Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin debate science fiction vs. "realism"S

Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood are two of SF's most famous living writers. Claire Evans was lucky enough to join 2,000 other people in listening to them discuss Star Wars, fantasy... and telling the truth in fiction.

Earlier this year, when I went to an event to meet NASA astronaut Jim Dutton at my local science museum, I was the only person in attendance over twelve. Last night, when I went to see Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood chat on stage as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures 2010 series, I felt like the only person there under forty. Alas, this is my life: the aspirations of a child and the literary interests of a middle-aged woman.

Pairing Margaret Atwood with Ursula K. Le Guin was smart: they come from similar backgrounds, both attended Radcliffe in the pre-Second Wave years, both are very prolific writers of indefinable genre fiction, and they've evidently been friends for years. Seated on little divans in front of over 2,000 people (yes, "only in Portland," I know), 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. The effect was intimate, convivial — Le Guin giggling uncontrollably, for example, when Atwood discussed how writing is like building a boudoir for the reader. Atwood making endless Twitter jokes.

Le Guin works very comfortably under the mantle of science fiction, having penned some of the classics of the genre, while Atwood waffles, preferring to stay in the mainstream literary conversation. In an often-cited Guardian review of Atwood's The Year of the Flood, Le Guin wrote:

This arbitrarily restrictive definition [not science fiction] 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.

Perhaps because of this disagreement, the two writers crept around the issue of science fiction all evening (Le Guin: "it's just so complicated!"), preferring rather to discuss the motivations and morality of fiction-writing, until an audience member made a comment about their works falling between "literary fiction" and "science fiction." Le Guin immediately took exception to this confluence of "literary" with "realistic," arguing that realism is a genre like any other, and that all writing is by definition literary, except that some is better than others. It's Le Guin's belief — and Atwood seemed to be in cahoots — that 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, and this form of novel can't "bear witness" to anything but that particular condition. Both women were fierce in their conviction, however, that speculative and not-quite-real fictions have more freedom to tackle sweeping subjects unavailable to the realist.

This sparked a lively back-and-forth between Atwood and Le Guin regarding the lineage and definition of science fiction. Atwood saw it this way: you have science fiction over here, grandaddy H.G. Wells, speculative fiction over there, grandaddy Jules Verne, and fantasy off to another side, grandaddy Tennyson. At this, Le Guin — a frequent penner of fantasies — added wryly that fantasy is "the old grandmama that just keeps going." They agreed that the key distinction between fantasy and science fiction was one of possibility: fantasy could never happen, while science fiction could.

Atwood: "What about Star Wars?"
Le Guin: "There have been really few science fiction movies. They have mostly been fantasies, with spaceships."

It's funny, because Atwood wrote in her essay collection, Moving Targets, that "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 perhaps the breakdown is as follows: could happen (speculative fiction), couldn't happen yet (science fiction), could never happen at all (fantasy).

Of course, isn't it all kind of ridiculous, since the thing we're talking about is the future?

This post by Claire L. Evans originally apppeared at Space Canon: A Life In Science Fiction.