I like Margaret Atwood. A lot. I like her novels. I like her poetry. I like her essays. No writer is perfect and Atwood is no exception. But I tend to consider that even a not so stellar Atwood work is still pretty fine work. So it was with great anticipation that I bought a copy of In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. And so it is that I admit I was really disappointed with this book.
My disappointment isn’t with the writing, which is crisp and insightful, or with Atwood continuing to argue that she doesn’t write science fiction, though this is a disappointment of a different kind. No, my disappointment with the book is that much of it was already published in two other books, Writing with Intent and Good Bones and Simple Murders. That is not to say there isn’t material collected here for the first time, there is. There are the Ellmann lectures she delivered at Emory University in 2010 and a handful of book reviews published in various venues that had not been collected together before. But the new material makes up not quite half of this 250 page book.
Scifi fans may remember the kerfuffle after Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2009 Guardian review of Atwood’s Year of the Flood in which Le Guin takes a bit of umbrage at Atwood insisting that her, Atwood’s, novels are not science fiction. In In Other Worlds Atwood seems to be trying to mend some fences. In the introduction she explains that it all turned out to be just a silly difference of semantics. Atwood writes speculative fiction, defining that term to be fiction about things that may not have happened yet but that could happen. She sees speculative fiction as descending from Jules Verne. Science fiction, according to Atwood’s definition, is about things that could not possibly happen like a Martian invasion ala War of the Worlds. Turns out Le Guin’s definition of science fiction is the same as Atwood’s speculative fiction and Atwood’s definition of science fiction is what Le Guin would call “fantasy.”
Just semantics, see? Except it’s not because the majority of people who read science fiction operate under Le Guin’s definition, a definition that is fairly well established among both readers and writers. Atwood refusing to call certain of her novels science fiction is like saying Agatha Christie wrote fiction about problem-solving. But that’s not what In Other Worlds is about. That’s just the introduction. The rest of the book is a sort of peace offering as if Atwood is saying, see, I like science fiction, I have nothing against it, I love scifi and spent long nights with a flashlight under the blanket gobbling up pulp scifi novels as a kid. Heck, she tells us, she even has an unfinished Ph.D. dissertation on science fiction.
The Ellmann lectures turn out to be interesting. In them she suggests that modern day science fiction evolved out of our myth-making past. She traces a line from the Bible all the way to “Planet X.” And it is an interesting and convincing line. One of the lectures is also about utopian and dystopian fiction. In it she notes that each contains a kernel of the other. Then she goes on to invent a term for her own fiction, “ustopian,” in order to reflect her consciously including the seeds of utopia in dystopia and vice versa. The term just doesn’t work for me and kind made me think that she was trying to escape certain kinds of labels again.
And about those labels. I am all for creating new labels when a work is truly innovative and goes beyond the labels and genre traditions as we currently know them. But for all of Atwood’s insistence that her books are not what everyone else takes them to be, she protests too much. Her work is neither genre-bending nor innovative. This is not a bad thing by any means. A good writer can say interesting things in new and interesting ways, can tell a good story, can be insightful and creative within the already existing traditions of a genre, dystopian science fiction for instance. And Atwood is a very good writer; one of the best writing today I’d argue. But here I go digressing.
Back to the book. Besides the lectures, the other pieces in the book are mostly book reviews. Atwood writes a good book review. But as I mentioned earlier, a many of these were already published in other collections. Also, reading all these essays together gets a bit repetitive because Atwood tends to talk about the same thing across different pieces in somewhat similar terms. If I have to read the words “brass brassieres and bug-eyed monsters” one more time, I might just take a running leap off the Cliffs of Insanity. Consider yourselves warned.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is a bad book. It isn’t. Only, if you’ve read Atwood’s other essay collections the only thing in this book truly of interest will be the Ellmann lectures and the couple of previously uncollected essays. Whether that is worth your time or money, you’ll have to decide for yourself.