Out of the 20 novels Margaret Atwood has written, three can reasonably be classified as science fiction: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale is often hailed as a modern SF masterpiece.
Yet Atwood has claimed that these particular novels are in fact not science fiction. In her collection of essays published in 2004, Moving Targets, she defined SF as “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today” and defended her own forays into the genre by saying that everything that happens in them is possible. Her preferred description of her non-mainstream work is “speculative fiction”.
The noted fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin recently took her to task over such simplistic and reductive niceties of categorisation. In a Guardian review in 2009, she said that Atwood hoped to “protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders”.
This new collection of essays from Atwood serves as a genial and measured riposte to Le Guin’s accusation. In Other Worlds is an eminently readable and accessible clarification of her relationship with SF and the SF tradition.
The book is split into four parts, and it is the first two sections that contain the real meat. It opens with three lectures that Atwood delivered at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2010. In the first, she discusses herself as a child, growing up in a remote region of northern Quebec where she read voraciously and drew superhero comics featuring flying rabbits. The next is a disquisition on mythology, incorporating her experiences at various universities, including Victoria College in Toronto and Harvard, where she was equally in thrall to literary theory as to bad SF B-movies.
In the third and final lecture, “Dire Cartographies”, Atwood maps out her ideas about utopian and dystopian fiction and how she came to write those three novels, each of which fit into one or other category. She forges the somewhat ungainly term “ustopia” to demonstrate that the distinction between utopia and dystopia – the perfect imagined world and the imperfect – is far from clear-cut. In her view, “each contains a latent version of the other”, just as each half of the yin-yang symbol bears an element of its opposite.
The lectures are insightful and cogently argued with a neat comic turn of phrase. For example, when discussing a purely mechanistic view of the universe that denies the existence of gods and reduces human life to a meaningless set of biological imperatives, Atwood wryly acknowledges that this isn’t a comforting stance: “…we don’t like it much. It isn’t cuddly. There aren’t many tunes you can hum in the shower.”
The second section of the book comprises reviews and critical analyses, focusing on certain works of classic “ustopian” fiction that rank high in Atwood’s esteem. Here we find a fascinating reading of Wells’s The Island Of Doctor Moreau; a detailed analysis of the Laputa section of Gulliver’s Travels and its formative influence on the “mad scientist” figure found in countless novels and films since; and penetrating examinations of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World.
The latter two novels deal with totalitarianism but, as Atwood shows, of diametrically opposing types. Orwell described control of society being imposed from above, through violence and force, whereas Huxley saw totalitarianism arising from the state’s control of physical desires, principally materialism and sex. One is oppression with an iron fist, the other oppression with a gently stroking hand.
What emerges from In Other Worlds is Atwood’s continued reluctance to don the mantle of SF author, even though there is seemingly no shame in joining the ranks of such illustrious forebears as Orwell, Huxley, Wells and Swift. For all that, she still revels in all aspects of the genre, both high- and low-brow, and her enthusiasm and level of intellectual engagement are second to none.
James Lovegrove is the author of ‘Redlaw’ (Rebellion)
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, by Margaret Atwood, Virago, RRP£17.99, 257 pages