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In Other Worlds… by Margaret Atwood

6th Feb 2012

In Other Worlds... by Margaret Atwood

In publicity interviews, Margaret Atwood is never far from a probing question about whether her dystopian works fit into the sci-fi genre (she prefers the term ‘speculative fiction’).

This book is dedicated to fantasy author Ursula K Le Guin who, in 2009, accused Atwood of trying to “protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders.”

In Other Worlds isn’t a catty response or a retraction of previously stated opinions. It serves as an accessible and intelligent look at the subject matter, striking a balance between storytelling and academic investigation.

The first section of the book comprises three lectures delivered in 2010 exploring Atwood’s upbringing, the links between ancient mythologies and comic books (this is my favourite section for geeking out over in the pub, rolling this out after a few too many whiskeys: “For every Achilles there’s a heel, a condition of vulnerability; for every Superman there’s a kryptonite, a force that negates special powers”!) and the mapping out of her notions of dystopia and utopia.

Section two brings together pieces of writing on specific works both obscure and well known, including She by H. Rider Haggard, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is a treasure trove for anyone interested in literary criticism and what inspires writers to write how and what they do.

In The Blind Assassin’s story within a story, Atwood proved deft at delivering sci-fi with tales of Lizard Men and Peach Women, and the third section of In Other Worlds contains five ‘mini SF’ pieces that she bills as tributes: “sprinkled here and there throughout my work, like breadcrumbs in the tangled wood, are a number of smaller homages to the various SF forms.”

The appendices include an open letter to the Judson Independent School District regarding objections to, and support for, including The Handmaid’s Tale on the curriculum (“it’s not a pretty story, but it’s our story”). Documents such as this provide an interesting context for Atwood’s work and also draw on wider debates around censorship, access and literature in education.

At her best, Atwood is incisive, philosophical and vital; she is never less than inventive, witty and entertaining. It’s the dot-to-dot connections that make this book such a joy – I picked it up as a big fan of Margaret Atwood and dystopian fiction, but I’ve never really delved into sci-fi as a wider genre. My curiosity has certainly been piqued and a lot of the writers and books referenced in In Other Worlds have made their way on to my ‘to read’ list.

Published by Virago, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination is available in hardback for £11.87 or for £8.99 for the Kindle edition.

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended for: A must for fans of sci-fi, Margaret Atwood, dystopian fiction and curious lit-lovers alike.

Other recommended reading: My recommendation would be to read In Other Worlds and keep a pen and paper handy to scribble down a reading list as you go.

But to select a couple: Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy); The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (Ursula K. Le Guin); Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood; a beautiful book by another For Books’ Sake favourite author that blends poeticism with cautionary science fiction: The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson.

Alex Herod