9 October 2015

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

By Margaret Atwood

At a time when speculative fiction seems less and less far-fetched, Margaret Atwood lends her distinctive voice and singular point of view to the genre in a series of essays that (...) illuminates the essential truths about the modern world. This is an exploration of her relationship with the literary form we have come to know as "science fiction,” a relationship that has been lifelong, stretching from her days as a child reader in the 1940s, through her time as a graduate student at Harvard, where she worked on the Victorian ancestor of the form, and continuing as a writer and reviewer.  This book brings together her three heretofore unpublished Ellmann Lectures from 2010 (...) In Other Worlds also includes some of Atwood's key reviews and thoughts about the form.  She elucidates the differences (as she sees them) between "science fiction" proper, and "speculative fiction," as well as between "sword and sorcery/fantasy" and "slipstream fiction."

It has been difficult for me to categorize this book. It's not an autobiography, although it is very personal. Nor is it a school book on science fiction and fantasy, and yet I found it very informative and educational. Atwood herself calls it "an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form (...) both as a reader and as writer."

Atwood is being very open about herself and the life that she has led, and her relationship with science fiction. Her personal accounts inevitably made me think back and wonder what it was that drew me to science fiction. Why was I fascinated by the fantastical as a child (even though I hated to read)?

And like I said, this is a very informative and educational book. Not only does Atwood take us through the history of science fiction, but she touches upon religion, mythology, history and the importance that story-telling has had in our own civilization. And she puts these phenomena in a whole new perspective. Her analysis gave me a new understanding for science fiction and the role it plays in the Western world.

Atwood's background as an author and academic, as well as her genuine love for science fiction and fantasy make her a good authority on the subject. In other words, she knows her stuff.

The second part contains essays on such SF classics like Orwell's 1984 and Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. I especially like her take on 1984, mainly because it's one of my favourite books, and it's still fresh in my memory. But also because I agree wholeheartedly with Atwood's thoughts on government surveillance and on the controversial laws that have become a hot topic at the beginning of the 21st Century. Long story short: we don't like them.

And last but not least, Atwood includes some of her own short stories. I like her prose and her style, so much so that I now have her novel Oryx and Crake on my to-read list. However, I did find some of these short stories a little preachy. Her observations of our society and its shortcomings are no doubt spot on, but the critiquing can get a little tiresome after a while.

One thing I feel I have to complain about is that Atwood spoils every book she writes about. It came to a point that I had to skip a few essays. But if I ever want to read H. Rider Haggard’s She, I can’t, because what’s the point? I already know how it ends.  

Also, I don't really agree with her definition of science fiction. Dragons and flying carpets are not science fiction, unless they were created in a lab. Science fiction - to me at least - has to be grounded in science, and all the crazy stuff that might happen still need to have some sort of a rational explanation, be it genetic mutation or dead tissue revived by electricity. In other words: Star Trek is SF, Star Wars is fantasy. The Martian is SF, The Martian Chronicles is fantasy.    

In Other Worlds is a very smart, touching and well-written book. I truly recommend it to fans of science fiction and aspiring authors alike. 


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