REVIEW: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, by Margaret Atwood

REVIEW SUMMARY: An often perceptive assembled literary memoir about one author’s strong if ambivalent entanglement with the ideas of science fiction.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: This book is a collection of Atwood’s writings that coalesces her perspective on SF and its influence on her life and her art. Atwood uses this topic as a foundation to elucidate the cultivation of the imagination and the power of literature to shape our thinking and our engagement with the world. Suffused with wit and sharp observations, its essays, reviews and stories are critical, crisp, sometimes a bit brittle, reflecting on the richness and limits of the human imagination, including, implicitly, her own.


PROS: Well-written, engaging discussions of the interplay between imagination and cultural ideas; a fascinating, often playful look inside Atwood’s life and creative process; some shrewd musings on the nature of thought and communication.

CONS: A few ideas read as too facile or in need of further development; the wit sometimes dilutes the ramifications of her ideas; there are also moments where an undercurrent of ambivalence makes her arguments more fragile.

BOTTOM LINE: A book that is a pleasure to read and gives the reader a lot to ponder, regardless of their thoughts on SF.

“Do stories free the human imagination or tie it up in chains?”

Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds is not really a book about science fiction. While the subtitle is “SF and the Human Imagination” this is not an examination of the genre per se; what Margaret Atwood does in this book is gather a range of writings, lectures, and stories that exemplify her “sometimes tangled” relationship to science fiction and fantasy and its effects on her imagination and, more broadly, how it acts as an expression of the human imagination. This is a book that is doing many things at once, often overlapping in its points and purposes and sometimes canny, but never disingenuous, in the presentation of its author’s thoughts. While some may find fault with her ideas or perspective, there is no doubt of her writing mastery, with its combination of precise language, dry wit and subtle empathy for her subject matter, her characters, her stories. All of this comes through in this collection of writings that try to understand the workings of imagination and how it shapes our perception of the world by, essentially, creating worlds.

The book is divided by form genre: the first section contains three lectures put into essay form that Atwood delivered in 2010 at Emory University. These lectures are a condensed literary memoir that examine Atwood’s personal development as a writer, focusing on the evolution of her imagination and some of the inspirations that fueled it both in childhood and through her writing life. The next section is a collection of reviews, mostly of fantastika, that expand upon Atwood’s attitude towards SFnal ideas. The third section is entitled “Five Tributes” and contains a selection of brief SF short stories. The book ends with two “Appendices:” a letter to a school board about the banning of The Handmaid’s Tale and a discussion of Weird Tales covers from the magazine’s early history.

It is a diverse mix of works, but they orbit around and explore a common theme of how imagination works by discussing the fantastic in many different modes. The book is dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin and opens with a quotation on writing from Octavia Butler. Immediately, then, the reader is given the signal that this is a book concerned with the writing of science fiction. But it is about SF as a reference point for talking about other things: the fancies of childhood, the development of mythologies, the overlay of narratives onto reality, the contradictions and elisions of gender and social dynamics in the stories we have told and tell today. SF is invoked as a context for Atwood’s exploration of other issues, and she probes it to elucidate other issues.

For Atwood personally, and as she observes in the world around her, both science fiction and speculative fiction have been influential ways of seeing and construing the world. Note the different terms; Atwood uses both, but does not see them as interchangeable (even if they are porous and intertwined in some ways). Science fiction (SF) is, for Atwood, about creating things that have not happened and that are not currently possible, while “speculative fiction” is the use of things that have happened, that are possible, and using them to conjecture about the future. Her own novels that are often considered SF are, in her formulation, speculative fiction. As she notes when discussing The Handmaid’s Tale in “Dire Cartographies: The Road to Ustopia” her rule was that she “would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools.” Speculative fiction as Atwood formulates it has a different subjunctivity than SF, one closer to naturalism, eschewing Delany’s “events that have not happened” for the already-happened-and-now-reoccurring.

This is not a dismissal of SF on Atwood’s part, but a creative choice. She explains that in all of her speculative novels she strives to maintain an anchorage to the actual, even when writing satire or farce. This makes her very short, very much SF stories in the “Five Tributes” section fascinating to compare to her novels; they come off as rather pedestrian stories when juxtaposed with her speculative novels. Yet in her essays Atwood makes it clear that fantasy of all forms, including varieties of SF, fed her imagination and educated her while growing up, and even impelled her towards the writing life. In “Burning Bushes: Or, Why Heaven and Hell Went to Planet X” she details the interaction between SF literature and other writing, and outlines her own understanding of the genre, which explains both her enjoyment of the genre (somewhat narrowly defined) and an implicit distanciation from it. I found that this piece is the one that illuminates her understanding of SF and its reflection of the human imagination.

Briefly (to not spoil it too much) Atwood makes a case for SF as an extension of the religious imagination. She discusses mythology, Jungian archetypal thought, and various elements that, for her, wed SF to a long human practice of imagining other worlds to help explain the one we live in. “Could it be that the tendency to produce such worlds is an essential property of the human imagination” she muses earlier on. She links this, both in her third essay “Dire Cartographies” and in a few of the reviews, to prevailing cultural notions of progress, utopia, and perfectibility. Atwood makes a compelling case for the religiosity and overcompensating optimism of SF, and while I found the mythology/SF linkage a bit facile, her discussions of the notions of innovation and advancement as usurpations of older religious ideas is interesting to ponder.

Atwood’s opinions and analyses are principled and persuasive, from her discussion of the gender politics of H. Rider Haggard’s She to her formulation of the notion of “ustopia,” a hybrid of utopia and dystopia which is the focus of her third original essay. Her writing is clear, the tone affable, even when she is discussing matters such as the poor treatment of women in most classic dystopian fiction. Her dry humor, however, sometimes leavens the seriousness of her discussions. This makes the book a pleasure to read but I felt that it dulled the sharpness of some of her points, and softened what I found to be a trenchant, if simplified, critique of SF.

Despite her obvious fondness for SF, there is also some suspicion of it, particularly its frequent embrace of a progressive improvement scenario. This is demonstrated most directly in her review of Bill McKibben’s book Enough. She agrees with McKibben, at least philosophically, that “‘[e]nough is as good as a feast.'” The cultivated inevitability of “progress” via a parallel narrative of endless innovation, regardless of its effects, and of accumulation — of material goods, wealth, knowledge, and forms of power — that she points out via McKibben merges with her previous discussions of SF as a particular type of unrealism that can lead to the hells of te future that we fear. As she notes earlier, “as a story, the scientific mythos is not very comforting,” but this gentle indictment is more profound as you discover Atwood’s ideas about story, communication, and the effects of the imagination on how we make sense of our world. This also made me re-read her “Five Tributes” stories to see how they embodied her ideas, and I came away a little perplexed, as they reflected her basic ideas but lacked the depth of her usual fiction. The essays are the real treasure of this book, and they cast her reviews in a more illuminating light. Taken together, the pieces in this book create an extended reflection on one person’s interaction not just with SF, but with the hypermodern mythos of the past half-century that shapes our imaginings.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, by Margaret Atwood”

  1. Thanks, John.

    As always, your review reminded me of your essays…thoughful, deep and informative.  

    I also found the contrast between your review and Charles Tan’s review interesting, especially since the both of you focused on very different things. You both seem to recognize her analysis of SF is lacking-Charles noted that her discussion was out of date, you notice it is simplistic.

  2. Thanks, Paul. I agree; despite our different foci and takes on some elements of the book, it seems that Charles and I both felt unfulfilled by the SF part. It’s not simplistic so much as simplified, condensed and seen from a distance, the result of an effort to codify rather than explore the genre. I think her points and conclusions have merit and should be responded to, but as I noted, I think that SF is a point of reference to discuss other issues and tell other stories. I found this book to not be about SF, but about broader matters and transformations which SF, in part, reflects.

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