In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has written three science fiction novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood. She has been known in the past to be slightly prickly on this fact. The former won the inaugural Arthur C Clarke Award in 1987 for best science fiction novel. She has been quoted as saying “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians”. She has been adamant that there is a difference between speculative fiction (what she writes) and science fiction (“talking squids in outer space”).
I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Atwood’s attitude. My favourite reads include 1984 and Brave New World. Beacons of SF. I have enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale twice and would place it not far from those classic works.
So I was eager to read In Other Worlds as it would be her own words, not filtered, misquoted or taken out of context. The book, dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin, is divided up into three sections: in the first, three autobiographical comment pieces; in the second, ten comments and reviews on other author’s works of SF; and in the third, five very short works of fiction, including the piece from her non-SF work, The Blind Assassin.
First things first. Atwood’s writing is charming, eminently readable, and highly enjoyable. My one criticism with the work as a whole is possibly an editorial issue. Atwood was very taken with H. Rider Haggard’s She at an early age. Which she mentions time and again, and not just within its own dedicated chapter. As some of the writings were pulled from elsewhere, there is an element of repetition which rankles somewhat if you read the whole book in just a few sittings.
The start of the book is a long introduction in which we find out what will follow, but also the author’s mindset. She debates what is science fiction and what is speculative fiction. She talks about her own writings and how she perceives them. This review has decided to keep this review spoiler free, so you can find out for yourself what she thinks. Her arguments are compelling and well researched, but at the end of the day, they are simply opinion.
The first section starts with her childhood. I was surprised with her early love of science fiction and fantasy, bearing in mind the apparent hostility to space aliens and ray guns. She talks about the origins of science fiction and fantasy and also briefly investigates the human compulsion to consider other worlds and aliens. She talks about her university days and her influences and where the idea of myth comes from. Finally, in this section, she takes us through the writing of her aforementioned genre novels, what influenced them, and what she hoped to say in them.
The second section is a review and comment section on some of the classic SF novels that have influenced her writings. Works by Ishiguro, Haggard, Huxley, Swift, Wells and others. Each short piece is well argued and well written. Not once did I disagree with anything she said, nor, however, did I learn anything new. They are all worth reading; each one kind of like catching up with an old friend.
The final section of fiction is hard to comment on. Each story is clever and well written. Each is clearly SF. Each enjoyable. They are very short. I got the impression, however, that she was trying to prove a point, rather than writing short stories for pleasure. I suspect if I’d read them out of context I might have enjoyed them more.
In Other Worlds is a good book, not great, but I would recommend it to anyone who has any interest in genre literature, or to anyone who has read anything by Atwood. As for my personal opinion of the author… I have a lot more time for Margaret Atwood after reading this, and can’t wait for her next science fiction novel.