Monday, February 20, 2012

Author Margaret Atwood

I did not have to read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood in undergrad.  My younger brother did.

In certain respects, I rather envy him.

It was the first book for him in the first semester of freshman year.  Quite a few firsts in that sentence alone.   Regardless, I can still see his 18 year-old self in early August, sitting in a chair in my grandmother's house and reading The Handmaid's Tale.  At one point he closed the book and with a slow hand he placed it upon an end table.  He then gently rose up...and began to run for the door, flailing his arms while crying "AAAAAGHCK!  AAAAAGHCK!"

He is not the first to have that reaction.  You see, The Handmaid's Tale is about a future United States which is governed by a theocratic dictatorship.  Sounds timely.  Sounds prescient when you consider that the book was published in 1985.  Riffing on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for the title, Atwood wrote a novel that explores how women are subjugated and how they reclaim agency in their lives.  The book won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Prometheus Award, both of which are prizes for science fiction books. It was not, however, the feminist themes written by the Canadian author that ended up irking so many, it was her response to those said awards.  In fact, Atwood was once offended that anyone even called her books "science fiction."

As her Wikipedia entry states: 

"Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to The Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." On BBC Breakfast she explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she herself wrote, was "talking squids in outer space." The latter phrase particularly rankled advocates of science fiction and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed."

Indeed, I'm certain that it does tend to crop back up as it's quite insulting.  Atwood's point, however, is not entirely without merit.  

The genre of science fiction, like many others, has indeed been overrun from time to time by businessmen looking to reap quick profit by creating stories filled with exactly what Atwood decries.  However, notice that the true giants of the science fiction canon don't rely on such glitz.  Sure, there may be appearances of UFOs, spaceships, or robots, but they are often relegated to morceau amounts in proportion to the main ideas behind the pieces.  Distinguishing herself further from this, Atwood claims to write, at least according to interviews, is "social science fiction."  That happens to be one of my favorite kinds.

Works in this science fiction sub-genre take a speculative look at what society may be like in the future.  More than that, it examines how people will behave based on current trends, often times reflecting dystopias as cautionary tales.  I like that.  In fact if I may be so bold, several of my own science fiction short stories are ones that I would place in that category.  What I don't like is Atwood perpetuating the "I'm literary, you're genre, don't ever sully my writing with such a label again" attitude.  But who knows?  She may have softened that stance by now.

Whatever her views, The Handmaid's Tale now joins my Everest-high "to-read" list.  I just wish I had read it back in college.  Despite my brother's reaction.

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