Is Margaret Atwood a science fiction writer?

This is a cross-post from my Books Worth Reading blog.

The Handmaid's TaleImage via Wikipedia

I have read three novels by Margaret Atwood (and I have two more waiting on my ‘to read’ shelf), and I have found her to be a consistently satisfying writer. I wouldn’t say that I loved all of her books, but they have all kept me interested and engaged, which is saying quite a lot. Even more impressive, I think, is that Atwood is considered a mainstream writer, but she gets away with writing fiction that could be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.

My favorite book by Atwood has got to be The Handmaid’s Tale. I first read it when I was younger and then reread it fairly recently. This novel is unabashedly science fiction. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women.

Despite being science fiction, I think this novel was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept. The feminist themes, presented in a very compelling way, also make the novel more accessible to a wider audience.

I recently finished The Blind Assassin, which won the Booker Prize and which I also enjoyed very much. The genre of this novel is not as straightforward, but it does contain science fiction elements. In fact, its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters that develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Nevertheless, Atwood is definitely experimenting here.

Finally, Alias Grace is the Atwood novel I liked the least, even though I still enjoyed it. It is a historical novel, but also a bit of a psychological suspense thriller. It is set in 19th century Canada and tells the story of Grace Marks, imprisoned for the double murder of her employer and his housekeeper/lover. Grace does not remember the events of the actual murder, and a group of churchgoers, who believe she is innocent, have engaged a psychiatrist to find out what really happened. The real story must be pieced together from newspaper accounts, letters and the points of view of two unreliable narrators: Grace and the psychiatrist, who has become obsessed with her. The reader is never left entirely satisfied as to what actually happened. So again, Atwood is experimenting with structure and story.

Oryx and Crake is the next Atwood novel I plan to read. Again, this is a novel with science fiction elements that cannot be considered strictly science fiction.

I really enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Traditional science fiction has its own formula, not one that I typically enjoy, except in the hands of a really skilled writer. But the brand of science fiction that Atwood writes — or perhaps I should call it speculative fiction – resonates much more strongly with me.