If this column were a tiny mom and pop pizza-by-the-slice joint, and the articles ruminating on literary/genre crossovers were slices of nifty pizza, then the release of Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination would be like a gourmet style pizza place with even lower prices opening up across the street. I’d be out business! Luckily, no parties involved are in competition or in the pizza business, and instead I can devour this book with pleasure. But unlike pizza, the subject matter won’t make your mind fat or bloated because Atwood’s non-fiction graceful dives into the discussion of genre and literature are beyond sharp. They’re revelatory.
In Other Worlds is divided into three sections. The first, “In Other Worlds” consists of new works of non-fiction unique to this book on the subject of Margaret Atwood’s feelings and opinions about SF. “Other Deliberations” consists of previously published or discussed pieces on the same subject, which also includes a handful of book reviews. Finally, “Five Tributes” explores other topics Atwood is interested that directly relate to SF. The “Other Deliberations” section is fantastic, though for the purposes of talking about the book, I’ll mostly leave it alone because the various books and authors covered could very well serve as their own entries into this very column. (Atwood’s piece on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go makes me blush with jealousy.) The point is, it’s hard to talk about this book without simply saying: READ ALL OF IT. In the introduction to an old Isaac Asimov book of non-fiction called Quasar, Quasar Burning Bright, Asimov bemoans the death of the use of the word “essay” as a verb meaning “to attempt or try.” This is something I’d like to rectify. So, now I’ll essay to highlight the best bits of Atwood’s particularly insightful gathering of texts on this subject.
Though the newer texts in the book ask a lot of rhetorical questions about how we can truly define a genre, a section taken from Atwood’s review of Le Guin’s The Birthday of the World is particularly instructive in thinking about off-the-rack definitions for what we talk about when we talk about science fiction. Atwood says:
Into it [science fiction] have been crammed all those stories that don’t fit comfortably into the family room of the socially realistic novel or the moral formal parlour of historical fiction, or the compartmentalized genres: westerns, gothics, horrors, or gothic romances, and the novels of war, crimes and spies. Its subdivisions include science fiction proper (gizmo-riddled and theory-based space travel, time travel, or cybertravel to other worlds, with aliens frequent); science fiction fantasy (dragons are common; the gizmos are less plausible, and may include wants); and speculative fiction (human society and its possible future form, which are either much better than what we have now or much worse). However, the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm.
I love this passage for many reasons. If you think about it for one second, these definitions aren’t that bad at all, and could be quite useful. Sure, part of the agenda of Genre in the Mainstream is to break down the various ghetto walls between literary fiction and SF, but pretending these dividers don’t exist isn’t a useful part of the discussion. But I like Atwood’s permeable membranes better! The idea that genres can ooze into each other because they’re all neighbors is not only completely true, but also extremely optimistic for the future of all the genres involved. At first glance this type of taxonomy and metaphorical examination of these relationships might not seem profound, but it is because of its clarity. Part of what’s so frustrating about genre divide and discussions about what science fiction means in the pantheon of literature is that we’re only limited by the language that we actually possess. Again, this might not sound profound, but if I were a telepath, demonstrating that I believe Wuthering Heights is very similar to The Demolished Man would be easy for someone to comprehend. But because we lack that brain link-up, the discussion has to take place with our puny and limited human language, and for that, we need some rules. Atwood’s above passage I think defines those rules wonderfully.
Atwood is keenly aware of the reputation science fiction has in many literary circles, going so far as to call it “sluttish” at one point. However, she tempers this early on with memoir-style sections detailing the kinds of tastes she developed as a young person. Here, she asserts that she developed a taste for all sorts of “brows” high, low and middle. This is something else that I think is empowering and not just for a discussion about genre and how it may or may not be taken seriously. A handmaiden (pun intended) of the discussion of literature and science fiction is the discussion about why we read in the first place. Is it simply for entertainment? When does entertainment become important? Does art have to be “serious” do be important? Should we care? In a previous article, I talked about depressing science fiction novels that seem to take all the attention in serious critical circles. Though I wouldn’t call The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, or Year of the Flood laugh riots by any stretch of the imagination, it’s nice to know that Atwood herself has a sense of humor, which is certainly evident not only in these texts, but also in her creation of the fictional Lizard Men of Xenor in The Blind Assassin.
The emotional take-away from the sections about Atwood’s childhood have a sort of reverse Christopher Robin effect for me. At the end of House at Pooh Corner, Christopher Robin leaves the Hundred Acre wood forever. Here, Atwood writes lovingly about the flying rabbit heroes she dreamt up as a little girl, and the bug-eyed monsters she delighted in as an adolescent. Her writing then, seems to be an attempt to return to those flights of fancy, though not necessarily in the ways she thought it would turn out.
As an adult however, Atwood’s writing of SF seems to take on a little more of a moral imperative insofar the author is very aware that the acceptance of fantastic fiction seems to have something in common with the evolution of social mores. As she notes:
In the seventeenth-century New England, your health could be permanently affected by whether your story about witchcraft affirmed or denied its existence.
This notion plays into what I think is another major revelation of the book, in which Atwood talks about the evolution of science fiction as an art form and the invisible influences we might not think of it having. We know science fiction comes from a fascination with science and the unknown, but what else? Atwood answers that here:
If the “fantasy” end of science fiction owes a large debt to folk tale and myth and the saga, the “science fiction” end owes an equally large debt to the developments in archeology and anthropology as serious disciplines, as distinct from the tomb looting and exploration-for-exploitation that preceded them and continued alongside them.
We often get caught up with what science fiction is or is not saying about science, but what I think gets lost in that discussion is how it functions as an art form in concert with a social discipline. Often, anthropology certainly has more to do with Star Trek than any hard science, no matter how many times they talk about a warp field. The same is true of the work of Margaret Atwood. Though her dystopias (she prefers the term “ustopia”) evoke future technology which are likely to occur (like lab-grown meat) it isn’t the fascination with the science or the “gizmos” which drive the kind of SF Atwood is interested in. For the most part, I’d argue that the science part of science fiction is inherent to its definition, but not part of its soul. The science is its heart, and the anthropology is its soul.
The conclusions another reader might draw from this engaging book may be different than the ones I outlined above. But here, Atwood backs me up. In a section called “Dire Cartographies” she attempts to reconcile the various messages of her novels by saying, “As it always the reader, rather than the writer who has the last word about any book, I leave that to you.”
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He is the creator and curator of Genre in the Mainstream.