Enter the term “speculative fiction” into Google and you’ll get a conglomeration of sources that define speculative fiction as a category that is composed of various genres, the most common of which are science fiction and fantasy.
These definitions are partial; they are an incomplete attempt at pinpointing what, exactly, the animal called speculative fiction is. Unfortunately, defining a genre by other genres does not accomplish much. A definition that doesn’t really define anything is an excuse for Othering it—What is speculative fiction? It’s something other-than-literary. You know, something that won’t ever win a Man Booker Prize.
Like speculative fiction as a whole , Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize) can similarly be defined by its various components.
The reader first experiences Oryx as a low form of fantasy . The main character, Snowman, first appears to be surrounded by mysticism. His skin is unusually pale, his history unknown, and he becomes a prophet for a tribe of quasi-human beings in an attempt to explain their world with a creationist perspective . Perhaps lacking the promise of dragons, Oryx and Crake offers glow-in-the-dark bunnies, snats (snake-mouse hybrid), rakunks (animals possessing both raccoon and skunk characteristics), and wolvogs (read: brutal wolfish killers disguised as cute puppies) in compensation.
The next component genre the reader experiences is dystopian. They discover that the world Snowman lives in was once a world that resembled our own. It is ruled by large sterile compounds that surrounding large pharmaceutical companies, like HelthWyzer and OrganInc. The underprivileged live as plebes outside the compounds, ridden by disease and poverty. CorpseSeCorps soldiers protect the clean, sheltered compound life by eliminating dissenters until one day their authority is subverted by a figure with a revolutionary spirit. Here Oryx and Crake is portrayed as a 21st century version of 1984, providing social and political commentary—an indictment against modern society.
It is also an alternate history, a genre which reworks what we know about the world by changing the cause and effect of events. Our modern over-medicated, over-commercialized society is shown in its worse light. Atwood gives the reader a scenario which she claims is the course of events if society is to continue existing as it does now.
And there’s also science fiction. Snowman’s father works on the pigoon project, a task of splicing genes in order to allow “pigoons”, or genetically modified pigs, to grow extra human organs for harvesting. The sciences are praised in Snowman’s world. Chemical engineering and medical experimentation has allowed people to live healthily and happily. Life revolves around the commercialization of drugs. Crake creates the BlyssPluss pill, promising to reverse aging. But the pill ends up spreading a worldwide epidemic that destroys society and generates a new humanoid species. His Crakers are better, genetically engineered humans: they are devoid of negative human characteristics such as violence, jealousy, hunger, crime, and rape; they eat leaves, die after a certain age, and are polyandrous.
One could argue that Atwood also brings in elements of horror. There is fleeting suspense, there is a double murder, and there is an air of mystery. I find Oryx and Crake’s queasy horror lies in descriptions of deformed pigs with human brains gathering in gangs to hunt the remaining humans, and in chicken nuggets being mechanically grown through tubes that pump out meat-like masses while attached to a seemingly alive giant chicken head. Beyond raising ethical, existential, and experiential questions, Atwood grapples with the implications of defining fiction through genre.
By now, most critics have stopped trying to explain the novel by ripping it apart into its constituent parts. The author herself is strict with describing it as “speculative fiction”. Here arises another dimension to the problem of definition. Does Oryx and Crake receive the title of speculative fiction simply because it contains too many genres, because of its literariness, or because speculative fiction contains a variety of genres? There is a difference.
Is speculative fiction inherently a multiplicity of literary elements, while science fiction or fantasy have a set of clearly defined characteristics? In that case, speculative fiction is not an umbrella, but a genre all in itself. It is a social commentary, and an alternate world, and a foray into scientific experimentation. However, it would be unsound literary analysis to apply the structure of one novel to the definition of a whole genre. Rather, Oryx and Crake allows the reader to ask questions about the nature of speculative fiction. Does its purpose lie in refracting society back to us with an impetus for change, or is it to challenge the mind through a wild display of imagination and possibilities? Or is it a combination of both?
After all, one of the most important contributions speculative fiction could make would be to challenge the notion that “good” literature is exclusively synonymous with—the similarly undefined—literary fiction. By questioning the formations of genre, speculative fiction provides a literary space in which the question of ‘What is good literature?’ can be answered by saying that it is science fiction, and fantasy, and dystopian, and alternate history, and anything else equally “weird”.
– Contributed by Anna Bendiy