Happy birthday to Margaret Atwood! While she is probably best known for her feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Atwood has also written poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, television scripts and children’s books.
As readers and writers of speculative fiction, we owe her a lot and for more than the numerous works she has written. Atwood has challenged conceptions of the difference between science fiction and speculative fiction, forcing us to question our own understanding of the genre. For Atwood, she classified her dystopian novels The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as The MaddAddam series (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam) as speculative fiction, not science fiction. In her nonfiction book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011), she clarifies:
What I mean by “science ﬁction” is those books that descend from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds […] things that could not possibly happen-whereas, for me, “speculative ﬁction” means plots that […] really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.
For many science fiction readers and writers, Atwood is disrespecting the genre. Her classification becomes a way for Atwood to distance herself from the negative associations with science fiction, in favor of the high-brow terminology of speculative fiction. Yet, in the introduction to In Other Worlds Atwood acknowledges this critique and accepts other definitions for the genre as being equally as valid. She does not shut down the conversation.
I raise this discussion because I believe that one of the strongest gifts Atwood has given the science fiction/speculative fiction genre is a platform for dialogue on we write. I admire and wish to acknowledge that she does not uphold her own understanding of the genre as the only understanding of the genre. It’s a conversation about how our work is classified that is now open to all of us.
For Margaret Atwood’s birthday, there is no denying that her publications and awards are expansive and more than well-deserved. She pulls and stretches readers into her worlds with the precision of her language, made as natural and discrete as the flick of a finger. Her birthday is a celebration for her contribution toward female writers of speculative fiction. And her opinions—whether or not you agree—are another contribution. For what is it that we do as writers, if not ask questions and open conversations?
Happy Birthday, Margaret Atwood.