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Worlds Without End Blog

Outside the Norm: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake Posted at 1:58 AM by Rhonda Knight


Rhonda Knight is an Associate Professor of English at Coker College in Hartsville, SC. She teaches Medieval and Renaissance literature as well as composition courses. When she looked over last year’s reading list, she was shocked to see that only 17% of the authors she read were women. This blog will record her attempts to read authors that are generally considered out of the science fiction norm: women, persons of color, and non-U.S. and non-U.K. authors.

The Blind AssassinMargaret Atwood has famously denied that she writes “science fiction,” claiming instead that she writes “speculative fiction,” a claim that always sounds less condescending coming from Harlan Ellison than it does from Atwood. This is probably because Ellison knows what he’s trying to define, and Atwood is trying to craft a definition that excludes her own writing from science fiction. According to Atwood, science fiction “is when you have chemicals and rockets” or “monsters and spaceships” or “talking squids in outer space.” For analyses of Atwood’s definitions, see Peter Watts, “Margaret Atwood and the Hierarchy of Contempt” and David Langford, “Bits and Pieces.”

My recent reading of two Atwood novels shows me that she can write science fiction badly and that she can write science fiction well. To be fair, I believe that she was trying to write bad science fiction in The Blind Assassin (2000). This winner of the Booker Prize is a multi-layered novel in which octogenarian Iris Chase Griffen recounts the life of her sister Laura Chase, the author of The Blind Assassin. This fictional book-within-a-book was published after Laura’s untimely death and gained a cult following. The sections of Atwood’s book alternate between Iris writing the story of the Chase girls’ youth and Laura’s novel. The plot of this internal novel is simple: in the 1930s and 40s a married upper-class woman has a clandestine affair with a lower-class man who is on the run. Both these characters are unnamed. He is most likely an active communist who is being pursued by the authorities. He makes his living by writing for science fiction pulp magazines. Most of these chapters follow the formula of the woman visiting the man at his current hideout where their post-coital pillow talk consists of the man entertaining her with science fiction stories he makes up on the spot. Their first foray into storytelling begins like this:

What will it be, then? he says. Dinner jackets and romance, or shipwrecks on a barren coast? You have your pick: jungles, tropical islands, mountains. Or another dimension of space—that’s what I’m best at.

Another dimension of space? Oh really!

Don’t scoff, it’s a useful address. Anything you like can happen there. Spaceships and skin-tight uniforms, ray guns, Martians with the bodies of giant squids, that sort of thing. (9)

It is significant that the character’s list mirrors the entities that Atwood herself references in interviews as I have shown above. Clearly, Atwood, as the writer of The Blind Assassin, and the male writer have a very low opinion of science fiction and its abilities to develop character or plot. For him, science fiction is about an Other (completely undeveloped) and cheap thrills, as their negotiations show:

Then you could have a pack of nude women who’ve been dead for three thousand years, with lithe, curvaceous figures, ruby-red lips, azure hair in a foam of tumbled curls, and eyes like snake-filled pits. But I don’t think I could fob those off on you. Lurid isn’t your style.

You never know I might like them.

I doubt it. They’re for the huddled masses. Popular on the covers though—they’ll writhe all over a fellow, they have to be beaten off with rifle butts.

Could I have another dimension of space, and also the tombs and the dead women, please?

That’s a tall order, but I’ll see with I can do. I could throw in some sacrificial virgins as well, with metal breastplates, and silver ankle chains and diaphanous vestments. And a pack of ravening wolves, extra. (9)

This negotiation ends with him beginning his story of the planet Zycron, which contains some of the ideas he discusses above. The story has too many plot details, many of them never expanded nor explored. While not all of his story ideas are completely cliché in execution, these two pieces of dialog demonstrate how Atwood pigeonholes science fiction.

Unfortunately for Atwood, the story of the lovers and their pulp pursuits are much more interesting than Iris’ main narrative which grows tedious after a while. Also, I figured out the ending surprises with more than 200 pages left which did not increase my interest in the stories Iris tells in either the past or the present. Also, I had trouble reconciling the characters of Iris in the past with Iris in the present.

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake (2003) shows that Atwood can write good science fiction; however, she would call it speculative fiction, or writing “based on rigorously-researched science, extrapolating real technological and social trends into the future” (Watts 2). And I thought that was what science fiction was. Atwood creates an interesting post-apocalyptic world in which there is one human survivor who calls himself Snowman. Snowman is the caretaker of a race of bio-engineered humanoids, who were created by his friend Crake. According to Crake, all aggression, greed, and competition have been eliminated in this race. They have an advanced life cycle, becoming “adults” after only a few years. They live a pre-lapsarian lifestyle and eat roots, fruits, and grass. Snowman serves as kind of prophet for them. He teaches them about the flotsam they discover from the previous civilization, telling them if it is useful or dangerous.

Before he became the prophet of the Crakers (as he calls them), Snowman was Jimmy, who grew up in an enclosed corporate compound called OrganInc Farms. His father was a prominent bio-engineer working on the Pigoon Project, which created pigs that would grow “an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs” for transplanting into humans (22). These compounds were mostly self-contained with malls, schools, hospitals, etc. that served the needs of the employees and their families. The compounds are connected by tube trains. The areas in between are called pleebland (read pleeb-land), where the mass of humanity lives: economically disadvantaged, diseased, and the ultimate consumers for the products and techniques created in the compounds. This sociological layout reminds me very much of the world Marge Piercy creates in He, She and It, except that Piercy’s economy is based on computer technology and virtual reality instead of bio-engineering.

Snowman’s narrative covers just a few days in his present as he tries to survive in this devastated landscape where food is scarce and new predators, which were former science projects housed in labs, roam. There are snats (a cross between snakes and rats) and wolvogs (a cross between a dog and a wolf). Also, the pigoons have become carnivores and are getting smarter. The bulk of the past story is about Jimmy, how he came to be a survivor, his love for Oryx, and his friend Crake’s ambition to create better human beings. The end of the book finally shows the readers how the rest of humanity met its demise and the roles that Jimmy, Oryx and Crake played in that disaster.

This book was very enjoyable. The science seems science-y enough, and her portrayal of “reality” broadcasts over the internet, where one could find the Noodie News, open heart surgeries, live coverage of executions, and, of course, enough pornography to cover any viewer’s choices or fetishes, seems especially prescient. The plot is well-paced, and both the present and past events are interesting, so I never found myself wishing I could move on to the next time period, like I did with The Blind Assassin. While I cannot say that I liked The Blind Assassin as much as I liked Oryx and Crake, Atwood writes beautifully and is a pleasure to read. I plan to read The Year of the Flood and The Handmaid’s Talec later this year for this blog.

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Scott Laz   |   03 Jan 2012 @ 14:19

Atwood has also just published a book about SF (In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination). Has anyone here read it? The main criticism has been that she is writing about the field without having read much in it beyond a few things that influenced her early on. Her unwillingness to associate herself with SF may stem in part from an anachronistic view of it. The quotes from The Blind Assassin make it sound as though she has the same sort of complaints about SF as C. S. Lewis (in the previous blog post), but Lewis has the excuse of basing his critique on what he was reading in a much earlier era.

Rhonda Knight   |   03 Jan 2012 @ 14:40

Scott, I was thinking about reading Atwood’s book before I wrote a post on her. (I was going to have my college library order it). However, I read a few reviews and saw that the reviewers are saying that she’s making observations about "the usual suspects" that are fairly obvious. One reviewer thought that Atwood was having some "a-ha moments" and wanted to share them and had not realized that those observations are common to SF readers and those in the field. I still might try to ILL the book, but I’m not sure if I want to spend my (or my college’s) money on it.

Scott Laz   |   03 Jan 2012 @ 16:00

Rhonda: It seems like it might be of "academic interest" only. If you haven’t heard this yet, there was an excellent discussion of the book with Ursula K. LeGuin (one of the SF writers Atwood does approve of) on the Coode Street Podcast a couple of months ago:

Rhonda   |   04 Jan 2012 @ 15:36

Scott,The UKL discussion was great! I think the moderators and UKL had an excellent discussion about what Atwood does in denying and/or redefining SF and why she does it. Their discussion of Atwood’s book outlines many of the ideas that I saw about it in the other reviews. I like the way that they all call her out about neglecting to do research into SF before writing the book or discussing any recent works or trends. I look forward to reading UKL’s review of The Year of the Flood that she mentions after I read the book.They also have an interesting discussion about the SF ghetto. I recommend this podcast for WWEnders. Thanks, Scott, for letting me know.

Dave   |   04 Jan 2012 @ 22:36

@Scott Laz: Great tip on the podcast discussion. Coode Street is one of my favorite shows.

Mattastrophic   |   05 Jan 2012 @ 21:00

I spied her book In Other Worlds in a book store and flipped through it a bit. She has a whole chapter devoted to Le Guin I believe, but there were a lot of names in there I didn’t recognize, and I’d like to think I’m plugged in enough to recognize a good deal of the usual suspects in SF. I didn’t see anything in particular that piqued my interest. I read the Watts article that Rhonda linked and I pretty much agree with his response to her description of what she writes: "Yes Margaret, that’s called hard science fiction. It’s still science fiction." I haven’t read any of her books yet, but between The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake, and The Handmaids Tale, she seems to have a penchant for writing Dystopias. A study I ran into last year looked at the publication short form and their republication over the years. Conclusion? If you want the best chance of being published, write an alien encounter story. If you want the best chance of republication and lasting recognition, write a dystopia, particularly a dystopian satire. This aspect of the study was reported in PMLA by Eric Rabkin in "Science Fiction and the Future of Criticism," but the author didn’t have a definite explanation for the phenomenon. Perhaps between boundary SF authors like Huxley, Orwell, and others, the dystopia seems close enough to SF to use the tropes but far away enough to hang with mainstream Literature with a capital L and spit on the more plebeian stuff. Perhaps that is a conclusion Atwood has come to as well.

Rhonda Knight   |   06 Jan 2012 @ 13:13

Mattastrophic,Interesting Atwood article about her "ustopias," neither dystopias or utopias. She wants everything she does a different name.

Mattastrophic   |   07 Jan 2012 @ 03:02

Thanks Rhonda. I read it and…ugh. Exceptionalism. I have friends who like her stuff, I know she’s an influential writer, and I want to read The Handmaids Tale and Oryx and Crake, but this kind of thing just puts me off. The excerpt from Le Guin she quotes sounds right on the money: She want so badly to be George Orwell, it seems, to write that big science fiction book that is mainstream enough not to have to slum it in the genre ghetto and label her forever as a science fiction writer. She and Vonnegut have both had unease about being labeled SF writers, but Vonnegut seemed more honest about it when he said he was afraid being labeled and SF writer would put his books on the genre shelf and off the mainstream fiction shelf.

Leslie   |   10 Jan 2012 @ 09:35

While I won’t disagree with Atwood being a bit on the pretentious side and arguing semantics, considering speculative fiction and science fiction are pretty much one and the same, I don’t think there’s much more significance to the character in The Blind Assassin listing those particular ideas as his version of science fiction other than to reflect the time period it takes place in. Granted I read Assassin in high school nearly a decade ago and don’t remember all the particular details, but at the time that portion of the story took place, those were the qualities of science fiction, especially in pop culture. It was all pulp fiction with giant monsters and scantily clad slave alien ladies with alien overlords. It’s part of the reason it took me so long to find and enjoy science fiction. The pulp works just don’t do anything for me.As for Oryx & Crake, I haven’t made my way to that one, but it sounds like a very interesting environmental sci-fi story. I think, as many in the older generations believe, Atwood still sees sci-fi as the pulp of her youth that was not so concerned with character development. She’s come around a little since the publication of Oryx & Crake and was even known to describe its sequel as "social science fiction" when it came out. Considering science fiction has only recently been seen as "respectable" with the rise of nerd culture, I can understand her hesitancy to put the label on herself back in 2004 while still finding her own reasoning a little silly. Outside of that, I hope you enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale when you get to it. I zipped through that one and it left me a little freaked out and made me hate that I didn’t have anyone to mull it over with.

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