Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human ImaginationIn Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read a lot of Margaret Atwood's fiction, but not a lot of her nonfiction. I was hoping for some insight into why she uses the SF trappings she does in her books, and, in that, I was not disappointed. I also learned some things, along the way, including a whole other way to think of genre fiction, no matter how you label it.

Atwood is known for resisting a "science fiction" label, and she explains within these pages why. It's not because she looks down on science fiction, but because she considers her works to be speculative fiction, a branch she considers separate. (I use it as a catch-all for science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, etc.)

The book is broken up into personal essays and reviews or commentaries on specific works. The publication of these items is often years apart, and so there's some overlap and repetition. What's interesting is that there is no contradiction. By the time Atwood wrote the first of these pieces, she already knew things she's only grown to solidify.

Atwood's higher education background is in Victorian literature. A lot of this book, then, involves themes and novels of that time period, though she does branch out to cover mythology and modern science fiction and superheroes.

The result is a surprisingly cohesive package covering several concepts regarding science fiction's role in our lives. She addresses the snobbish literary attitudes toward genre, pointing out that its greatest sin is that people enjoy reading it. She discusses "ustopia," which is neither dystopia nor utopia, or maybe it's both. It's how she classifies her own works that others (including me) have classified as dystopian: The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. She goes into what influenced these books, and how she feels they distort the modern world, rather than predicting a probable future.

The reviews cover an array of classics and modern stories, from Gulliver's Travels to Never Let Me Go. I was amused to find that, with one exception, I'd either read the books in question, or never heard of them in my life. Luckily, with Atwood's commentary, it sounds like I've been spared having to read them for myself. There's only so much sexism, repression, and colonialism a modern reader can take.

The essays can be repetitive, but this only serves to underline her main points about the universal truths even pulpy science fiction is tapping into. Through these essays, Atwood helps to elevate science fiction, if not to the same level as literary, at least out of the mud into which many critics have kicked it.

If you want to think about your science fiction differently, as part of a greater whole in the history of fiction, I highly recommend you pick this up.

I "read" the audio edition, which is narrated by Margaret Atwood and Susan Denaker. I like to hear the author's intonation when I'm reading a book, though Atwood lacks Denaker's polish. Still, they picked a narrator who sounds similar enough to Margaret Atwood that I forgot the narrators had switched until it switched back. Atwood has a slight Canadian accent, and her voice fades every hour or so, but I enjoyed hearing her read her essays, and I wish she'd been able to read it all. I understand why she couldn't, though, and I'm happy with her temporary replacement.

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  1. Alice, enjoyed your review. Agree: "There's only so much sexism, repression, and colonialism a modern reader can take."

    Marked Other Words "to read" in Goodreads. Also, you reminded me to get back to audio books.

    1. I do a ton of driving for work, so I like to have something to listen to other than the radio. I've read a lot of books I wouldn't have, or that I wouldn't have been able to get to, thanks to audio books and my 10 hours a week (give or take) of driving.

      I really liked the book. It's a bit headier than I usually like my nonfiction, but it's redeemed by the style, voice, and subject matter.

      I hope you like it, too.