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 I’d been asked by the magazine New Scientist to answer the question “Is science fiction going out of date?”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.)