Mar 5 2010 11:43am

Putting It On The Line, Putting Her Money Where Her Mouth Is—and Speaking Up/Out

I have a theory about why Margaret Atwood wrote Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, and may—if certain rumors be true—be at work on a third novel in the series.

But first, let me address the hisses and catcalls from the back. Yes you, over there.

Many of my hardcore SF friends dismissed Oryx & Crake, and never read The Year of the Flood, on principle. Their objections were along the lines of, “That’s all been done before by real SF writers. Oh—and it’s been done better. Much better.” Some have been blunt: “She’s a rip-off artist.”

To my hardcore SF friends and those who agree wholeheartedly with them let me say, You may be right. And—here—in this post—I’d like to explore another issue and present a theory that transcends Margaret the author and these two novels. I’m hoping you’ll stick around to hear it.

I hope, too, I can—at least for the duration of this post—ask any die hard Atwood-is-a-witch-burn-her! readers to put aside the contentious issue as to whether Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood are “SF” or “speculative fiction.”

(I can see Monty Python taking this and running with it: “Tastes great!” / “Less filling!” morphing into “SF!”/”Speculative fiction!”)

Truth in lending: I am a big, big Atwood fan. Cat’s Eye and The Blind Assassin are two of my favorite novels of all time—re-read often—and Moral Disorder one of my favorite collections of short stories. I think I’m close to owning just about everything Atwood’s published, including such oddities as Days of the Rebels 1815-1870 and Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature.


My thought begins with Atwood as a writer of literature, and ends with Atwood as the writer of Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood.

That Atwood is a serious writer is easily demonstrated: she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize twice (2005, 2007), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize four times (The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, and Oryx & Crake), and won the Booker for The Blind Assassin in 2000. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood was published in 2006.

This begs the thought: why would a serious writer of literature write Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood? Call them SF or speculative fiction, they veer towards genres serious writers often avoid, and serious critics ignore or pan.

I began to develop an answer when listening to Atwood’s CBC Massey Lectures (now gathered together in Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth). I was struck by a comment she made about why writers write.

Why do writers write?

Because writers see how the story ends.

We all know folks—many of whom are family and friends—who can’t see how the story ends, especially the story of their own lives. Like locomotive trains racing towards a collapsed bridge, they speed along, oblivious to what’s right there in front of their noses. “Jump!” we scream, but they don’t listen, ask us to pipe down, suggest we respect their boundaries and butt out, or remark, snidely, with something like, “Look who’s calling the kettle black.” On they go, and down the train goes into the chasm. Boom.

Writers then, if we stick with this thought, see lots of “ends” and jot them down, perhaps in the vain hope we readers will learn to see ends too and not plummet to our deaths, metaphorical and real.

There is, of course, a larger story out there: the story of the human race.

If Act I was all of us, not so long ago, living relatively non-destructively on the earth, Act II—during which obstacles of increasing difficulty arise, testing our heroic skills and resolve more and more—is well underway.

We appear to have escaped massive destruction from an all out war between the country formerly known as the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.—thought who knows what the future may hold—but now international terrorism and climate change are upon us, not to mention the “inevitability” of future plagues. In Act II the audience wonders—the higher the obstacles grow—Will the hero make it? As audience to our own future, we could ask, Will we make it?

And here we see how rampant denial is. While some prophets shout from rickety soapboxes on street corners, most folks ignore them. “You’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic!” the prophets scream, hoarser now. Many wonder if these folks have forgotten to take their medications.

Let’s assume that writers can see how the story ends.

Let’s assume, too, that the best writers see how the story ends better than most.

And let’s assume that Margaret Atwood, one of the very best writers living, has difficulty sleeping at night because her intuition about how our story ends evokes crystal-clear, Technicolor nightmares.

Perhaps—and this is my theory—Atwood said to herself, I’m feeling a bit like a crazy prophet and I’ve got a pretty good soap box here—maybe I should start shouting—just maybe some of those folks who dig my literary stuff will get the message. (SF fans can pat themselves on the back here as they’ve presumably known we’re all going to hell in a hand basket.)

Another way of looking at this might be: what’s a writer’s reputation worth if civilization goes up in smoke—or sinks to its knees, the Black Plague back with a vengeance. Perhaps Atwood has chosen to “risk” her “stellar” reputation by “coming down” and writing Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood. (And here SF fans can pat themselves on the back again, for here we see the undeniable value of fiction, whether we call it “science” or “speculative” fiction.)

Perhaps Atwood’s doing everything she can to help get the human oil tanker back on course before it hits the rocks, bursts open, bursts into flame. What she’s doing—“risking her reputation”—makes no sense if your timeline only extends to the next literature prize, or even “my reputation after I’m gone.” It makes a lot of sense if your timeline is a bit longer. Not too many people were reading books in Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood; no mention was made of literature prizes in that future.

Still putting aside the contentious issues of who painted this kind of future first and who did it better, Atwood’s research for both Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood was extensive. I am reminded, almost daily, of how many “cutting edge” technologies referenced in both novels are already in full development, already out there, and out of control. SF has become speculative fiction has become reality quickly.

So where does this theory leave us?

If I’m right, I believe it presents writers with a challenge: if part of who I am is my ability to see the end of the story and to tell that story, am I living up to that precious gift? Am I looking as I ought, as I am capable? Am I telling the stories that matter? Am I living for short-term story—quick success—or the really big win—our survival?

Readers are challenged too: do we choose to read the small stories, the tall tales? Or do we choose to read the stories that matter, that change minds, transform. And to recommend them to other readers.

As creatures with monkey brains—to borrow a phrase right out of Oryx & Crake—do we strive to be chief monkey while Rome burns—or the Titanic goes down—or the unmonitored corporations take over? Or do we turn our gifts and strengths towards other challenges.

The biggest challenge, of course is acting when the immensity of the problem is so overwhelming.

Here, I feel, Atwood provides direction: you do what you can, based on who you are and where you are situated in life. If you’re a Booker Prize winning novelist, you use that position to paint an end-of-the-story picture. If you’re you, or me, you look around and do the same with the bits and pieces of your own life.

That’s all we can do.

And it is something, rather than nothing.

So spread the word.

Tell the story—so we can rearrange the deckchairs on a starship on a mission of endless discovery.

Dr. Kirtland C. Peterson—“Cat” to his friends and colleagues—feeds his left brain with science, his right brain with the rich feast of fiction, including SF and fantasy.

Among his life’s highlights are sitting in the pilot’s seat of a shuttle prepping for launch at the Kennedy Space Center, and accepting Brannon Braga’s invitation to pitch Star Trek scripts at Paramount in LA.

Recently finished The Hobbit (read most marvelously by Rob Inglis), Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wave in the Mind: Talks & Essays on The Writer, The Reader & The Imagination, and Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock. Just started J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays.

Matthew B
1. MatthewB
I get so tired of arguments about what is or is not in a particular genre. Genres are sometimes interesting ways of comparing and contrasting different works, but far too often they are instead used as ways of pissing rings around territory.
That is to say, some readers and authors tailor their definition of what is or is not SF in order to strengthen their own claims of expertise or preeminence.
Dr. Kirtland C Peterson
3. catsongs

I read, just recently, about the genre breakdown between FICTION and NON-FICTION. Interesting and provocative.

A related aside: many writers have noted that if they write a memoir, they are accused of lies and treachery, but if they write a novel, they accused of "spilling the beans" about their childhoods, friends, significant others, etc.

Will have to give the matter of "genre" more thought!

N. Mamatas
4. N. Mamatas
Perhaps Atwood has chosen to “risk” her “stellar” reputation by “coming down” and writing Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood.

Eh? What do you know of Atwood's reputation and how it was formed?
Gray Woodland
5. Greyhame
This is all most wonderfully the opposite of what I believe about storytelling, except for the conclusion you attribute approvingly to Atwood, which is the same as my own. There's a queer combination. My answer to the riddle is this: that the gift you think a good teller has, is not the same as the one I believe in.

If you are truly a prophet who sees the ends of real stories, I think your right course is about a hundred and fifty degrees out of the one you're charting. Lay long bets, financial and social, to pyramid your influence; tell tales where your foresight tells you they'll be heard, pound pavements or found churches or what-the-tin-blazes will work better in other cases. Learn salesmanship, or team up with someone who's better at it.

Stories are movers of hearts, but not necessarily fictional stories - and in the great business of moving societies, a prophet may do best to build a diverse team around themselves, one of the lonely railing OT variety's many conspicuous failures. Do not fret too much if the influence of your tales seems to be turning from the breaking of hearts to the breaking of heads. This is the Destiny of the World you are playing for, and no messing. Did you think to shake it with mere shivers and saddening?

The reason I actually agree with you about the correct course, is I think the teller's gift is this instead: to see one of the thousand true tales that can come out of a beginning, and to see it through to the end. But that was not the only tale. And I say that to mistake it for such, is to reduce art to an expert-system and a beautifully idiosyncratic stencil: to think one is Jehovah of the Thunders, because one has been the only true genius-locus to a castle in the clouds that was fair as summer lightning and honest as the driving rain.

My stories are mostly at some level about humility: great minds and great hearts who resist the notion, or are disabused of it, that they speak and act for the world's destiny, as Tiff Taproom or Lord Smallbore doesn't. How could I tell such, and yet play a god and no man behind my words? I don't know. I have done the worse thing, and the stories were worse because of it.

What I fear from every tale of Atwood is that she will be a very dreary goddess laying down her dooms, and her enemies have no chance to surprise either of us - if she leaves them any souls at all. The devil take that in a handbasket!

Did I mention that I am a gigantically crap prophet?
Dr. Kirtland C Peterson
6. catsongs

Wow! What fabulous thoughts! Thanks for taking the time to share them!

I follow Andrew Sullivan's blog at The Atlantic and admire him for "putting it out there" and welcoming any/all feedback that comes his way. His is a model for me, of sorts: play with an idea, put it out there, and see what rolls back.

I will admit that I was so struck by Atwood's notion that writers write because they see the end of the story, that I never subjected the idea to long scrutiny. It's such a cool idea... writers... SEE... the end of the story (which many others can't)...

You are right: tale tellers may tell their tales for all manner of reasons.

Love your last two paragraphs:

"What I fear from every tale of Atwood is that she will be a very dreary goddess laying down her dooms, and her enemies have no chance to surprise either of us - if she leaves them any souls at all. The devil take that in a handbasket!"

"Did I mention that I am a gigantically crap prophet."


Thanks again!

Jon Evans
7. rezendi
Perhaps Atwood has chosen to “risk” her “stellar” reputation by “coming down” and writing Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood.

Leaving the eyebrow-raising "coming down" part aside -

Atwood's best-known book for most of her career was The Handmaid's Tale, dystopic SF. (Which I don't think that much of.) She then won the Booker for The Blind Assassin, a multilayered narrative built around a fantasy novella. (Which I utterly adore.)

After those two phenomenal successes, both of which were SF to some degree, what in heaven's name makes you think that Oryx and Crake was some kind of risk? That's like saying Salman Rushdie risked his reputation by writing The Enchantress of Florence - it's just baffling.
Jeff Soules
8. DeepThought
@7 Rezendi --
what in heaven's name makes you think that Oryx and Crake was some kind of risk?

Atwood's an author who has been in persistent, constant denial about the fact that she writes genre fiction -- mostly because it's still considered a step or two below pornography in the literary-award circles discussed here. It's a risk if she's willing to acknowledge that some of her work may have implications that are somewhat science-fictional in nature -- a risk to her entire self-image.

But then, this happens every time a Respected Mainstream Author deigns to touch on themes that have been explored for decades by genre writers. Suddenly it's brilliant and daring and fresh and new, because nobody in the literary world will have read, or cop to reading, what's come before in the genre world. c.f. The Plot Against America, Children of Men, Lost; further reference to previous Tor content.
Dr. Kirtland C Peterson
9. catsongs
@7 rezendi
@8 Deep Thought

The "risk" theme really came from the reaction many had to ORYX & CRAKE. In addition to the "shock" from many in the SF world, many Atwood fans were shocked, maybe more so. I quote, verbatim, several of them: "I can't BELIEVE Atwood's wasting her talents on sci-fi!"

(For the record, I firmly believe SF and fantasy can be "literature." THE ECONOMIST agrees: THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS was in their top 100 books of the 20th century.)

Then, when Atwood did the PR rounds for THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD the "difference" between O&C and TYF and her other writings came to the fore again, and the fur flew again.

Deep Thought, off to check your link... thanks.

Dr. Kirtland C Peterson
10. catsongs
@8 Deep Thought

Allow me to quote Deep Thought from his earlier post. A relevant thought:

"Science fiction is a literature of ideas, using propositions and scenarios of possible futures (or pasts or presents or whatever) to say or explore something about the world we live in today.

"That’s what makes science fiction special...

"By looking to (seemingly) unfamiliar worlds, genre fiction is the gate through which we can explore ideas that would be challenging, unfathomable, or even threatening in our own.

"Science fiction can put a comfortable distance between the audience and uncomfortable issues.

"Books about aliens can be a subtle way to discuss race; stories about space exploration can be a way to talk about cultural imperialism.

"TV shows about the near-destruction of the human race can be a way to talk about what happens when you push people to their absolute limits of survival.

"These things are so very basic (and to the readers of, obvious) to what science fiction is all about, and yet we have to keep saying them."


Well said and...

Alas, we must keep saying them.

Jon Evans
11. rezendi
(For the record, I firmly believe SF and fantasy can be "literature." THE ECONOMIST agrees: THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS was in their top 100 books of the 20th century.)

That's nice. But I feel like the 20th century is where this debate belongs. After Atwood, Rushdie, Le Guin, Cormac McCarthy, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, David Mitchell, John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, etc etc etc, the belief that SF and fantasy can't be literature is like any other harmlessly bizarre antiquated worldview; strange, maybe, but really not worth the effort to dispute, and now mostly held only by an irrelevant coterie of antediluvian cranks.

I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but I'm really quite taken aback that you think it's worth proudly proclaiming that you believe SF and fantasy can be literature. I think that's been self-evident for a very long time.
Alex Brown
12. AlexBrown
Thank you so much for this post. I hate that argument that others in SF have told her stories before, but that's true with everything. Every story has been told before in some way, so that to me is an absolutely ludicrous complaint.

Oryx and Crake is one of my favourite Atwood stories (second only to A Handmaid's Tale) because it is so beautifully written and haunting. I don't know how anyone could think it was written poorly. I had to keep putting it down because I was both afraid to finally be done with it and wanted to stay in that world as long as possible, and because it just kept hitting me in the gut. I'd find myself so engrossed that I'd forget to breath normally (that has only ever happened twice before - with Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box. Pretty much every day I read something in the paper or see something on the news or - increasingly - get something in my Twitter feed that sounds a little too much like something Atwood wrote about. I absolutely adore her books because they scare the frak out of me as to how possible her stories are.

That being said, The Flood didn't hook me the way Oryx and Crake did. I didn't really care about The Gardeners (and the hymns really shunted the story for me, but I get why they're there) and only really got intrigued when tidbits were dropped about Jimmy/Snowman, but I nevertheless found the tales very moving. I only wish I was half as tough as Atwood's heroines.

If she writes a third book I'll be first in line to read it. Even if we don't get any resolution as to what happens after everything happens, I'd be happy just to explore the world she built. There are so many stories left untold there, whether they intertwine with the main one or not.
N. Mamatas
13. N. Mamatas
@8 It's a risk if she's willing to acknowledge that some of her work may have implications that are somewhat science-fictional in nature -- a risk to her entire self-image.

No—actually Atwood has zero problem with "somewhat science-fictional in nature"—she just uses a private terminology, a distinction between "speculative" fiction which she sees as somewhat realistic, and "science fiction", which isn't. Incidentally, she doesn't just attempt to exclude herself from genre because of what you imply is some sort of personality flaw; she looks at other SF through the same lens as well.

@10 I quote, verbatim, several of them: "I can't BELIEVE Atwood's wasting her talents on sci-fi!"

Googling "I can't BELIEVE Atwood's wasting her talents on sci-fi!" got me exactly one result—the comment which claimed it to be a verbatim quote.
Dr. Kirtland C Peterson
14. catsongs
@11 rezendi

I fear I experience coteries of antediluvian cranks all too often.

Thought my comment was more CYA than "pride"... Hmmm... will reflect. Thanks for the mirror.

@12 milo1313

My experience of reading these two novels was this:

ORYX & CRAKE -- (1) I read it, and was struck by all the "SF" in it; (2) I listened to the CD, enjoyed it much more; (3) I re-listened to it after reading The Year of the Flood , thoroughly enjoyed it, and felt the "SF" was secondary to the story telling, which I thought superb. In the end, I wondered why I'd remembered the book as I had.

THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD -- (1) I read it, then immediately (2) listened to the CD, with the music. While I disliked some of the CD production -- and wrote to complain about it -- I felt it took two runs to get the necessary "distance" from the story. For me, some of the names (e.g., Anuyoo) and some of the concepts (e.g., painball) got in the way of enjoyment/appreciation at the start.

After spending serious time with both books, I felt they were far better than I'd thought at first read. I felt I was granted entrance into the inner lives of the main characters to some degree, but not to the same degree as with Alice Munro's characters. (I happened to have just finished several Munro collections of short stories.)

That said, I later re-read The Handmaid's Tale , Cat's Eye , and The Blind Assassin and felt, as stories and as writing, they were far better told, and thus far better books (in my opinionated opinion).

Like you I will pre-order #3. I will read and listen to it with great attention.

Dr. Kirtland C Peterson
15. catsongs
@13 N. Mamatas


My verbatim quotes were from folks I know, folks who admire Atwood, and who said pretty much those very words to me, on more than one occasion.

Now whether any of them would put those words online, to be Googled... don't know!

LOL'd out loud! Thanks!
René Walling
16. cybernetic_nomad
SF is much better at asking interesting questions than it is at answering them.

IMO, writing because of you are "seeing the end" implies you are answering the question, in other words, writing something I'd rather not read.
Patrick Garson
17. patrickg
Yeah, I'm with Rezendi here: by even 'rebelling' against the idea that SF can't be literature, and even talking about "serious" writers, and "serious" genres I feel like you're buying into a binary discourse ("literature" vs. "other") that gives the debate a legitimacy and relevancy it frankly doesn't deserve - not ever, and certainly not in this day and age.

Atwood herself is just as guilty of this, by refusing to countenance the label of "sci-fi" writer when that's what she often is, and frankly I think she could do with reading a bit more sci fi. It would make her feints into the genre much stronger, and certainly more original, imho.

The idea she's risking her reputation by doing anything is a bit spurious; she's one of the world's most accoladed writers. She could publish her shopping list to great acclaim if she wanted.

As a reader-response ho, I'm a bit reluctant to read much into a writer's motivations - whether she's trying to save the world or just writing a story. However I will say, if it's the former, I'm not really impressed. I don't think Oryx and Crake is going to change a lot of minds about anything. There's nothing wrong with preaching to the choir, but I'm hesitant to paint Atwood as some kind of martyr - hopelessly soiled by filthy genre -, sacrificing herself on the altar or literature for the noble cause of environmentalism, anti-GM or whatever you want to label her position. I feel it's neither reflective of the actual 'cost' of writing and publishing the book, nor of its effect in the world at large.
Dr. Kirtland C Peterson
18. catsongs
If the thread's not dead, the opening comments by Ursula Le Guin in her review of The Year of the Flood might be of interest.

From The Guardian :

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. 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.

Thanks for the lively discussion!

N. Mamatas
19. lampwick
Yeah, but ... "I am reminded, almost daily, of how many 'cutting edge' technologies referenced in both novels are already in full development, already out there, and out of control." To me what this means is that these two books aren't very good science fiction. After all, what sf does is take current technology and speculates about its evolution in the future, or invents totally new technology.

This doesn't say anything about your thesis, though -- she could very well be trying to save the planet through her books. It just means I like her non-sf better.
N. Mamatas
21. Tercotta
Rumours of a third are definitely true. She has mentioned it in interviews since before YOTF was released and the new paperbacks of O&C mention the "trilogy" on the back.

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