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In Other Worlds

December 19, 2011

Last week at the library, I found a copy of Margaret Atwood’s new collection of essays about science fiction, entitled In Other Worlds and started flipping through it. I was immediately incensed, as I have been every time I’ve heard her say something about this book.

Especially after hearing her speak in person once, I think Margaret Atwood is one of the smartest writers I know, so it’s disconcerting to see a more human side, when she talks about science fiction and either puts her foot in her mouth or allows herself to be quoted out of context in a way that makes her sound dismissive of the genre. As she explains it, she likes books about “things that really could happen,” in the tradition of Jules Verne, but she does not like books about “things that could not possibly happen,” in the tradition of H.G. Wells. As people often do when they try to find a dividing line between science fiction and fantasy, she goes too far and is forced to retreat to broader definitions like “speculative fiction.”

Reading through this collection reminded me of the old graduate school joke about how you feel like a fraud every time you pass another set of exams, until one day you wake up and find out…you’re president. And then you’re truly frightened. Finding out that a smart writer can sound less bright when she’s talking about things dear to her from childhood should give all bloggers pause. It certainly does me–the thing about saying what you think on almost a daily basis is that you haven’t been forced to sit down and think about how consistent your views might be, not even as much as when you’re putting together a collection of essays like In Other Worlds.

One of the ways in which Atwood keeps trying to justify her love of science fiction is to compare it implicitly to the kind of tale Shakespeare’s Othello tells to his future father-in-law–“traveller’s yarn,” as she calls it. They’re tales about things like “heads growing out of your armpits.” Later, she explicitly compares Wells’ The War of the Worlds to Shakespeare’s King Lear by quoting the lines “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods/They kill us for their sport.” She calls science fiction “lowbrow” and a “guilty pleasure,” and talks about having one professor who liked it, which sounds very old-fashioned to me. It’s not a big new question, as she seems to think, to ask “could it be that the sensational monster-ridden tales of the distant past—now sanctified as part of our priceless literary canon—were joined at the hip to the sensational, monster-ridden tales of the present, which were vilified as trash?” This entire collection seems to be aimed at professorial types who have both Shakespeare and Mary Shelley by heart. When she mentions the word “utopia” she doesn’t exactly define it for the general reader but says “Utopia, as you know, comes from Thomas Moore’s book…”

I particularly dislike Atwood’s needless use of a word to describe something that’s not all good—utopia—or “all bad”—dystopia. She uses the word “ustopia” to emphasize that no fictional place can be entirely good or bad. Fine, whatever. But I will go on calling her own Handmaid’s Tale a dystopia, because even if within it there are renegades and protestors, it is the closest to all bad I could ever bear to see.

All this attempt at definition and classification for an educated audience leads Atwood to tie herself in knots. She even gets something wrong about her own novel–something she’s said much better elsewhere–that the “Historical Notes” to the Handmaid’s Tale are partly a satire of the oddly detached way literary critics go about analyzing texts from emotionally harrowing segments of our past. In this collection, she asserts that “the little utopia concealed in the dystopic Handmaid’s Tale….is placed in a future beyond the main story by the Afterword at the end of the book.” Oh, because a future in which Professor Piexoto can assert that “we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans” is a perfect future? I don’t think so.

Young Margaret seems to have been traumatized by reading fiction like Gulliver’s Travels and missing the satire—“this was before the disappointing news had come in—no intelligent life on Mars.” She seems to be one of those adults who feels compelled to go around telling little children that there is no such thing as Santa. They justify doing this by voicing their concern that the children will be disappointed. Because they think they know. They don’t tend to quote the line from Hamlet in which he asserts “there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

At her best, Atwood is a peerless dystopian dreamer. In the Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, she is brilliant. The Crakers do not need her Shakespearean justification for their fictional existence: “what a piece of work is man, and now that we ourselves can be the workmen, what pieces of this work shall we chop off?” But throughout this collection, she is at her curmudgeonly worst.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2011 9:01 am

    I’m very interested in reading this, partly because other reviews had led me to think Atwood had put some of her genre snobbery aside and clarified some of the ways past remarks of hers had been misunderstood. But wow, it sounds like that’s not the case at all. I still want to read it, to see for myself :)

    I wish the literary community could get past viewing some genres as inferior to others, or only valuable as lowbrow guilty pleasures or whatever. I can accept that there are genres that some people genuinely don’t like, but the labels themselves should be markers of subject matter, not quality and value. (And I admit I’m guilty of sometimes exhibiting this very snobbery.)

    • December 19, 2011 9:49 am

      I feel about the same as Teresa on this one. I’m still curious to read it, but a little disappointed too.

      At least part of the challenge of using genre labels to identify subject matter is that it’s hard to agree on what those labels should be, as it seems Atwood struggles. I would definitely call The Handmaid’s Tale a dystopia, regardless of whether there are “good” things that happen in it, on or off page. I don’t get the of “ustopia” since utopia and dystopia are useful terms for readers to help understand something about a book.

      • December 20, 2011 7:42 am

        I thought as Teresa did, too, that she had clarified some of the remarks that made folks accuse her of genre snobbery. She tries to clarify, but it makes her seem even more snobbish about it. You do at least get the story about the original disagreement, which has me (as usual) agreeing with Ursula K. LeGuin.

  2. December 19, 2011 9:09 am

    I haven’t read the book yet so I can’t really comment but I’m going to anyway :-) I think what you’re saying shows that some people just don’t respect genre, even when they’re writing in it. i think she uses her spec fiction to talk about social and political issues, which is what lots of science fiction and fantasy writers do (i’m using her term for her writing because that’s how she defines it herself and it doesn’t seem fair to impose another one), but she doesn’t want to be “one of the nerds.” which is not “nice” but it’s the way she feels, and because she is who she is, she feels a right to express herself. a less known or seasoned writer might be more concerned with being pleasant; i doubt she has any such concern. i guess sf readers looking for validation should look somewhere else!

    • December 20, 2011 7:44 am

      I don’t get the sense that she’s not being pleasant–in fact, the most baffling aspect of the book is that she reveals a lifelong love of reading and writing SF. I think she was shaped by the culture of her childhood. The whole book made me think of a line from the movie Stripes, of all things…”lighten up, Francis!”

  3. December 19, 2011 9:38 am

    In fairness, her book about Canadian literature is also very odd. Maybe not as odd as that “ustopia” thing.

    • December 20, 2011 7:45 am

      Because that is very odd. I want to use it as some kind of honeymoon term, a utopia just for “us.”

  4. PAJ permalink
    December 19, 2011 11:13 am

    What?!!! There’s no Santa?

    • December 20, 2011 7:45 am

      Just because some adults say there isn’t, you don’t have to believe them. I don’t.

  5. December 19, 2011 8:43 pm

    I do find Margaret Atwood trying when she talks about science fiction. And I haven’t loved enough of her books to make up for that. It’s like that thing how you’re supposed to have five positive interactions for every one negative interaction in any relationship you’re in. I’m reminded of Margaret Atwood’s snootiness about sci-fi much more often than I love one of her books.

    • December 20, 2011 7:46 am

      I’ve loved The Handmaid’s Tale so long and so hard nothing can ever dull my loyalty to its writer, not even this book.

  6. December 19, 2011 11:15 pm

    As much as I’ve enjoyed some of Atwood’s books (Cat’s Eye and the Handmaid’s Tale are my favorites, but I also enjoyed Alias Grace and the Blind Assassin), I can also find her maddening. I find most of her poetry to be uninteresting and. She’s not precise enough with her language to resonate with me. The Penelopiad made me twitchy. It was a great idea but not, I think, well executed. There are times when she comes across as gimicky, because she takes an idea and runs with it no matter what happens. I kind of respect that too, but I sometimes wonder if she learns from her mistakes.

    • December 20, 2011 7:49 am

      See, there’s the thing I was relating to blogging. I admire the way she says exactly what she thinks, but sometimes it’s not well-thought-out enough to represent how smart she can be.

      Part of taking an idea and running with it, at least for her, is that sometimes it’s merely the idea of a moment.

  7. December 20, 2011 9:05 am

    Wow. That’s a shame, I was so hopeful that this book would make me feel friendlier towards Atwood, as I love her books so much. Shame that it sounds like she’ll always be more of a Susan Hill writer for me, where I enjoy her novels and steer clear of any more personal writing.

  8. December 20, 2011 11:19 am

    Yeah. There are a bunch of writers who are at the extreme end of that spectrum, like Orson Scott Card who generally writes good novels and whose personal view of the world is utterly toxic.

  9. December 20, 2011 5:20 pm

    Oh, ouch. I believe I have asked for this for Christmas, with the same hope that Teresa details above; I have always found Atwood to be disconcertingly ridiculous when talking about SF (or, to use a term I find rather repellent, “speculative fiction.”) I actually quite love her short stories and essays generally, more than I enjoy her books, and I’ve heard her speak and give readings and I’m always even more impressed with her after those. So I was hoping.

    Although sometimes reading a book that makes me mad is a good thing. I had just hoped for better from her. Incidentally, China Mieville unsurprisingly expresses my thoughts better than I could on the topic: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/meet-china-miville-ambassador-of-the-new-weird/article2046294/

  10. December 22, 2011 8:21 am

    That is a good article about Embassytown, which I now want to read even more. I like what Mieville says about “pushing at an open door.” That’s what I felt like Atwood was doing the whole way through, only she wasn’t pushing hard enough because she wasn’t really sure she wanted that door open.

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