IN OTHER WORLDS: SF AND THE HUMAN IMAGINATIONAuthor:
Signal, an imprint of McClelland & StewartPublication Year:
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There’s something wonderfully satisfying in reading another’s response to something you yourself love, especially when you’ve considered the topic in some depth. IN OTHER WORLDS, Margaret Atwood’s attempt to engage with science fiction/speculative fiction, delivers this experience so consistently that I had difficulty tearing myself away for any length of time.
Atwood has long been criticized by the SFF community for refusing to acknowledge three of her novels--THE HANDMAID’S TALE, ORYX AND CRAKE and THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD--as science fiction. Many readers interpreted this as genre sobbery. Ursula K. Le Guin, arguably the reigning queen of SFF, made this very argument when she reviewed the latter two books for The Guardian
. Le Guin’s article and the subsequent discussion between herself and Atwood led Atwood to reconsider what “science fiction” meant to her, and to realize that she’d been using the term in a rather different way than do most who read and/or write within the genre.
This book, then, deals with the way Atwood has engaged with science fiction down through the years, both in the way she uses the term (fiction concerned with things that could never happen; so, pretty well what most folks mean by “fantasy”) and the way many others use it (ie, to mean fiction concerned with the future and/or technology, regardless of whether said fiction extrapolates on something currently in the world). She approaches the topic as both a reader and a writer, with plenty of space given to both her own speculative fiction novels (as she prefers to term them) and those she’s consumed as both a professional critic and a voracious reader.
The first section, “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination,” contains three essays that build off the Ellman Lectures she delivered in 2010. The second section, “Other Deliberations,” contains previously published reviews and commentary on SF novels. Finally, in “Five Tributes,” Atwood shares a small sampling of her own short science (or speculative) fiction, including an excerpt from THE BLIND ASSASSIN.
Throughout it all, Atwood discusses what science fiction meant to her as a child and a young adult, which influences what she sees in the genre, and how she perceives the genre to work. She’s clearly spent a lot of time considering how she relates to science fiction, and the results make fascinating reading. Even though she identifies herself as an all-brows reader--ie, she devoured books of varied “literary” merit in her younger years--she approaches everything she’s read with the analytical mindset one expects of serious literary criticism. She pays close attention to what each work means, both for its original audience and for contemporary readers who may approach the text for the first time, and she looks at how it relates to the literary tradition as a whole. And she does it all in clear, readable prose.
That said, I found it interesting that every one of the books she cites has perceived literary merit. Long-established perceived literary merit, at that. From H. Rider Haggard’s SHE to Kazuo Ishiguro’s NEVER LET ME GO (which I believe is the most recent work she discusses), these are all books one might find in the Fiction & Literature section of one’s local bookstore. Perhaps there’s a copy or two shelved under Fantasy & Science Fiction, but for the most part these are established members of the literary fiction spectrum. They’re classics of the sort high school and university students study in courses that deal with Deep, Meaningful Literature (caps necessary). Perhaps SHE or Ursula K. Le Guin’s THE BIRTHDAY OF THE WORLD would make it onto a Types of Popular Literature syllabus, but I doubt one could say the same of any of the others. Even H.G. Wells was considered a serious sort of fellow at my own alma mater.
This, combined with Atwood’s occasional (but telling) focus on SF stereotypes like tight, leather-centric clothing on book covers, makes me wonder how much contemporary material she’s read. Has her all-brows approach to fiction extended into her contemporary life? Would she read, say, the latest from John Scalzi, Elizabeth Bear, Robert J. Sawyer, Connie Willis, Ian M. Banks or Lois McMaster Bujold, to cite a few SF authors on my own radar? I'm reasonably confident she'd enjoy them, given the works she discusses herein.
I have to wonder at Atwood’s target audience. It’s clear that she herself gained a great deal by composing the Ellman Lectures and compiling the other material--so clear that I imagine the book will appeal strongly to those with an academic interest in SFF, despite Atwood’s early insistence that this isn’t an academic work. For the most part, though, I feel like IN OTHER WORLDS is aimed squarely at literary fiction readers who occasionally dip their toe in the SFF waters via mainstream-marketed titles like NEVER LET ME GO and ORYX AND CRAKE, or classic works like H.G. Wells’s bibliography. It may still appeal to the diehard contemporary SFF reader, but it wasn’t published with her in mind.
Still, I don’t want you to think I’m discouraging you from seeking this out. I myself am a diehard contemporary SFF reader, and I loved it. If you have any interest in mainstream-marketed SFF, or in one reader’s engagement with the material and with notions of genre, you want to pick this up.
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