Margaret Atwood is a name that sparks all kinds of reactions from science fiction fans. In 1987 A Handmaid’s Tale won her the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke Award for best novel. As David Langford observed, she has spent the rest of her career trying to live it down.
Atwood is one of the foundational pillars of contemporary Canadian literature and so many who love science fiction have been eager to claim her as one of our own. Her recent novels, Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood, are unambiguously science fictional. Or so you would think, given the dystopian future setting, the scientist protagonists, and the biological apocalypse. They’re still shelved in “Literature” though, a slight genre fans are used to when major literary powers stop by for tea. More aggravatingly, Atwood herself has spent far too much time insisting that in no way are these tales of genetically engineered end days to be interpreted as SF. Science fiction, she says, is about “talking squids in space,” with the implication being that her work instead trades in serious social issues and literary themes. This has led to a schism among fans, with some claiming Atwood as a science fiction writer whether she likes it or not, and the others defensively disowning her recent novels (and even A Handmaid’s Tale) as amateurish flailings in a genre she doesn’t understand.
All this, to my eye, ignores the single biggest contribution Margaret Atwood has made to science fiction. It’s not any of the three novels mentioned above, nor am I talking about the incredible and subversively science-fictional work The Blind Assassin, but rather her body of literary criticism, specifically the 1972 manifesto Survival. Atwood is an accomplished and noted literary critic and is, with Northrop Frye, the co-founder of modern Canadian literary criticism. Atwood’s identification of the underlying victimhood, isolation, fear, and basic struggle for survival in Canadian literature provided a new and powerful tool for understanding what distinguishes CanLit from both American and British literature.
The second chapter of Survival is entitled “Nature the Monster” and serves as an excellent explanation-by-example. In Old World literature, the prevailing view of nature and wilderness was and remains one of deification. The wilderness is a magical place, and nature is a mother and teacher to man. Though the wild places may harbour monsters, they are holy monsters (except when they are safari prizes). And when conflict arises, it is the wild that is good and the civilized that is evil.
In American literature, much of this first mode remains, but a second lens also emerges: Nature the Wild Stallion. From this perspective, the wilderness is a vital and dangerous place, but one that can be tamed. It is still a place where old magicks dwell, but more importantly, it is a frontier. Nature becomes an adversary to be overcome and eventually subjugated.
Canada tolerates neither of these conceits. In Canada, the wild is slow, certain death. Nature is an unstoppable destructive force and there is no overcoming it. Canada has not been conquered by man, we have simply built fragile fortresses in which we huddle, praying against the day the dark and the cold erode them and take us.
At that period, my love for Canada was a feeling very nearly allied to that which the condemned criminal feels for his cell — his only hope of escape being through the portals of the grave.
— Susanna Moodie, Roughing It in the Bush
In Canadian literature, these themes play out over and again in varied guises. In Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room, Jack is a five-year-old boy who has spent his entire life within the confines of the 11’x11′ garden shed in which his mother lives as a kidnapped sex slave. The novel has received renewed attention in the US because of parallels with the recent Amanda Berry story in the news. Many American readers will fail to note, however, the fundamental analogy between Jack’s unwillingness to enter the outside world, even when the opportunity presents itself, and the psychological phenomenon that, for Canadians, shrinks the hospitable world to the size of a house when winter falls.
Room is, disturbingly, not science fiction. All the same, the science fiction fan can’t help but see similarities between Susanna Moodie’s homestead, the room that is Jack’s universe, and the deep-sea habitats in Peter Watts’s Rifters trilogy, where, despite technological advancements that allow humans to survive this most hostile of environments, it turns out that only those with severe psychological trauma can endure the pressure and isolation of the ocean floor. But, though the things that make Canadian literary fiction Canadian are rarely seen in writings from other nations, and though Watts’s novels are quintessentially “Canadian science fiction,” we do not need to turn to Canadian authors to see these themes play out in SF.
How different are Watts’s deep-sea stations from the maddeningly remote deep-space outposts so common is science fiction? For that matter, consider early golden age classics like Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” in which the isolation of deep space is so harrowing that colonists travel in hibernation on ships piloted by those who have had their emotions surgically removed in order to survive the flight. We understand that space is deadly, that the hull of a starship or the mask of a spacesuit is an improbably thin barricade against the infinite inhospitableness of the universe. The themes and stories that this reality brings forth — stories like Moon and Solaris and There is a Tide — are natural extensions of those that Canadian writers have been exploring for centuries in response to the frozen North.
There are no “Here be Monsters” inscribed on the map of Canada. Monsters would be superfluous. The monsters of the Canadian Wilderness — the wolf, the bear, the moose (and don’t dare tell me a moose is not a monster unless you have come face-to-face with one in the wild) — are seen instead as fellow victims. Atwood points out that the realistic animal narrative, as originated by Ernest Seton and Sir Charles Richards, with Farley Mowat as a notable continuation, is a fundamentally Canadian form. In these stories, animals are not humans in drag as they are in Peter Rabbit or The Jungle Book, nor are they symbolic manifestations as they are in Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea. Instead, they are fellow ill-starred travellers, destined to die meaningless deaths at the hands of an uncaring universe. As readers, our involvement with these animal protagonists serves primarily to teach us that, no matter how dramatically we shift our perspective, the cruelty and hostility of the world remains constant.
In science fiction, this form has been reinvented with short stories told from the perspective of the radically alien, and inevitably doomed, being. Examples can be found as early as 1939 with A.E. Van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer,” and, as I can attest through my own experiences reading submissions to AE, this type of story is no less prevalent today. Generally, the alien protagonist in these stories meets its end at the hands of humans, often humans who never realize that their victim is intelligent, or even alive. On the surface these may seem like ecological morality plays about the unintentional consequences of untethered industrialism, but one need not dig very deep to realize that the roles in these stories are freely interchangeable. The death of an individual, or an entire race, can be inconsequential, accidental, and wholly without meaning: an outlook Atwood considers definitively Canadian, writing an entire chapter entitled “The Casual Incident of Death.”
Similarly, Atwood considers the explorer as a uniquely Canadian sort of hero. Unlike the traditional hero, the explorer is antisocial, selfish, and ultimately fated to an empty death. Even when explorers seem altruistic, their motives are immediately suspect. After all, if they loved human society so dearly, surely they could find a way to benefit it that didn’t consist of seeking to get as far from it as possible.
Of course, in science fiction, the explorer is everywhere. And he is every bit as maladjusted as Atwood presumes. Consider Frederick Pohl’s Gateway, which sees society’s castoffs climbing into alien vessels that no one understands, spinning the navigation dials at random and turning the ignition. The men and women in Gateway are not heroes in the traditional sense. They don’t do what they do out of passion or benevolence. They do it because they have fallen through the cracks and are gambling on a payday, and, more importantly, because they are a little bit suicidal. Trapped in months- or years-long hyperspace journeys, we see them go mad from isolation or reveal that they were mad from the beginning. We see them draw straws to determine who will eat whom when the food runs out and we see them survive the most tortuous voyage only to die to some trivial mishap at their destination.
This is Canada. And so, when we talk of “Canadian science fiction,” I wish that we could spend less time talking about whether or not Oryx and Crake is derivative and more time talking about the parallels between Beautiful Losers and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The relevant dynamic is not that Canadian literary giants are coming to science fiction. It is that the rest of the world is coming to the Canadian tradition through science fiction.
D.F. McCourt is the editor of AE.