Margaret Atwood versus Isaac Asimov

OR Debating the Future

When I first heard the news that renowned Canadian short story writer Alice Munroe had won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature I felt both a sense of relief and bewilderment. While I am not too familiar with the style and form of Munroe’s writing, I was relieved in the sense that the short form of story-telling was not yet a spent force. Indeed over the last few years it has been nothing short of a revolution in a publishing environment which has been constrained due to financial imperatives. With the questionable environment of self-publishing and a glut of social media platforms on which the emerging writer can practice his or her craft, the short story has regained its prominence which last saw glory days during the first half of the twentieth century.

Magazines and fan-zones promoting a whole batch of genres was the order of the day for young writers wishing to break into a tough working environment and make their voice heard. One such genre which was particularly popular was the genre of science fiction. One of the pioneers of this netherworld was Russian-born scientist, Isaac Asimov. He modestly places himself on the pedestal of the so-called big three of science fiction writing in his small book of essays, Asimov on Science Fiction, published by Granada back in 1983. Included in the Big Three of science fiction writing are Asimov, Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Not included in this élite group were two of the most underrated writers of the early to middle twentieth century, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell.

isaac asimov

At the tender age of barely ten, Canadian literary luminary, Margaret Atwood, had read all of the above authors surreptitiously and at a prodigious pace, laying the foundation stones for her own quirky style of literary writing which extends beyond the range of science fiction. Atwood’s contribution to literature extends beyond the short story form, from thoughtful and wide-ranging essays to both the historical and (what she has termed) ustopian novel form (referring, of course to both the dystopian novel (for which Orwell is famed) and the generally positive world of the future through the eyes of scientists such as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke). It seems to me that now that fellow Canadian Munroe has clinched the Nobel prize it may be some years before that honour goes to Atwood. One hopes that time does not catch up with the seventy-odd year old Canadian writer who is very much part of the modern social media generation. What if?

When the Nobel Prize had been announced last year I had just clutched Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, SF and the Human Imagination, published by Virago just over two years ago. In a wonderfully refreshing collection of essays, Atwood debates the very nature and subject matter of science fiction writing, turning the genre on its head as she has already done through her Maddaddam trilogy series. During her informed conversation with her readers she accentuates her preference for what is now known as speculative fiction (as opposed to science fiction). One can almost hear the late Dr Asimov howling in his grave.

margaret atwood

While Asimov is highly critical of George Orwell’s imprecise and uneducated guesses about what the future may hold in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), Atwood critiques Orwell’s novelistic predictions on all its merits. Asimov voices his distaste for Orwell’s ignorant predictions for the future from the point of view of both the scientist and Russian-born immigrant, while Atwood applies her literary thoughts to Orwell’s controversial work from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, nearly thirty years after 1984. Orwell’s book, of course, was published just after the end of the Second World War and bases his antagonistic Big Brother on the late Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin.

Today, long after the demise of the Soviet Union, the definition of Big Brother is a lot more uncertain, bearing in mind that Asimov critiqued Orwell’s book a few years before the significant date of 1984. Atwood may have in mind the manifestations of today’s intriguing world of spying and prying into the private lives of the modern proles who are today deft manipulators of information through their smart-devices.

The collection of essays in Asimov’s book are rather eclectic where he writes on the origins of science fiction writing and its legends, particularly the editors of the short story magazines. His style of writing, like Atwood’s is conversational and spontaneous and while he modestly acknowledges a deficiency for mastering the writer’s craft, I was a little perturbed at his scathing remarks on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.


Atwood’s collection, needless to say, is a lot more structured and precisely arranged. I particularly enjoyed the manner in which she reminds her readers of her own origins as a writer, particularly of sf (speculative fiction). Later, when she examines critical and important works of speculative fiction, such as Orwell’s and, in particular, Ryder Haggard and Ursula K Le Guin, she returns to her childhood readings of the earlier works and compares them feelingly with her present-day readings and analyses. Indeed, she dedicates her collection of essays to none other than Le Guin.

As to who is the better writer of science fiction it would be quite unfair of me to adjudge Ms Atwood as such. Certainly, I have read some of her novels in no particular order over the last ten years or so, a particular favourite of mine being The Handmaid’s Tale in which a dystopian post-apocalyptic North America is narrated from the point of view of a woman assigned to procreate in mechanical fashion on the orders of her master.

in other worlds

My only recent recollection of Asimov comes in the form of the film version of his short story, Bicentennial Man, written on the anniversary of the American nation no less, in which an android, questioning his subservient role among humans, grows in stature in his desire to experience emotions in the unique way that his human masters do. When last did I actually read an Asimov short story?


One would have to return to my youth. In the meantime, “One is pleased to be of assistance”.


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