Margaret Atwood Says She Doesn't Write Science Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin Disagrees

Margaret Atwood insists that her novels aren't science fiction, as everything she writes either has happened or could happen today. But in looking at Atwood's latest novel, The Year of the Flood, science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin disagrees.

In her essay collection Moving Targets Atwood explains that she doesn't consider the books she writes, including The Handmaid's Tale, which imagines a future America taken over by a fascist government, and Oryx and Crake, which is set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with genetically engineered creatures, science fiction, a genre she defines as "fiction in which things happen that are not possible today." Ursula K. Le Guin, whose novels like The Left Hand of Darkness have gained critical acclaim under the science fiction and fantasy labels, suggests that Atwood is not making a viable literary distinction, but rather protecting her works from "literary bigots" who relegate genre fiction to a "literary ghetto."

Le Guin doesn't begrudge Atwood her genre hair-splitting ("Who can blame her?" she says), but she actually believes that Atwood's latest book, The Year of the Flood, itself a continuation of the post-apocalyptic Oryx and Crake is less successful as "realistic" fiction than as genre fiction. In other words, reviewing it as a strictly realist literary novel instead of a speculative work forces Le Guin to write a more negative review:

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.

With its vague references to a plague that wipes out humanity and characters better suited to morality play than emotional depth, she suggests that Atwood's novel nicely elucidates science fiction's power to "extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire," but that it is somewhat less successful as non-genre literary work. Le Guin seems ultimately less concerned with what Atwood's self-segregation means to the genre than that Atwood's refusal to label her book as science fiction makes the novel's bleak future at once upsetting and absurd:

It is no comfort to find that some of the genetic experiments are humanoids designed to replace humanity. Who wants to be replaced by people who turn blue when they want sex, so that the men's enormous genitals are blue all the time? Who wants to believe that a story in which that happens isn't science fiction?

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood [The Guardian]