Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

Happy Sunday everyone! It is 46 degrees today and so sunny that it reflects off the still-deep snow and hurts your eyes.

As you all know from Friday's post, I had the opportunity last week to see Margaret Atwood in person at a local college. She talked quite a bit about science fiction vs. speculative fiction and why her dystopic novels belong in the latter category but not the former. She explained her theory of the three major groupings of "fantasy," "science fiction," and "speculative fiction" and how they are all related but nevertheless differed from one another. In response to my critique of Atwood's classification model, Emily left the following comment:
...I definitely think fantasy & sci-fi are related, but separate arms that both branched off from the same ancestor (I think of that ancestor as Romantic lit, with Frankenstein on the sci-fi side and things like Pollidori's "The Vampire" and Keats's "Eve of St. Agnes" on the fantasy side. Agree that it's difficult to actually USE Atwood's sci-fi versus speculative division - what about something like Orwell's 1984, which is ostensibly set in the future but is more like an exaggerated fairy tale/cautionary tale about how Orwell saw the current world (he thought about naming it 1948? Interesting to consider.
GREAT point about Frankenstein and Romantic literature as the foundations of modern sci-fi/fantasy. Atwood discussed H.G. Wells and Jules Verne as ancestors of science fiction and speculative fiction respectively, but failed to bring up earlier authors such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and even some of the founders of the Gothic genre such as Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. (I think 1984, by the way, would definitely be speculative fiction according to Atwood.) Gothic and Romantic literature were also the forerunners of modern horror, which is frequently lumped in with sci-fi and fantasy under the generally-accepted definition of "speculative fiction."

I actually just watched The Grudge today, so horror is definitely on my mind at the moment. Our local video rental place is closing (like video rental places everywhere) and selling off its inventory at dirt-cheap prices. By the time I got there just about all the good stuff was gone but the horror section remained largely untouched. (No wonder: it was full of godawful low-budget torture porn crap. One cover that especially sticks in my mind: a nervous but coy young woman in her underwear with her hands tied up above her head. Yep, nothing like browsing the horror section to destroy your faith in humanity.) But The Grudge and The Ring Two were still there, so I purchased them for only four bucks apiece. Now obviously these are just scary movies with suspenseful plots, not meant to be in any way plausible or realistic. And neither is fantasy. Both genres center on unbelievable, far-fetched settings and/or situations with otherworldly creatures or entities, and therefore require a serious suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi sometimes tries to be more grounded but that element of the unbelievable is present there as well, particularly in works that blend aspects of fantasy, such as Star Wars and the "Dying Earth" sub-genre (considered examples of science fantasy).

So what about horror? Where would Atwood place that? If she's going to discuss sci-fi and fantasy together, she certainly can't neglect horror. Rather surprising too, that such a great female author famous for her feminist themes can somehow forget to bring up Mary Shelley in a discussion on fantastic fiction.

And again: what about cyberpunk? Where does that go?

In the end, I have to disagree with Atwood. Sorry, but anything set in the future is science fiction, which is a much broader genre than Atwood gives it credit for. Especially and Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, which deal with explicitly science-based themes. Overall, I get the impression that Atwood just doesn't want her novels placed on the same shelf as and Weird Tales and Doctor Who.

So what do you think?

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Frances said...

Fascinating posts! After reading through and thinking about it for a day, it seems to me that Atwood's distinctions apply aptly to her own work but do not serve well as universal distinctions. And yet she offers them as such? As you put it so well "Overall, I get the impression that Atwood just doesn't want her novels placed on the same shelf as and Weird Tales and Doctor Who."

E. L. Fay said...

I agree: her distinctions work for her own books but not others. I think her classification system really falls apart once horror enters the picture.

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