Hell hath no fury like a science fiction fan scorned. Margaret Atwood knows this firsthand. Over the years, the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale’’ has chafed against the science fiction label, preferring to have her work called “speculative fiction.’’ The backlash from the sci-fi community has been predictable. As Atwood writes in her new collection of essays, “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination,’’ “scarcely a question period goes by at my public readings without someone asking, usually in injured tones, why I have foresworn the term science fiction, as if I’ve sold my children to the salt mines.’’
“In Other Worlds’’ is Atwood’s attempt to come to terms with her complicated relationship to sci-fi. The book is divided into three parts: a three-chapter “personal history of sorts’’ in which Atwood describes her lifelong interest in science fiction and fantasy; a collection of previously published essays on specific works; and finally, a sampling of Atwood’s own efforts in the genre. (Atwood is now comfortable with her own work being described as science fiction.)
The book’s first section is also its best. From a young age, Atwood was dissatisfied with traditional literary realism. Her reading tastes were eclectic, a diet consisting of the funny pages, “The Wizard of Oz,’’ “a dollop of Greek mythology, and our one small book on the solar system.’’ When she was 6 or 7, Atwood made the transition from reader to creator of other worlds, dreaming into existence Mischiefland, a magical world inhabited by flying bunnies.
It’s a delight to see Atwood revisit Mischiefland, both because of the lovely details she remembers (the flying bunnies kept cats as pets and ate only ice cream), and because this retelling leads Atwood to speculate on the origins - cultural, literary, mythic, religious - of the science fiction genre. She poses and then answers a series of questions: What would a genealogy of sci-fi look like? Is our propensity to imagine other worlds a cultural inheritance, or a biological necessity (or both)? What kinds of questions can science fiction ask that traditional fiction cannot?
Atwood locates herself in a long line of critics who have seen science fiction as “the last fictional repository for theological speculation.’’ In this understanding, Isaac Asimov is a direct descendent of Dante and Milton: All three use literary art to speculate on metaphysical questions. What makes sci-fi unique, Atwood argues, is its ability to ask these questions without sacrificing entertainment.
The last two sections of “In Other Worlds’’ are hit-or-miss. Atwood’s short, laudatory review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,’’ for instance, is of little interest six years after the novel’s publication. On the other hand, a 2009 reconsideration of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,’’ is well worth reprinting: In it, Atwood provocatively claims that the existence of the future perfect verb tense almost necessitates human speculation on worlds other than our own.
Atwood’s arguments for the value of genre fiction can help us to better understand a surprising fact of contemporary literature. Her acceptance of the SF label is only one sign of the increasingly cordial relationship between “literary’’ and “genre’’ fiction. John Banville moonlights as Benjamin Black in his detective novels; Colson Whitehead’s upcoming “Zone One’’ treats a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies. In a wonderful essay on Ursula Le Guin, Atwood writes, “All her stories are, as she has said, metaphors for the one human story.’’ “In Other Worlds’’ reminds us that all genres are capable of deepening and developing this one human story.