Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, arguably Canada’s most beloved author, has faced criticism for the distinction she makes, both in relation to her own work and that of others, between “science fiction” and “speculative fiction,” appearing to elevate the latter above the former. In Other Worlds is a collection of essays and other short pieces that tackle the author’s relationship with “SF” head on. It is divided into five parts: a section that blends autobiography with an inquiry into the nature and history of SF; a selection of previously published writings on specific SF authors and works; some shorter forays into SF written by Atwood herself; and two appendices, including an excellent piece on the visual language of 1930s pulp SF magazine covers.

The first section is based on Atwood’s Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, delivered in 2010. It combines interesting autobiographical elements with a serviceable introduction to the genre and its history. Atwood may upset some dedicated SF fans by preferring to dismiss the often fuzzy, but hard won, boundaries and definitions established through decades of dialogue among SF writers, readers, and critics in favour of her own – which, aside from a nod to Bruce Sterling’s concept of slipstream fiction and mentions of one or two other writers, seem based mostly on work published before the mid-1970s. But her ideas are nevertheless well argued and worth engaging with.

The section dealing with specific authors and works, titled “Other Deliberations,” is the strongest. It would be hard to find as penetrating an assessment of Ursula K. Le Guin’s astonishing talent as Atwood’s review of The Birthday of the World, for instance, and her arguments on the origin and influence of H. Rider Haggard’s largely forgotten novel She are convincing.

The stories collected in the book’s third section, “Homages,” are not great examples of Atwood’s fiction. They acknowledge their pulp roots but mostly keep them at arm’s length, indulging instead in gimmicky literary structures and bringing nothing new to either genre. But juxtaposed with the rest of the book, they become sites for dialogue about the relationship between SF and literary fiction, and Atwood’s approach to both.

In Other Worlds adds complexity and depth to Atwood’s relationship with the SF genre, revealing it to be characterized by genuine curiosity and enthusiasm.