I confess to being somewhat disappointed by In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood’s collection of essays (along with a handful of fiction shorts) dealing with science fiction. She has long been a favorite author of mine, and her science fiction (or speculative fiction as she’d prefer) works are my favorites among her books: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, the science fiction elements of The Blind Assassin. She’s also an insightful critic and a sharp non-fiction writer. So I was looking forward to seeing her thoughts on the field I’ve been reading in for so long.
The problem may have been one of expectations, therefore. I come to the collection as both an Atwood fan and a science fiction fan and it’s the latter part that may have been the issue. Someone who comes to the collection merely as an Atwood fan, one not well versed in the genre, might find this a moderately illuminating collection of essays, but I’m not sure there’s much here that a science fiction fan hasn’t already seen. Even for those relatively unfamiliar with science fiction, though, I fear the essays are a bit slight.
The first few essays are a mix of memoir and an examination of fantastic stories. I say “fantastic” because the focus isn’t yet on science fiction per se. Atwood covers myths, superhero stories, romances, and utopias/dystopias. Clear, succinct and informative, it’s also pretty well-trod ground, and at times pretty quickly covered ground, as when she zips through various superhero elements such as costumes and secret identities in a page or two or offers up questions the new “mythos” of science asks and then answers the questions in a paragraph or two. The section on utopias/dystopias covers the expected ground (Brave New World, 1984, etc.) but is probably most interesting toward the end when she examines her own dystopic novels and how she came about to write them.
After the three more personal essays, we’re given some more focused pieces, introductions to works or reviews or brief critical looks. Included in this section are examinations of H. Rider Haggard’s She, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a collection of short stories by Ursula K. LeGuin, Brave New World again, and a few others. Again, it’s all well written, the connections are smart and sharply drawn, but to someone already aware of these authors, there’s nothing that’s really much of an “Aha” moment. As an introduction to a less aware reader, this section will probably pique their interest and give them something to think about. My favorite piece in the entire book appears here, and is entitled “10 Ways of Looking at The Island of Dr. Moreau.” I thought this piece stood out for two reasons. One was the structure and the other was that it was one of the few pieces that offered up a feeling of fresh stimulation. This section is followed by five very slight science fiction shorts, the best of which is the excerpt from The Blind Assassin. The others are quickly read and as quickly forgotten. Finally, the collection closes with some appendices, including a letter from Atwood to a school district that considered banning The Handmaid’s Tale and a piece about Weird Tales’ covers, which was probably my second favorite selection of the book.
I’m not sure what to make of In Other Worlds, to be honest. To someone well steeped in the genre, there’s really nothing here that won’t make them nod their head not just in agreement but in familiarity as well. To someone who is a fan of Atwood, there isn’t all that much about her or her writing, and most of what is in here will probably sound familiar. For instance, she writes of The Handmaid’s Tale that she put nothing in the story that hadn’t happened somewhere somewhen in human history. Which is an interesting piece of information about the novel, save that I’ve read that many times over. To someone relatively new to the genre, the early essays are a nice historical overview, if brief, but the middle section has such a singular focus on single books that I’m not sure it offers much to that reader. Finally, though Atwood has made an attempt to rid In Other Worlds of repetitive lines or themes, always an issue when previously published works are collected, several such instances remain, such as a few mentions (more than two) of how the 20th century was a race between two dystopic visions — 1984 and Brave New World — and how Brave New World seemed to win until post 9/11.
In the end, I’d call In Other Worlds a good library book. Take it out, satisfy your curiosity about a few points, come to a better understanding of a favorite author’s point of view on the genre and on some of the authors working in or employing the genre. But I wouldn’t call In Other Worlds a book you need on your shelf, unlike, say, Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale. And when her promised third book in the Oryx/Flood series comes out, I’ll make room for that one, even if I have to give up my copy of In Other Worlds to do so.