In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
14 October 2011
Scarcely a question period goes by at my public readings without someone asking, usually in injured tones, why I have forsworn the term "science fiction," as if I've sold my children to the salt mines. (p.5)
Well, hats off to the science fiction community, you have successfully goaded Margaret Atwood into producing a volume of SF criticism. This is a frankly bizarre state of affairs, something that just a couple of years ago I would have found impossible to believe, but Atwood's introduction makes very clear that this is not an exaggeration.
Let's start at the beginning. The first words of In Other Worlds: SF And The Human Imagination are "for Ursula K Le Guin." There then follows an epigram from Octavia Butler after which Atwood begins the book by stating:
In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practicing academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather, it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship to a literary form, or forms, or sub-forms, both as reader and as writer. (p.1)
This is a gauntlet being picked up and firmly thrown back in the face of a sniping genre community, those who have labelled her "a silly nit or snob or genre traitor" (p.2). The book is dedicated to Le Guin because she is its "proximate cause," specifically her 2009 Guardian review of The Year of the Flood, and, of all the voices raised against Atwood, this one obviously stung the most. A rebuttal of Le Guin's complaints is included in the introduction alongside some of Atwood's other thoughts about science fiction as a genre and together they reveal something strange. Namely, that Atwood doesn’t know what science fiction is. Actually, that is not correct, I should be much more precise: Atwood knows exactly what science fiction is but, by "science fiction," she means something entirely different to everyone else. She has invented everything from first principles, she even coins the phrase "wonder tales" to perform the same function as John Clute's "fantastic." It was only when she joined Le Guin for a public debate in 2010 that she finally had an epiphany and discovered what everyone else used it to mean:
What Le Guin means by "science fiction" is what I mean by "speculative fiction," and what she means by "fantasy" would include some of what I mean by "science fiction." So that clears it all up, more or less. (p.7)
At this point, lifelong SF fan Margaret Atwood was seventy years old. Did she never ask? Atwood acknowledges this root problem with her previous pronouncements on the genre with a wonderfully dismissive phrase: "Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy" (p.2). I can't escape from this sentence, it keeps pulling me back; it perfectly captures the schism in all its idiocy whilst being simultaneously wordy and succinct and, it seems to me, dryly infused with humour. It is hard not to love the wilful writer of those words. But still: seventy years!
In Other Worlds, then, is a book about science fiction written by someone who doesn't know much about it for an audience that presumably knows nothing about it. Why on Earth should the science fiction reader continue? Many won't; there is little here to persuade her salt mine critics to revise their opinion (not that they are likely to read the book in the first place). Rather it is likely to appeal to the type of science fiction reader who is, at heart, simply a reader because Atwood—unrepentantly idiosyncratic views about literary taxonomy and all—is a writer who demands to be read. Take, for example, this early aside:
Thus it was that The Robber Bride appeared in a number of Soviet-bloc countries with covers that might be described as—at best—deceptive and—at worst—as a Eurotrash slutfest in flagranto. (p.4)
Reading this anecdote isn't likely to enrich your understanding of SF but it is likely to enrich your life. Forget the concept of science fiction entirely and treat it as you are advised, as an exploration by a reader and a writer—someone interested in "all three types of brow" (p.40)—of what they've read and written.
In this, In Other Worlds is really two books. The fresh meat of the book is the first section, composed of three essays that started life as the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature that Atwood delivered at Emory University in 2010 and are published here for the first time. They are a blend of autobiography, literary criticism, and random rumination. So, in the first essay, we move from her own early fictional creations (the "Flying Rabbits" which give the chapter its title) to superheroes (including her own foray into the field with Kidney Boy) to Mesopotamian literature. Then, in "Burning Bushes," it is back to her childhood before moving onto examining myths with particular reference to Northrop Fry and Christianity (it is subtitled "Or, Why Heaven And Hell Went To Planet X"). Once again we are treated to various effervescent plumes of wit that, despite their deadpan delivery, burst up from the page:
There is something to be said for a greatcoat or trenchcoat, a back alley, and a clenched jaw, and that none of these men au fond had much respect for women did not bother me a whit: the blonde usually did it, and I was not a blonde. (p.39)
Atwood must be a hell of a speaker and I wish I had heard her deliver these at Emory University itself. Apart from such intermittent gems, we are also casually given the key to understanding her own science fiction, particularly Oryx And Crake (2003) and The Year of The Flood. This comes in the form of a distinction between the novel (as "we got into the habit of calling all examples of long prose" in "the mid-twentieth century" (p.57)) and the romance (modern examples of which she gives as Life Of Pi by Yann Martel (2001), The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003), Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (2005), and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)). It is a distinction she returns to in a later piece self-explanatorily entitled "Ten Ways Of Looking At The Island Of Doctor Moreau":
"Romance," in today’s general usage, is what happens on Valentine's Day. As a literary term it has slipped in rank somewhat—being now applied to such things as Harlequin Romances—but it was otherwise understood in the nineteenth century when it was used in opposition to the term novel. The novel dealt with known social life, but a romance could deal with the long ago and the far away. (p.157)
Atwood skirts around the distinction for half a dozen pages; she touches on depth of characterisation, realistically described social milieus, and much more waffle about the taxonomy of SF but never explains why we might want to return to nineteenth century definitions from mid twentieth century consensus. For those like me who have butted their heads against Atwood's science fiction in frustrated admiration it provides a vital but confounding insight. Vital because Atwood clearly sees SF as an anti-realist mode which explains so much about her own work and confounding because her own work so obviously straddles the novel/romance divide that she sets out. As with so much on In Other Worlds, the thought is not fully formed.
The second key insight into her fiction comes in the third chapter, "Dire Cartographies," and this is also the part that is likely to be of most interest to the SF scholar. This is because it discusses utopias and dystopias. Well, not quite actually because she immediately drops this bombshell on us:
Ustopia is a word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia—the imagined perfect society and the opposite—because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other. (p.66)
Ustopia is a word she made up. No shit. We can't say Atwood didn't warn us about her eccentric tendencies with her talk of "nomenclatural allegiances" earlier on and the painful neologisms in The Year of the Flood similarly set of alarm bells but still, this is a bloody awful coinage. As for the contentious claim itself, Atwood's thinking on utopias containing dystopias seems to be strongly informed by the catastrophic failure of real world utopian projects. It is as if she is claiming Marxism is inherently Stalinist because of the bloody failure of the Russian Revolution; the connection exists but it is by no means as direct as she suggests. The opposite proposition is even more unpersuasive. As an example of dystopias containing utopias she proposes George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four: "utopia is present, though minimally, in the form of an antique glass paperweight and a little woodland glade beside a stream" (p.85). Atwood allows herself some wiggle room with that "minimally" but, even so, are we really expected to believe that these snatched moments of grace count as utopia? It is in this same context that Atwood goes on to discuss her own work. She describes the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale (1985) in the same terms and it is surely not unrelated that this is the one artistic misstep within that novel.
(Before moving onto the next section, I feel I have to mention that this part of the book is ill-served by some of the worst footnotes I’ve ever seen. It is a discursive rather than particularly scholarly piece of writing so doesn’t really need the textual references, especially since Atwood makes the work under discussion clear from context. Still, this may be extraneous but it is also inoffensive. Far worse is the fact that all her asides and allusions are clinically unpacked. So we have "sparkly vampires can be found in the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer." Or a reference to Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice that leads to a footnote that states: "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, from the film of the same name." If this is not fatuous enough, the book also assumes you are a moron; footnotes helpfully inform us of "Star Trek: a long-running space serial" or, my personal favourite, that "'The Wall' is the Berlin Wall." Oh dear. I hope someone comes to their senses and removes these before the book sees print.)
This brings us to the second half of the book which is divided into Atwood's previously published work, criticism, and fiction. If the first half is the meat then the second half is the bones. And what a jumbled pile of bones it is; pulled and pawed at and cracked open for marrow. It is these pieces that Atwood has cannibalised for her three lectures and it is impossible to read them outside of the shadow cast by this fact. For example, her 2002 New Yorker review of Le Guin's The Birthday of the World and Other Stories provides a dress rehearsal for the first section of this book: the clumsy taxonomy, the linking of SF with theological speculation, the idea that the Soviet Union put the nail in the coffin for utopia. At the same time, it continues to reveal how half-formed some of her views are. She quotes Le Guin on SF—"In a story so conceived, the moral complexity of the modern novel need not be sacrificed" (p.123)—but does not explore how this links to her own novel/romance dichotomy.
Crucially, Atwood has not revised these "other deliberations" in light of her belated understanding of what is generally meant by science fiction which leaves In Other Worlds as something of a compendium of her earlier ignorance. On the other hand, although she does state that she has "done some light editing to remove some overlaps and repetitions" (p.99), repetition still abounds. Nor is this repetition the by-product of a book that is at least comprehensive; after all, reviewing is inherently a slapdash affair, informed by the myriad vagaries of the various branches of the publishing industry. This means, for example, that we have specific pieces on Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley but not We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (although it is referred to frequently). How much stronger would the book have been if it contained a specific chapter of dystopias? Or two—one for this triumvirate and one for her own. Similarly, there is clearly a need for a chapter—several, in fact—on the Victorian novels of the fantastic that pepper the book. And it wouldn't have been too hard. With the exception of one piece, these articles are all from the last ten years. This is the period where Atwood has been particularly engaged with science fiction and it would have been nice if she used In Other Worlds as an opportunity to review and consolidate her previously published thoughts. Instead she expects us to play Frankenstein and assemble and animate the book from these dead limbs.
Do we mind this task? It is certainly irksome; there were several times I had the urge to scrawl "show your working" in the margins as if on the work of a brilliant but lazy student. This brilliance is what gets Atwood some slack. It is showcased again and again throughout her career by her fiction but, unfortunately, the five "tributes" to science fiction collected here do little to demonstrate this. Atwood describes them as being "sprinkled here and there throughout my work, like breadcrumbs in the tangled wood" (p.215) and breadcrumbs is right, they are hardly pearls: "Cryogenics: A Symposium" is an easily dismissible dinner party joke; "Cold-Blooded" retreads (presumably unknowingly) Terry Bisson's classic story "Meat"; "Time Capsule Found On A Dead Planet" is a two-page elegy for an Earth destroyed by capitalism. The longest piece is "The Peach Women Of Aa'A," an extract from the pulp story-within-a-story in her Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin (2000), and it is noticeable that her most sustained treatment of genre is the least serious. This leaves "Homelanding," recently collected by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel in The Secret History Of Science Fiction (2009), as her only real engagement with science fiction. We see only the faintest hint of the author of The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx And Crake, and The Year of the Flood.
Instead, we have to find consolation in her rather different nonfiction writing style. It is hard to sum up: it is chatty, almost corny, often lulling you into thinking it is "readable" (the ultimate backhanded compliment) and a deep sense of humour is sometimes hidden under a love of cheesy gags (take, for example, the rotten pun of the title). It is also constantly curious, wiggling off and following even simple words like "more" and "we" in what ever direction they take her. Atwood can always surprise with a devastating shift of tone such as when she breaks off immediately after the bleakly depressing words of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty Four—"Don't do it to me, do it to Julia"—to quip:
This sentence has become shorthand in our household for the avoidance of onerous duties. Poor Julia—how hard we would make her life if she actually existed. She'd have to be on a lot of panel discussions, for instance. (p.145)
Literature is a serious business but it isn't that serious. Atwood always gives off the air of been intensely relaxed, even in the face of the harshest circumstances. This playfulness manifests itself right up to the final In Other Worlds piece. Earlier, she describes Victorian writers as being obsessed with clothes and sex. Pot meet kettle; Atwood comes back to the sexual mores and "skin tight clothing" of science fiction again and again. So it is fitting that she ends the book with an "appendix" that consists of a forthcoming Playboy article about the chainmail bikinis of Pulp covers. I think that sums up everything you need to know about Atwood, her exquisite contrariness, and this beguiling and bemusing book.