Margaret Atwood's novels are well known for their forward-thinking, thought-provoking content. Although many would classify her as a science fiction writer, others would not. The reason for the divergent classifications has to do with subtle difference in how people define what belongs to the genre of science fiction.
Atwood uses a great deal of technology in her books. In Oryx and Crake, for example, the role of gene modification and transplant science plays a pivotal role in driving the novel's plot. Some individuals see the heavy use of science in Oryx and Crake as a clear genre marker of science fiction. However, others have argued that three important distinctions take this novel out of the traditional realm of science fiction into a broader, more encompassing genre called speculation fiction, which is an umbrella term that includes science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, horror, dystopian fiction, and other works that imagine a universe that is slightly different from our own.
The first is that Atwood writes about technologies that largely do exist in today's society. Scientists have already been able to combine genomes to create stronger, more nutritious plants. What Atwood has done is expand the application of such already existing technological modifications. The narrowest definition of the science fiction genre refers to technologies that do not currently exist. Space travel, for example, is a popular topic among science fiction writers. As a speculative fiction work, Oryx and Crake is clearly not set in the real universe, but nevertheless echoes real situations.
The second distinction lies in the role that technology plays in Atwood's novels. Although it is true that her stories largely hinge on the existence of certain types of technological advances, her plots do not revolve chiefly around them. For example, in Oryx and Crake, the story is just as much about Jimmy's transformation into Snowman, Crake's disenchantment with humanity, Oryx's profound forgiveness, and the nature of humanity as it is about the technologies in the world that brought them to these experiences. Some consider this type of fiction, which focuses on people rather than technology, to be part of the “soft science fiction” genre, but Atwood herself considers her novels to be primarily speculative fiction.
The third and final distinction is related to the timeline of the novel. With few exceptions, science fiction pieces are frequently futuristic. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, allows for alternate histories and futures to be explored.
Some have argued that the term speculative fiction has also served as a way for authors to escape the pigeonholing tendencies of genre. For some, it allows the possibility of having their work viewed as more serious literature rather than being cast aside as pop fiction.