Nov 1, 2011

Book Review–In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is a curious book. But to understand some of its raison d'être you need a little background.

Once upon a time…
Margaret Atwood seems to have had tense relationship with some elements of the science fiction community( and vice versa) since her release of the novel The Handmaid's Tale in 1985. 

Atwood was awarded the Arthur C Clarke1  for The Handmaid's Tale , which was also nominated for a Nebula2 and a Prometheus 3 – all science fiction awards.  It was also a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize for literature.
She has previously distanced herself from the science fiction scene stating that she doesn’t consider what she writes to be science fiction, that she writes speculative fiction.  Perhaps her early response to praise from the science fiction community, in the form of awards, can be viewed understandably as an impolite rebuff and characterising science fiction as “talking squids in space” as late as 2003 probably hasn’t helped either.

She has been accused of protecting her brand as a writer of serious literature of not wanting to be branded or pigeon holed as genre fiction writer.  I don’t think that there’s enough evidence to back this claim and Atwood herself dismisses it within the book.

Answering her critics or simply,”this is me take it or leave it”
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is an interesting a mix of biography, essay and fiction. 

The first hundred or so pages are heavily biographical, while simultaneously being educative.  This section consists of three chapters that grew out of her Ellman Lectures delivered at Emory University in 2010.  They chart her development and her changing experience with what many would term science fiction.  The Chapter “Flying Bunnies” covers her childhood and the origins and development of superheroes in popular culture. 

The second chapter covers her undergraduate years and deals with her interest in the mythologies and metaphysics that were the fertile soil in which earlier science fiction grew. 
The final chapter explores the Victorian underpinnings of Utopias and Dystopias, Metaphysical Romances and in terms of biography, covers her writing of the Dystopian fictions, The Handmaids Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. 

Her execution of this section of the book is seamless, like having a conversation with a learned friend, where you gain the benefit of learning about their life and developing a connection, while at the same time walking away with your brain firing on all cylinders due to the intellectual stimulation it’s received.

It goes some way to explaining her position i.e.  She generally doesn’t write science fiction, her lauded science fiction works aren’t science fiction they are speculative fiction and I think her argument for her position is sound. 

We could argue that in this day and age it doesn’t really matter.  But I’m inclined to sit back respect her definition of herself and her writing - essentially I don’t care, I’d read her fiction regardless of whether its speculative fiction, science fiction or romance – I think at times we get too hung up on labels and squeezing what should be a fluid art form into rigid categories.

The Analytical Atwood
Wherein she turns the analysis outward.

The next section labelled “Other Deliberations” an is a collection of what I suppose you would call her analytical pieces, this is Atwood the Academic/Reviewer, commenting on science fiction.
It was the discussions of Swift, Orwell, Wells and Huxley that really impressed me.  I don’t know that I am used to the sort of analysis and knowledge that Atwood can bring to the discussion of these writers but she has awoken a desire in me to reacquaint myself with them.

Now this is science fiction
The final section is some selected science fiction that she has written over the years. It’s science fiction by her definition and distinct from her speculative fiction.  I can’t help but think she’s being a bit playful here, saying “look I’m not afraid to write science fiction and here it is”. 
While all the pieces are short they demonstrate the skill that she can bring to bear on the genre. Her short,  “Cold-Blooded” about a race of sentient moth like creatures discovering Earth and observing and interacting with us is a truly beautiful piece and as expected full of the wit and cutting observation that Atwood weaves in her fiction.

Who is this book for?
I think it has broad appeal.  It is perhaps easier to say who wouldn’t be interested.  I think if you are too invested in the to and fro between arguing that her work is science fiction then there’s not going to be much to persuade you here.  If you are an Atwood fan you’ll love it, if you a science fiction fan you’ll appreciate and enjoy it.
Atwood is a writer, a brilliant writer of poetry, fiction and non fiction.  Arguing that she is a science fiction writer seems to miss the point - that her while her science fiction as other might label it, is well regarded, it is but a small part of her overall body of work.  Focussing on that aspect of Atwood alone is reducing her to a very small part of who she is.
For an interesting discussion on this book please check out the Coode Street Podcast featuring Ursula K Le Guin (download)

This book was provided to me by the publisher

1. The United Kingdoms best Science Fiction novel of the previous year
2. The American equivalent of the best science fiction/fantasy novel
3. A libertarian science fiction award.

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