09/06/2013 02:13 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

The Future's So Bright, I'm Afraid to Look: On Science/Speculative Fictions

The publication of a new novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood is always an exciting literary event. MaddAddam (2013) -- pronounced "Mad Adam," and creatively palindromic -- is the final installment of a futuristic trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and continued with The Year of the Flood (2009). Atwood is no stranger to novels set in the future and that incorporate elements usually associated with genre fiction: her early and perhaps still best-known novel, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), is set in a future America where women's rights have been almost entirely obliterated. Another of Atwood's novels to blend science fiction and pulp elements, The Blind Assassin (2000), won the prestigious Booker Prize; more recently, she has quietly been publishing a series of self-consciously pulpy, futuristic e-stories. Nevertheless, the jacket flap of MaddAddam conspicuously avoids any of these descriptions, instead calling the new novel a "thrilling conclusion to Margaret Atwood's speculative fiction trilogy . . ."

Why the unusual adjective? In this case, the substitution of "speculative" for the more conventional "science" is probably due to the author's own preferences. In her introduction to a recent book of essays and reviews on these subjects, Atwood claims that the two genres can and should be separated, at least in theory. "Science fiction," she says, descends from H.G. Wells' classic tale of alien invasion, The War of the Worlds (1898), and is about "things that could not possibly happen," whereas "speculative fiction" -- which takes its origins from Jules Verne's novels of long-distance air-ships and underwater travel, neither of which was a reality in his day -- is about plausible futures.

Of course, as Atwood would likely admit, these are hardly mutually exclusive categories: one's person's "unworkable" can be another person's "quite likely." Consider the loud disagreements about the recent science/ speculative fiction movie, Elysium, in which Matt Damon's character, stuck on a future earth with the miserable masses while the rich live in an orbiting space wheel above our trashed planet, eventually helps everyone receive the health care they'd been denied. Impossible, cried Republicans! Inevitable, cried Democrats!

But calling something "speculative fiction" rather than "science fiction" serves another purpose: it avoids giving a novel (or movie) a label frequently associated with genre fiction -- that is, with lower-quality narratives that more-or-less predictably obey a set of associated conventions. Genre fiction has long been popular as leisure reading: we seem to enjoy the repetitive nature of mysteries, romances, and other stylized narrative forms that usually meet our expectations, thereby giving us what we want. But perhaps for the same reasons, it has never been popular among critics and those of a more elevated cultural bent. One of the earliest modern genres to emerge, the Gothic novel was no sooner popularized by Ann Radcliffe than it was being parodied as little more than a set of ingredients: take an old castle, mix in a persecuted heroine and a sadistic aristocrat, add the appearance of a ghost or two, and blend until frothy. Jane Austen not only makes sure the least appealing characters in her Northanger Abbey (1818) are great fan of Gothic novels, but also structures the novel itself as a simultaneous homage to and parody of Radcliffe's bestsellers.

Of course, the fact that Austen can do this suggests that the line between genre fiction and literature has always been blurry. Indeed, some novels we now consider classics, such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1819) and George Orwell's 1984 (1948), contain many of the conventions we associate with genre fiction, albeit with creative twists. Moreover, they prove that SF -- a convenient way to designate "science" and "speculative" fictions together -- has a particularly long and distinguished history. Sir Thomas More's Utopia, published in Latin in 1516, is arguably the original modern fiction to imagine a future civilization or society. Derived from the Greek words for "good," "not," and "place," More's title designates not just the "good place" that has become its working definition, but also the "no-place" of a land that does not exist -- at least, not yet.

Another early work of SF, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), exploits this ambiguity and adds another layer of complexity: each of the worlds visited by his titular traveler turns out to be much less attractive than it initially appears. This is especially true in Book Four, in which ultra-rational Houyhnhms (horses) rule over base and lustful Yahoos (humans). All seems well -- until the reader learns that it's not unusual for Houyhnhms to use Yahoo-skins as sails for their ships. What had originally seemed a utopia now appears, at least to the Yahoos, to be a dystopia: a not-good not-place.

William Blake, the British Romantic poet, wrote that "What is now proved, was once only imagined." Horses still can't speak, of course, but Swift's implicit condemnation of humanity's mistreatment of animals anticipates modern animal-rights movements. Less positive forms of "what . . . was once only imagined" have perhaps been realized too: in response to revelations about the extent of government spying on American citizens, a recent web-based image features a picture of a security camera and the words "1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual." The debate over whether SF is literature or genre fiction is ultimately far less important than the fact that such novels and movies have long challenged us to rethink not only what is possible, but also what is desirable about our collective future -- with or without sunglasses.