In interviews and essays Atwood has discussed generic classification of The Handmaid's Tale as "science fiction" or "speculative fiction", observing:
- I like to make a distinction between science fiction proper and speculative fiction. For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid.
Hugo-winning science fiction critic David Langford observed in a column: "(...The Handmaid's Tale, won the very first Arthur C. Clarke award in 1987. She's been trying to live this down ever since.)" He says:
- Atwood prefers to say that she writes speculative fiction—a term coined by SF author Robert A. Heinlein. As she told the Guardian, "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She used a subtly different phrasing for New Scientist, "Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals." So it was very cruel of New Scientist to describe this interview in the contents list as: "Margaret Atwood explains why science is crucial to her science fiction." ... Play it again, Ms Atwood—this time for the Book-of-the-Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." On BBC1 Breakfast News the distinguished author explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she writes, is characterized by "talking squids in outer space."
In distinguishing between these genre labels science fiction and speculative fiction, Atwood acknowledges that others may use the terms interchangeably. But she notes her interest in this type of work to explore themes in ways that "realistic fiction" cannot do.