Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review of In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood catches a lot of flack from the genre community for a quote regarding science fiction—“that it’s just a bunch of squids in space” (I paraphrase). Mainstream genre fans taking it as a shot across the bow, they react in different ways, from pointing out she misunderstands the fundamental definition of ‘science fiction’ to outright insults and refusals to read her work. While Atwood does have her own definition of what science fiction is, there’s no denying her attempt to clarify what is significant literature in the genre (no matter your definition) and what isn’t—an attempt to keep the bar high, as it were. Her 2011 bric-a-brac collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination helps to explain why.

Opening with recollections of her childhood reading and creative writing experiments, moving through reviews of classic sf, and closing on a miscellany of short fiction, In Other Worlds is as much a response to people who accuse Atwood of misunderstanding science fiction as it is a memoir of one person’s experiences with the genre—as fuzzy as its definition may be.

If it isn’t clear in the review thus far, I am sympathetic to Atwood’s view to science fiction. I disagree with her definition (i.e. that sf is limited to the possible), but fully laud her attempt to create a genre ghetto where its lurid, commercial texts can be pushed out of sight and to provide a platform where its worthy texts (i.e. intellectually stimulating texts) can be highlighted for discussion. With the majority of online media these days focused on mainstream genre product, Atwood’s indirect voice in In Other Worlds defending the literary side is refreshing. The idea that real science fiction is only a literature of the possible contentious to say the least (who, after all, is arbiter of ‘possible’), the texts Atwood points as occupying that liminal area are nevertheless some of the best the genre has produced, and her subsequent analysis and discussion of them proves why.

The first three chapters of In Other Worlds are autobiographical descriptions of Atwood’s coming og age, from childhood to university student to young writer, with particular fpocus on encounters and resulting relationship to the general world of science fiction and fantasy. Lulled by the utopian/dystopian possibility of the genre, she goes on to, in classical fashion, analyze several familiar texts for content along these lines. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Huxley’s Brave New World, and H.G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau are just some of the books discussed. Regardless whether review or essay, the same erudition and patient yet profound hand guides said content, rounding out the dreams of a young girl.

The final portion of the book is reserved for three very different pieces. The first is a quick selection of flash fiction involving immortality, utopia/dystopia, and other central themes of sf. Written in Atwood’s prosaically profound hand, they are short but delightful. The second is an open letter to a school district which banned her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The sarcasm would be funny were the underlying nature of the ban not so short-sighted. And lastly, backing up Atwood’s squids in space quote, is a hilarious essay on the covers of Weird Tales magazine.

So who is this book for? Fans of Atwood’s fiction, of course, will be interested to learn more of her personal views on genre and writing, as well as how details of her upbringing affect her fiction. Readers looking for alternate (i.e. non-mainstream) perspectives on science fiction would do well to read the book, as would people interested in analysis of of novels which highlight Atwood’s key focus points in sf, including utopia/dystopia, immortality, mythopoiea and other aspects. (See below for table of contents, including books reviewed and analyzed.) Otherwise, the book lacks a singular focus or rigor, and is thus a better leisurely read, something that can be, with the exception of the first three chapters, slipped in and out of easily. The material scattered among autobiography, book review, essay, and bits of what amount to flash fiction, it is a light book that contributes to the scholarship of science fiction, but does not break ground. More a personal experience, it’s interesting nonetheless.

Highlighting just how bric-a-brac the collection is, the following is the table of contents for In Other Worlds:

Introduction (by Margaret Atwood)
Flying Rabbits: Denizens of Distant Species
Burning Bushes: Why Heaven and Hell Went to Planet X
Dire Cartographies: The Roads to Utopia
Review: Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Essay: H. Rider Haggard's She
The Queen of Quinkdom: The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin
Arguing Against Ice Cream: Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben
George Orwell: Some Personal Connections • (2003) • essay by Margaret Atwood
Ten Ways of Looking at The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells
Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
After the Last Battle: Visa for Avalon by Bryher
Review: Visa for Avalon by Bryher
Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Of the Madness of Mad Scientists: Jonathan Swift's Grand Academy
Short story: “Cryogenics: A Symposium” short story by Margaret Atwood
Short story: “Cold-Blooded”
Short story: “Homelanding”
Short story: “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet”
Short story: "The Peach Women of Aa'A" (from The Blind Assassin)
An Open Letter from Margaret Atwood to the Judson Independent School District
Weird Tales Covers of the 1930s

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