Posted on January 19, 2018
2. ‘In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination’ by Margaret Atwood
After analysing my reading in 2017 and finding myself lacking in certain areas (e.g. female authors, non-fiction), I’ve got 2018 off to a flying start! The first book I read was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which is a recent reread so I have decided not to review it again so soon (in short, it’s still brilliant and I still love it). The second book is both non-fiction and written by a woman: In Other Worlds is a collection of essays about science-fiction by literary legend Margaret Atwood!
Margaret Atwood has had a fraught relationship with the term ‘science-fiction’, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that other people have found the relationship fraught on her behalf. She has been accused of treachery to the genre because she has tended to distance herself from the term, leading many to believe that her attitude is proud and snobbish. It’s refreshing, then, that she dives straight into the heart of this debate in the introduction to In Other Worlds. Essentially it boils down to this: her definition of sci-fi is different to other people’s. For Atwood, sci-fi is about things that could never happen (e.g. tentacled aliens arriving from Mars, as per Wells’ War of the Worlds), whereas speculative fiction is about things that could happen but haven’t happened yet (e.g. it is conceivable that an oppressive religious dictatorship could take over a country, as per The Handmaid’s Tale, because we know countries and religions and oppressive dictatorships exist). Atwood is not distancing herself from sci-fi because she thinks it will be damaging to her reputation, but because she doesn’t believe she’s writing it. She’s writing speculative fiction and that is different. It’s a fascinating argument and a great jumping-off point to inspire you to consider how you define science-fiction.
With that debate out of the way, Atwood can move on to the rest of the book. In Other Worlds collects together articles and reviews written by Atwood over the years, dealing with sci-fi as their theme. She traces her relationship with sci-fi, from the fantastical world of rabbit superheroes she created as a child, to the pulpy wonder tales she indulged in as a ‘guilty pleasure’ when she was a literature student. The essays in this collection also discuss sci-fi’s roots in classical and religious myths, utopias and dystopias, and the trope of the mad scientist. Atwood even explores how the locations of sci-fi have changed: Journey to the Centre of the Earth was written before we really understood the Earth’s core; forgotten islands were useful locations until we mapped the planet; Mars was a home to aliens until we sent probes there; and now we are forced to locate our sci-fi in the furthest reaches of space, the new ‘here be dragons’ on our maps.
This is a really fascinating, compelling collection, and every essay brims with Atwood’s personality and style. She’s a particular fan of punning and wordplay, even if – at times – her conclusions about the origins of names are a little tenuous. In Other Worlds ends with five short stories or extracts from stories that showcase her science-fiction/speculative fiction talents. I particularly enjoyed ‘Cold-Blooded’, in which a race of insect-aliens are disgusted by humanity. If you want to read some really thoughtful and entertaining analysis of science-fiction as a genre, I really recommend this book.
“We are stuck with us, imperfect as we are; but we should make the most of us.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy the book here.