At one point she questions the intention and effect of stories.
Do stories free the human imagination or tie it up in chains by prescribing "right behaviour," like so many Victorian Christian-pop novels about the virtues of virtuous women? Are narratives a means to enforce social control or a means to escape from it?
She doesn't answer her questions, but poses them so we can consider. About chaining our imagination or freeing it, I think stories can do both. Like the words they're made of, they're powerful tools that can be wielded in many ways. Propaganda versus entertainment versus cautionary tale. It's not a given but the author's intentions will occasionally, if they're skilled or lucky, shine through to the text. And if not, the author's biases and assumptions definitely will.
She also asks:
Do we tell [stories] to show off our skills, to unsettle the complacent audience, to flatter rulers, or, as Scheherazade the Queen of storytelling did, to save our own lives?
Time reveals we continue to tell stories no matter religious or political persecution, and no matter the agency model of publication, or ebooks and 99c exclusive Kindle copies. Again I think the reasons why depend on the author. I've never been put in a situation where continuing to spin a tale will literally keep me from the chopping block, but I certainly know the feeling that I must write or die. Or rather, I must write or I may as well die. It is non-compulsory yet essential to who I am. The definition of me will always include "writer." I have accepted that, and in doing so I have brought peace into my life. This will sound weird to many people, and I'm at peace with that, too.
I disagree with Atwood when she explains that her definition of science fiction does not have to include science but rather the whole of human imagination. I think this does a disservice to science fiction, just like it bothers me when a bookstore has a "Science Fiction and Fantasy" section, as if they're indistinguishable. They say: That is True Literature, those are Mysteries and Thrillers, Children and Young Adult, Gay and Lesbian, and Everything That is True. And of course in this dusty corner there be dragons and spaceships and swords and laser pistols, because it's the only place in the bookstore where you're allowed to have things that don't exist in real life. And the comics are right next to it because regardless of subject, all comics are still comics, man.
I realize bookstores must separate books based on something other than title and author or risk bewildered customers and angry regional managers. I'm just not certain it's always well done, and it's definitely not always easy. I used to help manage a bookstore, and had to talk to a member of staff because he insisted on putting 'The Tao of Pooh' into children's fiction. Winnie the Pooh, he said. Children's fiction. Yes. Well...
So why do I think science fiction deserves its own shelf apart from fantasy? Because while they both exist in the realm of imagination apart from what is right now, fantasy often taking inspiration from Earth's history and sci fi taking inspiration from Earth's possible future, only one of them insists that the contents be reasonable within the realm of what might actually be. This is science fiction. To say that dragons and elves etc might actually be, somehow, is choosing semantics over realism. Science fiction may also stray and stretch the bounds of what is possible, but at its heart it holds all the possibilities that most human beings agree are in some way possible, given what we already know.
This is tough, of course, considering that a huge number of human beings believe that God or Gods exist. Given omnipotent characters, what isn't possible? But most religious people will concede that their faith does not demand the rigorousness of a scientific test, being 'faith,' so this doesn't actually interfere with science fiction as defined by real possibility.
I don't look down on fantasy for allowing room for the impossible. I love it for that very reason. And I have seen terrific fantasy worlds that are built up so well we might wish or succumb to believing they're possible. But this isn't necessary, whereas in science fiction it is. The most imaginative science fiction fan will have a line they know shouldn't be crossed--That place where an author can't just leap without someone saying, "Well now you're just making shit up."