Thursday, November 24, 2011

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

by Margaret Atwood, a review

You can always expect Margaret Atwood to come at a topic sideways, and this collection of essays is no exception. It opens with a series of three evocative pieces on the relationship between the human imagination and the development of a genre many only begrudgingly title and shelve as "science fiction."

What sets these early essays apart is Atwood's considered interpretation that the lines between genres are not nearly as hard and fast as we might think. Furthermore, she sees origins of the drive to write science fiction and fantasy differently than other authors, because she sees it a natural outgrowth the habits and activities of childhood. One theory she offers from her own childhood, that since she kept failing to build a windmill from her Tinkertoy set (she missed some of the necessary parts), she built fantastical structures and creatures instead.

Atwood continues this (might we call it Jungian?) analysis of science fiction writing throughout. She sees archetypes washing between the various genres--comparing superheroes to Greek mythology and modern fantasy. She sees her own early imaginative world influencing what she writes as an adult.

And in one of her most intriguing theses, she coins the term "ustopia": "A word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia--the imagined perfect society and its opposite--because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other" (66). I find this incredibly helpful, because as we know certain individuals thrive in dystopias and find their place there, whereas every utopia is only the perfect society for those who belong to it, certainly not those who feel excluded from it.

Finally, Atwood in this early section helpful defines "myth": Myths are stories that are central to their cultures and that are taken seriously enough that people organize their rituals and emotional lives around them, and can even start wars over them" (55). Atwood offers this definition in a wide-ranging essay that considers origin myths as well as contemporary sci-fi movies, and everything in between. It's really a lovely essay.

The middle section of this book is a collection of short reviews Atwood has written over the course of her career, all on "classics" in science fiction (H. Rider Haggard, Ursula K. Le Guin, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Jonathan Swift but also a bit more surprisingly Kazuo Ishiguro and Bill McKibben). I found this section very helpful because it introduced me to some important works with which I was unfamiliar, and also expanded my cartography of what I might map as "science fiction." Somehow the full range of what she included is perfectly indicative of the philosophy of science fiction she offered in the first section.

Finally, she concludes with six crisp selections from her own fiction. Although these don't move the argument forward per se, they do illustrate what Atwood has been pondering in her book.

It isn't every day that science fiction readers get the pleasure of reading sustained reflection on the craft by one of its outstanding practitioners. I recommend this book highly for that reason.

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