Thursday, July 19, 2012

In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood


Atwood is not a SF writer, as she's stated a number of times -- along with comments that many of us who do read and/or write the stuff regularly took to be derogatory -- but this is a book entirely about her readings of and engagement with SF works and ideas. And I'd love to engage closely with her ideas -- she's a smart woman who's thought a lot about SFnal stuff, though she doesn't really know the field, or understand how her arguments fit into a much larger historical conversation -- but I read this long enough ago that I can't do that now without re-reading the whole thing.

Atwood is another one of those writers with a very idiosyncratic definition of SF -- in her case, as with most writers, it's designed to showcase how wonderful and special and unique her work is; nearly every writer wants to believe that, so similar constructions are very common -- which makes internal sense but doesn't line up with any generally useful wider definition or with either the universe of books with SF themes or the self-consciously "science fiction" genre.

And she hasn't made a serious study of the field -- like a lot of writers, she was a bookish kid, and like a lot of writers her age (she was born in 1939), she read a lot of SF when she was young -- but In Other Worlds primarily collects essays based on a series of lectures about that early engagement and how it lead to her SFnal novels. Added to that (since those essays only add up to about a hundred pages) are a random bunch of short reviews and essays on things that could be considered SF (Orwell, Huxley, Wells, Le Guin, Haggard, Swift, and a few contemporaries) and five short bits of fiction.

If SF were worried that Atwood hated us, we could breath easy: she doesn't. She doesn't understand the field at all -- her focus and interests are more historical, so she really doesn't care about what most of SF has been up to for the past six decades -- but she appreciates some things that have SF elements, because they are close to her own interests. And she's famous and lauded, so I guess SF gets a little reflected glory. But, all in all, this is a quirky little book, entirely about a version of science fiction that exists entirely in Margaret Atwood's head. It's served her pretty well, though, so it may be of interest.

4 comments:

Jordan179 said...

On what basis should we consider Margaret Atwood's "gloriousness" to be so much greater than that of the whole field of science fiction that getting "a little reflected glory" from her -- especially when that "glory" consists of utterly mis-stating the nature of the genre not only today but, in truth, in her childhood as well -- counts as a benefit?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Jordan179: You're begging the question: what is "the whole field of science fiction"?

Is it the self-identified commercial genre of that name? Is it the set of all books that could reasonably be called SF? Or is it something more specific and curated than either of those things?

Atwood doesn't even define "science fiction" the same way you do, so arguing based on those definitions gets you nowhere.

Also, if you don't think Atwood is an eminent literary figure, you really should get out more.

Jordan179 said...

I never said Atwood wasn't "an eminent literary figure." What I said is that I really doubt that her "eminence" outshines that of the whole science fiction genre, put together, such that science fiction should feel complimented that she incompetently understood the field -- with her science fiction chops being based on the fact that she took a Silver Age science fiction trope (reproductive problem causes badly-messed-up relations between the sexes), handled it badly, and then claimed that she had invented the whole idea.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Jordan179: Again, you're assuming your definitions -- of eminence and the measuring thereof, of science fiction, and of Atwood's worth -- are the ultimate measures of everything. And pretty much everyone who has ever read Margaret Atwood -- which is the audience for this book -- would disagree with you, which makes your argument massively besides the point.

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