(1939- ) Canadian poet and novelist, some of whose poetry – like Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein (1966 chap) – hints at sf content, but whose interest in the form as a prose writer only became evident (as did her dis-ease at being identified as a writer of sf) with the publication of The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which won the Governor General's Award in Canada and the first Arthur C Clarke Award in 1987 for its 1986 UK release. The 1990 film version (> The Handmaid's Tale) stiffly travestied the book, treating it as an improbable but ideologically "correct" Dystopia, rather than as a fluid nightmare requiem in the vein of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The tale of Offred the Handmaid, contextually placed as it is within a frame dated 200 years later, reads overwhelmingly as a personal tragedy. The venue is full and authentically typical of Dystopian sf – a sudden loss of fertility has occasioned a pre-emptive Near-Future coup against all remaining fertile women by a fundamentalist New England, to keep them from power, and a social system in which women are both despised and subject to a queasily prurient structure of sexual bondage – and the lessons taught throughout have a sharp Feminist saliency. But Offred's liquid telling of her tale, and her ambivalent disappearance into death or liberation as the book closes, make for a novel whose context leads the reader out of nightmare into the pacific Inuit culture of the frame, through which – as with the framing Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four, which Atwood has commented upon – allows the seeming terminal terrors of the story to be understood as an episode in a contextualizing Future History. Despite the occasional infelicity – Atwood's attempts to sidestep the "conversation" of the SF Megatext, and therefore to ignore its highly developed, pragmatically useful, and succinct toolkit for describing the future, are not unembarrassing even here – The Handmaid's Tale soon gained a reputation as one of the best sf novels ever produced by a Canadian.
Considerable sf content is also concealed in her Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin (2000), a novel whose conventional twentieth-century Canadian frame story of thwarted and secret-ridden family life is folded around a very extensive, and in many ways much more interesting science-fictional Pulp magazines adventure (after which the novel is named). Atwood's easy command of the pulp idiom contrasts sharply, and to interesting aesthetic effect, with the rather strangulated manner in which the contemporary half of the novel is narrated. Some of the stories assembled in Good Bones (coll 1992) also celebrate pulp.
Evidences of this familiarity with pulp are clear in the highly traditional narrative tropes that govern the Crake sequence of sf novels: Oryx and Crake (2003) mainly deals with the memories of a human survivor in a devastated depopulated America; The Year of the Flood (2009) portrays the same world, also to Satirical effect, and makes reference to the same underlying Genre SF premise; and Maddaddam (2013) brings members of previous casts back together where – under threat from the eponymous cadre of Secret Masters who run an inimical Computer Game – deep true old stories are told. As the narrator of the first volume makes clear through his intimate knowledge of the Mad Scientist/Superman whose actions are pivotal, the supernaturally brilliant young Crake creates a new species through Genetic Engineering which will supplant those remnants of humanity who have survived both the viral-plague Disaster he has himself deliberately caused, and calamitous Climate Change that – along with a Dystopian governance of America – has imprisoned most of the cast in various Keeps, some of them Utopian. Unfortunately, Atwood's attempts to convey a vision of Near Future America seem to have foundered on a tendency – common to Mainstream Writers of SF – to ignore contemporary sf (see above), many of whose writers have necessarily grappled with the difficult terrains of the contemporary world. This indifference may derive from her view of sf (which she intermittently describes as Sci Fi, and continues as of 2013 to deny writing) as being gainfully definable in terms of its gear, so that H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898) can be described, pejoratively, as sf because of `its use of Martians and tentacular Aliens (the sort of gear she eschews), but not in terms of its central role in the History of SF as a Scientific Romance in which highly-charged speculations on the nature of Evolution and Imperialism play out in a Near Future world. All the same, the final pages of Oryx and Crake do convey an eloquent gravitas expectable of a writer of her stature.
Atwood's arguments about sf, including her comments on Wells, and her personal memories of experiencing the form, are assembled in In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (coll 2011). Central to the book is an assumption that sf (and other modern genres) essentially replicate old stories, without any internal transformations or responses to the changing world worth commenting on (excepting some Dystopias, the book does not engage with the past half century of Genre SF when the form reached its maturity). This perspective has not won adherents outside the quality press. [JC/AR]
see also: Canada; Women SF Writers.
Margaret Eleanor Atwood
born Toronto, Ontario: 18 November 1939
- Oryx and Crake (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 2003) [Crake: hb/Kong]
- The Year of the Flood (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 2009) [Crake: hb/Michael J Windsor]
- Maddaddam (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 2013) [Crake: hb/Michael J Windsor]
- The Handmaid's Tale (Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1985) [hb/Gail Geltner]
- Alias Grace (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 1996) [minor fantasy elements: hb/from Dante Gabriel Rossetti]
- The Blind Assassin (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 2000) [hb/Richard Curtis]
- The Penelopiad (Toronto, Ontario: Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2005) [hb/C S Richardson]
- Good Bones (Toronto, Ontario: Coach House Press, 1992) [coll: hb/Margaret Atwood]
- The Tent (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 2006) [hb/Margaret Atwood]
Previous versions of this entry