So that is what this book is about. It’s about my somewhat tangled personal history with SF, first as a child, then as an adolescent, then as a one-time student and academic, then as a reviewer and commentator, and then, finally, as a composer.In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is exactly what the passage above promises: a chronicle of Margaret Atwood’s sometimes conflicted relationship with science fiction, and of the many positions from which she’s approached the genre throughout her life. The book is dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin, and it owes its existence in part to Le Guin’s now famous review of Atwood’s Year of the Flood: in August 2009, she took Atwood to task for her rejection of the science fiction label and wrote the following:
But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.To which Atwood says:
The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names. (If winning prizes were topmost on my list, and if writing such books would guarantee non-wins, my obvious move would be just to avoid writing them.) What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacles, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters—things that could not possibly happen—whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descent from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such—things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians. Not because I don’t like Martians, I hasten to add: they just don’t fall within my skill set. Any seriously intended Martian by me would be a very clumsy Martian indeed.Now that I’ve read In Other Worlds, I can appreciate Atwood’s motivation better and give her more credit than to assume her rejection of the label “science fiction” is due to sheer snobbery. However, when you move away from the critical reception and perceptions surrounding a genre, you become, as Atwood herself acknowledges, mainly preoccupied with matters of pure literary taxonomy, and this is not something I’m particularly interested in myself. Jeanne, who was not a fan of In Other Worlds, called it Atwood “at her curmudgeonly worst”, and although I enjoyed it more than she did I can sort of see what she means.
I can accept that the distinction Atwood draws between “speculative fiction” and “science fiction” – stories about the possible vs stories about the impossible – is semantic but not necessarily hierarchical. My only qualm with it is that it bears little resemblance to how the terms are used in the real world, and I’m not sure if it’s useful to fail to acknowledge that. Besides, to paraphrase what China Miéville said when I saw him last year, I find gender labels interesting and useful when we think of them in terms of storytelling traditions that are part of a writer’s arsenal, but not so much when we begin to insist in drawing rigid lines. The older I get, the less I care about genre distinctions in this sense.
But! The reason why I really enjoyed Atwood’s collection in the end is that it’s divided into three parts, and only the first of these is about literary taxonomy. The second part, “Other Deliberations”, collects Atwood’s essays about science fiction she has read over the years, while “Five Tributes” contains examples of her own attempts at SF. And even the first part goes far beyond the distinction between speculative fiction and SF I mentioned above: it also deals with Atwood’s thoughts on mythology and its relationship with SF, on the role stories play in our lives, on literary hierarchies and much more, and these were all a delight to read.
Considering my fondness for books about books, it’s unsurprising that most of my favourite sections of In Other Worlds were essays on specific works of science fiction that resonated with Atwood – I particularly enjoyed the ones on George Orwell and on Never Let Me Go, which she analyses with great astuteness. Despite what I said above about my interests having moved beyond genre labels and their definitions, I really enjoyed the time I spent with this book mostly because of, as Clare puts it, Atwood’s “thorough and incredibly kind grasp on humanity”. This collection made me like her even more than I did before, and it’s always a pleasure when that happens.
Reviewed at: The Literary Omnivore, Necromancy Never Pays, So Many Books, Stella Matutina
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