Margaret Atwood was in the Guardian again yesterday, explaining that her books are not science fiction because she doesn't have the skill set to write about Martians. Her “speculative fiction” is about stuff that could really happen, not lurid fantasy about monsters.
I find this kind of semantic argument about what is or isn't sci-fi a bit wearying – and have no problem with Star Wars, Cold Comfort Farm, Mars Attacks and Frankenstein all being part of the same gang. I've written stuff where I've tried to get the complex physics right, and stuff where I've completely body-swerved real science. I suspect a lot of these arguments are less about defining a genre as attributing value. I get the impression from Atwood's article that what she really means is her stuff is serious, with things to say. It can't be science fiction because that's a pejorative term.
(In responding to Mary Beard's lack of love for Cold Comfort Farm, people have explained it's a parody - as if that automatically makes it good.)
There are reasons why you wouldn't want your bestselling book to be labelled as sci-fi. That sci-fi shelves of a book shop are a special ghetto, where many shoppers will not venture. It's not just a value judgement: the definition also affects sales.
I do, though, think there's a way of reading science fiction. Like a murder mystery, you read the story looking for clues – not to spot the murderer, but to create the world in which the story's set. We're told that a door dilates rather than opens, and that vivid, odd detail is like an establishing CGI wideshot, framing the story in an eye-poppingly alien world. With a lot of sci-fi, we're asked to play an active part – which is what can make it so rewarding and immersive, but can also put off the newcomer. Those who've not learned to decode the clues – usually when they're about 12 – will say they just don't “get” sci-fi.
Oryx and Crake, one of the three books Atwood discusses in her article, I read in August, making notes which I never quite got round to writing up. There's no mention in the blurb that it's anything so crass and silly as sci-fi. Rather, it's “a less-than-brave new world”, “an outlandish yet wholly believable space”.
Which is odd, because it's not exactly believable. Smart, funny, insightful and full of quirky perspective, it's monstrously contrived. Crake, the villain, destroys the world to build a new utopia, and no one – not even those closest to him in this techno-future where everyone knows each other's secrets – ever suspect what he's up to.
I guess there's an argument that it's difficult to stop anyone determined to self-destruct – which reflected a post-9/11 worldview when it came out in 2003, but struck a chord with me as I read it because Amy Winehouse had just died. But there's no sense of how Crake's got away with what he's done. All too often his being autistic and into science effectively means that he's magic.
Snowman, our narrator, also just happens to be at the centre of these huge events – and never through any fault or effort of his own. Oryx, Crake and even Snowman's mother drive everything, and he coasts along in their wake. That he's had a ring-side seat through all the key bits of the plot, and is then the last man alive at the end is a convenience for the author. It's not wholly believable.
Rather than some realistic account of where science might take us, this is a parable, a fable. It feels a little mythic because it owes so much to stuff that's come before. There are parallels with the expulsion from the garden of Eden. There's Mary Shelley's The Last Man, while the end is a bit Robinson Crusoe. The Crakers reminded me of Hothouse.
The plot hinges on a classic love triangle – though, again, Snowman gets the girl because she thinks he looks unhappy, not because he does anything to win her heart. Events are contrived to allow discussion of how we escape the violence of our past: Oryx is reconciled with her abusive upbringing but Snowman can't let it go. That matches the efforts to remove violent instincts from the Crakers, though it looks like dreams, singing, art and religion are too much a part of us to be eradicated – and it's implied that means we'll never be free of the violence either.
There's some fun speculative stuff about sex drives, the Crakers' rude bits turning blue when they're in season. But less than a decade after the book came out, the details of its future make it feel parochially of its time. The dot com crash is referred to as if it were a major moment in history, and “Web site” is spelled with a capital letter because it's new and unusual.
Atwood argues in the Guardian that the book portrays a “ustopia” - her own ugly coinage for something that's a utopia (good) and a dystopia (bad) at the same time. I'm not sure what this new definition adds to discussions of utopian fiction. And I can't help feeling that this worry about definitions is missing the point. Books aren't good or bad because they're science fiction. There's good sf and bad. Definitions don't fix plot holes or poor writing, or change how we respond to a story. They're just a way of saying, "look how clever I am".