In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood
Readers with long memories might recall that I attended one of Margaret Atwood’s Ellman lectures back in 2010, which was a fun experience—it’s always fantastic to see great authors talk about their work, and I enjoy the shadenfreude of wandering through college campuses much, much larger than mine. (I can wake up five minutes before class and still be on time! Well, I don’t, because I need food, exercise, and a shower before I am ready to face the day without regressing into a wombat, but the point still stands.) So when I heard that Atwood had expanded upon her lectures, themselves a pentinence for rejecting the label of science fiction, I was highly intrigued.
In Other Worlds expands upon Margaret Atwood’s Ellman lectures of 2010—“Flying Rabbits”, on her juvenilia, “Burning Bushes”, on theology and speculative fiction, and “Dire Cartographies”, on dystopias and utopias in speculative fiction. It also collects several reviews Atwood has written about other speculative fiction, as well as five short pieces written in the genre collected from elsewhere (including an excerpt from Atwood’s The Blind Assassin). Through all of these pieces, Atwood examines her own relationship with speculative fiction as both a reader and a writer of the stuff.
Atwood’s history with speculative fiction is troubled, which might be surprising from the woman who won the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood described science fiction as “talking squids in outer space”, considering her own work speculative fiction instead. Where I consider speculative fiction the umbrella under which fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural fiction huddle (presumably away from “literary fiction”, who undoubtedly smokes), Atwood believed that “speculative fiction could really happen”. This attitude, quoted here in 2003, persisted well up to the publication of The Year of the Flood, when Ursula K. Le Guin couldn’t take it anymore and took her to task in a review of the book. Atwood gracefully took the criticism and even sat down with Le Guin, only to discover that they weren’t referring to the same things at all when they said “science fiction”! She then embarked on a journey concerning her relationship with speculative fiction that, I hope, continues after In Other Worlds. (Endearingly, this collection is dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin. I totally
In her introduction, which is as equally winning as any of the pieces collected, Atwood states that “Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy” (2). I’ve spilled much digital ink on genres, so I’ll be succinct here—I prefer basing my literary taxonomy on cold, hard facts, like “where is the Earth in this scenario?” and “is this set before or after World War II?”. As much peace of mine this gives me (how do you sleep at night Arthur Krystal), it unfortunately ignores Bruce Sterling’s definition of genre, which Atwood quotes: “a spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a coherent aesthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an ideology if you will” (7). I’m still hashing this out, but Atwood’s handling of it gives me pause. As much as she’s willing to concede that her work does fit into certain traditions in speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale owes, obviously, a debt to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World), Atwood is bemused but skittish when it comes to the talking squids. While the privileging language is gone, she still clearly sees the pulpier side of science fiction and fantasy (Atwood’s dividing lines are incredibly blurry) as not completely connected to her work.
But Atwood has an incredible gift that makes her an incredible writer—a thorough and incredibly kind grasp on humanity. So despite her skittishness about applying certain labels to herself and her writing, she still makes astonishing and thoughtful connections, all with a bemused smile coming clearly through her writing. In “Burning Bushes”, she discusses mythology—its importance to humans and how it’s changed in recent years. Perhaps, Atwood states (she doesn’t really argue, does she?), we look to varied mythologies now because science, our current myth (“By “myth” I mean a story central to our self-understanding: nothing about truth or falsehood is implied” ), isn’t as cuddly and accessible. In “Dire Cartographies”, Atwood sensibly points out that every dystopia has a utopia hidden within it, and vice versa. And that’s just the first three essays. Arguing Against Ice Cream”, a review of Bill McKibben’s Enough, examines the new frontiers of genetic manipulation by linking it to the eternal human desire to be immortal—but if we achieved immortality, art would die, or at least be utterly translated. Of the five pieces Atwood offers (the section is literally called “Five Tributes”), “Homelanding” captures Atwood’s science fiction: melancholy, kind, and, yes, hopeful. I could listen to her forever.
Bottom line: While Atwood remains a bit skittish about linking her work to the talking squids, she turns her bemused, thorough, and incredibly kind grasp on humanity on speculative fiction, drawing astonishing and thoughtful conclusions and linking works together beautifully. Well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Atwood, Margaret. In Other Worlds. New York: Doubleday, 2011. Print.