What makes a story sci-fi? Where do some of the elements of this genre originate? And why exactly do we all want to fly?
In her newest book, Margaret Atwood explores her lifelong relationship with the sci-fi genre. She was inspired to do so after the response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s review of her novel The Year of the Flood. Le Guin referenced Atwood often distancing herself from the genre label, which led to Atwood’s fans to repeatedly ask her why she chose to do so. After giving a talk with Le Guin, Atwood found out what Le Guin defines as sci-fi (things that haven’t happened but could possibly) and fantasy (things that can’t happen) and thus began her exploration as what qualifies as scifi.
From the first chapter of the book, it is apparent that it’s the history of sci-fi that intrigues Atwood as well as the slipperiness of “wonder tales” (a term she sometimes uses to refer to fantasy and sci-fi stories). In Other Worlds is divided into three separate sections. The first is focused purely on the history of sci-fi and the elements common to such stories as well as Atwood’s own reminiscences of growing up reading such stories. The second section is reviews on popular sci-fi stories. The last section is a couple short stories by Atwood herself.
In exploring the history of sci-fi, Atwood unsurprisingly concludes that most of it has evolved from ancient mythology. Being a lover of myths, this was probably my favorite part of the book. What I found most interesting is her theories of what specific elements (such as costumes, double identities, and even other worlds) could have been inspired by. Robots share many similarities to the ancient Jewish myth of the Gollem. Other worlds can be traced back to assorted myths of the afterlife. Perhaps my favorite part of this section is her discussion of where the costumes come from. Can we imagine Superman without the costume? Selene from the Underworld series without the entire leather getup? Turns out, these can be traced back to ancient rituals in which power was bestowed on certain objects. Atwood goes back as far as Mesopotamia (the myth cycle “Inanna’s Journey to Hell”) in her discussion of the importance of costuming.
In her exploration of Utopias and Dystopias (entitled Dire Cartographies), Atwood coins the term “Ustopia”. This refers to the fact that there can never be an actual Utopia. Some group will always be left out, never quite fitting in. Therefore, every Utopia will have a certain amount of dystopia in it and vice versa. She points out how every attempt at creating a Utopia in reality has been a miserable failure, often with tragic consequences. Atwood is no stranger to dystopian fiction: one of her most well known novels is The Handmaid’s Tale, which concerns a society in which women have been completely stripped of rights (a book that remains eerily relevant today).
The second part of the book, in which she reviews a variety of sci-fi stories, some well known and others not so much, the reader is shown how sci-fi changes to reflect contemporary society. Visions of the future started to become noticeably grimmer after the World Wars. While some of these reviews can be a little tedious, they all have an interesting point to make about societal changes and progresses and how these affect the genre. Her tracing of the evolution of alchemists to mad scientists is likely to tickle any sci-fi fan.
The third part of the book is made up of five short stories. Each of these is a fast read and mostly enjoyable. The first story is a morbidly funny dinner discussion about cryogenics. I would have preferred the characters be named (they are merely identified by a letter: “A”, “B”, “C”, etc.), but this is a minor quibble. The next story was probably my favorite. Two giant alien bugs visit Earth and observe the human race as an anthropologist would. It is a very short but very funny story.
The next stories I found to be a little dull. One is about aliens showing other aliens around Earth. The next story has to do with a time capsule. While not the best stories, they are still worth a read. The final story is an excerpt from Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, which I unfortunately have not read yet. The excerpt is a rather odd little tale about what living in a “paradise” is really like (hint: not heavenly). The way it’s framed is quite unusual: it’s a story that one lover is telling another. The story starts out as a 2nd person narration and gradually becomes 1st person. Some elements would probably turn a few readers off, but after reading it a couple times, I found myself appreciating the story.
I cannot recommend In Other Worlds highly enough. It is a truly fascinating read about the history of scifi. Atwood is an incredibly gifted writer and provides plenty of witty anecdotes about her history with the genre, which has been with her throughout her life. Genre fans will find a kindred spirit in these pages.