In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination
by Margaret Atwood
Doubleday, 255 pp., $24.95
Science fiction is a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency towards myth.
Margaret Atwood’s eclectic and engaging miscellany of essays, reviews, introductions, and “tributes” is a literary memoir tracing the myriad links between science fiction and literature, and relating both to those archetypal forms and structures so famously anatomized by her University of Toronto professor Northrop Frye in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957). It is simultaneously a self-portrait of the artist as an inquisitive, questing, impressionable, and avid reader since childhood of a dazzling variety of popular and esoteric entertainments—from comic strips and comic books to classics of the genre by Jonathan Swift, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell. Atwood’s intention is to break down the artificial distinctions between science fiction and “serious” literature by close readings of works by these writers as well as H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), enormously popular in its time, Bryher’s Visa for Avalon (1965), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2002).
The primary impetus behind In Other Worlds seems to have been a public debate between Atwood and Le Guin on the subject of science fiction, initiated by remarks made by Le Guin in The Guardian in a review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009):
To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things that science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction…. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.
In her admiring essay on Le Guin—“The Queen of Quinkdom”—Atwood notes that Le Guin speaks of science fiction as a genre that “should not be merely extrapolative” and should not attempt “prophetic truth”: “Science fiction cannot predict, nor can any fiction, the variables being too many.” Atwood concurs with Le Guin that “the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed” in what is called “science fiction.” “Thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.” (Certainly this is true of both Atwood and Le Guin, as very fine writers who have undertaken to explore the imaginative possibilities of science fiction and in the process have added inestimably to the riches of the genre in twentieth-century American fiction; but it is probably not true of most practitioners of the genre.) Both writers would describe their fictions as “thought-experiment[s]”—ways of describing “reality, the present world” by way of original metaphors. Both writers would argue that “a novelist’s business is lying”—as a “devious method of truth-telling.”