“In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practising academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.”
I’m still kicking myself for not being able to make it to Margaret Atwood’s Ellman Lectures at Emory University a few years ago, where she lectured on science fiction and her relationship with the genre. Luckily for me, Atwood decided to do us all a favor and put those lectures, along with other essays on science fiction, into a single volume for fans like me to buy on the day it came out (Prompting a minor panic attack when I couldn’t find the book on the New Releases shelf at Barnes and Noble, which resulted in me getting a staff member to retrieve the single copy from the back. Do not get between me and a Margaret Atwood book, is the lesson).
As the introduction states, this is a very personal collection, detailing Atwood’s own interest in science fiction and how her interest began as a child, continued into her college years, and culminated in her writing three science fiction/speculative fiction novels. She describes reading Animal Farm as a child without being aware of the symbolism, escaping her literature thesis by going to cheesy B-movie showings as a college student, and the process of creating the futuristic worlds for The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. And then just for fun, she throws in a few short fiction pieces at the end that are inspired by what the book discusses.
I loved this, not just for how thoughtfully Atwood discusses and dissects such cheap B-movie tropes like mad scientists and sexy demon women, but for how broad the scope of these essays are. She discusses Never Let Me Go, the relationship between devils and evil aliens, 1984, Brave New World, Avatar, fictional maps, superheroes, gene splicing, and HG Wells. Did I mention superheroes? Because oh my god, you guys, Margaret Atwood discussing superheroes is my new favorite thing. She does a Jungian analysis of Batman using the three big villains – the Joker, the Penguin, and Catwoman – and does such a good job analyzing Robin that for the first time I didn’t utterly hate the character:
“Then there’s Robin, the Boy Wonder, who is Bruce’s ward. Is Bruce gay? Don’t even think about it. From the point of view of we mythosophists, Robin is an elemental spirit, like Shakespeare’s Puck and Ariel – note the bird name, which links him to air. His function in the plot is to aid the benevolent master trickster, Batman, with his plans. From the point of view of we Jungians, however, Robin is a Peter Pan figure – he never grows up – and he represents the repressed child within Bruce Wayne, whose parents, you’ll recall, were murdered when he was very young, thus stunting Bruce’s emotional growth.”
I’ll be honest: I never thought I’d see the day when a multiple-award-winning Serious Author was discussing Batman with a completely straight face. And that, I think, is the central idea behind this collection: that the stories of aliens and mad scientists and superheroes and magic, so frequently dismissed as pulpy trash, deserve to be regarded with just as much respect and thoughtfulness as traditional Great Literature. Stories of aliens taking over the world and sexy vampires have a rich and far-reaching literary ancestry, and many of the tropes that define science fiction can be found in the kind of books that are taken much more seriously than anything involving monsters and made-up worlds.
Summary: Science Fiction is legit, guys, so you best respect. The Atwood commands it.
Verdict: five out of five stars