I heart Margaret Atwood. She’s a writer who manages to combine intense emotional states with clear, dispassionate prose and to create emotional worlds that are convincing and memorable. She’s also hard to pigeonhole in terms of Genre.
Well known for books such as Alias Grace and Catseye, Atwood also writes speculative fiction. I choose the term with care as the categorisation of her work has been somewhat disputed. In reviewing one of her books, one of the great grande dames of SF opened with this paragraph:
To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto. – Ursrula LeGuin, The Guardian, Saturday 29 August 2009
Being a nerd from a long time back, the sci-fi ghetto was something I’ve always been conscious of. This isn’t to say that you don’t get wonderful literary experiences in Sci-Fi. Something like Day of the Triffids, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said or LeGuin’s own Left Hand Of Darkness are deep, multilayered examinations of character or the human spirit. But there was always the sense that typical sci fi was like an average (or sub-average) Doctor Who or Star Trek episode and that this imagined mean was “where sci-fi belonged”.
The ascent of sci-fi during the 90s and 00s as a more serious and accepted artform came with the valorisation of nerds and geek culture.
Atwood herself draws the distinction like this:
[…] 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. I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians. Not because I don’t like Martians, I hasten to add; they just don’t fall within my skill set. Any seriously intended Martian by me would be a very clumsy Martian indeed. – Margaret Atwood, The Guardian, Saturday 15 October 2011
I’m currently reading Atwood’s Positron series, which is being released through a website called Byliner. Byliner specialises in ebooks which take a couple of hours to read. Atwood has somewhat subverted this by serialising a larger story. Longer than chapters or short stories, each section provides significant plot and character development, and is paced well enough that they leave you eager to read the next piece without doing anything as cheap as using a cliffhanger.
Positron builds a world where for-profit prisons have been taken to their logical extreme, where “free” people put themselves in jail for a month of unpaid industrial labour followed by a month’s idealised middle-class living in a saccharine gated community (also within the confines of the prison). It provides security, certainty and an absolutely proscribed lifestyle.
Sound a tiny bit sterile? Just a little? Atwood convincingly sells both the soul crushing beigeness whilst still making convincing the decision of people to accept the tradeoff.
Layered on top of this are the writers typical literary devices of shame, desire, morally ambiguous sex and characters that shift quickly from being active agents to passive subjects of forces larger than themselves. It’s speculative fiction in a narrow, focused way. The speculative elements are almost all social (with the one technological element a “10 years away” projection), and as a result, the eye is directed inwards, to the reactions of the characters to this strange world.
The pace of revelation is fantastic, never leaving the reader overwhelmed with ideas or detail, and the story unspools slowly and deliberately. Atwood is a veteran craftswoman and despite the episodic nature of the narrative, everything is weighted and balanced to heighten immersion and invest the readers in the fates of the characters, even as we wince at their less than sympathetic choices.
Now my own book cleaves far more to the “fantasy” end of the spectrum – as far as Atwood would describe it – with the technology sufficiently advanced enough to be indistinguishable from magic (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke). But I still feel that the core of the book is in the social set ups of colonialism, responses to modernity and the relations of the occupier to the occupied RATHER THAN expositions of dazzling technology or strange alien worlds and biologies.
My task as a writer is to pace exposition whilst still giving the characters space to react and interact. In order to avoid writing “a clumsy martian”, I need to (simultaneously) sell both character and setting as breathing entities, without drowning the reader in unfamiliarity.
The even trickier part comes later, when I’m asking readers to understand how a character is behaving WRONGLY, based on how I’ve originally told them the world is set up and how the characters should act. This sort of recursive understanding of a setting needs to be introduced to a reader carefully, especially if it’s being used to drive or highlight the plot. In positioning readers you need to make sure the reader doesn’t FEEL manipulated or worse, that they feel expected to work like Trojans just in order to follow the story you’re trying to tell.
This isn’t unique to speculative fiction, of course. Conan-Doyle’s “curious incident of the dog in the nighttime” is perhaps the classic literary example of the reader being deliberately and carefully led to something out of place.
So the challenge is to lay the breadcrumbs without making it obvious that it IS a trail, and to avoid the trail becoming hard to find our tedious to follow.
And they wonder why writers are led to drink…