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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood 
6th-Feb-2012 02:00 pm
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Signal, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart
Publication Year: 2011
Pages: 259
Status: library

LibraryThing Info

In Other Worlds for purchase on The Book Depository

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.

4 stars – loved it

Other Reviews:

There are a fair few, so I'll send you to the Book Blogs Search Engine.

Back In the Day:
7th-Feb-2012 03:33 am (UTC)
I actually attended the first of her Ellman Lectures when she was in town; it was focused on her juvenilia, rather than her experience with more modern speculative fiction, so I wasn't privy to that!

This sounds good, but I'm fascinated by Atwood's discomfort with the genre and how she explores it. I'll have to pick this up after returning to her work.
11th-Feb-2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
That must've been a fascinating event to attend.

The juvenilia discussion accounts for most (maybe all? I read it more than a month back) of the first essay. She says a good deal about all the SF she wrote about her toys, which is something I could really relate to because I did the same.
7th-Feb-2012 03:45 am (UTC)
Whether Atwood is a genre snob or not, I definitely agree with Le Guin that Atwood's novels being marketed as literary fiction has worked in her favor.
11th-Feb-2012 05:44 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. I doubt she'd have garnered so many awards, or so much praise from mainstream media, if her publishers hadn't pushed her SF books as general/literary fiction (which, to be fair, they do count as. She takes a more traditionally literary approach to genre).
7th-Feb-2012 05:07 pm (UTC)
I am reading this right now so I just glanced at your thoughts. I am glad you enjoyed it! I will be back to read your more in-depth thoughts once I finish. :)
11th-Feb-2012 05:44 pm (UTC)
I'm looking forward to your review, too! You're buddy-reading this, aren't you?
8th-Feb-2012 03:55 am (UTC)
I think what you have picked up on, is what I discovered when I was at university - even if science fiction is considered worth studying, it is still not considered viable as a literature worthy of more than a course. It's an offshoot of 'literature', at least according to academia, and this is who I think Atwood is directing her comments to, her audience. I do think I want to take a look at this work, anyway! I wish we didn't always feel a need to defend science fiction, or struggle to find it worthy of serious study.
8th-Feb-2012 03:56 am (UTC)
this was from Susan, by the way! sorry- You can Never Have Enough Books
11th-Feb-2012 05:46 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I feel like a lot of serious SF criticism ends up being as defensive as it is exploratory; critics feel like they need to placate non-genre readers before they can get down to the business at hand. Things are slowly changing, but we've got a long way to go yet.
9th-Feb-2012 12:30 am (UTC) - literary merit
I like the way you put this--I also doubt that she's read much (if any) contemporary SF. She is a brilliant woman, but a literary snob.
11th-Feb-2012 05:50 pm (UTC) - Re: literary merit
It does seem like she's taken at least a few steps towards great acceptance, though. I'd love to hear her take on some contemporary, marketed-as-SF authors somewhere down the line.
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