In Other Worlds

By Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood has worn many different hats in her career: just recently introducing us to a remote book-signing machine, championing various environmental causes (a limited edition of this new book has been printed on straw), and even leading a fight against Toronto’s City Hall. As one of this country’s literary icons, however, she deserves special credit for two items that stand out on her résumé: she’s a “literary” author unashamed of her association with genre fiction, and she’s often stooped to writing (horrors!) book reviews and other forms of criticism. This is shocking behaviour, usually considered lèse-majesté in the higher circles of CanLit.

In Other Worlds has Atwood wearing both of these unorthodox hats, being a collection of her critical writings on science fiction. As collections go it’s a real grab-bag: beginning with an introductory essay that expands on her controversial attempt to make a distinction between speculative fiction and science fiction, followed by the 2010 Ellman Lectures (discussing her life-long engagement with the genre), a series of essays on individual SF novels (classic and contemporary), and then a selection of five “mini-SF pieces” that she presents as tributes. Finally, her letter to a school board defending The Handmaid’s Tale and a piece she wrote on SF magazine covers of the 1930s appear as separate appendices.

There are two threads holding all of this together, and they can both be pulled from the following: “I went to college in the late 1950s at the University of Toronto – a place and time when thinking about mythology – or very ancient, centrally important stories and their nature and form – was at the top of the agenda.”

The first thing this alerts us to is the importance of the autobiographical in Atwood’s criticism. This is explicit in the Ellman lectures, which constitute “a personal history of sorts,” but it’s evident throughout much of the rest of the book as well. There is no pretense of adopting the pose of an objective, impersonal reader; everything links back to Atwood’s own experience of the text. “I grew up with George Orwell,” is how one essay begins: “I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published in 1945. Thus I was able to read it at age nine. It was lying around the house, and I mistook it for a book about talking animals, sort of like Wind in the Willows.” When discussing the genre of SF she instinctively draws upon her own novels for examples, and when writing about individual works she emphasizes what they mean to her, even to the point of telling us how her first colonoscopy reactivated childhood memories of Gulliver’s Travels. Which is perhaps taking the inward turn a bit too far.

The other thing that her reference to U of T in the ’50s tells us to expect is a strong dose of “mythosophistical” criticism. The fingerprints of legendary U of T English prof Northrop Frye are everywhere, right down to the constant worrying over the correct labels and taxonomies, not just of genres but of forms. Even the handy tag “novel” comes in for questioning, with Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time being not a realistic novel but a utopia, and H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau “certainly not a novel” but a fable. SF, it comes as no surprise, is essentially Frye’s displaced romance, while the mythic approach makes reading “all three brow levels” acceptable by grounding everything from comic books to Hollywood movies in psychic universals. These are the famous archetypes, of which H. Rider Haggard’s eternal “She” provides just one example, She being “a permanent feature of the human imagination” who can take many forms.

This often witty blend of the individual and the universal, autobiography and archetype, gives Atwood’s criticism its distinctive flavour, while the fact that she actually writes SF lends her extra cred. To be sure, there is much here to disagree with, but the fact that it is expressed with enough good sense and clarity to be disagreed with is no small accomplishment in these dark days of mealy-mouthed and obscurantist literary criticism. While there’s an irony in having to thank the spirit of the ’50s for such an accessible vision of twenty-first century SF, at least it’s an irony we can enjoy.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 23, 2011.

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