Atwood’s Other Worlds

03/11/2011 by Margaret Atwood

Ahead of her Twitter interview on 10 November, in this extract from In Other Worlds, Margaret Atwood asks whether silver outfits on a book jacket make it ‘science fiction’

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practising academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.

I say “lifelong”, for among the first things I wrote as a child might well merit the initials SF. Like a great many children before and since, I was an inventor of other worlds. Mine were rudimentary, as such worlds are when you’re six or seven or eight, but they were emphatically not of this here-and-now earth, which seems to be one of the salient features of SF. I wasn’t much interested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra-normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more out landish. Several-headed man-eating marine life seemed more likely to me, somehow, than Spot and Puff.

Our earliest loves, like revenants, have a way of coming back in other forms; or, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother to the woman. To date – as what I am pleased to think of as an adult – I have written three full-length fictions that nobody would ever class as sociological realism: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Are these books ‘science fiction’, I am often asked? Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much ‘science fiction’ as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much ‘science fiction’ as The Martian Chronicles, I might reply? I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.

Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy. Back in 2008, I was talking to a much younger person about ‘science fiction’. I’d been asked by the magazine New Scientist to answer the question “Is science fiction going out of date?” But then I realized that I couldn’t make a stab at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction meant anymore.

Is this term a corral with real fences that separate what is clearly “science fiction” from what is not, or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way? If you put skin-tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jet-like flames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work ‘science fiction’? What about dragons and manticores, or backgrounds that contain volcanoes or atomic clouds, or plants with tentacles, or landscapes reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch? Does there have to be any actual science in such a book, or is the skin-tight clothing enough? These seemed to me to be open questions.

Margaret Atwood will be taking over the @welovethisbook Twitter feed on 10 November at 6pm (UK time), answering questions about SF and her book In Other Worlds, with the hashtag #IOWAskAtwood.

In Other Worlds, SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood is out now, published by Virago.

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