Tuesday Thoughts: Margaret Atwood and A New Definition of Speculative Fiction

Margaret Atwood and Roger Rosenblatt

Last Tuesday, I had the pleasure of listening to Margaret Atwood have a conversation with Roger Rosenblatt at Chautauqua Institution. I enjoyed their witty repartee (Rosenblatt: Would you listen to me for a moment? Atwood: Do I have a choice?), as well as Atwood’s style of succinct, humorous storytelling. I also enjoyed Atwood’s reading, which included her singing the Mole Day Song, a hymn honoring mole-kind that she wrote for her novel The Year of the Flood.

At one point in the conversation, Rosenblatt brought up a comment Atwood made previously about speculative fiction. As I figured this would be a hot topic, I took notes during her speech and did my record it verbatim; any errors are, of course, mine.

According to Atwood:

Speculative fiction is an annoying issue, and one I never should have brought up. It’s the difference between Star Wars and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everything in the Handmaid’s Tale has happened somewhere. Jules Verne was appalled by H.G. Wells because of The Time Machine. Verne said, “He made that up!” Dragons can’t be done, either, because they were definitively done by Ursula Le Guin. She gets the top dragon award. [Crowed cheers] Thank you, dragon fans.

Atwood went on to explain that while she enjoys Star Wars, it isn’t something that could ever happen, so it was pure science fiction, not speculative. Speculative fiction, by Atwood’s definition, is limited to cautionary tales, like near-future dystopias with already-existing sociopolitical aspects. While much of the audience at Chautauqua was not concerned about this classification, I think this is something worthy of debate, especially among people who consider themselves speculative fiction writers.

What do you think? Is Margaret Atwood’s definition of speculative fiction as stories that could possibly happen in the near future better than using speculative fiction as an umbrella term for fantasy, science fiction, slipstream, magical realism, and all the other facets of the non-realistic writing?

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