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Handmaid's Tale in Context

Handmaid's Tale in Context

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Published by: Stuart Henderson on Jul 16, 2010
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The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake "In Context"Author(s): Margaret AtwoodSource:
PMLA,
Vol. 119, No. 3, Special Topic: Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The NextMillennium (May, 2004), pp. 513-517Published by: Modern Language AssociationStable URL:
Accessed: 15/07/2010 01:27
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i19-3J
correspondentsabroad
The Handmaids TaleandOryxand CrakeinContext
I'MNOTASCIENCEFICTIONEXPERT ORAM IANACADEMIC,ALTHOUGHIUSED TO BEONE,SORTOF. ALTHOUGH I'MA
writer,I'mnotprimarilyawriter of science fiction.InthisgenreI'madilettante andadabbler,anamateur?whichlastword,rightlytrans
lated,means"lover."Igotinto hotwaterrecentlyon aradiotalkshowinBritain: the radiopersonsaidshe'djustbeentoasci-ficonferencethere,andsomepeoplewerereally,reallymadatme.Why?saidI,mystified.Forbeingmeantosciencefiction,said she.InwhatwayhadIbeenmean?Iasked. Forsayingyoudidn't writeit,shereplied.AndIhavinghadthenervetowinthe Arthur C. Clarke Award forScience Fiction.IsaidIlikedtomakeadistinction betweenscience fictionproper?forme,this labeldenotes books withthingsinthemwecan'tyetdoor
begintodo,talking beingswe can nevermeet,andplaceswecan'tgo?
andspeculativefiction,whichemploysthemeansalreadymoreorlesstohand,andtakesplaceonPlanetEarth.IsaidImadethisdistinction,notoutofmeanness,butoutofawishtoavoid falseadvertising:Ididn'twanttoraisepeople'shopes.Ididnotwishtopromise?forinstance?thetalking squidof SaturnifIcouldn'tdeliverthem. Butsomepeopleusebothtermsinterchangeably,and
someemployoneofthemas anumbrellaterm,underwhichsubgenresmaycluster.Speculativefictionmaybeusedasthetree,for which sciencefiction,sciencefictionfantasy,andfantasyarethebranches.The
beast hasatleast nineheads,and theabilityto eatallother fictionalformsinsight,andtoturnthem into itsownsubstance.(Inthiswayit'slikeeveryother formofliterature:genresmaylook hardand fast fromadistance,butupcloseit'snailing jellytoawall.)Long ago?intothe timemachinewego,andwegetoffin thecellarofoneof thehouses Igrewupin.Thatcellar hadalot ofbooksinit,andamongthemwerethecollected worksofH.G.Wells,awriterwho issurelythegranddaddyofusall,and whowasstillmuch invoguewhenmyfatherwasayoungman.Myfatherwashimselfascientist,andalsoa
keenappreciatoroffar-fetchedyarns;furthermore,hewas neverknown
MARGARETATWOOD
MargaretAtwoodistheauthor ofmorethanthirty-fivebooks offiction,poetry,andcriticalessays.Hermostrecentnovel,Oryxand Crake(McClelland,2003),wasshort-listedfor the ManBookerPrize.Thisessayoriginatedasthekeynoteaddressatthe fifthAcademicConferenceonCanadianScienceFictionandFantasy,heldinAugust2003inToronto.?2004BYO.W. TOADLTD.5I3
 
514The Handmaid'sTale andOryxandCrakeinContextPMLA
eo0uj2E?0Q.s.&.0wtodiscardabook.SointhecellarIread?whenIwassupposedtobedoingmyhomework?notonlyalltheWellsstories but alsomanyanotherweirdtale:Gulliver'sTravels,oneofthe othergranddaddiesofusall,andRiderHaggard,andRayBradbury,andFrankenstein,andDracula,andDr.Jekylland Mr.Hyde,and ArthurConanDoyle'sThe LostWorld,andR.U.R. and TheWar with theNewts,andPenguinIsland,andGeorgeOrwell ofcourse,and BraveNewWorld,and JohnWyndham,andmore,astheyareinthehabit ofsayingthesedayswhentryingtosellyousomething.Thatwasin theearlyfifties.Inthe latefifties?bywhich timeIwasincollege?Iusedtoplay hooky by goingtoB movie doublebills,and itwasthus that Isawatthe time of theirfirst releaseanumber of the films thatnowappearinvideoguideswith littleturkeysbesidethem. TheCreepingEye,forinstance,whichwasquitescaryuntil theeyeitselfmade itsappearance,wavingtentacles but withtractortreadsclearlyvisiblebeneathit;orLove Slaves
oftheAmazon?thelove slavesweremale,and
theAmazonianswerefemale,cladinfetchingpotatosacksdyedgreenandbentondepriving
thepoorlove slaves ofeveryounceof vital bodilyfluidtheycontained.Or?oneofmyfa
vorites?The Head That Wouldn'tDie,whichhadapinheadedmonsterwithill-fitting pyjamas.One oddthingabout movie mad scientists
is thattheycan'tever seemtomeasuretheirmonstersforproperclothingsizes.Ialsosaw
. . .but let'sjustsayIdevelopedacertain feel
forthegenre.
Then,in theearlytomiddlesixties,I foundmyselfingraduateschool,studying Englishliterature atHarvard.Myfieldwasthe Victorian
period,andasthe timecameformetochoosea
thesistopic,Ifoundmyselfdrawn towardadark,weedylittlecorner,atthat timenotmuchexplored.I inventedagenre?"theEnglishmetaphysicalromance"?whichI tooktomeanthose
prosenarrativesof theperiodthatwerenotnov
elsin theJaneAustensenseand that contained
supernaturalorquasi-supernaturalbeings,espe
ciallygoddesslikeones.ThelinewentfromGeorgeMacdonaldthroughRiderHaggardandall thewaytoC.S.LewisandJ. R. R.Tolkien.Thesebookswerenotsciencefictionassuch,sincetheyhadscantinterestinscience.Butnarrativegenresof allkindsareenclosedbypermeablemembranes and tendtocombine andrecombine,like AlCapp'scombination antigravityrayand marshmallowtoaster;soIfoundmyselfreadingeverythingIcouldgethold ofthatmighthavesomebearingonmytopic.Thisishow Icame acrossACrystalAge,byW. H.Hudson,and M.P. Shiel's ThePurpleCloud,andHerbert Read'speculiarThe Green Child.Ievenwenton asearchthroughAmericansci-fi andfantasyofthefirsthalf of the twentiethcenturytoseeifthephenomenaIwasobservingcould be found theretoo,or werepeculiarlyEnglish.Someone hassuggestedthatthesortofbook that interestedmewasaresult ofAnglicanism:thenarrativemotifsand theritual formsremain,but the RealPresence?thebodyandblood ofChrist,manifestattheMassthrough
transubstantiation?hasgoneelsewhere,leaving
uswithstand-ins.CertainlyAmerica didnothavewhatIwaslookingfor,not atthattime;
nonethelessIreadmy waythroughall the
Conan the Barbarianbooks,whichmightbe
seen as akind ofglossonHenryJames.Anyonewhospendsmuchtimecontem
platingthiskind ofliteraturewill realizeprettysoonthat such books donotexist within theworldofthe novelproper.By"the novelproper,"Imeantheprose-fictionform thattracesitslineagefrom Moll FlandersthroughJosephAddison's sketchesthroughFannyBurneythroughJaneAustenthroughCharlesDickensthroughGeorgeEliotthroughThomasHardythrough George Gissing?justtomentionsomeEnglishpractitioners?andonintoourtimes.ThesettingisMiddleEarth,andthe middleof Middle Earth isthemiddleclass,andthehero andheroineareusuallythe desirable

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