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In Other Worlds
SF and the Human Imagination
By Margaret Atwood
Signal/M&S, 272 pages, $27
The latest offering from CanLit icon Margaret Atwood is a provocative but sometimes frustrating collection.
It gathers lectures, reviews, and other writings (including short stories and a novel excerpt, but mostly non-fiction) that relate, in some fashion, to the genre of "science fiction."
"Science fiction" is in scare quotes because what the Toronto-based Atwood calls SF and what everybody else calls SF have few similarities.
Most people use SF to refer to a genre of literature that concerns itself with the possible impact of scientific endeavour, whereas Atwood uses SF to refer, essentially, to any non-realist or speculative fiction she wants to call SF.
In her introduction, Atwood acknowledges this disparity. Although she correctly notes, "When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance," her definition of SF has no real function.
Atwood's writings on "SF" accomplish little in terms of offering new arguments or insights regarding SF, but trace with intelligence and passion her lifelong connection to this genre-of-sorts and present a compelling look at her own literary fascinations.
Her most famous novel, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), and her recent novels Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009), are speculative fictions that most consider SF.
Atwood's literary criticism swoops broadly. As in her other critical writings, she sees myth and archetypes everywhere, which sometimes results in vague, repetitive interpretations. When she dives down to snare particular books from the waters she presents more careful close readings and displays deeper erudition.
The highlights of the collection are two essays, Ten Ways of Looking at The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells and Of the Madness of Mad Scientists: Jonathan Swift's Grand Academy, that display Atwood's critical range.
The Wells essay offers just what its title promises, compressed treatises on the novel that impress with their tight-wound insight. The Swift essay, by contrast, sprawls and spins to connect shlocky B-movie scientists, Plato's Atlanteans, the Hulk, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and lab-grown leather to humanity's mythic desire to become as gods. The novel excerpt, by the way, is from 2000's The Blind Assassin.
Atwood is at her best when she offers either these short, sharp shocks of literary insight or freewheeling thoughts with tangential but intriguing connections. She's at her worst, whether in non-fiction or fiction, when she trots out the tired technophobia that plagues lamer efforts in the SF genre.
The problem here, as with Atwood's own SF, is that she reproduces the genre's clichés, such as technophobic finger-wagging.
Although known for her LongPen invention (which allows authors to transmit signatures from afar) and her Twitter presence, Atwood maintains a relatively consistent technophobia in her writings, especially those selected here.
Despite the existence of serious, real concerns with genetic manipulation and nanotechnology, Atwood's citing of Prince Charles's opinions rather than those of a scientific authority reveals her reactionary attitude toward technology, a disapproval she regards as commonsensical.
Atwood summarizes this pessimistic outlook: "Perhaps we should leave well enough alone."
No doubt she will be lauded as a forward-thinker even while reproducing arguments as old as Frankenstein (in fact, older: Atwood would draw our attention to Shelley's subtitle, which invokes the mythic Prometheus).
An argument's age is not its refutation, but SF authors have produced varied and complex responses to questions of our technological future.
As a collection, In Other Worlds cannot be faulted for its lack of focus, but it's disheartening how disengaged it seems from modern SF.
As always, Atwood's protean skill and intelligence is apparent on every page of the book, but they could be better put to more imaginative use.
In Other Worlds may not satisfy SF fans, or techno-optimists (who would be better off with authors like Canadian Robert J. Sawyer), but sheds much light on Atwood's own literary fascinations.
As such, it will better serve casual SF fans or serious Atwood fans than those seeking a fuller exploration of the genre.
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball is the author of the poetry books Ex Machina and Clockfire.