In her post-apocalyptic trilogy Margaret Atwood has seen into the futureby Ruth Franklin / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
“I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L,’ and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character,” the literary critic Sven Birkerts declared 10 years ago in the New York Times. The book under attack was Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, the first installment of what has now become a trilogy set in a dystopian America some decades in the future, depicting—graphically, satirically, brilliantly—an environmental disaster. Birkerts declared that the novel, like all science fiction—also on that shelf are Huxley’s Brave New World, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—“sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favour of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility.” No matter how richly imagined such literary worlds may be, they are always only a “para-literary experience,” because of the alleged lack of psychological complexity.
But even established works of capital-L Literature (assuming that the above three do not qualify) do not always have psychology as their primary motivator: think of Don DeLillo’s Underworld or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, both of which treat the individual as a pinpoint in a broadly sweeping view of society. Nor do great novels always proceed from character rather than premise, as Birkerts would have it. Does Kafka’s Metamorphosis meet that standard? What about Crime and Punishment? A more inclusive definition of literature, I would say, is that it exists within a fully imagined, perfectly coherent fictional universe. Flaubert’s French countryside, Jane Austen’s Bath, Philip Roth’s Newark—all these may be based in an actual place, but they are hardly identical to it. We freely call Madame Bovary or Pride and Prejudice or American Pastoral “realistic” without any personal knowledge of the circumstances in which they are set. What we believe we recognise in such works is actually testimony to the authors’ imaginative creation of a plausible world.
And this is also the case for Atwood’s trilogy, of which MaddAddam is now the final installment. Atwood prefers to call these works “speculative fiction” to avoid associations with the B-movie images “science fiction” tends to evoke: “people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body.” Science fiction, she has said, deals with “things that could not possibly happen,” whereas her works explore things that are possible but have not yet happened—also the…