In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood (Doubleday, 2011) is an interesting book. I confess I rarely read nonfiction these days. Having passed into benign semi-retirement, I no longer feel the urge to keep up-to-date in my erstwhile fields of interest. I can sit back and let the world go by, reading books for fun and catching up on new worlds of television and cinema. It’s therefore a slight challenge to come to a book like this. . .
When I started writing these reviews, I tended to think about where books fitted into a personal context. In some cases, the subject matter would strike chords in my own past or in other books I’d read. I would therefore begin with a semi-autobiographical note either recording the memory for posterity or doing a quick compare and contrast with the other book(s). It’s a bit self-indulgent, but these introductions lay down markers for me. They help me see the wood for the trees, giving me a central image on which to hang the review.
When I was younger and more focussed, I wrote nonfiction at some length. Looking back, I suspect some of these contributions to human knowledge were/are fairly unreadable. I was heavily into some complicated ideas and not always good at capturing them in accessible English. If I could be bothered to rewrite them, I would do better now. With age has come a maturity of understanding (at least, I deceive myself into thinking so). It therefore came as a surprise to read the first four-fifths of these selections from the Atwood pen. Perhaps it’s an age thing since we are not far apart, but almost all these pieces are to some extent semi-autobiographical. This creates some degree of confusion in my reaction. When I wrote nonfiction (actually, I still do write professionally when someone offers me money), I avoided the opportunity to say that, while spending time in my home town as a sprog, I had an experience that coloured my view of [enter subject of article or book]. I pitched in with basic definitions and then started expounding.
No-one has ever paid me to write about science fiction (big hint there — I just throw these pieces off the top of my head and can do better if I allow myself time to think). I was actually looking forward to reading what Margaret Atwood thought about science fiction in particular or fiction that creatively expands our view of the world, blurring genre boundaries as necessary. Yet what we actually get in the first section is not very enlightening on what constitutes science fiction or fantasy, but is an interesting insight into the childhood of someone who has matured into a formidable writing talent, sometimes writing what might be classified as science fiction. So these early pieces and the book reviews following them are neither an autobiography nor are they disquisitions. What we get is a form of dialectic in which she seeks to establish the truth of her own arguments by interrogating her past and referring to books she has read (I notice a certain similarity of form here and must now consider whether to change my own approach). So a real nonfiction piece might take a theme such as the form and use of myths in fiction, or apply early Jungian or Freudian analysis to, say, Victorian literature featuring strong female protagonists. But what we actually get is reminiscences about her time at the University of Toronto and later at Harvard mixed in with the discussion of the role of myths and other subjects of potential interest. There’s nothing wrong with this and it’s all perfectly readable as you would expect of anything bearing the Atwood name. But, to my mind, it fails to deliver anything profound on the intended subject matter.
It actually gets worse when we get to the reviews of both classic and semi-contemporary fiction. Frankly, she sounds off at some length on Rider Haggard, H G Wells, George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin, and so on but, for all the length, they are actually quite superficial. There are far better scholars out there writing more interesting analyses of classic and contemporary science fiction. Then presumably she ran out of nonfiction and, to make up the word count, we get five short pieces of fiction including an extract from The Blind Assassin — a sign of real desperation she had to include an extract from a novel.
So, as I said earlier, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is an interesting book. It’s beautifully written, but there’s little substance here for those who are interested in exploring what science fiction is and how it may contribute constructively to the general discourse. Perhaps this failure is indicative of a certain ambivalence on her part. Margaret Atwood has famously disagreed with Ursula Le Guin on whether books like The Handmaid’s Tale are science fiction. The introduction warns us in self-deprecating terms that she’s not offering a treatise as written by a practising academic. The fact she began a doctoral thesis on a part of this academic area is irrelevant. Rather she’s just intending a “personal history” to illuminate our understanding of the process of creating “other” worlds. If that’s your thing, this is a good example of it. If like me, you prefer your nonfiction without personal anecdotes, you should give this a pass. I note the irony of my objection to this book but, in my defence, I’m not offering up a collection of these reviews at $24.95 asserting that I’m saying something profound about the human imagination.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.