In Other Worlds

(SF and the Human Imagination)

by Margaret Atwood

A review

In this non-fiction work, dedicated to her fellow sci-fi and fantasy writer, the late Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood talks about the literary influences of her childhood. A series of essays and book reviews of works that have inspired her, In Other Worlds takes the reader on a journey through some of the best dystopian fiction of this and the last century.

‘All myths are stories, but not all stories are myths: among stories, myths hold a special place.’ [from Burning Bushes]

sf atwood

The book is divided into three parts, the first adapted from a series of lectures Atwood gave in 2010. Her first creations, she tells us, were superhero flying rabbits. She traces the origin of these – and of other more human marvels, as well as their colourful outfits – back through early literature to folk mythology. Sci-fi has a religious element, Heaven and Hell being transformed into interstellar space, or maybe sent there with intent.

Atwood asks questions about what the genres really are. Are certain books novels or are they not? Maybe they are romances. And do each of the popular terms, utopia and dystopia, presented in “novel” form, hide elements of the other?

‘The writing of The Handmaid’s Tale gave me a strange feeling, like sliding on river ice – exhilarating but unbalancing. How thin is the ice?’ [from Dire Cartographies]

The second section of In Other Worlds is composed mainly of reviews of works Atwood has enjoyed over the past half century and more, and which have been her inspiration. These include Rider Haggard’s She, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Ursula K Le Guin’s volume of short stories, The Birthday of the World. She writes about Le Guin a lot – obviously another inspiration. [I love Le Guin too.] But she also writes a lot about Orwell, Huxley and Wells, three of the giants of invention.

‘Some of my people have a pointed but boneless external appendage, in the front, below the navel or midpoint. Others do not. Debate about whether the possession of such a thing is an advantage or disadvantage is still going on.’ [from Homelanding]

The rest of the book consists of short – and what I regard as more frivolous essays about how we might be viewed by aliens, and what might be the future of cryogenics. The author also includes a “story” from her successful novel The Blind Assassin. Then there is Homelanding. I’ll let that the quotation speak for itself! Margaret Atwood can be funny, but she’s always outrageous or irreverent to the last.

In Other Worlds is a book for all lovers of Atwood’s fiction, and of sci-fi and dystopias generally.


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