Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tunnel Vision: Exclusivity in Science Fiction in Robert J. Sawyer’s Review of Oryx and Crake

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.


  1. The idea of Robert Sawyer reviewing Margaret Atwood boggles the mind. Robert Sawyer! Perhaps Clive Cussler could review the new Don Delillo novel? Maybe James Patterson's thoughts on Infinite Jest?

  2. Anonymous up there nailed my own reaction. Love this. And look at us: me, critiquing a review that takes Sawyer seriously, and you, critiquing Sawyer's own review in which he takes himself seriously. This is like tandem recursive reviewing or something.

    And to think I felt even a twinge of guilt for my Sawyer reviews. The hubris of that man is epic.

    I had to google the "Atwood is Canada's answer to Crichton" quote because he says it like it's real saying and there's no way that can be a real saying. It's not. Apparently-- and you probably knew this already but it's news to me-- it's a title Sawyer has adopted for himself, taken from a Canadian review, supposedly, but I think the irony is lost on him. Yes, Robbie, you definitely are Canada's answer to Michael Crichton. Your crown is safe.

    1. I was unaware of the Crichton quote in its original reference to Sawyer. Given the disdain he directs at Crichton in the Oryx and Crake review, it's certainly a strong indication of lost irony (you say)/idiocy (I say).


      My assumption is that Sawyer is among the legion of readers who stare daggers at Atwood for stating something like 'sf is nothing but squids in space' without bothering to understand the context or larger perspective to her statement. I recently finished Atwood's non-fic In Other Worlds, and it becomes relatively clear she is, in fact, doing science fiction a favor by trying to distinguish crappy pulp and mainstream sf (i.e. sf as squids in space) from more inspired efforts (i.e. sf as literary fiction without a realist qualifier). For her, books like Nineteen Eighty-four are foremost literary fiction. By contrast, works produced by such "venerable" sf writers as Robert Sawyer, works with less ambition, relevancy, and talent, fall under the sf as squids in space umbrella. From another perspective, and one I agree with most of the time, literary fiction is like a catch-all for all ambitious, relevant, talented fiction regardless of taxonomy, whereas genre fiction (e.g. science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc.) is comprised of the efforts which do not achieve the same level of brilliance. It's therefore possible for a work to be both literary (by quality) and sf (by definition). I'm aware that historically, literary fiction has been biased toward realism, but I think this is the natural result of much of sf, fantasy, romance, horror, etc. lacking relevancy. It's difficult (but not impossible) to comment on the times when squids in space are attacking you, after all. But I think we are seeing a change in this, a branching out in taxonomy of works that are nominated for literary awards as more writers begin to use the devices and tropes of genre with more literary effect. But I ramble...

    2. Agreed, though it's also important to note that what lands on contemporary lit bookshelves is often just as thin, fluffy, and self-aggrandizing as the most cookie-cutter of SF books. Seems to me it would be more beneficial to start dividing taxonomies horizontally instead of vertically, slicing those genre/lit columns across the middle according to literary ambition. As far as I'm concerned, the same shelves should house Marlon James and Dave Hutchinson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Nina Allan, Kurt Vonnegut and Nnedi Okorafor. And Sawyer can go hang out with, I dunno, whatever formula author is crowding the lit shelves.

    3. I think the distinction you're trying to make is the difference between mainstream/contemporary fiction and literary fiction. I have been to some bookstores which do separate the two, but generally speaking, you're right, they are mixed. I think this is due to the relevancy thing I mentioned earlier (relevancy, of course, being relative in the context of popular crime novels, political thrillers, romance, murder mysteries, historical fiction, etc. Such books are more comfortable for the average person given familiarity with the book's elements, that is, compared to the more abstract nature of sf, fantasy, horror...), but I would have to think some more about it. I like you're idea about organizing horizontally. It would make our lives easier, not to mention something to laugh at when a bookstore employee decided to shelve one of Sawyer's works in the lit fic section. ;)

  3. Hi Jessie, I’m curious if you would then classify Erikson and Bakker as Literary Fiction or as genre according to your definition above.
    Put another way, would you be able to recommend the above authors to Don Delillo fans and if not why not?



    1. Erikson and Bakker I would say are neither low nor high brow, rather in the middle to high range. Both can be pretentious, a dangerous extreme of attempting to be too literary, nevertheless its apparent they are attempting something beyond good story, and succeeding. There are relevant ideas and themes embedded and complemented by their plots.

      To be honest, I've read more Erikson and Bakker than DeLillo, so I'm not confident answering your second question. The "literary" writer I would compare Bakker to is Cormac McCarthy. DeLillo is also dark, but I think McCarthy has the similar visceral touch. Neither holds his punches in presenting humanities foibles. Erikson, as an archeologist, takes a longer view, particularly to the cycles of history and civilization, and for this does bear comparison to DeLillo's Underworld. But would fans of one be able to pick up the other no problem? I'm not certain. There is a difference in the amount of abstract imagination the reader must invest in Erikson's world. Some readers are unprepared, or simply unwilling to do that. Nerds that we are, part of our enjoyment of Malazan is the world, whereas for others, it wouldn't be. To fans of DeLillo I would rather recommend William Gibson, I guess. I think each has a cynicism able to be appreciated on both sides.

    2. I have not read Bakker--he's in my to-read pile--but I have read the Malazan Book of the Fallen and although I'd certainly agree with Jesse about Erikson's ambition, I'd say that what prevents him from achieving literary status is less his world and more the haphazard nature of the writing, which ranges from excellent to clearly slapdash, sometimes within the same paragraph. Don Delillo, on the other hand, and more traditionally literary writers, have clearly--it seems to me--worked and reworked their prose until it can withstand and reward deep scrutiny. (Not to say that 'genre' writers cannot do this--Delany, for example.)

      As an aside, I found the vast majority of Erikson's world too vague to spark any interest--'oh boy, yet another ethnic group defined entirely by their feathery hats!'-- but that's me...

      As a final aside: the real question is: would you recommend Steven Erikson to fans of Steve Erickson?

      -adrian (the first anonymous)

    3. Adrian, confession time, I have not read Steve Erickson. Arc d'X I've seen recommended many places, but never got around to it. Should I invest?

    4. I have not read Arc d'X. I really loved Days Between Stations and Zeroville, and I've heard good things about Tours of the Black Clock. Zeroville was very gripping in an odd way. -adrian