I recently read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic novel that toys with the subjectivity of utopian/dystopian ideals in a viscerally human world. As is usual upon finishing an engaging novel, I went to the net, curious about others’ opinions and views. It was there I encountered Robert J. Sawyer’s review of the novel—coming to a state of silent shock, or at least quiet awe, quickly therein. As blinkered as a horse, Sawyer’s view is so hermetic, so self-assuming as to cause wonder. Is science fiction really so limited in scope? Is science fiction disconnected from other forms of fiction—an insular realm unto itself? I was even left wondering, does Sawyer have an individual problem with Atwood—personal issues that overshadow his views… But to the facts:
1. Sawyer opens his review of Oryx and Crake with comparison to another Atwood dystopia: “Yes, one might have been able to argue that her earlier, and quite terrific, futuristic foray, 1985's The Handmaid's Tale, wasn't really science fiction — it had no basis in science…”
The last time I checked, there was a broad field of social sciences—behaviorism, politics, sociology, human anthropology—informing the speculation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Without the hard sciences, however, it appears The Handmaid’s Tale is not science-based, and therefore not worthy of the “science fiction” moniker. Is hard science indeed a determining factor of what is and isn’t science fiction?
2. After deeming Oryx and Crake worthy of being considered science fiction (it utilizes more traditional areas of science, i.e. biology and gene research, and therefore can be rubber-stamped), Sawyer proceeds to delineate the standards upon which he will evaluate the novel. “So, given that what she's doing is indisputably science fiction, how does she fare by the standards of that venerable genre?”
The implications of the question set my head spinning. Are the standards of science fiction different than other genres? Aren’t concepts like prose, structure, character usage, presentation, theme, execution, etc. parameters every book can be qualified by? Certainly science fiction is unique in its premises, devices, and settings, but from the perspective of literature, doesn’t it depend on the same toolkit as other genres in producing its effects? Save noting the quality of prose, however, Sawyer does not delve into these other qualities. But he does tip his hand just what “science fiction standards” might be. By criticizing Atwood’s usage of genetic engineering to motivate plot, he makes known the importance of originality in said premises, devices, and settings. Specifically, Sawyer scoffs at Atwood for utilizing Pohl & Kornbluth’s mega-chicken from The Space Merchants, and by doing so, indicates that the repetition of an idea or trope—regardless homage, tribute, or simple re-usage of a brilliant idea—is “bad” science fiction. This inevitably gives rise to the question: what is a truly original sf idea? Is it even possible to write sf in the 21 st century without walking in the trails—or at least a footprint or two—blazed by writers previously?
3. But perhaps more concerning is Sawyer scoffing at a potential message in Oryx and Crake: “…she rails against the decline of the environment, and decries the possibilities of genetic engineering gone bad. … she has jumped on a bandwagon that long ago ran out of steam.”
Wait, did I miss something? The Earth’s environmental problems have been mitigated? Genetic research is no longer an issue in the laboratory or amongst lawmakers? Relative concerns are no longer valid? Huh??? Moreover, where is the logical leap confirmed: novel’s implications equal author’s beliefs? Isn’t it the author’s right to separate the two—to use ideas from the real world, spinning them into story regardless of personal inclination? Is every facet of Oryx and Crake a direct representation of Atwood’s creed?
4. Following closely on the heels of #3 is: “It's this failure of speculative insight that will doom Oryx and Crake to minor-league status in the SF field.”
All I can say is, it takes a truly blinkered, hypocritical view to accuse someone of prophecy while doing it yourself. See point #5:
5. “Oryx and Crake is apparently set just a few decades down the road (the author, who seems so sure of what the future will bring, is surprisingly coy about specifying a date). … Atwood has given up on humanity; we've already gone too far, she says, and it's just a matter of decades before everything comes crashing down around us…”
I would like to know, at what point in the novel did Atwood give Sawyer the impression she was engaged in a piece of prophecy? It’s clear to me that Oryx and Crake is a study of utopian/dystopian ideals, and the stark realities of the human condition that make the relationship between the two so subjective. It’s not a snapshot from Atwood’s crystal ball: this is exactly how the world will be in ten years. Naturally there are cautionary elements inherent to using biological experimentation and extreme genetic research as premise for an apocalypse. But it’s likewise obvious the narrative goes beyond doomsday predilection, and into utopia studies.
6. But the blinkers over Sawyer’s eyes only reveal themselves more fully: “Atwood comes off as relentlessly anti-science; in that sense, she deserves the mantle of Canada's answer to Michael Crichton, whose books are always of the if-anything-can-go-wrong-it-will variety.”
How dare Atwood portray science in a negative light, Sawyer decries. He seems to have forgotten the application of science has brought the world the wonders of pollution and the atom bomb, among other things. And this is all not to mention the obvious: by isolating science from criticism, we lose the chance of having a balanced, realistic view of it. Why then the calumny?
7. Closing in on the end of this commentary, the penultimate quote displaying Sawyer’s biases is: “I'd long thought that Atwood was a savvy businessperson who understood that, if she avoided the "science fiction" label, she'd get a bigger audience. After all, prejudice keeps many otherwise intelligent readers from entering the science-fiction section of bookstores.“
I daresay the truth is that Atwood has a broader view to science fiction’s place in literature than Sawyer. Given the strength of the us vs. them attitude displayed, I could even be inclined to argue that the prejudice lies just as heavily, if not more so, on Sawyer’s side. Another way of putting this might be, if I were a potential reader of science fiction, encountering Sawyer’s review would not be an inviting experience, rather an off-putting one. It implies science fiction is a hallowed house which only a select few may enter, its standards somehow different, more elite than other genres.
8. Capping the whole review, and cementing how petty and narrow-minded Sawyer’s view is, he writes: “…after finishing Oryx and Crake, I better understand Margaret Atwood's reluctance to let her work be considered as science fiction. And that's simply that it comes off poorly in comparison to the truly great works in the genre.”
Heh, heh, Robbie
, that was really clever what you did there. By strictly limiting
what can be considered good science fiction, you gave the novel no choice but
to shoo-fly with its tail between its legs.
That’ll teach ol’ Atwood ta come knockin’ ‘round these parts. Those literary
authors just don’t know their stuff…
All in all, Sawyer’s review is narrow-minded—highly exclusive in its viewpoints to genre, and potentially dissuasive to readers who have not read science fiction. Authors should use the hard sciences to be considered science fiction. Authors cannot re-use ideas from previous sf and still be worth note. Authors cannot take a critical view toward the application of science. Environmentalism and genetic engineering (and who knows what other issues) are off limits as subject matter for reasons of obsolescence… It begs so many questions. Do I smell a hoary, Campbellian worldview to science fiction - a worldview now more than half a century old - still at play here? Is it an inclusive view to science fiction that opens doors to wider recognition, or encourages new readers in the field? Does it represent the steady blurring of lines between the genres occurring the past decades? Does it work to remove the artificial boundaries that exist between literary fiction and science fiction? Mr. Sawyer, forget the tunnel vision, there is a forest beyond the trees…
(If Oryx and Crake sounds interesting, do read the perspectives from The Guardian, The Independent, or The New Yorker. They set the bar higher.)
*It is worth noting that for as much as Sawyer prophesied the descent of Oryx and Crake into oblivion, the novel spawned two sequels, was nominated for one of literature’s most prestigious prizes (the Man Booker), and is currently in production as a television series.