Terms of Endearment: Atwood’s Null Taxonomy, Part One

There’s an essay by Margaret Atwood over at io9 right now. It’s from her new collection of essays about SF which, judging from this grump-fest, promises to be a real hoot. Atwood, who is shaping up to be the sort of anti-LeGuin, tries to take not-anti Le Guin to task for, well, taking her to task for running from the warm hug of SF like it has cooties. She fails. Atwood goes on to argue defensively and unconvincingly her own private definitions of science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy. It boils down to this: science fiction comes from Wells, and involves ray-guns and aliens (because that’s science, I guess), and speculative fiction from Verne, which is characterized by realistic things that simply haven’t happened yet, like submarines.

It’s actually a fairly interesting idea, and I’m sure there’s a great essay in it: SF as the parallel but overlapping threads originating with Verne and Wells. The problem is that Atwood, with an eye-roll-inducing air of presumption, talks as if this is the criterion for genre distinction by anyone else in the world. She also lumps Star Trek in with Star Wars under “fantasy.” For all her literary pretense, I think perhaps her true bifurcation is aesthetic. Sure, various technologies in Star Trek may seem unlikely. But that doesn’t make it fantasy. SF doesn’t have to be provably possible. It just can’t be demonstrably based on known “impossibilities,” a word I use with some reservation. The federation may be lightly utopian, but it’s a relatively rational extrapolation. There are aliens, but there’s no magic. The force is magic. Magic is fantasy. Ethics-and-exploration-based multi-planetary unions facing the unknown is not magic.

The fact is, we don’t know much about this thing called “possibility.” We don’t even know if it exists in the physical universe. Scientifically, we can’t – we haven’t seen even a shred of evidence than anything exists other than, well, what exists. So until we stumble into an alternate timeline or some such oddity, all fiction remains speculative. We can quibble about what’s more likely, what’s more realistic, but that works on a spectrum like most things. Is alien life “possible?” Certainly, as far as we know. It falls into the realm of accepted scientific possibility, whatever that means. Would they likely resemble Wells’ invaders? I don’t know. Probably not. But what are the odds of Atwood’s dystopias coming to pass? Limited extrapolation is far less likely than a singularity like an alien invasion for which we are wholly unprepared. Not that the world isn’t going straight to hell, but that’s not the question. The question, for Atwood, is “will it look like this when it happens?” And with most settings offered by SF, the answer is “who the fuck knows?”

Another important thing to remember is that it’s about intent. A responsible SF author, on the whole, should try to work within the framework of the possible. But that is a negative pool, a field that is narrowed down gradually from a starting point, at one time in human understanding, of nearly everything, to a slightly more restricted field. As scientific innovation and discovery continue, that field becomes even more narrow (and sometimes, as a nice surprise, a little less) all the time. If science proves the basis of my central conceit very unlikely tomorrow, that doesn’t suddenly render the work fantasy. Writers of fantasy know they’re writing fantasy, They intend to. That’s the point. And they have it easy – fantasy is the inverse of plausibility, and so it grows larger all the time. There is never a time when a work penned as fantasy could become confused for SF. Again, to make the point: Star Trek may not be the most rigorous application of plausibility at every point, but it never deals with what is accepted as impossible.

Whether the first word is “science” or “speculative,” let us not forget that the second word is always “fiction.” The conversation about genre delineations has gotten so bull-headed and grandfatherly! SF needs a core of believability, but that doesn’t mean its readers should be freed from the burden that all readers of fiction are faced with – the suspension of disbelief. The point of SF is not that it is possible; that’s simply the undercarriage. SF has as much right to be narrowly-focused on a particular issue as any other work of fiction. SF is allowed to be pastiche, allegory, caricature, remix; it is uniquely able to function as meta-literature, as the entire field is a sort of open-source dialogue. The obsession with a kind of imaginary and impossible rigor with respect to the “scientific” has simply gone too far.

EDIT: Someone on that io9 thread posted this, which is less wordy and emotionally-driven than my tome of a rant, and also uses the word cooties in the exact same context. Really weird, but I guess the image is just that clear.

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