In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is Margaret Atwood's account of her relationship with the literary form we have come to know as "science fiction." This relationship 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 ancestors of the form, and continuing as a writer and reviewer.
This book brings together her three heretofore unpublished Ellmann Lectures from 2010, including "Flying Rabbits," which begins with Atwood's early rabbit superhero creations, and goes on to speculate about masks,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". In Other Worlds also reprints some of Atwood's key reviews of other practitioners of the form and thoughts about SF.
For all readers who love the work of Margaret Atwood, especially The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood—not to mention Atwood's two million-plus Twitter followers—In Other Worlds is a must.
About the author
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.
Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than fifty volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid's Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood's dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006. Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, part of the Massey Lecture series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009. Ms. Atwood's work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.
Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.
Excerpt: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (by (author) Margaret Atwood)
I’m a fifty-three-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer.
In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practising academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.
I say “lifelong,” for among the first things I wrote as a child might well merit the initials SF. Like a great many children before and since, I was an inventor of other worlds. Mine were rudimentary, as such worlds are when you’re six or seven or eight, but they were emphatically not of this here- and- now Earth, which seems to be one of the salient features of SF. I wasn’t much interested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra- normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish. Several- headed man- eating marine life seemed more likely to me, somehow, than Spot and Puff.
Our earliest loves, like revenants, have a way of coming back in other forms; or, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother to the woman. To date— as what I am pleased to think of as an adult— I have written three full- length fictions that nobody would ever class as sociological realism: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Are these books “science fiction”? I am often asked. Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science fiction” as Nineteen Eighty- Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty- Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.
Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy. Back in 2008, I was talking to a much younger person about “science fiction.” I’d been asked by the magazine New Scientist to answer the question “Is science fiction going out of date?” But then I realized that I couldn’t make a stab at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction meant anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences that separate what is clearly “science fiction” from what is not, or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi- accurate or at least lucrative way? If you put skin- tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jetlike flames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work “science fiction”? What about dragons and manticores, or backgrounds that contain volcanoes or atomic clouds, or plants with tentacles, or landscapes reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch? Does there have to be any actual science in such a book, or is the skin- tight clothing enough? These seemed to me to be open questions.
This much younger person— let’s call him Randy, which was in fact his name— did not have a hard and fast definition of “science fiction,” but he knew it when he saw it, kind of. As I told New Scientist, “For Randy— and I think he’s representative— sci- fi does include other planets, which may or may not have dragons on them. It includes the wildly paranormal— not your aunt table- tilting or things going creak, but shape- shifters and people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body.” Here I myself would include such items as Body Snatchers— if of extraterrestrial rather than folkloric provenance— and Pod People, and heads growing out of your armpits, though I’d exclude common and garden- variety devils, and demonic possession, and also vampires and werewolves, which have literary ancestries and categories all their own.
As I reported in my New Scientist article, for Randy sci- fi includes, as a matter of course, spaceships, and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong. Plain ordinary horror doesn’t count— chainsaw murderers and such. Randy and I agreed that you might meet one of those walking along the street. It’s what you definitely would not meet walking along the street that makes the grade. Randy judged such books in part by the space- scapes and leathery or silvery outfits on their covers, which means that my speculations about jacket images are not entirely irrelevant. As one friend’s child put it: “Looks like milk, tastes like milk— it IS milk!” Thus: looks like science fiction, has the tastes of science fiction— it IS science fiction!
Or more or less. Or kind of. For covers can be misleading. The earliest mass- market paperbacks of my first two novels, The Edible Woman and Surfacing, had pink covers with gold scrollwork designs on them and oval frames with a man’s head and a woman’s head silhouetted inside, just like valentines. How many readers picked these books up, hoping to find a Harlequin Romance or reasonable facsimile, only to throw them down in tears because there are no weddings at the ends?
Then there was the case of the former Soviet Union. No sooner did the Wall come down in 1989 than pornography flooded across the one- time divide. Porn had hitherto been excluded in favour of endless editions of the classics and other supposed- to- be- good- for- you works, but forbidden fruit excites desire, and everyone had already read Tolstoy, a lot. Suddenly the publishers of serious literature were hard- pressed. Thus it was that The Robber Bride appeared in a number of Soviet- bloc countries with covers that might be described as— at best— deceptive and— at worst— as a Eurotrash slutfest in flagrante. How many men in raincoats purchased the Robber Bride edition sporting a black- satin- sheathed Zenia with colossal tits, hoping for a warm one- handed time in a back corner, only to heave it into the bin with a strangled Foiled Again! curse? For the Zenia in my book performs what we can only assume is her sexual witchery offstage.
Having thus misled readers twice— inadvertently— by dint of book covers and the genre categories implied by them, I would rather not do it again. I would like to have space creatures inside the books on offer at my word- wares booth, and I would if I could: they were, after all, my first childhood love. But, being unable to produce them, I don’t want to lead the reader on, thus generating a frantic search within the pages— Where are the Lizard Men of Xenor?— that can only end in disappointment.
My desire to explore my relationship with the SF world, or worlds, has a proximate cause. In 2009, I published The Year of the Flood, the second work of fiction in a series exploring another kind of “other world”— our own planet in a future. (I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an infinite number of roads lead away to “the future,” each heading in a different direction.)
"Eminently readable and accessible. . . . Atwood revels in all aspects of the SF genre, both high- and low-brow, and her enthusiasm and level of intellectual engagement are second to none." —Financial Times
"Witty and astute. . . . Wholly satisfying." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Deeply thoughtful, deftly argued, sometimes unexpected—[Atwood] shows readers how science fiction fits into a long, venerable tradition. . . . Bracing, provocative." —Los Angeles Times
"A winning mixture of personal reminiscence and deft scholarship. . ." —Globe and Mail
Other titles by Margaret Atwood
This Time, That Place
We Are Still Here
Afghan Women on Courage, Freedom, and the Fight to Be Heard
Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004-2021
The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments Box Set
Gentleman Death / Perpetual Motion
Penguin Modern Classics Edition
2021 Women Who Rock Our World Wall Calendar
A Father & Son Discuss God, the Bible and Life