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.”
With the good-natured patience of a teacher who has made a point repeatedly yet is still being misunderstood in some quarters, Atwood sets forth her particular set of beliefs regarding science fiction in the introduction, stating her aversion to misleading readers who might be drawn to her speculative novels with the expectation of reading more typical genre work and then being disappointed—“I would like to have space creatures inside [my] books…. But, being unable to produce them, I don’t want to lead the reader on, thus generating a frantic search within the pages—Where are the Lizard Men of Xenor?” Atwood draws a distinction between the more typical genre work and her own predilection for “thought-experiment” fiction:
What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to earth in metal canisters—things that could not possibly happen—whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such—things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians.
The daughter of a prominent forest entomologist at the University of Toronto, and an undergraduate at that university in the heady era of Northrop Frye, Atwood is more concerned with taxonomy than most writers, ever elucidating definitions and subclassifications:
What Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”
As Atwood notes, “bendiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping, and inter-genre visiting has been going on in the SF world…for some time.” She quotes the veteran science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who coined the term “slipstream” in his influential essay of the same name, published in 1989:
[A] category…[is distinct from a] genre…a spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a coherent aesthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an ideology if you will….
I want to describe what seems to me to be a new, emergent “genre,” which has not yet become a “category.” This genre is not “category” SF; it is not even “genre” SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so…. Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.
Apart from this scrupulousness about definitions, which may be of relatively less interest to her readers than to Atwood, In Other Worlds is a wonderfully warm, intimate excursion through Atwood’s life as a reader and as a writer. There is much overlap between Atwood’s memoirist recollections in the first section of the book and the remainder of the book, for she is foremost an avid and enthusiastic reader of any and all texts—an avidity beginning in her childhood of social deprivation but intellectual richness that suggests, to a degree, the legendary childhood of the Brontë children in remote Haworth bordering on the English moors:
I grew up largely in the north woods of Canada, where our family spent the springs, summers, and falls. My access to cultural institutions and artifacts was limited: not only were there no electrical appliances, furnaces, flush toilets, schools, or grocery stores, there was no TV, no radio shows…no movies, no theatre, and no libraries. But there were a lot of books. These ranged from scientific textbooks to detective novels, with everything in between. I was never told I couldn’t read any of them, however unsuitable some of them may have been.
Atwood’s reading is, as one might expect, heterogeneous; her earliest efforts at writing are fantasies (“superhero rabbits” in “Mischiefland”) of a sort common to imaginative children. Looking back at her childhood predilection for comic-book superheroes, Atwood notes that, for instance, Captain Marvel “descends to us, in part, through ancient mythology”; Wonder Woman has “links with the goddess Diana the Huntress,” and Batman “is born of technology alone…entirely human and therefore touchingly mortal, but he does have a lot of bat-machinery and bat-gizmos to help him in his fight against crime.” Atwood asks: “Where do other worlds and alien beings come from?” Is the “under-bed monster” an archetype of “pre-history”? “Could it be that the tendency to produce [other] worlds is an essential property of the human imagination, via the limbic system and the neocortex, just as empathy is?”
In an essay titled “Burning Bushes: Why Heaven and Hell Went to Planet X,” Atwood argues persuasively that myths have become detached from traditional religion, and thus from traditional religious imagery; the mythmaking imagination is now attuned to the “supernatural”—“Planet X.” Atwood’s many questions spring from the analytical-critical-scholarly imagination that once sent her, as a Woodrow Wilson fellow, to Radcliffe for an MA degree in English, in 1962, and from there to Harvard, where she enrolled in the English Ph.D. program, dropping out before she completed a dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance”:
Do stories free the human imagination or tie it up in chains by prescribing “right behavior,” like so many Victorian Christian-pop novels about the virtues of virtuous women? Are narratives a means to enforce social control or a means of escape from it? Is the use of “story” as a synonym for “lie” justified, and if so, are some lies necessary? Are we the slaves of our own stories—our family narratives and dramas, for instance—which compel us to re-enact them? Do stories optimistically help us shape our lives for the better or pessimistically doom us to tragic failure? Do they embody ancient tropes and act out atavistic rituals?
This essay also traces the influence of Northrop Frye upon Atwood, and her fascination with the ways that “myth” may still persist in everyday life, as in classic works of literature: “Thus it was a grave matter to be told as a Canadian—as one constantly was told in the late 1950s—that one lacked a mythology.”
Atwood is very funny about the “old theologies and the old rituals” of the past but she is very funny about new theologies as well. She sees science as a new myth system not so very different from the old, though expressed in a new vocabulary:
Science, too, has generated new myth systems…. Here, for instance, is a new creation myth: the universe began with a Big Bang. Then the Earth was formed of cosmic dust. What came before the Big Bang? A singularity. What is a singularity? We don’t know.
Here is a new origin-of-people myth: people emerged via something called evolution forces from pre-human life forms that also so emerged. Who created the rules for evolution? Life did. Where did life come from? We’re not sure, but we’re working on it. Why are we on Earth? No particular reason.
Atwood notes that in “proper” novels characters are placed for us securely in “social space” by being provided, usually, with a family and a background; such characters experience “inner problems, or conflicts,” in contrast to less realistic, more fabulist works of fiction—by Kafka and Gogol, for instance—in which characters appear virtually out of nowhere, in unrecognizable or radically altered settings. In addition, SF stories can take us where no one has ever gone—in spaceships, or on cyberspace trips that are analogues to ancient quests:
I’m far from the first commentator to note that science fiction is where theologically linked phenomena and reasonable facsimiles of them went after Paradise Lost. The form has often been used as a way of acting out a theological doctrine, as—for instance—Dante’s Divine Comedy was once used…. The religious resonances in such films as Star Wars are more than obvious.
Atwood is particularly illuminating in her discussion of utopias, dystopias, and “ustopias”—(an Atwood-invented word made by combining “utopia” and “dystopia”). Here, texts including She, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, H.G. Wells’s “Country of the Blind,” Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s ubiquitous The Lord of the Rings are discussed in terms of “cartographies”—“mappable locations and states of mind.” Atwood reconsiders her own “metaphysical romance” thesis of four decades previous as a possible answer to her query about her own work: “Why did I jump the tracks, as it were, from realistic novels to dystopias?”