Margaret Atwood wants you to know that she doesn’t write science fiction.

No, she won’t give back her Arthur C. Clarke Award, for her 1985 novel
The
Handmaid’s Tale. But she does want to clarify matter. She will admit to writing
speculative fiction, but not crass sci-fi. What’s the difference?  "Science fiction
has monsters and spaceships,” Atwood explains; “speculative fiction could
really happen." Frankly, I am a bit confused by this posture. Am I to conclude
that spaceships can’t really happen?  Hello Ms. Atwood, have you heard
about the Space Shuttle?  How about Apollo 11?

But even if I grant Atwood her spurious distinction,

I am still left puzzled. Because right in the midst of
her ambitious 2000 novel, The Blind Assassin,
Atwood is caught red-handed, describing monsters
and spaceships. For good measure, she adds the
scandalous and bloody rites of the God of the Three
Suns, and the Goddess of the Five Moons on the
planet Zycron—where blind child assassins kill
tongue-less virgin sacrificial victims and  “voracious
undead female inhabitants” haunt the crumbling tombs.

Can it really be true? Did Margaret Atwood write

a zombie novel?

Well, not exactly. Atwood’s novel adheres to strict

realism. And there’s a novel within the novel…but it also sticks to plausible
events that “could really happen” (in Atwood’s words). But now things get
trickier, because Atwood has also included sections of a novel inside the
novel within the novel…and it is a wild and crazy science fiction story, straight
from the dark Satanic pulp fiction mills of the Golden Age of sci-fi.


Related Essays
Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale


So Atwood gets to have it both ways. She upholds the unyielding

requirements of verisimilitude, but also finds a way to indulge her inner A.E.
van Vogt. And, in all fairness to Atwood, she is very inventive in concocting her
phantasmagorical space opera. Pretty slick, no? But even as she shares her
over-the-top science fiction story, she uses her framing technique to make
clear how much she despises it.  At one juncture, she depicts her pulp writer
mulling over his next story:

He needs to write something that will sell. It's back to the never-fail dead

women, slavering for blood. This time he'll give them purple hair, set them in
motion beneath the poisonous orchid beams of the twelve moons of Arn. The
best thing is to picture the cover illustration the boys will likely come up with,
and then go on from there….Still, it's a living, if he can keep up the speed, and
beggars can hardly be choosers.

This intricate dance between levels of meaning and types of realism pervades

every facet of The Blind Assassin. The narrative operates at four or more
levels, with at least as many intended audiences. Yet each level is suspect,
every author is compromised, no story achieves a pure level of disinterested
objectivity. Only after arriving at the final page, can you start to determine how
much of our story is truth-telling, and what portion can be classified as
convenient fiction, self-justification, or pure fantasy.

In short, few books do a better job of exemplifying the postmodernist theme of

the ‘death of the author’.  Hence, it is all too fitting that The Blind Assassin
even begins with the death of an author—in this instance, the troubled heroine
Laura Chase, age 25, who drives off a bridge, leaving behind no note, few
possessions, and the manuscript to a novel, fittingly called 'The Blind
Assassin'. She won’t  be the only author to die suddenly in the course of this
book. In fact, we have another ‘death of the author’ at the very end of the novel.

Laura Chase and her sister Iris have to deal with the fallout from the collapse

of their family’s manufacturing businesses in Port Ticonderoga, a fictional
community in Ontario, Canada.  Iris makes a last ditch effort to save Chase
Industries by marrying her father’s business rival, Richard Griffen. But he never
injects the promised capital to keep the factories running, and her marriage
turns into a pointless sacrifice (much like that of those tongue-less captive
virgins on the planet Zycron). But her sister Laura is even better suited for the
role of sacrificial victim, and during the course of her short life she finds a host
of ways to humble herself and make reparations. Yet her readiness to play the
role of the willing pawn makes her prey to the worst kind of exploitation.   

The sisters both come under the sway of a young man named Alex Thomas, a

labor agitator with communist sympathies—and a knack for writing science
fiction stories!—who is wanted by the authorities. Thomas may have been
involved in vandalism, arson, and perhaps even murder related to a strike at
Chase Industries. Laura and Iris help Thomas elude arrest, even though he
may have helped destroy their father’s business. Their secret devotion to
Thomas evolves into a dark romantic passion, in which the eroticism is
heightened by the sister’s realization that they may be accessories to criminal
activity or even betrayal of their closest blood ties.

At first glance, Atwood has built her ambitious novel on the most clichéd plot

of all—the romantic triangle. But we eventually learn that more than three sides
exist to this relationship, which may even turn into a romantic square or
pentagon. And the personal entanglements of the frame story are further
complicated by the mirroring love affairs of the story within the story, and even
the story inside the story within a story. If I sketched out all the ramifications
here, our love triangle might look more like a three-dimensional love
polyhedron.

By the time Margaret Atwood published this book, in 2000, these postmodern

antics were hardly new. But few have pushed them further, or more
ambitiously. The Blind Assassin a virtuoso effort, both in its storytelling, and
by what it tells us about the process of storytelling.  And its span is so wide,
that every kind of narrative gets swallowed up and re-digested here, from the
news story to the scrawled bits of graffiti on the restroom wall, from romance
to business and beyond. And, yes, even spaceships and monsters, God bless
them!


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten
books. His most recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).


Publication date of this article:  May 24, 2016
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.
Tales

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



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