In Other Worlds
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.