Entry updated 14 March 2022. Tagged: Author.
(1939- ) Canadian poet and author, 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 (see 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); much later, a Television series, The Handmaid's Tale (2017-current), successfully (at least in its first season) caught the tone and momentousness of the book. 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 or Slavery – 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 sidestepping of the "conversation" of the SF Megatext is not unembarrassing even here – The Handmaid's Tale soon gained a reputation as one of the best sf novels ever produced by a Canadian. The Testaments (2019), is an effective sequel, honouring the original and marking a return, after the awkward diversion of the Crake series (see below), to her implacable take-no-prisoners prime. With three protagonists whose stories are variously conveyed, the world of the tale, fifteen years after its predecessor, has been complexly opened to scrutiny from within, as well as, in a sense, from without. Both this novel (which shared the 2019 Booker Prize) and The Handmaid's Tale are iterated within a Ruins and Futurity frame: in each case in the form of an imperceptive lecture, each presented orally at the end of the twenty-second century.
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 magazine 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 brilliant but charismatically amoral Crake, this Mad Scientist/Superman, whose actions are pivotal creates a new species through Genetic Engineering which will supplant those remnants of humanity who have survived both the viral Pandemic he has himself deliberately caused (see Disaster), and the 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 below), many of whose writers have necessarily grappled with the taxing problematics involved in any attempt to recognize the Near Future; her clearly articulated vision of the next world is conveyed with an effect of antiquatedness pleasing to readers and critics unfamiliar with Fantastika in general. This effect of indifference may derive from her view of sf (which she intermittently describes as Sci Fi, and continued as late as 2013 to deny writing) as being gainfully definable in terms of 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 "squids in space" 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. And The Heart Goes Last (fixup 2015), a singleton which won the best novel category of the Kitschies, seems more relaxed in its depiction of a Dystopian future gruffly reminiscent of recent Young Adult dystopias; the protagonists find themselves in a Keep like community called Consilience (seemingly unconnected to E O Wilson's 1998 book with that name) whose inhabitants contract to live one month free, one month in prison ("Do time now, pay for the future"), but are devastated by the consequences. Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold (2016), retells William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) in a contemporary setting which variously foregrounds the original's intricate plays on Crime and Punishment; at the end the tale shifts into an unspecific Near Future.
Atwood's arguments about sf – which like P D James she denies writing – are placed alongside her comments on Wells, and her personal memories of experiencing the form, 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 through a long, arduous, sometimes contentious grappling with the changing world). In contrast to the fame her fiction has earned, this parched perspective did not win Atwood many adherents outside the quality press. In Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004-2021 (coll 2022), she takes a more relaxed view of "science fiction" as a useful, shared term, an umbrella within which she can properly describe The Handmaid's Tale as a Dystopia, and Oryx and Crake as Menippean Satire. [JC/AR]
Margaret Eleanor Atwood
born Toronto, Ontario: 18 November 1939
- The Handmaid's Tale (Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1985) [Handmaid's Tale: hb/Gail Geltner]
- The Testaments (Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 2019) [Handmaid's Tale: hb/Noma Bar/Dutch Uncle]
- 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]
- 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]
- The Heart Goes Last (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 2015) [fixup: hb/David Mann]
- Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold (London: Vintage: Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016) [in the publisher's Hogarth Shakespeare series: hb/Vladimir Zimakov]
- Good Bones (Toronto, Ontario: Coach House Press, 1992) [coll: hb/Margaret Atwood]
- The Tent (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 2006) [coll: hb/Margaret Atwood]
- Stone Mattress (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart, 2014) [coll: hb/]
- Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1966) [poem: chap: illus/pb/Charles Pachter]
- Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto, Ontario: Coach House Press, 1972) [nonfiction: hb/nonpictorial]
- Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (Toronto, Ontario: Anansi, 1982) [nonfiction: coll: hb/Laurel Angeloff, from a painting by Charles Pachter]
- Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) [nonfiction: including long discussion of underestimated Canadian sf writer Wayland Drew: hb/Clifford Harper]
- In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Toronto, Ontario: McLelland and Stewart/Canopy, 2011) [nonfiction: coll: hb/Alex Gertschen and Felix Meier]
- Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004-2021 (Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 2022) [nonfiction: coll: hb/Kelly Hill]
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