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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

Margaret Atwood: Does she or doesn't she write science fiction?

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“In Other Worlds” is divided into sections: The first part covers three of Atwood’s never-before-published lectures, covering the ground from superheroes to science fiction as the modern refuge of religious writing – “I’m far from the first commentator to note that science fiction is where theologically linked phenomena and reasonable facsimiles of them went after ‘Paradise Lost’ " – to utopias and dystopias. That last, “Dire Cartographies,” is the most interesting, covering her abandoned thesis and the genesis of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “My rules for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ were simple: I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools.”

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In the second section, Atwood reviews works such as H. Rider Haggard’s “She” (origin of the original “She-who-must-be-obeyed”), Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” Le Guin’s “The Birthday of the World, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” Atwood is particularly good on Huxley and Orwell. “The twentieth century could be seen as a race between two versions of man-made Hell – the jackbooted state totalitarianism of Orwell’s ‘1984’ and the hedonistic ersatz paradise of ‘Brave New World....’ ” Especially enjoyable is her discussion of the mad scientists in the third section of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” And I wish the scientists who recently decided to recreate the Black Plague to see just what made it so deadly had read her review of Bill McKibben’s nonfiction work, “Enough.”

Finally, Atwood includes four already published short stories, covering such concerns as cryogenics and why it will never, ever work, to alien invasions, winding up with an excerpt from my favorite of her novels, “The Blind Assassin.”

One quibble: Could Atwood’s editors not have helped her out with a few errors, such as “Attack of the 60 Foot Woman,” which I’m guessing was a typo, and the fact that Wonder Woman’s invisible flying vehicle was a plane (later a jet, later discarded when she got the power of flight, later – who knows? I lost track after she finally got some pants), not a “helicopter?”

Any review that leads to memories of flying rabbits has performed a service to humanity in my book, and I just have one question for Le Guin: Could you please retroactively review “The Blind Assassin?” (It has the lizard men of Xenor and everything!) I’d really love to read more on that book.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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