Reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination

A change of venue, as I reprint a more recent review from Foundation,  originally published last year.

In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood
(Virago, 2011)

It is almost impossible to write about Margaret Atwood in relation to the science fiction and fantasy genres without reference to her now notorious ‘squids in space’ comment. What seems to have been originally an off-the-cuff remark on a tv morning chat show has been taken up by genre fans and commentators as the prime example of Atwood’s ignorance of and lack of sympathy for the contemporary genre. On the other hand writers who want to use genre topoi while rejecting that problematic genre label now brandish the phrase as a shield against what they regard as the wrong sort of critical attention. In subsequent interviews Atwood herself has come back to versions of the phrase, though whether because she sincerely believes what she said, because it has become part of her ‘brand’, or because, as I have come to suspect, she simply likes winding up critics of genre is not clear.

Given there is no ignoring the presence of the cephalopod in the Atwood sitting room, how then does one address In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, which one might take as Atwood’s definitive statement on the subject. The collection is comprised of three parts. First, we have the three Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature given by Atwood at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, in 2010. Secondly, there is a selection of reviews of and introductions to science fiction novels, written by Atwood during the 2000s, with an outlier from 1976. Lastly, there is a selection of short fictions by Atwood which she has designated (confusingly, for reasons that will become clear later) ‘science fiction’.

To begin with, we should be clear that Atwood knows what science fiction is, or rather, she knows what it is she points to and calls ‘science fiction’, in much the same way that most of us have a personal working definition of sf. Atwood’s definition is distinguished by two things: its unusual rigidity and the fact that Atwood, as a public figure, is better placed than most to promulgate that definition. John Clute noted in his review of this book in the Los Angeles Review of Books that during the ‘squids in space’ controversy he had argued ‘that a person who had attained a public voice had a public responsibility […] not to allow offhand comments to be understood as discourse’. Similarly, he reminded us that Ursula K Le Guin ‘made it clear that the squids-in-space bon mot was genuinely discourteous’. I see no reason to disagree with either statement. It may be that Atwood’s comment was simply careless but it is a terrible reminder to us of the power of words, and of the care that needs to be exercised in using them, not least that ten years later we cannot escape their effect.

Nor do I seek to frame this discussion in terms of an ongoing disagreement between Atwood and Le Guin about the nature of science fiction (though if I were to do such a thing, I would say here and now that my sympathy lies mainly with Le Guin, whose perception of genre is both more capacious and yet more nuanced than Atwood’s [or at any rate, it did when I wrote this review. I’m still reading through the material pertaining to the Ishiguro incident, and have only just read the novel, but my views have undoubtedly shifted somewhat.]) yet Le Guin’s presence looms over every page of this collection, from the dedication to her, through Atwood’s discussion of Le Guin’s review of The Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake, which initiated another round of discussion as to what Atwood means by ‘science fiction’, to Atwood’s inclusion of her puzzled review of Le Guin’s The Birthday of the World and Other Stories.

In fact, let’s start with that review, which very clearly articulates Atwood’s lack of ease with the term ‘science fiction’. ‘[I]t’s an awkward box: it bulges with discards from elsewhere. Into it have been crammed all those stories that don’t fit comfortably into the family room of the socially realistic novel or the more formal parlour of historical fiction, or other compartmentalized genres: westerns, gothics, horrors, gothic romances, and the novels of war, crime, and spies’ (115). And that’s before Atwood goes on to list the many subdivisions of sf and fantasy in tones of fascinated horror. Her choice of words is interesting, too – ‘discards’ carries with it a certain flavour of the orphan child, or the unacceptable by-blow, while ‘awkward’ and ‘bulges’ suggest a lack of neatness. All of these are clearly antithetical to the ‘comfortably’ that is associated with the ‘family room’ of the ‘socially realistic novel’.

It is this last category that we should necessarily take note of. For Atwood’s perception of science fiction is founded in part on her fierce need to distinguish between the social realist and the fantastical, and to make an equally fierce distinction between the novel and the romance. The novel belongs to social realism while the romance is the form associated with the fantastic. And for Atwood ne’er the twain shall meet. In theory at least, though in practice this becomes rather more difficult, for what then is one to make of The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that most regard as science fiction, yet which is clothed in the trappings of the social realist novel, as defined by Atwood – texture, detail, character.

And this is where Atwood performs her great feat of legerdemain. First, she proclaims her own ‘lifelong relationship’ with science fiction, which she defines, from the outset, as ‘not of this here-and-now Earth’ (1). Yet, on the following page, Atwood admits that, as of 2008, she ‘didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction meant any more’ (2). Four pages later, Atwood redefines science fiction again: ‘What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds […] whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” [Atwood’s preferred term for her sf at this point] means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books’ (6). Neither definition of sf is objectionable in and of itself; most critics and academics are able to hold both in their heads simultaneously. Atwood, however, seems to prefer, indeed to insist on dichotomy and thus one must have one or the other but no kind of synthesis.

Yet Atwood, and despite her own protestations to the contrary, also seems to be driven by a need to keep making definitive statements about meaning, and this brings us back to Le Guin. In 2010, the two writers took part in a public discussion, during which Atwood, by her own account, found that what ‘Le Guin means by “science fiction is what I mean by “speculative fiction” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.” […] When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance.’ (7) Again, these conclusions might seem unsurprising to scholars of genre, but with Atwood having apparently found her way to a broader understanding of the terminology, one might suppose that the matter would be finally closed.

Except that the Ellmann Lectures suggest that the situation is otherwise. Indeed, in ‘Dire Cartographies’, the third in the series, Atwood offers us yet another new perception of her ‘science-fictional’ works. They should now be read as ‘ustopias’, a word Atwood claims to have coined by joining utopia and dystopia, on the basis that in each utopia is a latent dystopia, and vice versa. Her tone does smack rather of the clever if poorly read undergraduate coming up with a brilliant new idea, without taking due regard of the considerable body of criticism and analysis of utopian literature, yet it is clear from Atwood’s account of her postgraduate studies that at some point at least she was more than passingly familiar with the state of utopian studies, even if she did not keep up with her critical reading.

Indeed, it is this facet of Atwood’s account of her relationship with sf, or at any rate with utopian literature, that is to me the most interesting and revealing part of the lectures, in that we see a young and thoughtful Atwood putting together ideas that, while they may seem old hat now, were most likely fairly cutting-edge at that point, and one can’t help wondering how her storytelling might have turned out had she maintained a closer relationship with academe.

Similarly, the glimpses of the child Margaret are illuminating. We see two children (Atwood and her brother), with limited access to forms of culture we take for granted, pouring their imaginative energies into creating a race of rabbit superheroes. It is clear from Atwood’s account that her early apprehension of science fiction is intensely visual, influenced as much by comic strips and the occasional film as by the drawing of the rabbits’ adventures, and this is reflected in her later concern with the defining of science fiction (‘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”?’ (2)) but also in her fascination with utopian literature, which she identifies as in part being about making lists and describing things. Indeed, it would seem that Atwood’s understanding of sf is literally superficial, in that to her it is all about surface and appearance, whereas utopian or ustopian literature, despite its similar preoccupation with things, or perhaps because of its avowed interest in paraphernalia, has been transmogrified into a form of social realism after all.

Anyone who comes to this collection of writings in search of a definitive answer as to what it means when Atwood uses the words ‘science fiction’ is probably going to be disappointed. However, the Ellmann Lectures do provide a valuable glimpse into the foundations of Atwood’s thinking on the issue. Having said that, it does seem to me that Atwood is using the quasi-academic context of the Ellmann Lectures (addressed, so far as I can see, to a general rather than scholarly audience) as a means to establish a discourse in which her unusually narrow definition of science fiction is given a greater validity than I ultimately think it deserves.

The alert reader almost immediately notices that Atwood returns to the same few exemplary texts over and over again, texts which are now extremely old. This is true of the lectures and of Atwood’s reviews. Sterling and Gibson get a mention apiece, as does Silverberg, but it’s clear too that for Atwood, sf or utopian literature stopped dead in the 1950s, at the point when she abandoned her PhD. Similarly, looking at the selection of reviews offered here, one has the sense of Atwood constantly reploughing the same single furrow. Perhaps the most revealing moment comes from seeing how little her view has shifted between her 1976 review of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, which Atwood insists is a utopia, to her most recent reviews. Certainly, in her most recent reviews, there is a sense of weary familiarity, as Atwood once again reaches for the set responses.

Scholars will also note the lack of a useful critical apparatus; footnotes are minimal and those that exist are often risible, as though their compiler had no sense of the audience for whom this book is intended, and there is no accompanying bibliography for those who want to read further. Indeed, the collection as a whole is not indexed so it is difficult to track repeated mentions of particular texts unless one takes notes.

If as I suspect, the Lectures were supposed to state Atwood’s position once and for all, then they have failed in their intent. Or rather, the Lectures present a coherent argument in and of themselves, though one that it is easy to take issue with. It is when they are considered in relation to Atwood’s reviews in this collection alongside the five stories, which she does actually describe as ‘science fiction’, though all of them are clearly ‘utopian’ in nature, that Atwood’s argument collapses yet again. (The inclusion of these reviews and stories or extracts is something of a mystery. Clearly the three Lectures were considered too insubstantial to form a book by themselves but one is left with the impression that Atwood literally went through her files, looking for anything mentioning utopian or science fiction, and included them to bulk things out.)

Presumably, Margaret Atwood will continue to formulate explanations of her work that insist that certain aspects of it are not, contrary to appearance, science fiction, and elements of the sf community will continue to express anger and frustration at her apparent wilfulness. The point is that try as she will, Atwood cannot control the reader’s response to her writing, and for many commentators The Handmaid’s Tale, The Year of the Flood, Oryx and Crake and Maddaddam are as much science fiction as they are utopian, ustopian, or speculative fiction, or whatever else Atwood chooses to call them. In the end, what they actually are has become almost less interesting than Atwood’s attempts to tell us what they are not.