Monday, October 17, 2011

SF and Atwood and me

This weekend my dad sent me a link to this article from the Globe on Margaret Atwood, and then this morning on Q Jian Ghomeshi interviewed her about her new book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. I saw the book on the new release shelf during my shift at Perfect Books last week, too, and meant to take a look at it, but then wound up busy with other things.

These recent interviews have been making me think, again, about Atwood and SF (and, as my dad said, more favorably.) But there's still something about her take on speculative fiction versus science fiction that bugs me. In her interview on Q today, she said, again, that she defends that distinction because she doesn't want someone to pick up a book expecting one thing - rayguns and aliens, for example - and get something else - say, Winston Smith or Offred.

Well, why not? I've picked up books expecting a YA fantasy and actually gotten adult magical realism. And vice versa. And I've been fine with that. Lots of people pick up what looks like a mystery and get a crime thriller. When I opened Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis, I was expecting fantasy/horror, and in fact got more or less realistic fiction. (Except for the weird bit with the alien cars.) The owner of Perfect Books picked up David Gilmour's latest book expecting it to be like other Gilmour books he'd read, and it wasn't. I don't see what Atwood's aversion to people reading something unexpected is.

Unless - and I think this is why I'm uncomfortable with her argument - she's implying that one is more valid, or worthwhile, or important. Because really, her distinction - that science fiction deals with things that are unlikely to happen, while speculative fiction deals with things that could possibly come to pass - also carries that implication; that the one is entertainment only, and the other has more intellectual or philosophical value.

But I don't see that H. G. Wells talking about the ultimate division of the human race into indolent rulers and troglodyte workers is less of a comment about our social structures than Winston Smith being watched by his television and controlled by fascism. It's just that one has a scientifically improbable time machine and the other takes place in the future without the intervention of a narrative gadget. Neil Gaiman said that all SF was playing 'let's pretend,' and that you can go higher and see further by playing 'let's pretend.' Let's pretend that England is invaded by an absolutely destructive enemy. What would the mass exodus of London look like? That's what I feel The War of the Worlds is actually about. Not octopoid aliens in metal capsules. They're just the reason for the collapse of order (remember, Wells was writing well before the kind of absolute destruction the 20th century brought us was even imaginable.) Same for the zombies in World War Z. What's scary is the description - the believeable description - of the fall of our infrastructures, our social orders, our security, and the ways in which the end could sneak up while we're all going about our daily business. Lemonade sellers around the crater where the killer aliens have landed. A protagonist who can really do nothing but run and hide and hope to survive.

Or let's pretend that there is an androgynous society out there. What would that look like? Let's pretend that America is taken over by a radical fundamentalist theocracy and women lose all the rights they've fought for for centuries. Let's pretend that there's a way to live permanently on a submarine, completely self-sufficient and cut off from the rest of the world. How would you do that? The Enterprise, the TARDIS and the Stargate aren't the point of the story: they're a means of getting to the story. The Dispossessed takes place on another planet, yes, and the people in it are not human. That doesn't mean that it isn't a game of 'let's pretend someone actually created an anarchist society: what would that look like? Would it work?'

But hey, that's just me, and far be it from me to argue with Margaret Atwood of all people. Having read and heard some of what she has to say about this latest collection, I certainly feel like I understand more of why she says the things she says about speculative and science fiction. I like that she goes back far enough to distinguish "novels" from "romances." (Novels being 'realistic' and romances being 'fantastic.') I like that she's even bringing back "romance" in its old definition; that is, a wonder tale. Frankenstein was called "a scientific romance," right? But then to go back to "romances" and "wonder tales" and claim a strict division from thenceforward between probable and improbable settings ...  it still feels to me like there's a value judgement buried under that. 

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