In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

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

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination By Margaret Atwood Doubleday 255 pp.

For an Arthur C. Clarke award-winner (in fact, the very first Arthur C. Clarke award winner), Margaret Atwood has always been leery of the science-fiction label.

Five-time Hugo winner, six-time Nebula winner, and all-around living legend Ursula K. Le Guin called Atwood out on her reluctance in 2009 in her Guardian review of “The Year of the Flood,” the third of what Atwood prefers to be called her “speculative fiction” novels. “To my mind, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Oryx and Crake’ and now ‘The Year of the Flood’ all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire,” Le Guin wrote. “But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, ‘Moving Targets,’ she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction.... She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.”

The Booker Prize winner is hardly the first writer not to want to be crammed headfirst into a too-small box. “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ... and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.” If Bram Stoker were alive, he would likely protest that “Dracula” shouldn’t be shelved in the horror section, and Jane Austen would no doubt be adamant that “Pride & Prejudice” was a social satire, not a romance.

Still, Le Guin has a point: If it looks like a futuristic waterfowl, and it quacks like a futuristic waterfowl, does it matter whether it arrived as part of an alien invasion or as a result of genetic mutation?

In her new book of essays, In Other Worlds, Atwood answers Le Guin, to whom the book is dedicated. “The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names.... What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds,’ which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters – things that could not possibly happen – whereas, for me, ‘speculative fiction’ means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.” (Fair enough, but I’ve heard them both Wells and Verne described as the “father of science fiction.”)

While she may not think she writes it, Atwood certainly has read a fair bit of and thought deeply about science fiction, and she shares generously with her readers in “In Other Worlds,” starting with the flying rabbits she wrote about as a child. (The be-caped bunnies and other illustrations by Atwood are featured on the whimsical end-papers.)

“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.”

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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