Margaret Atwood: Science Fiction and the Ustopia

This past Friday (14th of October) Margaret Atwood wrote in The Guardian.  This seems to be a preamble for her book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

She states, quite strenuously, that she doesn’t write Science Fiction.  She writes stories that could have/would have/should have/have happened.  Her stories come from some innate truth of the world and Science Fiction, in her words:

… is those books that descend from HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descend from Jules Verne‘s books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.

Which is a very strange choice of definition because it narrows things to a question of strange semantics.  Jules Verne and Wells wrote Scientific Romance but in Wells case  The Martians are a symbol of man’s arrogance.  Their actions are a metaphor for the atrocities he saw Us committing against The Other.   By the same token does Atwood think that the Lunar project envisaged by Verne in The Voyage to the Moon is somehow more plausible than Martians flinging themselves through interstellar space from Mars?  She’s lost me a little.

It seems that Wells lost her at the pesky canisters whereas Verne, talking about crazy Victorian tech’, came across plausibly – which is all a matter of taste.  Still seems odd to me that she is so insistent that she writes Speculative Fiction.

Atwood writes how, as a child, she read and wrote outside of the norm:

I wasn’t much interested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish.

She comes from that generation that had to deal with the pulps and the Golden Age.  Frequently these were little more than idea stories where the cool thing trumped everything else.  But Science Fiction has grown up.  It’s written as much for the grown-ups as the little boys (and girls) and she even helped it along [in her own way].  I recently wrote that I was unhappy with the idea that fantasy was now Fantasy and that many Fantasy readers appeared to have become myopic.  Atwood reveals I am not the first (and I know I will not be the last) to have similar concerns:

… author Bruce Sterling deplored the then-current state of science fiction and ticked off its writers and publishers for having turned it into a mere “category” – a “self-perpetuating commercial power-structure, which happens to be in possession of a traditional national territory: a portion of bookstore rack space”A “category”

Is this perhaps the root of the problem that Atwood has?  She’s desperate to avoid THAT ghetto…

No matter.  She has written an essay that I think is well worth checking out.  It’s informative in what it tells us about her as a writer, her approach to her craft and a little of her concerns of the modern world.  To her we are either in Ustopia or already along the path.  Society has changed [a lot] and the emphasis on Us and The Other is stronger than I can recall in my own lifetime. Whether she wants to be accepted amongst by Science Fiction fraternity or not is irrelevant, her books are part of the debate, and so Science Fiction readers need to ensure they keep their horizons broad.  We need to do what we do best, keep an eye out for books amongst and about The Other.

The Ustopia

Atwood coined this word to describe:

… the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.

Thus we have Freedom Fighters and Terrorists; Capitalist Democracy and Everything Else.  There seems to be a consistent human obsession to characterise between Us and The Other.   If you think of humans as gregarious social animals this seems obvious.  I can imagine Ugh sitting at the campfire telling his clanmates about the evil in the next cave , where sits Grunt and his band telling stories about the strange people next door…  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout my life it’s that people are just people.  Everything Else is just ideology.  But did we really need to coin another word?

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2 Comments on “Margaret Atwood: Science Fiction and the Ustopia”

  1. Pamela says:

    I agree with a lot of what you have got to say here but in answer to your last question, I think Atwood coined another word because it is so difficult to define ‘utopia’ or ‘dystopia’. Life in general is neither one or the other, they contain ‘latent versions of one another’. Academics tend to categorise texts according to their utopian or dystopian characteristics but that is becoming increasingly more difficult in our globalised world. Is it possible then, that we do need a new term to define our more ‘ustopian’ existence?

    • antihippy says:

      Yes you’re right.

      Life isn’t black and white. We exist in a messy continuum of grey where some things will be good, others bad. My central point is that one person’s dystopia is another’s utopia and consequently these ‘latent versions’ exist and always have. We don’t really need a new word because these states are implied in each other.

      And writers have written responses to each others ‘topias throughout history.

      It’s very hard to talk about the nature of things without some sort of categorisation. I know the frustration of speaking to some English academics who more-or-less see everything has being in one place or another; something I think fits with the tidy academic ideal of criticism. Having said that, I can’t talk on the subject of cars without discussing things like diesel or petrol engines. The fact that one engine type is present [or not] doesn’t alter the overriding concept of the car. Similarly if we talk about the political effect societies have on each other and the individual, we do have to start somewhere. I don’t think humans have changed that much that we suddenly need new categories.


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