In Other Worlds:
SF and the Human Imagination
by Margaret Atwood
Nonfiction — Personal Exploration of SF
Nan A. Talese, October 2011
In Other Worlds is a collection of essays about the Science Fiction genre, its history, and Margaret Atwood’s relationship to the genre. In her own words:
In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practising academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.
Atwood’s desire to write this book stemmed from a book review that was written for two of her books: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. In the review written for the Guardian in 2009, Ursula K. Le Guin–a well-established author of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres who has won numerous awards for her work–brought up the fact that Atwood doesn’t want any of her work to be called science fiction. She disagreed with Atwood’s definition of what science fiction is, and accused Atwood of sloughing off the category in order to protect herself from a genre “still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders.” To the contrary, this is not at all the reason why Atwood doesn’t categorize The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, or The Year of the Flood as science fiction. Atwood realized that the definition of “science fiction” is very fluid, and means different things for different people. Writing In Other Worlds was a way for her to take a closer look at the genre and how it has changed over the many decades that it has been a part of her life.
The book is broken up into three sections. The first section, titled “In Other Worlds,” is Atwood’s personal history with science fiction, and the section’s three chapters originated from the Ellman Lectures Atwood gave at Emory University in 2010. The second section, “Other Deliberations,” is a collection of ten essays that Atwood wrote over a span of years about specific works of SF, including such titles as Bill McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This was by far my favorite part of the book. The last section, titled “Five Tributes,” is a group of Atwood’s own mini-SF pieces, which includes the story of “The Peach Women of Aa’A” from The Blind Assassin.
I have never been disappointed by anything Atwood has written, and In Other Worlds is no exception. I enjoy every bit of her thought processes, her writing, and her candor. Although the whole book was very good, I did have my favorite pieces: “Dire Cartographies,” which discusses utopias and dystopias; her reviews of McKibben’s Enough, Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; and “Of the Madness of Mad Scientists,” in which Atwood talks about where the figure of the mad scientist in SF originated. The mad scientist essay was particularly interesting to me. So much goes into the history of SF, though, that anyone with an interest in the genre will find something that they like and can relate to in the book.
If you’re a fan of SF, or if you’re interested in finding out more about the history of the genre, I highly recommend In Other Worlds. If you aren’t familiar with the SF genre and you’re wondering what it’s all about, read this book. It’s very well written, it has a relaxed, personal feel to it, and it’s full of interesting ideas and information.
(Note: There were two quotes that I found particularly relevant and that made me nod vigorously in agreement. They were a little too long to include in this review, but I posted both on my Tumblr. You can find them here and here. Read them. They’re good.)
(To learn more about Margaret Atwood, please visit her official website.)
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