Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)


with 12 comments

As long term readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of Margaret Atwood. She is a bit of a lightening rod for genretards (latest example here) because she has the temerity to have an outsider’s perspective on science fiction. At the same time, there are occasions when I can feel an insider’s frustration. Here is Sue Arnold in her brief review of the audio book edition of The Year Of The Flood:

No one does doom and gloom with such savage, satirical humour as Margaret Atwood. Who else could imagine a facility for condemned criminals called “painball” where offenders can choose between being spray-gunned to death or doing time in the painball arena – more of a forest, really. “You got enough food for two weeks plus the painball gun like a regular paint ball gun, but a hit in the eyes would blind you and if you got hit by the paint you’d start to corrode and then you’d be an easy target for the throat-slitters on the other team.”

Who else? Well, I can think many, many purveyors of such crude satire and it is the sort of thing that is often thrown in as background colour in SF stories. It seems a strange thing to single out for praise as well. I’ve recently started reading The Year Of The Flood and the punning neologisms and silly satire are by far the most irritating thing about the novel (as was true of Oryx And Crake). Different strokes for different folks but also different horizons.

Written by Martin

31 October 2009 at 15:36

Posted in criticism, sf

Tagged with ,

12 Responses

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  1. Interesting stuff. Hmm: I wonder what I think about that.

    Adam Roberts

    31 October 2009 at 20:23

  2. “You got enough food for two weeks plus the painball gun like a regular paint ball gun, but a hit in the eyes would blind you”

    So, just like a regular paintball gun, then.

    Nick H.

    31 October 2009 at 23:50

  3. I’ve just listened to Oryx and Crake on audio, while walking to work, and I found the cute brand names less intrusive spoken than written.

    For example the reader pronounced ‘CorpSeCorps’ as in French Corps Secours which I didn’t find annoying. HelthWyzer (or whatever it is) just sounds as if it’s written ‘HealthWiser’ which again, isn’t as annoying. Sue Arnold only hears the text, so she may ens up with a similarly more positive feel.

    ‘Chickie Knobs’ however remain irredeemable.


    1 November 2009 at 14:50

  4. I’m convinced Atwood could plagiarize The Running Man at this point and the literati would bow down to her “lyricism and wit.”

    “Her clever juxtaposition of chainsaw and motorcyclist, ‘chaincyclist’ to use her parlance, illustrates the plight between industrialized man and blablablablabla…”

    What I can’t figure out is if they’re all toeing the line because once a certain individual gets so popular you simply can’t say Bad Things about their work or if this is an example of our cultural arbiters being so cut-off from the utter blandness of bottom-of-the-barrel pop culture that they don’t see an utterly uninspired idea for what it is…

    I suppose once Atwood starts writing vampire fiction we’ll know, shan’t we?

    I think to call it satire is giving it too much credit. First Atwood is going to have to show me that she’s capable of coming up with a genuinely compelling SFnal idea before I’m going to believe she’s original enough to be purposefully choosing to create her ideas so transparently.

    Until that point comes, it appears to me she’s just following clunkily along in the footsteps of some of the most obvious tropes in the genre and that somehow, because of the banality with which she treats them, this all becomes incorporated into this delightful “critique of society” where the moral spectrum of her inventions is worn on its sleeve.

    Obviousness is has become literary now and the reason seems plain to me: ideas behind 1984 and other “genre masterpieces” were genuinely original and unmapped for their time but now they’ve taken on a patina from life imitating their art.

    Critics of our era assume that because these books are considered masterpieces and yet their inventions are not particularly boundary-smashing or mind-bending to their own modern consciousness, the formula must follow that in order for an SFnal idea to be literary in merit, it must be mundane in its simplicity, its apparentness reeking from its first appearance. The point, in other words, is not to speculate but rather to position oneself in so plain an idea that the extrapolations need not be subtle.

    More so than any other prejudices we may identify, this will remain the center of genre’s non-inclusion by these individuals.

    Or am I just being a hardass, Martin?

    Schrodinger's lolcat

    2 November 2009 at 06:02

  5. The obnoxious spelling is definitely part of the problem. I’ll admit I hadn’t read CorpSeCorps as a bilingual pun but this then comes into conflict with the visual pun and underlines that Atwood is more interested in the word play than whether this is a believeable name for a private military company.

    This is why I think it is satirical but these moments of satire are bizarre and unwelcome because Oryx And Crake and (I imagine) this novel aren’t actually satires. Elsewhere her critique of society is subtle, making these crude, almost farcical, moments like unpleasant lumps of gristle in an otherwise excellent meal.

    I’m not convinced that because original ideas like those of Orwell have become secondhand that critics inevitably assume that secondhand ideas must be original. There is definitely a element of “if I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me” at play but I think what is happening here is that some critics accustomed only to a certain type of realism are unable to read SF as anything other satire.

    I am actually quite intrigued by the idea of a Margaret Atwood vampire novel. Or, even better, a vampire steampunk young-adult romance


    2 November 2009 at 12:02

  6. I’ve not yet read Flood and was therefore unaware of the mention of “painball”. Now I have even more reasons to be dismissive of Atwood. I coined “painball” ages ago in an article in a painTball magazine as a way of describing players who deliberately upped the velocity of their guns for the sole purpose of inflicting pain upon opponents. This was at a time when all paintball games took place in the woods.
    I also speculated in another article in another painTball magazine (ages ago) that adding a caustic soda to the fill of a painTball and providing referees with the neutralizing agent would be a sure-fire way of insuring compliance with the rules.
    She disses SF and now she’s dissing paintball. I wonder if my other true love – the wife – is going to end up in her next non-SF Science Fiction spasm?

    steve davidson

    4 November 2009 at 11:17

  7. […] apparently everyone calls it the Smart Twat which is about as likely as the Government introducing Painball but without even the excuse of a lame […]

  8. Oryx And Crake and (I imagine) this novel aren’t actually satires

    Surely Oryx and Crake is a satire? Atwood prefaces the work with a quote from Gulliver’s Travels just to make sure you know what she’s doing.

    Every element of her future society is a recognizable feature of modern America that’s been greatly exaggerated: capitalism run rampant; out-of-control corporations; gated communities; private security; biological terrorism; plastic surgery; Internet pornography; juvenile delinquency; etc etc. Atwood’s clearly not interested in science-fictional world-building: she puts in these satirical exaggerations even when they aren’t remotely compatible with each other, for example it’s not credible that the world outside the corporate compounds should be an ungovernable violent hellhole and at the same time a functioning economy that provides the income of the corporations.

    So I think the terrible names are entirely deliberate: they are an (attempted) satire on idiotic corporate branding, while spelling out for the dozy reader some of Atwood’s satirical points. Obviously they are totally unconvincing if you try to imagine them as realistic projections of marketing. But then you could say the same about the anagrammatic method of uncovering treasonous plots, employed in the kingdom of Tribnia (by the natives called Langdon).

    If you insist on reading Oryx and Crake as a science-fictional exercise in world-building it falls completely flat: it’s at most a world-façade. You have to find its qualities elsewhere.

    Gareth Rees

    31 January 2010 at 23:13

  9. Gareth,

    for my money, The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, is much better satire (even as old as it is), and it remains classified as science fiction. There are any number of other SF novels that take satirical pokes at everything in this country, while engaging in decent, if not very good world building.

    I don’t think your take let’s her off the hook.

    steve davidson

    31 January 2010 at 23:34

  10. I had the same thought about The Space Merchants: it’s a similar take on corporatism and advertising that works as sf as well as satire. (On the other hand Atwood is much the better writer of character: there’s no character in the whole of Pohl’s output who’s as memorable as Oryx, who hardly gets twenty pages.)

    Really my intent is not to get Atwood off any kind of hook, just to dispute Martin’s claim that she’s not writing satire, and to suggest that it’s a bit fruitless criticising her lack of science-fictional world-building, when it’s clear that she’s not attempting any such thing. (The world-building in Gulliver’s Travels is pretty shoddy too, after all.)

    Gareth Rees

    31 January 2010 at 23:55

  11. You have to find its qualities elsewhere.

    Oh, I do. But not in the satire.

    I don’t think satire always overdetermines a novel as it does in Swift and Atwood is writing in a very different tradition to him. Certainly I would say that Oryx And Crake‘s intent is primary speculative and only secondarily satirical (and its speculation is more successful than its satire). However, its qualities mostly lie in its depiction of character. I think you are getting towards my view when you say that The Space Merchants works as SF and satire but not character-focussed literary fiction. This is because Pohl and Kornbluth are writing a satirical traditional SF novel whereas Atwood is writing a satirical literary science fiction as such she should be judged on all three aspects of this.

    It might be worth reproducing the prefacing quote from Gulliver’s Travels:

    I could perhaps like others have astonished you with strange improbable tales; but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style; because my principal design was to inform you, and to amuse you.

    Obviously there is a level of irony here and it does signal the satirical intent of some of the novel. More, however, I take it to address her distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction. As she said in an interview in New Scientist:

    A lot of science fiction is fantasy. It’s people flying around on dragons, other worlds of strange life forms. Some of them are quite well thought through, they know what the strange creatures eat, they know that life could be sustainable. Others are just having fun.

    Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Speculative fiction is when you have all the materials to actually do it. We’ve taken a path that is already visible to us. In 1984 and Brave New World, you could see all the elements that were farther down that particular path. I don’t like science fiction except for the science fiction of the 1930s, the bug-eyed monster genre in full bloom.


    1 February 2010 at 11:35

  12. ” I don’t like science fiction except for the science fiction of the 1930s, the bug-eyed monster genre in full bloom.” — Well, that explains why her own version of SciFi (oh, sorry, I mean “speculative fiction”) is so full of silly and obvious cliche. The “SciFi” aspect of her work is clunky, awkward, and without any sort of subtlety or true creativity (“spray gun”?, “virtual bullets”? “rakunks”?), just like the guy in the stupid bug-eyed monster suit in the 1930’s creature features. Her books mostly read like feminist manifestos set in a near future dystopia (of men’s creation, of course). All of the male characters are either brutally violent, psychotic or drugged up, deceptive womanizers who see the opposite sex as nothing more than objects for their own gratification. All of the women are either limp-rag victims of male exploitation or hardened bitches who’s lives revolve around thwarting the evil intentions of men. She clearly has daddy issues and believes that men are at the heart of all the problems of the world.

    Yet, for some reason, I continue to read her books….


    22 March 2019 at 20:06

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