Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds

It is somewhat fashionable in genre circles to bash Margaret Atwood’s attitude towards science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps it’s because so many of us were forced to read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school English (I escaped that fate, and, full disclosure: haven’t read any of her fiction). Or perhaps it’s because of her remarks over the years that seemed to place a barrier between her work and those of us reading and writing in the genre ghetto. Or perhaps it’s because the literary elite adopted her into the canon (making her the next chain in the line that stretches from her through Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell). Or perhaps it was her notorious “squid in space” comment. Whatever the case because I am a) not familiar with her work b) in spite of that fact, somewhat widely read in both literary and genre fiction and criticism and c) I wanted to see what the fuss was all about, I decided to read her recent essay collection on science fiction.

What’s fascinating to me about Atwood’s collection In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is that it appears that Atwood thinks she is on the side of the speculative rather than the literary. While true that she doesn’t back down from her distaste for space opera, she  reduces her spat with Ursula K. Le Guin to a misunderstanding over terminology (and, I might add, her own idiosyncratic use of terminology).

The problem is that again and again, Atwood shows no understanding of contemporary genre fiction. Other than Le Guin (who, again, barely counts because her work is acceptable in academia [although, unlike Atwood, she is still beloved in genre circles]), Atwood doesn’t discuss anything that’s happened post Orwell and Huxley, except for one outlying feminist novel that is clearly steeped in the same background as Atwood. What’s more Atwood situates all of her reading in childhood (especially of the more pulpy stuff like H.G. Wells) or adolescence (Orwell, Huxley) and then discusses it using analytical tools from the pre-postmodern turn in literary criticism.

The result is one of diminishment of the genre even as she appears to be treating it seriously. One comes away with the impression that genre novels are for children; that genre fiction is for making political points (it’s all utopias and dystopias with her); and that nothing much has happened (other than her own work) since 1984 was published. Some of her writing related to genre and feminism is interesting — in particular, her essay on H. Rider Haggard’s She — but even that seems as old-school as The Handmaid’s Tale appears to be. That, in addition, the fiction outtakes she provides at the back of the book are, to be blunt, unimpressive doesn’t make me want to explore her three science fiction novels. In fact, I hate to say it but except for a few 9/11 references, the entire collection reads like it could have been published in 2001 or 1991 or even 1981 or 1971.

But none of that in and of itself is all that annoying. What is annoying is that Atwood has this particular tone that comes through in her writing. There’s always an extra little adjective or a cutesy way of phrasing things or a shrugging of shoulders or an over-explanation. It’s like she’s trying to treat it seriously, but can’t. And yet it’s not just that she comes across as solely dismissive — as just a snob — rather the overall effect is one of shallow engagement. I came away feeling like Atwood doesn’t really know anything about genre fiction beyond what she recalls from childhood.

I don’t mean to condescend (although, hey, in this case it appears to be a two-way street), but going in I was expecting at least some juicy, relevant opinions that I could dig into. What I found may be of interest to some Atwood fans, but I can safely say that the readers of this blog can skip the collection.

And now, having, dismissed this collection, I suppose I at least should check out Atwood’s fiction. It may be a few months, but I will do so and report back.

NOTE: now that I’ve recorded my reaction, I have dug a bit into what others have to say. Jeff VanderMeer’s post is the best place to start and has links to some of the other notable reviews. I would only note that while he makes a good point that what Atwood is really talking about is “Dystopias and the Human Imagination” and so that collection may hold merit for those interested in that topic, even taking the collection as that, your mileage may vary widely in how much you get out of it, depending on what you’ve already read in the field.