an article I can only find quotes from *other* people about their interpretation of her stance, nothing from her directly.

    Because I’ve read both writers for more than half my life, I find their discussions about all of this very interesting. And writers spend a lot of time in their heads, thinking about small distinctions that really don’t matter much to other people. Reading a biography of Audre Lorde this week, I’ve just encountered an argument in 1980 between her and Michelle Cliff (Adrienne Rich’s partner-all three women were friends and read one another’s works in progress) about Cliff’s intentions to write an essay about Virginia Woolf and it was heated and lasting! Both women had valid points.

    I think it’s possible that UKLG regretted her accusation, and her “ghetto” comment, after the two writers had discussed the matter. Whether UKLG would agree to anything just out of politeness or whatnot doesn’t seem likely to me; she battled for years for respect and recognition for both science-fiction stories and fantasy, and also advocated for more fairness for women writers in general, and she wasn’t one to back down from confrontation.

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