I’m very honoured to have been asked to give the Kesterton Lecture here at Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication.
I note that I’m the fourth in this series, and that I’ve been preceded by three very eminent men. I have always distrusted the number 4, whereas I do have a preference for the number 3. So I’ve broken the dubious 4 down into two sets: one of three, a lucky moonstruck set, which includes persons of the male persuasion but excludes me; and a second set of one, which includes persons of the female sort and also, incidentally, me. I am therefore the first in a set that I trust will number many more individuals before long.
That’s the feminism for this evening, which, as you can see, I have cunningly combined with the initial fooling around so you won’t feel too threatened by it. I’ve never known why people have sometimes felt threatened by me. After all, I’m quite short, and apart from Napoleon, what short person has ever been threatening? Second, I’m an icon, as you’ve doubtless been told, and once you’re an icon you’re practically dead, and all you have to do is stand very still in parks, turning to bronze while pigeons and others perch on your shoulders and defecate on your head. Third, I am—astrologically speaking—a Scorpio, one of the kindest and gentlest of astrological signs. We like to lead quiet lives in the dark and peaceful toes of shoes, where we never give any trouble unless someone attempts to cram an aggressively large yellow-toenailed foot in on top of us. And so it is with me: no bother at all unless stepped on, in which case I can’t answer for the consequences.
The title of my small talk tonight is “Scientific Romancing.” Its cover story is that it’s about science fiction. Its subtext is probably What is fiction for? or something like that. The subtext under that will be a few paragraphs on the two scientific romances I myself have written. And the sub-sub-subtext might turn out to be What is a human being? So this lecture is like those round candies you could once ruin your teeth on for two cents: sugar coating on the outside, with descending layers of various colours, until you come to an odd, indecipherable seed at the very centre.
First, I’ll tackle the peculiar form of prose fiction often called “science fiction,” a label that brings together two terms you’d think would be mutually exclusive, since science—from scientia, meaning “knowledge”—is supposed to concern itself with demonstrable facts, and fiction—which derives from a root verb meaning “to mould,” as in clay—denotes a thing that is feigned or invented. With science fiction, one term is often thought to cancel out the other. The book is evaluated as something intended as a statement of truth, with the fiction part—the story, the invention—rendering it useless for anyone who really wants to get a grip on, say, nanotechnology. Or else it’s treated the way W.C. Fields treated golf when he spoke of it as a good walk spoiled—that is, the book is seen as a narrative structure cluttered up with too much esoteric geek material when it should have stuck to describing the social and sexual interactions among Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.
Jules Verne, a granddaddy of science fiction on the paternal side, and the author of such works as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, was horrified by the liberties taken by H.G. Wells, who, unlike Verne, did not confine himself to machines that were within the realm of possibility—such as the submarine—but created other machines—such as the Time Machine—that were quite obviously not. “Il invente!” Jules Verne is said to have said, with vast disapproval.
Thus the node of this part of my talk—a node is sometimes a nasty thing you get on your vocal cords from giving too many lectures, but I use it here in its other sense, a point of intersection—its node is that curious locus where science and fiction meet. Where did this kind of stuff come from, and why do people write it and read it, and what’s it good for anyway?
Before the term science fiction appeared, in America, in the 1930s, during the golden age of bug-eyed monsters and girls in diaphanous outfits, stories such as H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds were called “scientific romances.” In both terms—scientific romance and science fiction—the science element is a qualifier. The nouns are romance and fiction, and the word fiction covers a lot of ground.
We’ve fallen into the habit of calling all examples of long prose fiction “novels,” and of judging them by standards developed for evaluating one particular kind of long prose fiction, namely the kind that treats of individuals embedded in a realistically described social milieu, and which emerged with the work of Daniel Defoe—who tried to pass it off as journalism—and that of Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney and Jane Austen during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and which was then developed by George Eliot and Charles Dickens and Flaubert and Tolstoy, and many more, in the mid- and late nineteenth centuries.
This kind of work is found superior if it has “round” characters rather than “flat” ones, round ones being thought to have more psychological depth. Anything that doesn’t fit this mode has been shoved into an area of lesser solemnity called “genre fiction,” and it is here that the spy thriller and the crime story and the adventure story and the supernatural tale and the science fiction, however excellently written, must reside, sent to their rooms—as it were—for the misdemeanour of being enjoyable in what is considered a frivolous way. They invent, and we all know they invent, at least up to a point, and they are therefore not about Real Life, which ought to lack coincidences and weirdness and action/adventure—unless it is about war, of course—and they are therefore not solid.
The novel proper has always laid claim to a certain kind of truth—the truth about human nature, or how people really behave with all their clothes on except in the bedroom—that is, under observable social conditions. The “genres,” it is thought, have other designs on us. They want to entertain, a bad and escapist thing, rather than just rubbing our noses in the daily grit produced by the daily grind. Unhappily for novelists, the larger reading public quite likes being entertained. There’s a poverty-stricken writer in George Gissing’s masterpiece, New Grub Street, who commits suicide after the failure of his slice-of-life realistic novel entitled Mr. Bailey, Grocer. New Grub Street came out at the height of the craze for such adventure-romance novelties as Rider Haggard’s She and the scientific romances of H.G. Wells, and Mr. Bailey, Grocer—if it had been a real novel—would have had a thin time of it. If you think this can’t happen now, take a look at the sales figures of Life of Pi—pure adventure-romance—and The Da Vinci Code, ditto, and the long-running vampiramas of Anne Rice.
The setting of the realistic novel proper is Middle Earth, and the middle of Middle Earth is the middle class, and the hero and heroine are usually the desirable norms, or could have been in—for instance—tragic versions such as Thomas Hardy, if Fate and society hadn’t been so contrary. As publishers’ readers say, “We like these people.” Grotesque variations on the desirable norms appear, of course, but they take the form, not of evil talking clams or werewolves or space aliens, but of people with character defects or strange noses. Ideas about—for instance—novel and untried forms of social organization are introduced through conversations among the characters, or in the form of diary or reverie, rather than being dramatized, as in the utopia and the dystopia. The central characters are placed in social space by being given parents and relatives, however unsatisfactory or dead these may be at the outset of the story. These central characters don’t just appear as fully grown adults, but are provided with a past, a history. This sort of fiction concerns itself with the conscious waking state, and if a man changes into an arthropod in such a book, he’ll do so only in a nightmare.
But not all prose fictions are novels in this stick-to-realism sense of the word. A book can be a prose fiction without being a novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, although a prose narrative and a fiction, was not intended as a “novel”; when it was written, such things did not yet exist. It’s a romance—a story about the adventures of a hero—coupled with an allegory—the stages of the Christian life. (It’s also one of the precursors of science fiction, although not often recognized as such.) Here are some other prose-fiction forms that are not novels proper. The confession. The symposium. The Menippean satire, or anatomy. The utopia and its evil twin, the dystopia.
Nathaniel Hawthorne deliberately called some of his fictions “romances,” to distinguish them from novels. What he might have been thinking of was the tendency of the romance to use a somewhat more obvious form of patterning than the novel was thought to do—the blond heroine versus her dark alter ego, for instance. The French have two words for short stories—contes and nouvelles, “tales” and “news”—and this is a useful distinction. The tale can be set anywhere, and can move into realms that are off limits for the novel—into the cellars and attics of the mind, where figures that can appear in novels only as dreams and fantasies take actual shape, and walk the earth. The news, however, is news of us; it’s the daily news, as in “daily life.” There can be car crashes and shipwrecks in the news, but there are not likely to be any Frankenstein monsters; not, that is, until someone in “daily life” actually manages to create one.
But there’s more to the news than “the news.” Fiction can bring us another kind of news; it can speak of what is past and passing, and also of what’s to come. When you’re writing about what’s to come, you could be engaged in journalism of the dire-warning sort, which used to be known as prophecy and is sometimes termed agit-prop—elect that bastard, build that dam, drop that bomb, and all hell will break loose, or, in its milder form, tut-tut—but as a person who has all too often been asked, “How did you know?,” I’d like to make it clear that I don’t go in for prophecy, not as such. Nobody can predict the future. There are too many variables. In the nineteenth century, Tennyson wrote a poem called “Locksley Hall,” which appeared to predict—among other things—the age of airplanes, and which contains the line, “For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see”; but no one can really do that. You can, however, dip into the present, which contains the seeds of what might become the future. As William Gibson has said, the future is already with us, it’s just unevenly distributed. So you can look at a lamb and make an educated guess, such as, “If nothing unexpected happens to it along the way, that lamb will most likely become (a) a sheep or (b) your dinner,” probably excluding (c), a giant wool-covered monster that will crush New York.
If you’re writing about the future and you aren’t doing forecast journalism, you’ll most likely be writing something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction. I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper—for me, this label denotes books with things in them we can’t yet do or begin to do, like going through a wormhole in space to another universe—and speculative fiction, which employs the means already more or less to hand, such as credit cards, and takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering science fiction and all its hybrid forms—science fiction fantasy, and so forth—and others choose the reverse.
Here are some of the things these kinds of narratives can do that “novels” as usually defined cannot do.
•They can explore the consequences of new and proposed technologies in graphic ways, by showing them as fully operational.
•They can explore the nature and limits of what it means to be human in graphic ways, by pushing the envelope as far as it will go.
•They can explore the relationship of man to the universe, an exploration that often takes us in the direction of religion and can meld easily with mythology—again, an exploration that can happen within the conventions of realism only through conversations, reveries, and soliloquies.
•They can explore proposed changes in social organization, by showing what they might be like for those living within them if we actually did them. Thus, the utopia and the dystopia.
•They can explore the realms of the imagination by taking us boldly where no man has gone before. Thus, the spaceship; the inner space of Fantastic Voyage; the cyberspace trips of William Gibson; and The Matrix—this last, by the way, an adventure-romance with strong overtones of Christian allegory and thus more closely related to The Pilgrim’s Progress than to Pride and Prejudice.
More than one commentator has mentioned that science fiction as a form is where theological narrative went after Paradise Lost, and this is undoubtedly true. Supernatural creatures with wings and burning bushes that speak are unlikely to be encountered in a novel about stockbrokers, unless the stockbrokers have been taking quite a few mind-altering substances, but they are not out of place on Planet X.
I myself have written two works of “science fiction” or, if you prefer, “speculative fiction”: The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. Although lumped together by commentators who have spotted those things they have in common—they are not “novels” in the Jane Austen sense, and both are set in the future—they are in fact dissimilar. The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic dystopia, which takes at least part of its inspiration from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—particularly the epilogue. In a BBC piece I did in June 2003 on the occasion of Orwell’s centenary birthday, I said:
Orwell has been accused of bitterness and pessimism—of leaving us with a vision of the future in which the individual has no chance, and where the brutal, totalitarian boot of the all-controlling Party will grind into the human face, for ever.
But this view of Orwell is contradicted by the last chapter in the book, an essay on Newspeak—the doublethink language concocted by the regime. By expurgating all words that might be troublesome—“bad” is no longer permitted, but becomes “double-plus-ungood”—and by making other words mean the opposite of what they used to mean—the place where people get tortured is the Ministry of Love, the building where the past is destroyed is the Ministry of Information—the rulers of Airstrip One wish to make it literally impossible for people to think straight.
Copyright © 2022 by Margaret Atwood. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.