Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

In Other Worlds In Other Worlds
by Margaret Atwood

Supplied for review by Hachette New Zealand

Reviewed By: John Toon

This'll be a short book, I thought – Margaret Atwood, Arthur C Clarke Award-winning author of The Handmaid's Tale, who has famously and strenuously denied that she writes science fiction, here presents an "account of her lifelong relationship with the literary form we have come to know as science fiction" (according to the book's flyleaf). In fact, at various times Atwood has accepted the label of "social science fiction" and dismissed SF outright as "talking squids in outer space", but most often she has adopted the position she lays out in this book's introduction – that her genre novels fall under the heading of "speculative fiction", as entirely distinct from "science fiction". Atwood's definition of "speculative fiction" is that it "really could happen" - in essence, it's the kind of extrapolatory storytelling that I think most of us would put at the very heart of science fiction – while "science fiction" is pure whimsy. (So her GM-gone-mad apocalypse novel Oryx and Crake clearly isn't science fiction, then – thank goodness we've cleared that up.)

The main body of In Other Worlds is divided into three parts, and the first two are made up of collected critical writings that relate to the genre under consideration. The first part is adapted from a series of three lectures Atwood gave in 2010, and goes into more detail about how Atwood views her genre writing as well as her personal experience as a young reader. She here explains that she prefers to think of her own work as utopian – or rather "ustopian", to combine the u- and dys- varieties of the form – in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley. (So, an imagined world both like and unlike our own, in which the writer can allegorically send up or criticize some aspect of the real world – not at all like science fiction, then.) This first section walks a knife's edge between insight and wankery.

The second part collects together pieces about specific genre books. There's more insight than wankery in this part – Atwood's examination of The Island of Doctor Moreau is an unexpected and dazzling gem – but it's still a bit of a mixed bag.

The third main section of the book consists of five short pieces of Atwood's writing that are presented as examples of what she does consider to be science fiction. There's a transcribed after-dinner conversation about cryogenics, three exercises in describing crazy ol' humanity to an imagined alien observer, and an extract from The Blind Assassin in which one protagonist flirts with another by inventing a pulp SF story for her. Your humble reviewer remained unmoved.

It almost seems petty at this point to mention that all of the superscripted numbers for the footnotes to refer to are missing from the present edition. Still, there it is.

At times engaging, but more often frustrating, In Other Worlds is a book that I'm glad to have read – once.

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