Science-fiction is undergoing something of a revival, with Terry Pratchett’s Snuff becoming the fastest-selling hardback novel by a British novelist since records began.
Margaret Atwood, winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award for The Handmaid’s Tale, has operated within ‘sci-fi’ conventions for many of her novels – with great success. Her latest title is a collection of essays, lectures, reviews and reflections upon the genre, dedicated to one of its stalwarts, Ursula le Guin. Atwood calls In Other Worlds “an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or sub forms, both as a reader and as a writer”. Her reluctance to tie the ‘form’ of sci-fi down is a recurring theme in the collection. The “bendiness of terminology”, in her words, has been going on in the SF world for some time. It would seem that Atwood is intent on redressing the balance.
She is quick to differentiate between ‘science fiction’ (things which, she says, would not feasibly happen; martians, aliens, etc.) and ‘speculative fiction’; that which could happen (think Nineteen Eighty-Four, and, indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale). Her argument is convincing in parts – a clear retort to Le Guin, who accused Atwood in a review in the Guardian of defining SF within narrow parameters, in order to “protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders”. This is something Atwood strongly refutes in the book; yet she does insist upon establishing boundaries between genres; a little unnecessary, perhaps, especially coming from someone as decorated as Atwood is.
She is also quick to point to examples of other writers of SF (or, in her terms, “speculative fiction”) who are not pigeonholed into the SF genre. There is an excellent analysis of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which posits the ending as a positive, uplifting call-to-arms rather than pessimistic surrender; alongside analyses of Huxley’s Brave New World, H G Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and, most contemporarily, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. She also elucidates on the importance of apparel to sci-fi protagonists, positing a kind of “doubleness” within their psyche, one which is differentiated by costume changes serving as shamanistic indicators of ones power (think Clark Kent, whose superpowers are never without spandex); locates her interest in SF as rooted in a childhood fascination with comic-books; and wittily retorts to a religious school who refused to teach The Handmaid’s Tale on moralistic grounds.
Atwood’s prose is effortless; the chapters’ conciseness makes this a hugely enjoyable read. It’s a must for her scores of fans – perhaps there is a little too much in the way of biography for those not acquainted with her work – but avid fans of sci-fi may be a tad disappointed.