In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood

I am quite surprised that I have not seen more mention here there and everywhere, though I could have been looking in the wrong places, about Margaret Atwood’s latest book ‘In Other Worlds’. Those of you who visit Savidge Reads will know that I am a huge fan of Atwood’s (indeed with both my mother and Gran loving her it was only time really until I would feel the same) both for her ‘literary fiction’ and for her ‘speculative fiction’ so I was instantly looking forward to this as a read, especially with its subject matter.

Virago Press, hardback, 2011, non-fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It’s this very thing that lies at the heart of ‘In Other Worlds’ I can’t think of anyone or anything, apart from possibly the Man Booker, which causes such debate about science fiction and ‘literature’ and the divides or lack thereof. I know some people who love her writing and yet feel slightly disappointed she has gone off into these speculative worlds like ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and that she is writing a follow up to ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’.

 I remember reading a very negative piece somewhere that claimed Margaret Atwood didn’t want to be labelled as a science fiction writer and thought ‘that’s a bit snobby’ but this was taken out of context. Then came the Ursula K. Le Guin review of Atwood’s last novel ‘The Year of the Flood’ in which she quoted from (are you keeping up) Atwood’s essays ‘Moving Targets’, which I now really want to read, saying that Atwood didn’t believe her books were science fiction because the things in them were possible and may be happening, therefore they are speculative. Longer story shorter, ‘In Other Worlds’ is Margaret Atwood’s response to this and is even dedicated to Le Guin. It is so much more than a simple SFF vs. the rest of the literary world book though.

The book is set into three sections. In the first ‘In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination’ we are treated to three long essays. The first of which Margaret Atwood discusses her love of science fiction, based on the fact that growing up in rural Canada she would read anything and everything and this meant a lot of her father’s science fiction, comic books, pulp, noir, you name it. She went on to draw and create stories of her own superhero’s… flying rabbits, and looks at the myth of the superhero and compares it to science fiction. The second looks at the myths and religions that make up science fiction in varying ways and the third how Margaret Atwood created ‘ustopia’s’ based on merging utopias and dystopias. I loved this section, in part because the way Atwood writes makes it feel like you are sat having a conversation about these things with her (if only), there is a humour and knowingness as you go along, secondly because it shows the forming of a writer which I always find fascinating and thirdly because it made me think. A lot. This isn’t writing you can rush, you need to read it, pause, think a bit, make some mental notes, read on, have a bigger pause, think more. I loved that this was the effect it had on me.

The second section entitled ‘Other Deliberations’ is a selection of reviews and essays about novels or writing that people see is either definitely science fiction, definitely literary fiction with a science fiction twist or seen as speculative fiction. One of the books she covers is ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (another book I love) and it’s here I think she shows that really does it matter what genre or pigeon hole books are pushed, good and thought provoking writing is what matters. “Ishiguro isn’t much interested in the practicalities of cloning and organ donation… Nor is this a novel about future horrors: it’s set not in a Britain-yet-to-come but a Britain-off-to-the-side.” Not only did I want to rush and read that again, I found all the books she discussed which i hadn’t read such as H. Rider Haggard’s ‘She’ and ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley are going to be racing up the TBR and being borrowed from the library.

The final main section of the book ’Five Tributes’ are works of Atwoood’s which she believes are truly SF works of fiction, they are all slight but all wonderful, I loved everyone of these. I also thought it was particularly clever of her to choose ‘The Peach Women of Aa’A’ from ‘The Blind Assassin’ as the final one. This is a fictional tale written inside her fictional tale at the heart of ‘The Blind Assassin’ and not only reminded me of what an incredible writer she is but how diverse, I smiled to myself that a book which won the Booker does indeed have a science fictional twist in it’s heart and then felt a little cross people forget that. It also reminds the reader that reading shouldn’t be about boundaries people confine them to, in fact all literature should celebrate the fact that the boundaries are endless full stop, so why are we so obsessed with defining it?

I hope that you come away from this long ramble that forms a ‘review’ or set of ‘book thoughts’ with an inclination to pick up this book when you can. It’s a book for book lovers in the fact that it’s overall theme is the celebration of writing, and then looking at the way we take writing in and pass on our thoughts. It also shows once again what a wonderful writer Margaret Atwood is regardless of whatever genre of writer you might feel the need to put her in. ‘In Other Worlds’ is certainly one of my books of the year without a doubt.

So where do you sit on the Margaret Atwood Speculative vs. Science vs. Literary fiction debate and why do we feel the need to pigeon hole and then get defensive over those pigeon holes?

P.S Small note to say this was a hot topic between myself and Gavin on this weeks The Readers podcast which you can listen to here.


Filed under Books of 2011, Margaret Atwood, Non Fiction, Review, Virago Books

21 responses to “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood

  1. Claire mentioned this book in book group during the week — it sounds intriguing. Mind you, I’m not a massive Atwood fan, but then I’ve only read two of her novels so probably need to read more before I decide whether I really like her or not.

    I think the debate between literary fiction and genre fiction is interesting — I read crime fiction and literary fiction, occasionally dabble in science fiction — but I don’t know if it serves any purpose other than to try to make out that one sort is more high-brow than another. If people read fiction — ANY kind of fiction — surely that matters more than what TYPE of fiction they read?

    • Thanks for the mention, Kim. I brought this up at book group as it is one of the books I have been reading recently; I have been eking it out for as long as possible as I am enjoying it thoroughly. The section about her own reading and early writing is fascinating, the section about seminal SF books has me rushing to read those discussed that I haven’t read and I look forward to the third section as I love Atwood’s work. I think she is adamant that she doesn’t write science fiction and her essays prove it to the limit of her interpretation of the genre… I think originally the furore was skewed but I have followed the arguments since with interest. Genre should loosely be used to indicate subject matter but never quality; Atwood is an exceptional writer and it doesn’t matter whether her books are pigeon-holed as literary fiction, speculative fiction or science fiction as her fans are going to read them anyway.

  2. Simon, I sent you a link to a long article about Atwood. Did you receive it? If not, I’ll resend the link. It had many interesting discussions about all of her works.

  3. Atwood is one of those authors where everytime I pick up one of her books I find myself wondering why I didn’t pick up before. I always put her down as dystopian fiction (not that I ever give much thought to these things) in the same kind of way that 1984 is. The reason those kinds of books are quite thought provoking or disturbing in their way is because they are perfectly plausable. I’ll spend time thinking about the matters in her books rather that the matter of which genre they fall into 🙂

  4. lizzysiddal

    Atwood with her scientific background is more qualified than I to define the boundaries between speculative fiction and SF. There are things going on in the laboratories that I’m sure would give me nightmares if I knew about them.

  5. gaskella

    I’m lucky in that I love most genre fiction including SF and speculative fiction alongside conventional litfic, and as long as it’s a good read I’m happy. I do think it’s a shame that a lot of people appear to think genre = lower writing quality – it should only give a guide to the subject matter. These essays sound rather interesting though, and I will add to my list.

  6. I agree with Annabel that the genre labels should merely be about subject matter, not about quality. I’ve enjoyed books in just about every genre and found good and bad writing in them all as well.

    I love that point about Never Let Me Go. I’ve always felt that the book was more about coming to terms with mortality than about the ethics of organ donation. That’s just the vehicle that causes the characters to face their mortality.

  7. I too use genre labels only to indicate subject matter. There’s great literary fiction and crappy literary fiction just like there’s great science fiction and crappy science fiction. I feel like some readers tie up their sense of self-worth in what they read. They read literary fictions so they’re obviously smarter and more serious than the rest of us. Or they read science fiction so they’re everyday folks, not part of that evil elite. Rather than labeling a book, tell me if it’s any good.
    /rant over

  8. For me, genre is only a comment on quality if a book isn’t able to transcend that genre for general readers. Meaning that someone like Margaret Atwood produces books that are both science fiction and literature. Never Let Me Go (how good was that one?! Loved it) was both science fiction and literature. They are both something “more.” “Literature” to me is simply saying that something has a higher level of mechanical competence and thematic sophistication- it has some kind of “X factor” that makes it more than it’s plot or characters.
    However, if someone says something is “just fantasy” or “just mystery,” I take that to mean that it’s a book that doesn’t transcend the genre’s tropes or conventions and that if you don’t generally find those types of stories entertaining, it’s probably not for you. I’d say that John Grisham is “just legal thriller” – but I like legal thrillers, so I’m game (an example of something that is legal thriller and literature is To Kill a Mockingbird); whereas I don’t generally like “just chick lit,” so I’m less likely to read a book that’s being sold as that (an example of something that is chick lit and literature is Pride and Prejudice).
    People get defensive about things being “just ” because they don’t want to be perceived as liking something with less quality. But why bother? It’s fine to read things that aren’t going to stand the test of time for the general public. I can’t get enough of “The Real Housewives,” but I’m not going to try to argue it should get an Emmy. I like “just genre” and literature, and there’s nothing wrong with either- they’re helpful for people to find what they are likely to enjoy and to narrow the selection field for prizes and English teachers.

  9. Louise

    I haven’t read as much Atwood as I’d like to, I loved The Handmaids Tale and I loved her short stories in Good Bones. I haven’t read Oryx and Crake but I really enjoyed The Year of the Flood. I don’t usually read things back to front but somehow I did, anyway I don’t think you can really pigeon hole Atwood, and I think that’s what I love about her, that she can pretty much write anything.. I read and enjoy speculative fiction, however I’ve not had much to do with science fiction, maybe because I always think aliens, and I know it’s a whole lot more than that, I enjoy fantasy, I would class that as a separate genre to sf and spec fic, I think Atwood is all these genre and something else entirely… people do get defensive about pigeons holes and lables I think it’s partly a snobbery thing too, not for all but some.. I’m going to stop now, I have too many thoughts 😉 brilliant post Simon!

  10. Louise

    I forgot to say, that I really enjoyed the debate between you and Gavin.

  11. Pingback: Margaret Atwood and China Mieville – The Savidge Reads Advent Calendar Day 10 | Savidge Reads

  12. I need to go and get this right now. I very much enjoy science fiction (although some SF genre’s more than others) and I have always thought that it is a greatyl overlooked genre. I have to admit that I think of speculative fiction as a type of science fiction and it would be interested to read Atwood’s take on this and other related issues.

    Have you ever read her book Payback? It’s another fabulous non-fiction books she wrote about debt that has had a lating impact on me and the way I think about a lot of things

  13. Femke

    I recently read ‘The handmaid’s tale’ as my first Atwood and loved it. I have no formal literary education, so I tend to bypass the genre indications and just read what appeals to me and what not.

    That said, to me personally the label ‘science fiction’ really emphasizes the ‘science’ aspect, that some advanced modern technology is the catalyst for the fiction. I think that Margaret Atwood’s catalysts, at least for the Gileadan society in ‘The handmaid’s tale’, are more related to human nature. Although there was some catastrophe/nuclear war, that only served to provide a window of opportunity. The catastrophe is not really of interest, the interesting point is how the people dealt with the consequences.

    But it is a very interesting discussion, and I look forward to reading more Atwood, including the book you mentioned in this post. Thanks!

  14. Do readers and writers really need to pigeon-hole themselves into a particular genre? I am a big fan of cross-over fiction and books that don’t fit into any category. I like books like Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights that do not fit into any classification. I understand booksellers need to categorise books, but shouldn’t writers and readers challenge those boundaries?

  15. Personally I feel such categories are largely unhelpful. The argument in their favour is that oftentimes people like to read “more of the same” and they therefore latch onto genre classifications. But if this is true then a lot of people are missing out, if only because their reading is being decided by a publisher or bookseller’s choice of classification, when there are many books out there that could fit into multiple genres.

    The science/speculative/literary fiction split is particularly interesting to me because I read a lot of books in these areas. There is far too much snobbery on both sides. I have heard SF fans say that The Time Traveller’s Wife, for example isn’t “real” SF and that’s why it was sold as literary fiction. I think on the contrary that it could happily sit in either category but because the author’s other work isn’t SF and lit-fic has a bigger audience they plumped for that one. And then of course there’s the lit-fic snobs who say that all SF is poorly written, conveniently ignoring how many classics are SF: 1984, Frankenstein, The Stepford Wives, Brave New World…I could go on and on.

    As for science fiction vs speculative fiction, I’d suggest there is no distinction. All science fiction is speculative, isn’t it? I think there is a tendency to use “speculative fiction” to avoid negative connotations of science fiction, but that only serves to perpetuate the snobbery.

    It’s worth remembering that the “science” in science fiction doesn’t always have to be physics or biology. There are some great SF books that explore sociological or psychological questions. But of course if you extend that too far you can argue that almost any novel is SF!

  16. I don’t pigeonhole writers, I have no negative feelings about genres and thus I have no need to defend or attack them. In what way is there a debate over Science vs Literary Fiction (I’m assuming that means two “types” of fiction and not a Science vs Humanities debate)?

    Maybe I just don’t think, if I’m so unconcerned or unconnected with the question?

  17. I though I’d read somewhere she tried to disassociate herself from sci-fi, but it clearly isn’t the case. I really loved The Handmaid’s Tale and O&C. I’m really curious to know her thoughts on Never Let Me Go (in my top 10).

  18. Ruthiella

    I really like Margaret Atwood, so I look forward to this one. Personally, I find the debate between Hard Science Fiction /Speculative Fiction/Literary Fiction entertaining (I will have to check out your podcast). I hope it is never put to rest, because I enjoy the discussion and particularly books that overlap genres. Please do read Brave New World. It is one of my favorite books.

  19. Loretta

    There is nothing more exciting for me than a rousing discussion on Atwood, one of my favorite authors. I do see the argument for differentiating between novels about what could happen given our view of life on our planet (speculative fiction) and science fiction, which to me always includes aliens, life on other planets, etc. Where does the dystopian fall into these loosely defined genres? These all seem closely related enough that they can be all grouped together in one genre. It seems that one concern is that science fiction (and fantasy) is sometimes considered to be of lower quality than literary fiction. I need to read Atwood’s book, definitely. Thanks for this posting…

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