In Other Worlds
SF and the Human ImaginationBook - 2011
At a time when speculative fiction seems less and less far-fetched, Margaret Atwood lends her distinctive voice and singular point of view to the genre in a series of essays that brilliantly illuminates the essential truths about the modern world. This is an exploration of her relationship with the literary form we have come to know as "science fiction," a relationship that has been lifelong, stretching from her days as a child reader in the 1940s, through her time as a graduate student at Harvard, where she worked on the Victorian ancestor of the form, and continuing as a writer and reviewer. This book brings together her three heretofore unpublished Ellmann Lectures from 2010: "Flying Rabbits," which begins with Atwood's early rabbit superhero creations, and goes on to speculate about masks, capes, weakling alter egos, and Things with Wings; "Burning Bushes," which follows her into Victorian otherlands and beyond; and "Dire Cartographies," which investigates Utopias and Dystopias. In Other Worlds also includes some of Atwood's key reviews and thoughts about the form. Among those writers discussed are Marge Piercy, Rider Haggard, Ursula Le Guin, Ishiguro, Bryher, Huxley, and Jonathan Swift. She elucidates the differences (as she sees them) between "science fiction" proper, and "speculative fiction," as well as between "sword and sorcery/fantasy" and "slipstream fiction." For all readers who have loved The Handmaid's Tale , Oryx and Crake , and The Year of the Flood , In Other Worlds is a must.
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If you're a fan of SF (science fiction, or the more inclusive acronymic interpretation speculative fiction), and you keep up with your author news, you know that Margaret Atwood has a somewhat troubled relationship with the genre and the label. Three of her books now – *The Handmaid's Tale*, *Oryx and Crake* and *The Year of the Flood* – could arguably be considered science fiction, and definitely fall comfortably into the speculative fiction category. So, what was with the much-publicized spat between Atwood and SF giant Ursula Le Guin, in which Atwood denied authoring any science fiction books? *In Other Worlds* seems to be Atwood's explanation to the slighted genre fiction community.<br />
In the first section of the book, she declares her enthusiastic and abiding love for science and speculative fiction, and explains why she believes her work doesn't fall into the science fiction genre. She attempts a definition of science fiction, has a lively, funny discussion of why the genre's so hard to define, and deals accessibly with what functions the genre plays in our cultural psyche. The first section is, admittedly, lit theory. But Atwood's personal anecdotes and sharp sense of humour, along with her unabashed geekiness, keep the pace rolling nicely and the theory from becoming too heavy.<br />
The second section of the book contains essays she's written on different classic SF works, wherein she applies the theory she's laid out in the first section. The third section includes some very interesting short bits of SF that Atwood has admitted to authoring. These pieces tend to have appeared in her full-length works, as either short discussions or stories written and told by characters. She's deliberately chosen fragments that are entertaining, which will be good news to readers who sometimes find Atwood a little dark and depressing. The book ends off with some appendices that are not to be missed - especially a short, blazingly snarky bit on the history of women's attire on covers of SF works. For that matter, even the book's cover is lined with some pretty adorable SF-inspired doodles by Ms Atwood herself.<br />
For all her gleefully evil snarkiness, it's obvious that Atwood loves SF, and that she's been much inspired by the genre and its tropes since childhood. She's a fan, she wants you to be a fan, and she thinks SF does essential work in our cultural imagination. This book is a must-read for confirmed SF geeks, especially ones who love Atwood. And, hey, just a reminder: She'll be at the Tom Patterson Theatre discussing this book on Saturday, August 18th. Tickets are available through the Festival website for anyone who wants to take their geeking to the next level.
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