Book review: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood

In Other Worlds is a collection of Margaret Atwood’s writings on and around the subject of science fiction, focusing particularly on dystopias. As I am a huge fan of both sci fi and Margaret Atwood, I couldn’t resist this book!

Atwood has of course written a few dystopian sci fi novels herself – The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, although she prefers the term “speculative fiction” to describe these. Her apparent rejection of the sci fi label has caused a bit of controversy in the past, as it was construed as literary snobbishness, and she addresses this in the introduction to In Other Worlds. Her explanation of the disparate forms of fiction that are grouped together under the umbrella term of science fiction, and her preference for using more specific terms to describe sub-genres, such as speculative fiction, dispelled (for me, at least) any suggestion that she has any disdain for sci fi as a genre.

What comes across most clearly in this book is her genuine love for the genre, in all its forms. In the first section, Atwood outlines her early experiences with sci fi and fantasy – covering everything from superhero comics and the lurid tales of bug-eyed monsters in sci fi magazines, to the tales of HG Wells and Ray Bradbury, to classics like Pilgrim’s Process and Beowulf. She describes herself as an indiscriminate reader, devouring in her early years everything she could get her hands on, with a healthy disregard for the adult distinctions of high- middle- and low-brow. Her breadth of knowledge is evident: she discusses Batman in the same breath as Shakespeare, and treats all of her subjects with the same level of respect due to any good story.

She goes on to discuss her experiences at university, studying literature with a focus on utopian and dystopian writing. This section is fascinating: Atwood discusses the motivations and psychology behind these types of writing, highlighting some more and less familiar examples of each – it gave me some inspiration for suggestions for Leeds Book Club‘s new dystopia book club! If you’re a fan of Margaret Atwood’s books, this section by itself is worth the price of the book for the insight it gives to the influences and inspiration for her novels.

The middle part of the book is a series of previously published essays on individual sci fi titles, including 1984, Brave New World, Never Let Me Go, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Gulliver’s Travels – some written as reviews, some as introductions to the books, etc. I found these essays equally illuminating for the books I’d actually read as for those I hadn’t – and the latter lead to quite a few additions to my to-read list! My only small criticism of the book come from this section – as these are all previously published, there is some repetition of ideas and themes, including some that had already been discussed in greater detail in the first section. This is to be expected really, but it did mean that it started to feel a bit familiar by the time I got to the end of this section.

The final section contains a series of Atwood’s own examples of sci fi writing – short stories, and extracts from some of her non-sci fi books (e.g. one of the stories told by the male protagonist in The Blind Assassin, “The Peach Women of A’Aa”, is included). Coming at the end of the book, these are fascinating to read as examples of how Atwood has used her extensive knowledge of sci fi to inform her own writing.

In Other Worlds is a thoughtful, intelligent exploration of the science fiction genre, from a writer who has extensive knowledge and a genuine love of her topic. Highly recommended for either fans of Margaret Atwood, science fiction, or both.

Verdict: 4.5/5

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