Margaret Atwood and the S and F Words

By John CluteNovember 27, 2011

    In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. 272 pages.

    THERE ARE A FEW PROBLEMS HERE, which may take a few minutes to sort through before we can get down to the gist of this slender volume.

    Many of her casual readers, and most critics of her work, are aware by now that Margaret Atwood got herself into a spot of bother after the publication of her pulpish dystopia Oryx and Crake (2003), when she disassociated her text from the conversation of SF, the underlying megatext of conventions, phrases, solutions, tags and cliches which honest Science Fiction writers both acknowledge and make new in their works, and which has evolved enormously over the years. Despite her conspicuous use of SF topoi copied holus-bolus as they existed half a century ago — i.e., the Superman Mad Scientist who Ends the World while Simultaneously Creating a New Species to Inhabit the Remains — she claimed in 2003 that what she wrote was not Science Fiction at all, because Science Fiction was all about squids in space. What she was really writing was something decently grown-up, something akin to Speculative Fiction of a utopian/dystopian bent. In 2003 this reviewer (for one) waxed enthusiastically indignant — given the patently condescending disingenuousness of what she said — about what seemed not so much misprision as trahison des clercs. I argued that a person who had attained a public voice had a public responsibility, as a member of a clerisy whose voice could be heard for good reason, not to allow offhand comments to be understood as discourse. Solipsism in a clerk — clerisy being the committee of the whole of the literate members of a conversing society — is a form of tyranny.

    In 2003, Ursula K. Le Guin — a writer of singular importance to the field not only for her fiction but for her critical work — made it clear that the squids-in-space bon mot was genuinely discourteous. But her measured rebuke seems to have made little difference. Atwood has now reiterated her claim almost unmodified, in her latest book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. It may be that like a lobster in a trap who cannot find the exit door, Atwood cannot work her way out of the perplex of ill-judged subjectivity in which she had trapped herself: perhaps because, as with any statement of belief as opposed to argument, her “definition” of SF is as unfalsifiable as any sermon.

    Here is a central passage from the introduction to In Other Worlds:

    What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to Earth in metal canisters — things that could not possibly happen — whereas, for me, “speculative fiction” means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such [Atwood is presumably not thinking here of novels like Hector Servadac (1876) that transparently contradict her description of Verne’s work] — things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. 

    “Speculative fiction” is a term long-used in SF, and it is significant that Atwood does not cite, even in passing, either Robert A. Heinlein’s definition from 1947 or Judith Merril’s from 1966, even to tell them they’re wrong, for what she means is not what they — or anyone else to my knowledge — have meant by the term. (Scholars of SF tend to cite Wells’s astonishing novel for its speculations about the nature of evolution and imperialism, speculations far more central to the text than the introduction of aliens with tentacles, however transgressive their effect may have been in 1898.) But we are repeating the same point here: that Atwood is not arguing with anyone, but is re-delivering a sermon, spiced with unfalsifiable idiolect. We need to leave this strange territory.

    In Other Worlds is divided into two main sections. The first comprises the Richard Ellmann Lectures that Atwood presented in 2010 at Emory University, and which give their title to the book. Her predecessors in this distinguished series include Seamus Heaney, Helen Vendler, A.S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, and others. The audience was presumably made of the literate laity. The style she adopted for her lectures was conspicuously oral, not inappropriate in context, and seems not to have been revised for the different register of print. It is certainly possible to get away with a transfer this raw — there is a condign relaxedness, for instance, about Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960), which may not have been much revised from its oral presentation at Princeton the year before; as there is indeed in Atwood’s own excellently casual and content-packed Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), the 1991 Clarendon Lectures in English Literature, which were later “printed as they were originally given.”

    But there is a risk. Amis in 1959 and Atwood in 1991 both knew what they were talking about and knew they knew what they were talking about; the printed stenographical record of their deliveries registers that. What is registered in In Other Words seems to be something else, for it faithfully conveys in print a sensation of some permeating disjunct between the speaker and her auditors in 2010. Phrases like “the enchantress Circe, she of the man-to-pig transformational powers in The Odyssey,” or “Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle and J. R. R. Tolkien’s not unrelated The Lord of the Rings,” or “voice emanating from the well-known Burning Bush,” seem to expose more than a simple presentational problem; what seems at stake here is an insecurity about the range, the content, the ultimate seriousness of her subject matter. I quote a pretty typical passage:

    What does the ability to fly portend, in a superhero or even a god? We are not talking here about airplanes and helicopters; the flying around thing is not about more rapid and efficient real-life transportation methods. It has to do with wings, either actual or implied, with rising above the Earth, and with the ability to glide effortlessly from one place to another. [Continue to end. Repeat chorus.]

    The careless slurrying here of any distinction between superheroes and gods, who are typically and significantly unencumbered with wings, and winged creatures like dragons or angels or liminal creatures who guard and demarcate crossroads, may be extrinsic to the flow of argument; but the tone of slightly defensive allusiveness detectable here (and through the lectures as a whole), the rhetorical questions, the uneasy defense of every periphrasis, the ten-foot-pole jocosities, all induced in this reviewer an almost literal déjà vu, a timeslip back to claustrophobic 1960s Toronto, a time and place of cultural dis-ease, a time when young writers tended to engage in poisonously unctuous (but always nice, always innocent) guying of anything American or Big-Think or transgressive: I am describing myself, and others too. We had not learned to converse with the world. We were, instead, Canadians.

    The sad irony here is that it was Atwood herself who did so much to save 1960s literary Canada from itself. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), an analysis of the Canadian episteme recounted in an ice-clear impassioned voice, gave that voice to us: shook us free of the pretensions of unpretentiousness that coated our tongues like flannel. In Other Worlds, sadly, feels like the bad old days reborn, before she made it all come clear: Peter Cook in the 1960s but without the jokes, Peter Cook (so long gone now) unpacking the world for Dudley Moore. We’re not talking here about your ordinary emperor. We are talking about Nero, he of the well known fiddle. [Coughs.]

    When she genuinely relaxes, though, it is not all bad. The lectures themselves give us, in three sections combining memoir and excursus, an attractive picture of the young Atwood discovering fantastika in general, SF in particular. Her early reading was clearly intense, and she conveys a sense of that sensual intensity here through some dextrous narrative passagework, though without giving any large number of specific textual referents. Indeed — to return to the main burden of complaint about the failure of In Other Worlds to argue its case — it is noticeable that, utopias and dystopias excepted, almost no SF novels published after the early 1950s are either mentioned explicitly or by inference, with the exception of William Gibson (but stopping short at Neuromancer, which is treated as both utopian and dystopian, but not as an SF prayer to the Gods Inside Tomorrow), Ursula Le Guin (inescapable chider and presider) and Bruce Sterling (for his Slipstream riff). I may be failing to remember others, but the book (or at least my advance review copy) contains no index. As far as “SF and the Human Imagination,” we are left with teen encounters with pulp, and the extremities of the utopian mind (which mainly, I think wrongly, are extrinsic to the line and structure of SF itself). As far as the megatext is concerned, nought. There is no there there.

    The second half of the book is made up of essays and fictional vignettes. The most substantial essays are on books by Marge Piercy, H. Rider Haggard (on She, a novel Atwood had written about, at greater length and intensity, in the 1960s), Le Guin (a review of The Birthday of the World oddly titled “The Queen of Quinkdom”), Bill McGibbon, George Orwell, and H. G. Wells (the focus here being on The Island of Doctor Moreau [1896], which she seems to think was written immediately before War of the Worlds). Readers familiar with Atwood’s work may well recognize these pieces, as all of them have already been reprinted (some as many as three times) in earlier collections of her work. Previously uncollected essays include a good review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005); a good and close reading of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932); a piece on Mad Scientists which seems to disengage itself from any understanding that her own Oryx is exactly a Mad Scientist; and an excellent piece on Bryher that earned out the book for me, as I had never heard of her near-future dystopia Passport to Avalon (1965), a liquid-tongued elegy I have now read with great pleasure.

    So this is the good that we get out of In Other Worlds: these pieces, and a few others not mentioned, some fun bits of very short fiction, and insights scattered throughout the titular lectures whenever she says something unguarded. It is at moments when she sloughs off the flannel that the Atwood of the better novels and the clear emancipating voice shows through: an unblinkingly adamant perceptiveness, a strong mind exposed and working. What we don’t ever really get, though, is what the title promised us: an argument about SF and the human imagination. No reader of SF, no scholar immersed in the study of the form, will find much to grapple with in this book, beyond the squid-ink flim-flam about squids in space that starts it off; and that is a joke long stale, an argument never made. Readers unversed in the long argument of SF should be warned that In Other Worlds does not present, or continue, or even show itself much aware, of that argument. Final recommendation, then: Cherrypick this bush, then amscray.

    LARB Contributor

    John Clute is the author of six volumes of reviews and criticism, most recently Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (Beccon Publications, 2011). He coedited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979; 2nd ed. 1993) and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), both of which won Hugo Awards for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year. With David Langford he is currently working on the ongoing third edition of the SF Encyclopedia, online through Orion/Gollancz from October 2011; it won a 2012 Hugo; further information about this project can be found here.


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