04 February 2004

Margaret Atwood on Science and Fiction

First, a confession: The only Margaret Atwood novel I have ever finished is Surfacing, which I actually read twice and hold in fairly high regard. I've tried many of her others, and generally abandoned them about half-way through. I get to the middle and think: "You know, I really don't care if I ever finish this book. It isn't bad, it's just that ... I really don't care." I might say I suffer from Atwapathy.

But I have liked some of her poetry very much, and also some of her nonfiction, and so I was interested to find an excerpt from a recent lecture in which she examines her two SF novels, The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. Atwood has, in the past, said she doesn't write science fiction, but anyone who's ever read any science fiction knows that she's lying, or deluded, or maybe just using a very strict definition of science fiction. In any case, she refers to William Gibson in this lecture, and has some interesting things to say about how science and fiction fit together:
Science is about knowledge. Fiction, on the other hand, is about feeling. Science as such is not a person, and does not have a system of morality built into it, any more than a toaster does. It is only a tool -- a tool for actualizing what we desire and defending against what we fear -- and like any other tool, it can be used for good or ill. You can build a house with a hammer, and you can use the same hammer to murder your neighbour. Human tool-makers always make tools that will help us get what we want, and what we want has not changed for thousands of years, because, as far as we can tell, human nature hasn't changed either.

How do we know? We know if we consult the myths and stories. They tell us how and what we feel, and how and what we feel determines what we want.