Margaret Atwood has become a force of nature within her own lifetime. Revered by literate women for her award-winning
The Handmaid’s Tale, she has written more than a dozen books of – well, we will explore the genre through this her latest book, essays on the very subject of what her books really are, constructed by examining other, similar books and getting her sharp opinions about them. That’s what Margaret Atwood is talking about, In Other Worlds...
For a long time, Atwood has asserted that her fantastical stories are not, certainly not, “science fiction,” which possibly had its start with H.G. Wells (“tentacled, bloodsucking Martians shot to earth in metal canisters”) but maybe, “speculative fiction” (progenitor: Jules Verne) -- stories about things that could happen. But such genres and others with newer nomenclature (“slipstream fiction” and “social science fiction”) have in common that they take place in settings apart from the current Earth, not in Earth time but just ahead, or far ahead.
In this romp around the genre(s), Atwood looks at everything from caped cartoon heroes to “B sci-fi movies of the lowest possible brow level.” She explores utopias from Shakespeare’s
Tempest" to the Land of Cockaigne to the acceptable orgies among pink and blue-winged faeries, to a real-life failure, Fordlandia.
Atwood examines several SF/SSF seminal works in depth, including one of my own favorites,
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, in which a poor Latina misfit with a rap sheet encounters a sexually ambivalent being on an elevator. This “per” takes the anti-heroine Consuelo on journeys to a parallel world where gender roles have been pleasantly blended and small, craft-oriented villages are run through consensus. At a certain point, Consuelo seems to be considering crossing over into the village reality. However, Consuelo’s story ends with a more our-world rebellion against the system that brings her sanity into question but is nonetheless satisfying to those of us who are rooting for her. I’d label this one “slipstream” for sure.
Among the more slap-happy Utopias portrayed in modern literature is Aldous Huxley’s
Brave New World, where people are ranked according to their intellectual abilities and sex is a mere “pneumatic” act detached from the trappings of love. (Atwood amplifies this theme in
The Handmaid’s Tale, making it clear that in the ideal male universe, women would constitute a groveling underclass who, if not able to produce offspring, would gain the disgraceful title: “unwoman.”)
Brave New World, with its cheerful sexing among the classes all content with their lot, is often contrasted with a contemporary to it, George Orwell’s
1984, a dark, bitter landscape where the only escape from confusion and cruelty is to knuckle under and love the hateful but constant image of Big Brother. Atwood holds a magnifying glass to a severely dystopic possibility,
The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells, in which a shipwrecked Englishman finds himself on an island ruled by the eponymous mad scientist who is hard at work creating a debased race of part-human, part-animal creatures to do his bidding. In order to survive when these sub-humans rebel, the Englishman lives among them, a choice that he will experience as an inescapable curse once he returns to civilization.
Atwood draws many astute conclusions about SF, the main one of which, because most comforting, is that humans want to hope, to live long and prosper.
To that end we share stories, some of which we call sacred, “warning stories that deal with the shadow side of our other wants…perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.”