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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

George Whiteside

Does Thomas Pynchon write science fiction? Does Don DeLillo? David Foster Wallace? Jorge Luis Borges? What about Cervantes, Swift, Mary Shelley or Voltaire? Are there, on the other hand, writers of science fiction who transcend the genre – Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Lethem – and merit status as simple masters of fiction?

In this collection of lectures, reviews and short fiction, Margaret Atwood doesn't so much resolve the dispute as deepen the troubled waters. Among Atwood's 20 volumes of fiction are three titles – The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) – that are routinely labelled science fiction. But their author has aroused ire among the dedicated science fiction/fantasy con-going public, with its Stormtrooper cosplay and Klingon poetry recitals, for refusing to accept the label. She prefers the high-priestessy term "speculative fiction."

"[S]arcely a question period goes by at my public readings without someone asking, usually in injured tones, why I have forsworn the term science fiction, as if I've sold my children to the salt mines," she says in the introduction. But for her, science fiction is the literary lineage that descends from H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, with spaceships and invading aliens, whereas speculative fiction belongs to a cognate branch of the family tree, the one tracing back to Jules Verne and his amazing, yet earth-bound balloons and submarines, "things that really could happen but just hadn't completely happened when the authors wrote the books." Thus: "I would place my own books in this second category: no Martians. Not because I don't like Martians, I hasten to add: they just don't fall within my skill set."

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Okay, no Martians. Atwood is writing here as a lifelong fan of the whole complex of genres in question – SF (science/speculative), fantasy, horror etc. – and as a lifelong fan of them myself, I have no problem with the distinction. But I also don't think it matters much what you call a book of fiction as long as it's compelling; and sometimes you need a Martian to make your point. (Though one does long for a French nuance that Atwood likes, between conte – a tale, as fantastic as you like – and nouvelle: a novel, the news, rooted in life as it's lived.)

As fans go, Atwood is more articulate than most. The densest and most satisfying chunk of this book began life as the Ellman Lectures on Fiction, delivered last year at Atlanta's Emory University. Here, with a winning mixture of personal reminiscence and deft scholarship, some of it left over from her uncompleted Harvard PhD, Atwood traces the mythopoeic roots of SF/F. Quests, romances, map-making and Gothic revenants are all plumbed for their influence on even the pulpiest and most lurid astonishing tale. Northrop Frye, Freud and Jung make regular appearances, as do less expected points of reference such as commedia dell'arte, Leonard Cohen, Gogol and Kafka (guess which is the origin of Batman's mask).

The general argument, that SF/F has deep roots in mythology and imaginative satire, is hardly controversial, and I suspect dedicated fans will find only a little here that they do not already know. But even seasoned veterans of the hilobrow antics on display will appreciate the charm of imagining the Famous Author as dedicated consumer of sci-fi B movies like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, especially when she was supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation at the time.

Most interesting, to me anyway, is the analysis of the origins of her own speculative fiction. The Handmaid's Tale was conceived as a conscious homage to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, down to its controversial academic postscript, which mirrors Orwell's essay on Newspeak – two codas attempting to mitigate the political gloom of the main narratives. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are about the same near-future transition, where traditional human selves have been obviated in a flurry of genetic modification and branded corporate profiteering: clearly events of the plausible, non-Martian kind that trouble Atwood.

Atwood coins here the (not great) term ustopian to capture these ambiguities. A near-future story, supposing it is not just a space-opera romp, can't help but reflect on current conditions, good and bad, and human possibilities likewise. That reflection needn't be overtly political, but it will always have an element of cultural criticism.

Beneath that, in the best of all possible fictional worlds, is the ancient concern with the human condition, the out and back of life, the conflicts between self and other, these perpetual human strivings to make sense of a mute universe. Science fiction, speculative fiction or just fiction – what else?

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and most recently co-author, with Joshua Glenn, of The Wage Slave's Glossary.

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