In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination Margaret Atwood

Virago, pp.256, 17.99

Margaret Atwood has written 20 novels, of which three (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) are science fiction. Indeed, the first— and far the best of them — won the inaugural Arthur C. Clarke award, Britain’s chief prize for books in the genre.

She has, however, long resisted any description of her work as science fiction, for which she was mildly upbraided by Ursula K. Le Guin a couple of years ago. Le Guin wrote that Atwood’s distinction between her own novels, which she maintains feature things which are possible, and may even have happened already, and SF, in which things happen that aren’t possible today, was pointless. She concluded that Atwood didn’t ‘want the literary bigots to shove her in the literary ghetto’.

This book attempts to deny that charge, to mark out the boundaries between what Atwood regards as science fiction and fantasy or ‘speculative fiction’ (her preferred term for her non-realist novels), and to describe their relation to myth, romance and other imaginative literature.

I can’t say that it does so very effectively. Atwood’s accounts of her own relationship with SF— which seem peculiarly fixated on skin-tight costumes worn by comic book characters — do not dispel the impression that she shares the sniffiness about the genre common amongst those concerned with ‘literary’ fiction. Rather as Robert Frost considered ‘poet’ a praise word, Atwood regards ‘SF writer’ as a condemnatory term.

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On the other hand, the title ‘literary critic’ she takes awfully seriously, especially when applied to her. Unfortunately, on the evidence of this collection, it’s impossible to share her view. This is not a serious exercise in criticism.

The principal distinction which she draws is between H.G. Wells (or at least the Wells of War of the Worlds) and Jules Verne. Wells’s invasion of Martians ‘could not possibly happen’, and can thus safely be rubbished as science fiction, while Verne’s work, like Atwood’s, is ‘speculative fiction’ — things which could happen but just haven’t ‘completely happened yet when the authors wrote the books’.

There are two problems with this argument. One is that SF almost always tries to explain how its innovations are possible — indeed, tedious and incompetent world-building or ‘infodumping’ are the most evident sins of, and obvious objections to, the genre.

The second is that nobody, not even Atwood, knows what ‘hasn’t happened yet’. Only a couple of months ago, experiments at Cern suggested that one fundamental impossibility of science, and staple of science fiction — travelling faster than light — may not, in fact, be impossible.

Atwood says that her objective is not to provide a catalogue or a grand theory of the field. And, to be fair, in the reprinted reviews which form the centre of the book, she has interesting things to say about Le Guin (to whom this book is dedicated) and about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

There are also essays on the two inescapable books from the last century which don’t count as science fiction, by dint of being good: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World. The best of these pieces, however, is on the third section of Gulliver’s Travels, in which she considers that stock character, the mad scientist, and technologies since developed which startlingly resemble what Swift intended as broad satire.

Before the book is rounded off with a final essay on skin-tight SF clothing (metal bras and corsets on the cover of the 1930s magazine Weird Tales), we are given five very short stories as an example of Atwood’s venture into science — sorry, speculative — fiction. More’s the pity.

All are remarkably unoriginal, in fact, embarrassingly obvious, as SF, but the clunkiness of the writing slightly disguises the lack of ingenuity. If it’s possible to get away with calling this literary fiction, science fiction writers have nothing to feel inferior about.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Genre, History, Literature, Non-fiction, Science Fiction, Writing