Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Beyond Persuasion: Margaret Atwood's Speculative Politics

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Beyond Persuasion: Margaret Atwood's Speculative Politics

Article excerpt

With the exception of The Penelopiad (2005) and Stone Mattress (2014), Margaret Atwood's major work of the last thirteen years has consisted entirely of speculative fiction. Why? One way to understand her commitment to the genre is to see that she is redefining and expanding its possibilities. Beginning with a 2008 New Scientist interview and extending into her 2011 essay collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, she has consistently campaigned for greater attention to speculative fiction's "realism." In her contrarian account of the genre, speculative fiction is firmly grounded in present realities and extrapolates into the near-future using only the logic of plausibility. In Other Worlds, a text in which Atwood reflects on genre, distinguishes between speculative and science fictions by aligning speculative fiction with realism and science fiction with romance and fantasy. This distinction has understandably elicited ire from those in the science fiction community who maintain that science fiction is itself empirically rigorous and plausible. Putting aside arguments over genre boundaries, Atwood's commitment to speculative fiction (over science fiction) reveals how she conceives of her work over the last twelve years. What she defends as most crucial about speculative fiction is its closeness to "real" speculation--that is, the economic and political speculation that we understand as nonfictional, speculation that produces legitimate and actionable information about possible futures for the stock market and national security agencies, among many other institutions.

In this essay, I argue that Atwood's speculative fiction, specifically Oryx and Crake (2003) and the last chapter of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008), can be seen to echo political and economic speculative narratives that were being produced around the same time. In particular, I compare Oryx and Crake and Payback to scenario plans published by the influential environmental agency the Global Scenario Group (GSG), the CIA and National Intelligence Council (NIC), and Shell Oil, in order to show the remarkable similarities in form and content between these narratives. These scenario plans, along with other political and economic speculations, are categorized as scientific reports. While each scenario report includes a disclaimer in its preface that states that scenarios should not be construed as knowledge in the strictest sense (much like corporations, whose "forward-looking statement" disclaimers serve to limit liability in press releases), these forecasters nevertheless expect their scenarios to be treated as if they contained what political theorist Louise Amoore calls "speculative knowledge"--a knowledge of possibilities (9). This expectation is implicitly signaled when forecasters cite and celebrate institutions' and organizations' use of their narratives to shape policy and other important decisions, a routine occurrence. (1) Since I argue that for these narrative forecasters their predictions are conjecture in name only, I will use the term "knowledge" when describing what scenario plans offer readers and decision-makers. Pragmatically, scenario plans are treated as if they offer knowledge about a future that has simply not yet come to pass.

Oryx and Crake and Payback should be read as appropriations of modern forecasting narratives that also strive to produce legitimate--that is, authoritative and even scientific--knowledge about the future. In addition, Atwood's use of the tropes of political and economic forecasting serves as a way to "occupy" this particular narrative mode. Political and corporate agents who use scenario plans imagine that these speculative narratives work to actually produce, and not just describe, the future. Adopting this narrative mode for her own political purposes, Atwood embraces the idea that speculative narratives are performative but imagines that she can use them to produce a different kind of future. …

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