Bits and Pieces

Time to catch up on some traditional Langford hobby-horses ...

Recently I wrote about authors and reviewers who maddeningly insist that some example of SF isn't science fiction because it's, well, good. Since then, we've heard a lot from admired Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who has again ventured into SF with her novel Oryx and Crake, but repeatedly insists that she hasn't. It may be about a future dystopia, it may feature huge advances in genetic engineering, but the lady is determined to keep her distance from the SF gutter.

(Her previous SF novel, The Handmaid's Tale, won the very first Arthur C. Clarke award in 1987. She's been trying to live this down ever since.)

Atwood prefers to say that she writes speculative fiction – a term coined by SF man Robert A. Heinlein. As she told the Guardian, "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She used a subtly different phrasing for New Scientist, "Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals." So it was very cruel of New Scientist to describe this interview in the contents list as: "Margaret Atwood explains why science is crucial to her science fiction."

Play it again, Ms Atwood – this time for the Book-of-the-Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." And one more time: on BBC1 Breakfast News the distinguished author explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she writes, is characterized by "talking squids in outer space."

Some reviewers were prepared to go along with this. The Economist ingeniously whitewashed the whole of science fiction out of existence by not counting SF authors (the novelists who most often write about science and technology) as novelists: "Contemporary novelists rarely write about science or technology. Margaret Atwood tackles both – and more – in one of the year's most surprising novels."

Patrick Gale of Waterstone's Books Quarterly seemed stunned by Atwood's amazing – if a little familiar to SF fans – biological inventions like "rats genetically spliced to snakes ... pain-free chickens developed to produce only multiple breasts". But even so, he stoutly avoided calling it SF: "In Oryx And Crake she makes a welcome return to fantasy. She would probably chuckle at that and murmur 'if only' for, like The Handmaid's Tale, it is less a fantasy than an imaginative projection with a rational foundation in current facts." Gale's other acceptable code phrase for the genre that dares not speak its name is "dystopian myth".

You begin to see why Atwood wants to keep SF at arm's length when you read the snobby reviewers who didn't like Oryx and Crake and used its genre as a rude epithet. Sven Birkerts of the New York Times opened his negative review with an enthusiastic display of prejudice: "I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital 'L' ..." The same paper's Michiko Kakutani went further and called it a "lame piece of sci-fi humbug." Oh dear! And Lorrie Moore of The New Yorker began her review on a note of lamentation for authors who stray into the SF slums: "The novelist Margaret Atwood has wandered off from us before ..."

The science fiction world is kinder: SF author Thomas M. Disch reviewed the book enthusiastically. But Robert J. Sawyer, not only a SF writer but a fellow-Canadian, objected to the very idea of imagining a bleak, dystopian future. "In Atwood's view, every problem we face now is going to get worse, not better," Sawyer grumbled: "I disagree. Human ingenuity will give all of us a wonderful future." Take that, George Orwell!

I'd tell you my own opinion of Oryx and Crake, but that would mean actually reading it. Let's change the subject ...

Often I've mentioned SF fanzines here, and it's worth remembering that the word "fanzine" was coined for amateur SF magazines, long before being hijacked by rock and football fans who mostly don't realize its SF roots. For the record, the inventor of the word was the American fan Russ Chauvenet and the year was 1941.

This and lots more SF terminology will appear in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose editors have been picking fans' brains for the earliest uses of SF and fan words. I felt extremely smug to be able to push back the origin of "sublight" (below the speed of light) from 1968 to a Poul Anderson story dated 1956. There's a useful OED web page recording progress on these SF citations:

As for SF fanzines themselves, more and more of these can be read on line. One annual presentation I didn't mention last issue is the Doc Weir Award, given to fans who do good work behind the scenes; this year it went to my old pal Bill Burns, who runs the E-fanzines website. This offers a wide variety of fanzines old and new, and links to many more with their own websites:

Curious about SF fanzines? Take a look.

David Langford thanks Locus Online and readers of Ansible for unearthing quotations.