Thursday, October 06, 2011

Book Review: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

The elephant in the room when it comes to Margaret Atwood writing a nonfiction book on SF is her attitude towards her own novels: "It certainly isn't science fiction," she once replied when asked whether The Handmaid's Tale was science fiction. Thankfully, Atwood is aware of this, and addresses it right from the very beginning. You might not agree with it, but there is an attempt at an explanation, and this in turn shows how meticulous the author is when it comes to details. It reminds me of Philip K. Dick's reply when it comes to science fiction vs. fantasy. It's semantics (it's interesting for example how SF is in the title, as opposed to science fiction or speculative fiction), a debate that hasn't really ceased in the present. In that sense, Atwood is a geek like us, the way a science fiction fan might quibble whether Star Wars is really science fiction or fantasy, or debate who would win in a fight, Superman or Captain Marvel. She has me hooked and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination doesn't sound so far fetched.

The book is divided into three sections. The first--and most interesting to me--deals with Atwood's initial experiences with SF and she relates it to mythology, psychology, philosophy, and feminism. She covers a broad spectrum here, everything from comics (the Golden- and Silver-age type) to ustopias (a combination of utopias and dystopias). There is an attempt to make these stories personal but for the most part, her discussions on theory, the rich history of the genre, and how it's all interconnected, reads something more scholarly rather than a confessional. Which isn't a bad thing, but this isn't a memoir as much as Atwood expounding on her views.

The second section, which is easily the meat of the book, is Atwood's reviews and critical analysis of various SF books, everything from H. Rider Haggard's She to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. She explains why (and defends) it's SF, and then breaks it down. Here, Atwood's passion for the genre shows and it's intelligent reading. She doesn't just praise but also highlights weaknesses in the story. Some of the works, for example, are problematic from a feminist point of view.

The third section, aptly titled "Five Tributes," features self-contained excerpts from Atwood's previously published work and which she describes as homages to various SF forms. I was initially skeptical at the concept but upon reading them, they work as is: brief, compact short stories that work as far as their agenda is concerned (albeit quite transparent). It's also the shortest section in the bunch. To a certain extent, this section seems out of place, mainly because the previous two sections deal more with nonfiction, while this is clearly fiction. Still, if you want a holistic view of Atwood's relationship to SF without ever reading her novels, this is a good companion considering the word count limitation.

The book also comes with an appendix and while it only features two articles, they are essential reading. One is Atwood's open letter to a school which has banned her books, and the other is a discussion on the Weird Tales covers by Margaret Brundage.

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination
is an interesting and welcome companion to the discussion of SF. It's interesting to me because of the female perspective Atwood brings to the discussion and she brings up several interesting points. In a way, I feel this book is long overdue, especially considering the genre controversy surrounding Atwood. Maybe some readers won't pick up the book solely for that fact, which would be a tragedy. And yet, it's also not perfect, and if I had a major complaint against the book, it's that it falls prey to the same problems of many "scholarly" books that deal with the genre, which is its tendency to look too far back into the past as opposed to the present. And for the modern reader, that is perhaps Atwood's shortcoming here: that she is familiar and discusses SF that is decades old instead of contemporary ones.


Harry Markov said...

It feels as if this is a book that is meant to keep the discussion about the changes within genre as it seems to bring a rather interesting point of view. Atwood is tip toeing between genre line be it from a marketing standpoint or not and she's been long enough in the industry to say worthwhile things. Thanks for the recommendation.

Paul Weimer said...

Thanks, Charles

It seems to me that Atwood's complicated relationship with the genre frustrates everyone, on both sides of the bridge.