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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

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In her new book of essays, In Other Worlds, Atwood answers Le Guin, to whom the book is dedicated. “The motive imputed to me is not in fact my actual motive for requesting separate names.... 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 – things that really could happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books.” (Fair enough, but I’ve heard them both Wells and Verne described as the “father of science fiction.”)

While she may not think she writes it, Atwood certainly has read a fair bit of and thought deeply about science fiction, and she shares generously with her readers in “In Other Worlds,” starting with the flying rabbits she wrote about as a child. (The be-caped bunnies and other illustrations by Atwood are featured on the whimsical end-papers.)

“In Other Worlds” is divided into sections: The first part covers three of Atwood’s never-before-published lectures, covering the ground from superheroes to science fiction as the modern refuge of religious writing – “I’m far from the first commentator to note that science fiction is where theologically linked phenomena and reasonable facsimiles of them went after ‘Paradise Lost’ " – to utopias and dystopias. That last, “Dire Cartographies,” is the most interesting, covering her abandoned thesis and the genesis of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “My rules for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ were simple: I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools.”

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