‘In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination’: Atwood Finds the Connection Between Wells & Orwell

[8 December 2011]

By Gabrielle Malcolm

PopMatters Associate Books Editor

Vindication is a wonderful thing. Or I imagine so, having not yet experienced that sense of completion and satisfaction with my doctoral research, quite yet. I hope to some day.

Margaret Atwood knows what it’s like, seeing as the topic of her unfinished PhD thesis predicted many of the now current and fashionable fields of study. The range of genres and authors that she chose to examine suggests an early ability to perceive tastes and preferences in the general readership. She hit upon a ‘line of literary descent’ that demonstrates the origins of science fiction and fantasy literature through George MacDonald, H Rider Haggard, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. And she remarks upon her foresight: ‘…at that time no one of any academic respectability was paying any attention to this kind of writing, to “science fiction” and its related forms or subforms, such as fantasy and ustopias.’ (Atwood: 78)

That last type, ‘ustopias’, is her coining; a conflation of ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’, the two kinds of societies typically depicted in the literature she analyses. One is a paradise, tainted from within; the other a nightmare in which glimpses of bliss can be discerned. ‘I was on my own’, she remembers, outside the accepted conventions of academia. And to a great extent she has remained so.

Academia has had to keep up with Atwood. She has energised literature in a unique fashion – with insight and intellect, and riveting narratives. Science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction – all terms she enjoys using and questioning – have become trademarks of her writing. She accounts for her journey of discovery in this collection of essays, critiques and commentaries, drawn from a variety of outlets: radio, journalism, symposia, etc. She takes us through the compositional process of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and reflects upon how George Orwell’s 1984 (1948) was inspirational for her.

Childhood reading, the emphasis upon obscure texts, and searching out forgotten and under-appreciated works form Atwood-the-novelist’s DNA. It will always be engaging when a writer cites their influences and represents the formulation of science fiction (which she still considers a contested term) as being Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, through Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to the more recognisable form of H.G. Wells. She treats genre as something fluid and changeable and is very persuasive in perceiving the artform of the novel in this way, relating Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Wells’s difficult work The Island of Dr. Moreau. She removes the rigidity of the novel form and encourages us to re-visit classics, drama, film, and out-of-fashion works in order to re-evaluate their significance.

What started out as her seeming disparagement of science fiction, for which she supposedly offered negative criticism of Ursula K Le Guin, and was accused of not wishing to be labelled as a science fiction or fantasy writer herself, has now been thoroughly contradicted. This collection serves to confirm her admiration for Le Guin’s work (she devotes an entire chapter to her stories and the whole collection is dedicated to her) and also asserts her position as one that is far from negative. Instead, she is a champion of marginal but popular forms and one who reinforces the need to interrogate such works. This collection will only function to enliven the debate and further the possibilities of how science fiction, ‘speculative’ fiction and ‘ustopias’ are assessed and represented in future.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/151951-in-other-worlds-sf-and-the-human-imagination/