|This'll be a short book, I thought Margaret Atwood,
Arthur C Clarke Award-winning author of The Handmaid's Tale, who has
famously and strenuously denied that she writes science fiction, here presents an
"account of her lifelong relationship with the literary form we have come to know as
science fiction" (according to the book's flyleaf). In fact, at various times Atwood
has accepted the label of "social science fiction" and dismissed SF outright as
"talking squids in outer space", but most often she has adopted the position she
lays out in this book's introduction that her genre novels fall under the heading
of "speculative fiction", as entirely distinct from "science fiction".
Atwood's definition of "speculative fiction" is that it "really could
happen" - in essence, it's the kind of extrapolatory storytelling that I think most
of us would put at the very heart of science fiction while "science
fiction" is pure whimsy. (So her GM-gone-mad apocalypse novel Oryx and Crake
clearly isn't science fiction, then thank goodness we've cleared that up.)
main body of In Other Worlds is divided into three parts, and the first two
are made up of collected critical writings that relate to the genre under consideration.
The first part is adapted from a series of three lectures Atwood gave in 2010, and goes
into more detail about how Atwood views her genre writing as well as her personal
experience as a young reader. She here explains that she prefers to think of her own work
as utopian or rather "ustopian", to combine the u- and dys- varieties of
the form in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley. (So, an imagined world both like
and unlike our own, in which the writer can allegorically send up or criticize some aspect
of the real world not at all like science fiction, then.) This first section walks
a knife's edge between insight and wankery.
The second part collects together pieces about specific genre books. There's more
insight than wankery in this part Atwood's examination of The Island of
Doctor Moreau is an unexpected and dazzling gem but it's still a bit of a
The third main section of the book consists of five short pieces of Atwood's writing
that are presented as examples of what she does consider to be science fiction.
There's a transcribed after-dinner conversation about cryogenics, three exercises in
describing crazy ol' humanity to an imagined alien observer, and an extract from The
Blind Assassin in which one protagonist flirts with another by inventing a pulp SF
story for her. Your humble reviewer remained unmoved.
It almost seems petty at this point to mention that all of the superscripted numbers
for the footnotes to refer to are missing from the present edition. Still, there it is.
At times engaging, but more often frustrating, In Other Worlds is a book
that I'm glad to have read once.