Monday, May 04, 2009

No Really, Extrapolated Bioscience Can Be the Basis of Science Fiction

Jimmy's father worked for OrganInc Farms. He was a genographer, one of the best in the field. He'd done some of the key studies on mapping the proteonome when he was still a post-grad, and then he'd helped engineer the Methuselah Mouse as part of Operation Immortality. After that, at OrganInc Farms, he'd been one of the foremost architects of the pigoon project, along with a team of transplant experts and the microbiologists who were splicing against infections. Pigoon was only a nickname: the official name was sus multiorganifer. But pigoon was what everyone said.
[... snip ...]
The goal of the pigoon project was to grown an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host - organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which there were more strains every year. A rapid-maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were perfecting a pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time.

~ Oryx and Crake
, Margaret Atwood (2003)
Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is set in a fictional future where advanced genetic engineering and other biotechnology is in widely used. Atwood has talked about her longstanding interest in biology, which is based in part on conversations with the scientists in her family:
Several of my close relatives are scientists, and the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice, or, when that makes the non-scientists too queasy, the nature of the Universe. My recreational reading — books I read for fun, magazines I read in airplanes — is likely to be pop science of the Stephen Jay Gould or Scientific American type, partly so I'll be able to keep up with the family dialogue and maybe throw a curve or two. (‘Supercavitation?’) So I'd been clipping small items from the back pages of newspapers for years, and noting with alarm that trends derided ten years ago as paranoid fantasies had become possibilities, then actualities. The rules of biology are as inexorable as those of physics: run out of food and water and you die. No animal can exhaust its resource base and hope to survive. Human civilizations are subject to the same law.
The general interest in science, the casual reading of science magazines, the following of scientific trends - all are pretty typical behaviors for science fiction writers. That's why I find it disappointing that Atwood claims that what she has written totally isn't science fiction.

Here is what she wrote at the time Oryx and Crake was published:
Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians. As with The Handmaid's Tale, it invents nothing we haven't already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is simply, What if we continue down the road we're already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who's got the will to stop us?
After acknowledging that it was science fiction in a 2005 article, she has once again backed away from the term in an interview published several weeks ago in the New York Times:
Her nightmarish, futuristic scenarios have caused some of her books to be tagged as science fiction, though she thinks that genre doesn’t quite fit — “since there aren’t aliens and spaceships and the other usual things,” she said.
It's not as if Atwood isn't familiar with the genre, or willing to acknowledge that some SF works are "brilliant", it's that she wants to draw a line between science fiction, which is "gizmo-riddled and theory-based space travel, time travel, or cybertravel to other worlds, with aliens frequent" and speculative fiction, which is about "human society and its possible future forms, which are either much better than what we have now, or much worse". The problem is that her definition excludes many award-winning works that are considered by most to be science fiction, including Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain (to name two stories that are bioscience based), as well as the entire ribofunk subgenre.

Science fiction readers consider novels like hers that look at the future of humanity to be part of the genre, so I think she's pretty much stuck with the label. I just wish she could embrace the genre that she seems so reluctant to be a part of.

(If you are interested in a longer discussion of "science fiction" as a genre category, there is a long thread on the topic at Making Light.)

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  1. Ahhh ... "sf = speculative fiction" ... takes me back to the wars of my youth, when we really cared about what this stuff we enjoy reading was called. I blame this latest round squarely on the SciFi channel, and cannot wait until the name change to Syphilis (or whatever) is a done deal. After all, the literature I love has nothing to do with wrestling, scare tactics, ghost hunters, etc.

  2. Atwood's protestations aside, her two speculative novels are akin to much of Octavia Butler's work, to Sheri Tepper's post-apocalypse novels and to a lot of cyberpunk.

    I think that drawing more and finer distinctions just serves to ghettoize the genre and rob it of the prestige that it could gain from distinguished practitioners who venture into SF (Lessing, Atwood, Lopez, Mukherjee, to name just those that came into my head).

  3. I actually kind of like the term "speculative fiction" - but not as a subset of science fiction as Atwood would have it, but as an umbrella term that would include both "traditional" science fiction and works that are science fictionish, like alternative history.

    I also think that finer distinctions can help people find novels they might enjoy. But being part of a subgenre - be it steam punk or mundane or space opera - doesn't make a work any less science fiction.

  4. Whenever Extremely Serious Authors pull that "OMG! I am far TOO SERIOUS to be scifi!" stunt I call upon of Ursula Le Guin's amazing short essay On Serious Literature.

  5. Miriam: That essay is awesome. I love Le Guin.


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