In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood: review
Margaret Atwood’s essays on the origins of science fiction show she is as much a keen reader as she is a creator, says Kevin Barry.
There is something other-worldly about Margaret Atwood – an elfin gleam, a cryogenic iciness. So it’s apt that for decades she has been tiptoeing from the lamplit den of high literature to the ravaged wastelands of speculative fiction. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and, most recently, The Year of the Flood, she has done more than any writer – apart, perhaps, from JG Ballard – to show us that the real invention in contemporary literature is found not with the rainy realists but in the wild terrain of the genres.
In this collection of essays, based on a series of lectures delivered in the United States, Atwood explores her lifelong relationship with science fiction and its related zones. A child of the sparse and eerie northern Canadian woodlands, she succumbed to Forties comic strips and their vivid, superhero lore – when you live far out, you make your own entertainment and your own worlds. Atwood, as precocious as you’d expect, became a child-writer as well as a child-reader, conjuring a world populated by flying rabbits: “Very little of what I wrote or drew was in any way naturalistic, and in this I suspect I was like other children. Those under the age of eight gravitate more easily toward talking animals, dinosaurs, giants, flying humanoids of one kind of another… than they do to, say, portrayals of cosy domestic interiors or bucolic landscapes.”
Children are naturally inclined towards the fantastical and Atwood suspects that the appeal of comic books, sci-fi and the hyperreal lies deep in the human psyche. They satisfy our primal need for myth.