woensdag 27 november 2013

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

At a time when speculative fiction seems less and less far-fetched, Margaret Atwood lends her distinctive voice and singular point of view to the genre in a series of essays that brilliantly illuminates the essential truths about the modern world. This is an exploration of her relationship with the literary form we have come to know as "science fiction,” a relationship that has been lifelong, stretching from her days as a child reader in the 1940s, through her time as a graduate student at Harvard, where she worked on the Victorian ancestor of the form, and continuing as a writer and reviewer. This book brings together her three heretofore unpublished Ellmann Lectures from 2010: "Flying Rabbits," which begins with Atwood's early rabbit superhero creations, and goes on to speculate about masks, capes, weakling alter egos, and Things with Wings; "Burning Bushes," which follows her into Victorian otherlands and beyond; and "Dire Cartographies," which investigates Utopias and Dystopias. In Other Worlds also includes some of Atwood's key reviews and thoughts about the form. Among those writers discussed are Marge Piercy, Rider Haggard, Ursula Le Guin, Ishiguro, Bryher, Huxley, and Jonathan Swift. She elucidates the differences (as she sees them) between "science fiction" proper, and "speculative fiction," as well as between "sword and sorcery/fantasy" and "slipstream fiction." For all readers who have loved The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood, In Other Worlds is a must.

Review
"Deeply thoughtful, deftly argued, sometimes unexpected—[Atwood] shows readers how science fiction fits into a long, venerable tradition. . . . Bracing, provocative."
—Los Angeles Times

“Eminently readable and accessible. . . . Atwood revels in all aspects of the SF genre, both high- and low-brow, and her enthusiasm and level of intellectual engagement are second to none.”
—Financial Times

"Atwood is a perceptive and enthusiastic literary critic, dryly funny and eclectically curious."
—San Francisco Chronicle

“A witty, astute collection of essays and lectures on science fiction . . . It’s clear that [Atwood's] affection for the genre is deep and genuine . . . Wholly satisfying, with plenty of insights for Atwood and sci-fi fans alike.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred

"Atwood's prose is addictive. . . . She crafts sentences with poise and grace and pitch-perfect highbrow humor."
—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Atwood fans, sci-fi fans, indeed fiction fans, have reason to rejoice. In Other Worlds is a delightful read full of Atwood’s well-honed prose and sly sense of humor. . . . Delving into her personal origins as a sci-fi writer as well as the social and literary origins of the genre in its broadest sense, Atwood offers interesting, entertaining and thoughtful insight into both. For anyone interested in the genesis of fiction, science fiction, or the authors behind either (and of course Atwood in particular), In Other Worlds is a worthwhile and rewarding read.”
—The Miami Herald

“Atwood archly and profoundly delves into her ‘lifelong relationship’ with science fiction in a collection of glimmering essays.”
—Booklist

PRAISE FOR MARGARET ATWOOD

“A speculative-fiction visionary . . . Atwood has an uncanny knack for tapping into humanity’s uncertain future and predicting mankind’s cultural, scientific and sociopolitical falls from glory . . . Her fiction has peeled back the skin of our disturbing subcutaneous nightmares.”
—Wired

“One of the most intelligent and talented writers to set herself the task of deciphering life in the late twentieth century.”
—Vogue

“Throughout her literary career . . . Margaret Atwood has impressed and delighted readers with her wit, lyric virtuosity, and imaginative acuity.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“This amazing woman’s voice, this fine writer’s constant example, is extraordinary.”
—Boston Globe

“The tremendous imaginative power of [Atwood’s] fiction allows us to believe that anything is possible.”
—New York Times Book Review

About the Author
MARGARET ATWOOD, whose work has been pub­lished in over thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her nov­els include Cat’s Eye, shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize; and her most recent, The Year of the Flood.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Introduction

“I’m a fifty-three-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects some day to be an eighty-year-old writer.”
– Octavia Butler.

     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 practicing academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather, it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship to a literary form, or forms, or sub-forms, both as reader and as writer.
I say “lifelong,” for among the first things that I read and also wrote might well have the SF initials attached to them. Like a great many children before and since, I was an inventor of other worlds. Mine were rudimentary, as such worlds are when you’re seven, but they were emphatically not of this earth, which seems to be one of the salient features of SF. I wasn’t much interested in Dick and Jane as a child. They did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish. Several-headed man-eating marine life seemed more likely, somehow, than Spot and Puff.
Our earliest loves, like revenants, have a way of coming back in other forms; or, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother to the woman. To date — and as what I am pleased to think of as an adult — I have written three full-length fictions that nobody would ever class as sociological realism: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Are these books “science fiction,” I am often asked? Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term, because these books are as much “science fiction” as 1984 is, whatever I might say. But is 1984 as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles, I might reply? I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.
Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy. Back in 2008 I was talking to a much younger person about “science fiction.” I’d been asked by the magazine New Scientistto answer the question, “Is science fiction going out of date?” But then I realized that I couldn’t make a stab at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term “science fiction” meant any more. Is this term a corral with real fences that separate what is clearly “science fiction” from what is not, or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way? If you put skin-tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jet-like flames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work “science fiction”? What about dragons and manticores, or backgrounds that contain volcanoes or atomic clouds, or plants with tentacles, or landscapes reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch? Does there have to be any actual science in such a book, or is the skin-tight clothing enough? These seemed to me to be open questions.
This much younger person – let’s call him Randy, which was in fact his name – did not have a hard and fast definition of “science fiction,” but he knew it when he saw it, kind of. As I told New Scientist, “For Randy – and I think he’s representative – sci-fi does include other planets, which may or may not have dragons on them. It includes the wildly paranormal—not your aunt table-tilting or things going creak, but shape-shifters and people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body.” Here I would include such items as Body Snatchers—if of extra-terrestrial rather than folkloric provenance—and Pod People, and heads growing out of your armpits, though, as I’ve said, I’d exclude common and garden variety devils, and demonic possession, and also vampires and werewolves, which have literary ancestries and categories all their own.
As I reported in my New Scientistarticle, for Randy Sci-fi includes, as a matter of course, space ships, and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong. Plain ordinary horror doesn’t count — chain-saw murderers and such. Randy and I agreed that you might meet one of those walking along the street. It’s what you definitely would not meet walking along the street that makes the grade as SF. Randy judged such books in part by the space-scapes and leathery or silvery outfits on their covers, which means that my speculations about jacket images are not entirely irrelevant. As one friend’s child put it, “Looks like milk, tastes like milk – it IS milk!” Thus: looks like science fiction, has the tastes of science fiction — it IS science fiction!
Or more or less. Or kind of. For covers can be misleading. The earliest mass-market paperbacks of my novels, The Edible Woman and Surfacing, had pink covers with gold scrollwork designs on them and oval frames with a man’s head and a woman’s head silhouetted inside them, just like valentines. How many readers picked these books up, hoping to find a Harlequin Romance or reasonable facsimile, only to throw them down in tears because there are no weddings at the ends?
Then there was the case of the former Soviet Union. No sooner did the Wall come down in 1989 than pornography flooded across the one-time divide. Porn had hitherto been excluded in favour of endless editions of the classics and other supposed-to-be-good-for-you works, but forbidden fruit excites desire, and everyone had already read Tolstoy, a lot. Suddenly the publishers of serious literature were hard pressed. Thus it was that The Robber Brideappeared in a number of Soviet-bloc countries with covers that might be described as – at best – deceptive, and – at worst – as a Eurotrash slutfest in flagranto. How many men in raincoats purchased the Robber Bride edition sporting a black-satin-sheathed Zenia with colossal tits, hoping for a warm one-handed time in a back corner, only to heave it into the trash with a strangled "Foiled Again!" curse? For the Zenia in my book performs what we can only assume is her sexual witchery offstage.
Having thus misled readers twice – inadvertently — by dint of book covers and the genre categories implied by them, I would rather not do it again. I would like to have space creatures inside the books on offer at my word-wares booth, and I would if I could: they were, after all, my first childhood love. But, being unable to produce them, I don’t want to lead the reader on, thus generating a frantic search within the pages – Where are the Lizard Men of Xenor? — that can only end in disappointment.

     My desire to explore my relationship with the SF world, or worlds, has a proximate cause. In 2009, I published The Year of the Flood, the second work of fiction in a series exploring another kind of “other world” – our own planet in a future. (I carefully say a future rather than the future, because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an infinite number of roads lead away to “the future,” each heading in a different direction.)
The Year of the Flood was reviewed, along with its sibling, Oryx and Crake,by one of the reigning monarchs of the SF and Fantasy forms, Ursula K. LeGuin. Her 2009 Guardian article began with a paragraph that has caused a certain amount of uproar in the skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities – so much so that scarcely a question period goes by at my public readings without someone asking, usually in injured tones, why I have forsworn the term “science fiction,” as if I’ve sold my children to the salt mines.
Here are LeGuin’s uproar-causing sentences :

"To my mind, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn't want any of her books to be called science fiction. In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can't be science fiction, which is 'fiction in which things happen that are not possible today.' This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto."

The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names. (If winning prizes were topmost on my list, and if writing such books would guarantee non-wins, my obvious move would be to just avoid writing them.) What I mean by “science fiction” is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, which treats of an invasion by tentacled, blood-sucking Martians shot to earth in metal canisters – things that cou...

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