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

I must admit to approaching this review in a state of trepidation. Reading Margaret Atwood’s “In Other Worlds” has been something of an all-consuming experience; it’s a wonderful and complex book, full of delights and revelations, and I doubt I can do it justice in a simple blog post. However, for what it’s worth I’ll put down my thoughts and share them with you – however flimsy my views seem to me after reading this book.

A lot of visitors to the Ramblings will have no doubt seen the recent BBC documentary on Atwood, which I thought was marvellous. There were a number of quotes scattered through it that drew on the author’s early life and I tracked these down to this book; there are several points where she talks about her formative reading years which particularly resonated and so it seemed a good time to take this one off the shelf and explore further.

“In Other Worlds” is subtitled ‘SF and the Human Imagination’ and collects together a series of lectures/essays given by Atwood, either in person or in written form. Appended to this are a selection of reviews of, and writings on, specific science fiction works, as well as some short fictions of Atwood’s own that could be said to slot into the genre. She is, of course, the author of a number of longer works which could be classified as sci-fi, although the fluid nature of that classification is one of the many things she explores in her writings. The genre has expanded to include basically anything which is not straightforward narrative rooted in reality, and more and more modern books seem to encompass what she calles “bendiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping and inter-genre visiting”.

But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, though a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy and Slipstream Fiction: all of these might be placed under the same large “wonder tale” umbrella.

And as she later reminds us, “the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm.”

The first three, longer pieces, collected as “In Other Worlds” are a personal history of Atwood’s relationship with sci-fi and her thoughts on it, and they’re absolutely fascinating. “Flying Rabbits” looks at the genesis of sci-fi and where the impulse comes from to write such stories; “Burning Bushes” explores the relationship between religion and mythology, and how they mutated into and informed the genre we know and love; and “Dire Cartographies” looks at the physical placement of our larger-than-life fictions, how we map them and the problems with utopian/dystopian settings. Yes, we’re back with Utopias again – a recurrent theme on the Ramblings at the moment, and in a world that is turning truly more dystopian every day, a very relevant one.

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

The autobiographical elements here were absolutely fascinating; Atwood relates how she began writing stories as a child, how sci-fi stayed with her through her growing up and university years, and how she eventually came to write the adult fictions we know now. I loved reading about her time at university and as a young writer; the critical writings of Northop Frye, obviously an important influence in her formative years, are a regular touchstone. It was astonishing to read that she was actually not allowed into a particular library which housed modern poetry simply because she was female. However, there’s so much more than the autobiographical in this work. The narrative is studded with brilliance: discussions of our human need to tell stories and make sense of the world, exploration of what exactly sci-fi should or can be defined as and how it relates to the everyday world. Blending the autobiographical with criticism makes for a potent and engrossing mix, and also stops the book from ever being dry and dusty. In fact, the only dry thing here is Atwood’s sly wit, with a number of turns of phrase making me laugh out loud. For example, she reminds us when discussing “Brave New World” that “who can do what, with which set of genital organs, and with whom (is) one of humanity’s main preoccupations”!

Atwood makes many fascinating points about the development of utopian and dystopian fiction and is of the opinion that there are no pure utopias: each attempt at one carries within itself a dystopian mirror image, a kind of yin/yang thing which perhaps represents the dual nature of human beings. In fact, she regards the two states as so indivisible that she conflates them, coining the term ‘ustopia’ to encompass them both. She’s right that, as a species, we’re nothing if not contrary and as questing beings are never really satisfied with perfection. Instead we have the constant need to explore; and Atwood makes the pertinent point that while the world was unmapped, early utopian stories were placed on the margins of what we knew; as the world became explored more widely, tales of strangeness were set on lost islands or dark areas of the globe; finally as the world became too familiar, sci-fi took over in the form of other lands and parallel realities. I suppose underneath this was a certain strand of escapism: if this world is too difficult we can slip sideways into another but of course, we go back to the human need for exploration again. Her comments on our need for maps for understanding everything around us (not just ‘proper’ geographical things, but to make sense of our world) are outstanding. Her take on the place of religion in all this is also pithy, warning the reader at one point about the Bible of “the dangers inherent in applying every word in that extremely varied document literally”.

The second section of the book “Other Deliberations”, with its collection of Atwood’s thoughts on sci-fi works and authors, gives us a fresh look at some classics, and always through her wonderfully individual eye. Some of the stories she writes about are those you would expect: “Brave New World”, “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, plus a heart-felt and potent homage to Orwell, stressing his relevance to the modern world. Some, however, were new to me and left me with a long list of books to go out and explore. In fact, Orwell and Huxley reappear at regular intervals throughout the book, with their works coming to exemplify the tendencies Atwood sees in modern society:

Approximately five years after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published, the Soviet Union disintegrated, the West slapped itself on the back and went shopping, and pundits proclaimed the end of history. It looked as if, in the race between ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Brave New World’ – control by terror versus control through conditioning and consumption – the latter had won, and the world of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ appeared to recede. But now we see a United States weakened by two draining wars and a financial meltdown, and America appears to be losing faith in the basic premises of liberal democracy. After 9/11, the Patriot Act passed with barely a cough, and in Britain citizens have accepted a degree of state supervision that would once have been unthinkable.”

And finally, a selection entitled “Five Tributes”, short pieces written by Atwood that fall into the sci-fi genre. Having been primed about her thoughts on sci-fi in the previous section, these were particularly powerful and moving; Atwood is such a magnificent writer that she often cuts straight to the heart of things with a single, perfectly formed sentence which can devastate the reader. Undercutting all of the stories is her intelligence, her wild imagination, her love of our planet and her horror at what we’re doing to it. These are not just works about science and the future, but are really about the fundamental human condition. Ending the book are two entertaining shorts: an open letter to the Judson Independent School District, who had banned “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and a very entertaining piece on pulp magazine covers – the former a reminder that there are still plenty around who would stifle freedom of expression, and the latter advising us not to be judgemental about what constitutes art and what doesn’t!

We are not only what we do, we are also what we imagine. Perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.

I make no apology for the length of this review, because I think “In Other Worlds” is a profound and important work. It has so many riches that it’s hard to know where to start, really, and I’m still not sure if I’ve actually conveyed just how powerful a book it is. You can see from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy what an effect it had on me and how many things I wanted to quote and remember. I haven’t attempted to pass all of them onto you, because I would have to quote half of the contents and that would be a bit silly. What I can say about this book is that it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year – possibly *the* best, although we still have a few months to go – and that it would most definitely go onto my pile of desert island books. It’s thought-provoking, entertaining, erudite, funny and wise. Who else could range with ease across subjects as wide-ranging as the birth of a reader, the tendency for world-building and the significance of metal bras? I always knew Margaret Atwood was a genius – but reading “In Other Worlds” has confirmed it for all time. As I’ve said, this is not a simple book about sci-fi, but one which touches on matters that involve all humanity and their fate on this small, beautiful and much-abused blue-green planet. All I can say is – go out and read the book- it’s that important.

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