'In Other Worlds' by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history. She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award seven times, winning twice.

In Other Worlds is a compilation of essays in which Atwood discusses 'her lifelong relationship' with SF.

At times, it is a difficult relationship; her Wikipedia entry tells us that:

Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to The Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told 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 BBC Breakfast she explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she herself wrote, was "talking squids in outer space." The latter phrase particularly rankled advocates of science fiction and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed.

And indeed, if this were the full story, it would be easy to denounce Atwood as an elitist fool, blind to her own ignorance. Luckily, she redeems herself with an explanation (from Wikipedia again):

Atwood has since said that she does at times write social science fiction and that Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake can be designated as such. She clarified her meaning on the difference between speculative and science fiction, admitting that others use the terms interchangeably: "For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do.... speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth." She said that science fiction narratives give a writer the ability to explore themes in ways that realistic fiction cannot.

Alright then - so this is a debate about how books should be labelled. Atwood would prefer a very narrow definition of SF. Specifically, she wants to restrict the SF label only to that sub-genre of SF that is primarily about spandex and spaceships and tales of derring-do.

Well, if Atwood wants to define SF in this narrow way, then I would have to agree with what she says. I personally find that stuff (which I would prefer to label 'Crap Science Fiction') boring, derivative, sexist, and not infrequently racist. Worst of all, Crap Science Fiction is generally not well written. The best 'work' that conforms to Atwood's definition is at about the same level of quality as Orcs, by Stan Nicholls - a book which I would personally categorise as 'Crap Fantasy', and which, despite its popularity, cannot be taken as representative of the wider 'Fantasy' genre.

Several respected authors have told us that the concept of 'genre' has more to do with marketing than anything else. It therefore strikes me as a little odd that someone of Margaret Atwood's obvious intelligence would waste time making sweeping statements about SF, the validity of which rests on her use of a very narrow definition of SF with little resemblance to that adopted either by readers, or by the marketing people themselves.

The use of that narrow definition, in effect, creates a circular argument - what Atwood says is true, more or less, but it's barely worth saying.

If it's not worth saying, it's certainly not worth arguing about. Let's just admit that Margaret Atwood does not generally write stories about 'talking squids in outer space', and leave it at that.

Moving on to In Other Worlds, I have to say that I'm not sure I'm qualified to review this book. True, I've read a fair amount of SF - though much of it would fall outside Atwood's narrow definition - and I've read a couple of Atwood's novels - Cat's Eye and The Blind Assassin - though ironically, neither of them could be categorised as SF. Both were beautifully written, and I enjoyed Cat's Eye enormously. The Blind Assassin, on the other hand, was a long and tedious slog which left no lasting impression on me whatsoever. Undeterred by my apathy, it went on to win the 2000 Booker Prize.

So I'm really not convinced I have the correct literary background to appreciate In Other Worlds as much as others might. I am ignorant of many of the books Atwood discusses, and my comments should be read with that in mind.

The book is divided in three parts; the first is entitled In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination and explores Atwood's personal history with the SF genre.

The first chapter in this part is called: Flying Rabbits. It's about Atwood's childhood involvement with SF and superhero stories; we learn about her insatiable and indiscriminate appetite for books of all kinds, and about a sort of milieu developed in collaboration with her brother, involving flying rabbits from outer space. This was an entertaining read, and as usual Atwood writes beautifully, and with a generous dollop of humour. But I can't say I found it particularly enlightening on the subject of SF or even about fiction in general.

The second chapter is called: Burning Bushes. It discusses some parallels between ancient mythologies and SF. Though a little tedious to read, this was very thought-provoking; for me, by far the most interesting piece in the book, and highly recommended reading for all writers, whether of SF or anything else.

Chapter Three, entitled Dire Cartographies explores the same territory, as does (according to Atwood) her unfinished PhD thesis. She talks about 'the Wordsworthian / Darwinian split' between two visions of nature as represented by particular nineteenth and twentieth century works of fiction. Then she talks about utopias and dystopias, and points out that within every utopia is a dystopia and vice versa - which leads her to pull them together so she can talk about them collectively as 'ustopias'. This was also very interesting, but seemed to drag on and on. Atwood makes a lot of points which I either failed to grasp or didn't agree with (in some cases, I wasn't sure which). I got the distinct impression that much of what she was trying to get across was of interest chiefly to people who are far more knowledgeable about Literature than me, and who (perhaps consequently) are more ignorant of some other aspects of life. Sour grapes, maybe - but this essay contains a lot of words for what seemed to me very little substance. Of course it was well written, but (like The Blind Assassin) that didn't prevent it from being boring. Still, it's worth a read; the thoughts it does provoke are interesting ones.

Well, after Dire Cartographies, the final chapter in the first part of the book, I realised that I was not the best person to review this book. I tried to palm it off on someone else, but alas, my plan failed. I continued reading.

The second part of In Other Worlds is called Other Deliberations, and is a compilation of various pieces by Atwood (including reviews, introductions, and radio talks) which discuss specific works of SF.

I will offer brief comments about each of those pieces:

'Woman on the Edge of Time' by Marge Piercy - Generally a positive review, but it was a bit boring to read. It wouldn't have made me want to read Woman on the Edge of Time if I didn't already have it on my bookshelf.

H. Rider Haggard's 'She' - Interesting comments from Atwood, but I definitely won't bother reading She - it sounds awful.

The Queen of Quinkdom: 'The Birthday of the World and Other Stories' by Ursula K. Le Guin - Very welcome praise for Ursula (K.) Le Guin, but I like her already. What Atwood had to say didn't add a great deal of interest.

Arguing Against Ice Cream: 'Enough: staying human in an engineered age' by Bill Mckibben - Nothing very interesting here in the review or, by the sound of it, the book itself - which I won't bother reading.

George Orwell : Some Personal Connections - Meh.

Ten Ways of Looking at 'The Island of Doctor Moreau' by H.G. Wells - Quite a boring analysis; very English-Lit oriented. Still, enough to pique my interest; I might now read The Island of Doctor Moreau .

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - Didn't read to avoid spoilers.

After the Last Battle: 'Visa for Avalon' by Bryher - Seemed like a reasonably positive review, but again, it wasn't much fun. On the basis of what I learned from the review, I will definitely avoid this book.

'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley- A decent essay, but with no particularly striking insights. I would much prefer to just re-read the book and think my own thoughts.

Of the Madness of Mad Scientists: Jonathan Swift's Grand Academy - Again a rather boring piece of literary analysis about what sounds like a very interesting book; perhaps one day I too will read Gulliver's Travels.

Question: Why are so many book reviews so tedious to read? I mean, seriously - when a positive review creates fresh doubts in my mind about the actual book - I think that's a problem.

The third part of In Other Worlds is called 'Five Tributes', and consists of small SF pieces by Atwood, each of which draws from common tropes within the genre (common within SF, that is, as Atwood defines it.)

Again, brief comments on each:

Cryogenics: A Symposium - Lame. Pitched at about the same level as an undergraduate class in Philosophy; ie perhaps mildly interesting for those who have never thought about the kinds of issues that are commonly explored in SF.

Cold Blooded and Homelanding - Both lame, and for the same reasons as given above. It's worth mentioning that Olaf Stapledon covered similar ground much better in Star Maker - which is a beautiful headfuck of a book.

Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet - Not quite so lame. But nothing really new here. Thematically, it reminds me of Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias':

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Moving on...

The Peach Women of Aa'a from 'The Blind Assassin' - Thematically interesting from a feminist point of view, however largely ineffective because the story on which the theme is hung is so stupid.

Generally, though the writing in these stories is always good, they're so cheesy and derivative in every other way that if they hadn't been written by Atwood herself, I doubt they'd have been published at all.

And, finally, we reach the Appendices:

An Open Letter from Margaret Atwood to the Judson Independent School District (written following the banning of The Handmaid's Tale (partly) for being "offensive to Christians" - This is brilliant.

Weird Tales Covers of the 1930s- Good witty essay, but hardly groundbreaking.

In Other Worlds contains some interesting stuff, especially to those who are primarily interested in Margaret Atwood herself. There's plenty here, too, for those of a more literary persuasion. But if you're mostly interested in SF, only Burning Bushes and Dire Cartographies offer any real insight into what really makes the genre tick.

Overall, disappointing.