Sunday, October 23, 2011

Margaret Atwood

This is my review of Margaret Atwood's new collection of essays about science fiction. The essays appeared earlier this month; the review appeared in the WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF BOOKS, reprinted here is case you somehow missed it :)

Margaret Atwood’s new book of essays, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, is not very new. Most of it consists of previously published essays, book reviews, excerpts from Atwood’s own fiction and writing based on the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, which Atwood delivered at Emory University in 2010. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; scholars and fans alike will find it convenient to have the short pieces collected in one place.

However, the material is less than new in three other ways. First, some of the pieces have already been collected in Atwood’s previous volume, Writing With Intent, making these reprints of reprints.

Second, and more disturbing, I found little here that I haven’t seen in previous books about science fiction. The history of fantastical literature beginning with the ancient world, the ways that SF uses and changes elements of myth, the endless quibbling about terms — what should be called “science fiction” versus “speculative fiction,” what determines a “novel” as distinct from a “romance” or a “fable” — these are issues that have preoccupied SF scholars, writers and fans for at least two generations. So have the relationships among myth, SF and their more simplistic cousins, comic book heroes. Atwood recapitulates many salient points, but doesn’t add much that is original.

Third, this book is not new because it seems stuck in a time warp. The most recent SF novel discussed, or even mentioned, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, published in 2005. That would be fine if the second-most-recent novel weren’t William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Much of Atwood’s book is given to considerations of already-much-considered novels such as Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Huxley’s Brave New WorldShe (1886). Surely a book devoted to “SF and the Human Imagination” should consider that the human imagination has continued to produce science fiction in the last several decades? (1932) and Rider Haggard’s

Which raises a genuine question: For whom is this book intended? If it is for fans and scholars of SF, it may well seem both redundant and dated. If it is for people uninterested in science fiction, it’s difficult to imagine why they would read it in the first place — unless they are interested in Margaret Atwood.

And this is where In Other Worlds does have something to offer. Atwood’s sections on her personal involvement with the genre are witty and charming. She begins with her childhood and the fantastic stories she and her brother used to tell themselves about super-hero flying rabbits. Her earliest creations were White Bunny and Blue Bunny, modeled on actual stuffed rabbits, and they could fly (“propelled by an age-old technology called ‘throwing’ ”). Later versions, Steel Bunny and Dotty Bunny, dwelt in Mischiefland, wore capes, kept pet cats (little Margaret wanted a kitten but was not allowed to have one) and ate nothing but ice cream cones.

Atwood is also engaging when she describes researching her university work on speculative fiction, and later writing her SF novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. She talks frankly about the reactions to her books within the “skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities,” meaning SF fans and writers. In 2009 the queen of literary SF, Ursula Le Guin, took Atwood to task for “not wanting any of her books to be called science fiction.” Atwood defends her position — not convincingly, I thought, but with self-deprecating charm, and with all the respect that Le Guin merits.

Another plus: The prose in these essays is of a very high quality, as one would expect from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale. This is true in even the most incidental material, such as the witty “An Open Letter From Margaret Atwood to the Judson Independent School District,” which begins: “First, I would like to thank those who have dedicated themselves so energetically to the banning of my novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s encouraging to know that the written word is still taken so seriously.”

However, the “science” part of “science fiction” does not interest Atwood much. She considers science the “myth” of our time — “a story central to our self-understanding: nothing about truth or falsehood implied” — and the Big Bang theory “a new creation myth.” Nowhere does she consider that science might be more than that. Her arguments against biotechnology are very one-sided, all cons and no pros. Nor does she consider any of the excellent SF in which extrapolation from cutting-edge known science leads to plausible futures.

It all adds up to a rather lopsided view of science fiction. However, if even the basic theories about the genre and its history are unknown to you, or if your primary interest is Atwood herself, you might enjoy this collection.

1 comment:

TheOFloinn said...

I've noticed that attitude toward science among those who wish to be au courant. Of course science is the myth of our time. But a myth is an organizing principle by which a society makes sense of its situation. It does not mean that science fails to approximate ever closer the metrical properties of physical bodies. That the "Big Bang" may be used as a creation* myth does not mean that it is not true to the facts of cosmology insofar as they are presently known.

(*) Nor is it actually about creation, which is the joining of an essence with an act of existence. It is about the beginning of the space-time continuum. Fr. Lemaitre, who first developed the theory (and who earned the mocking sobriquet "the big bang man" from Fred Hoyle) was quite clear on that point.