Friday, February 15, 2013

Nonfiction Review: In Other Worlds

When I heard that the Bookrageous podcast was going to do a book discussion on Margaret Atwood’s new collection of essays about science fiction, In Other Worlds, I decided to join in. Atwood is one of those major writers whom I have never read (and always wanted to), though I recently bought a used copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. I was unsure whether I’d get much out of this book since I hadn’t yet read anything else written by Atwood (or much other science fiction), but I was pleasantly surprised. Her essays were clever, interesting, and funny.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Atwood prints three lectures that she gave at Emory University. The first chapter describes her own personal history with science fiction, starting from childhood when she would draw flying rabbits as superheroes. The second discusses her interest in ancient mythology and its connection to science fiction. Her third lecture is on the topic of her unfinished PhD thesis, about nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction that were precursors to modern sci fi.

The second section of the book deals with specific works of science fiction. It is a varied collection of reviews, essays, and radio talks Atwood wrote about classics like Brave New World and The Island of Dr. Moreau, as well as modern sci fi novels and short story collections. Of the ten works she writes about, I’ve only read two, 1984 and Brave New World, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the discussions and added quite a few titles to my lengthy to-be-read list!

Finally, the third section consists of five mini sci fi stories written by Atwood herself. They provided an excellent first introduction to Atwood’s fiction for me; all were engaging and unique, often with a playful sense of irony.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book very much – more than I expected to. It was interesting and intriguing – for instance, Atwood’s discussions of exactly how to define science fiction versus speculative fiction or fantasy – but I was also pleasantly surprised by Atwood’s sense of humor and playfulness. She just seems to be having so much fun, and she brings the reader along for the ride, as here where she speculates about the origins of superheroes:

Once upon a time, superhuman beings wore robes, like angels, or nothing, like devils, but the twentieth-century superhero outfit has more proximate fashion origins. The skin-tight clothing with the bathing suit over the abdominal parts, the wide, fancy belt, and the calf-high boots most probably derive from archaic turn-of-the-century circus attire, especially that of high-wire artists and strongmen. (With pleasing circularity, the stars of World Wide Wrestling now dress up in costumes similar to those of comic-book characters whose own colorful and six-pack-disclosing attire recalls that of earlier bemuscled showmen).

As the co-hosts of Bookrageous said during their podcastbook discussion, it felt like sitting down with a close friend and chatting over coffee or participating in a book club with Margaret Atwood.  I often laughed out loud and read passages to my husband. In Other Worlds is not only informative and interesting; it’s also just plain fun. And now I can’t wait to read some of the novels and short stories Atwood discussed.

240 pages, Doubleday

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