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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars SF and the Human Imagination
You can always expect Margaret Atwood to come at a topic sideways, and this collection of essays is no exception. It opens with a series of three evocative pieces on the relationship between the human imagination and the development of a genre many only begrudgingly title and shelve as "science fiction."

What sets these early essays apart is Atwood's considered...
Published on November 24, 2011 by Clint Schnekloth

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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit disappointing
I confess to being somewhat disappointed by In Other Worlds, Margaret Atwood's collection of essays (along with a handful of fiction shorts) dealing with science fiction. She has long been a favorite author of mine, and her science fiction (or speculative fiction as she'd prefer) works my favorites among her books: The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the...
Published on October 24, 2011 by B. Capossere


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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit disappointing, October 24, 2011
This review is from: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Hardcover)
I confess to being somewhat disappointed by In Other Worlds, Margaret Atwood's collection of essays (along with a handful of fiction shorts) dealing with science fiction. She has long been a favorite author of mine, and her science fiction (or speculative fiction as she'd prefer) works my favorites among her books: The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, the science fiction elements of The Blind Assassin. She's also an insightful critic and a sharp non-fiction writer. So I was looking quite forward to seeing her thoughts on the field I've been reading in for so long.

The problem may have been one of expectations, therefore. I come to the collection as both an Atwood fan and a science fiction fan and it's the latter part that may have been the issue. Someone who comes to the collection merely as an Atwood fan, one not well versed in the genre, might find this a moderately illuminating collection of essays, but I'm not sure there's much here that a science fiction fan hasn't already seen. Even for those relatively unfamiliar with science fiction, though, I fear the essays are a bit slight.

The first few essays are a mix of memoir and an examination of fantastic stories. I say "fantastic" because the focus isn't yet on science fiction per se. Atwood covers myths, superhero stories, romances, and utopias/dystopias. Clear, succinct and informative, it's also pretty well-trod ground, and at times pretty quickly covered ground, as when she zips through various superhero elements such as costumes and secret identities in a page or two or offers up questions the new "mythos" of science asks and then answers the questions in a paragraph or two. The section on utopias/dystopias covers the expected ground (Brave New World, 1984, etc.) but is probably most interesting toward the end when she examines her own dystopic novels and how she came about to write them.

After the three more personal essays, we're given some more focused pieces, introductions to works or reviews or brief critical looks. Included in this section are examinations of Rider Haggard's She, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a collection of short stories by Ursula K. Leguin, Brave New World again, and a few others. Again, it's all well written, the connections are smart and sharply drawn, but to someone already aware of these authors, there's nothing that's really much of an "Aha" moment. As an introduction to a less aware reader, this section will probably pique their interest and give them something to think about. My favorite piece in the entire book appears here, and is entitled "10 Ways of Looking at The Island of Dr. Moreau". I thought this piece stood out for two reasons. One was the structure and the other was that it was one of the few pieces that offered up a feeling of fresh stimulation. This section is followed by five very slight science fiction shorts, the best of which is the excerpt from The Blind Assassin. The others are quickly read and as quickly forgotten. Finally, the collection closes with some appendices, including a letter from Atwood to a school district that considered banning The Handmaid's Tale and a piece about Weird Tales' covers, which was probably my second favorite selection of the book.

I'm not sure what to make of the collection, to be honest. To someone well steeped in the genre, there's really nothing here that won't make them nod their head not just in agreement but in familiarity as well. To someone who is a fan of Atwood, there isn't all that much about her or her writing, and most of what is in here will probably sound familiar. For instance, she writes of The Handmaid's Tale that she put nothing in the story that hadn't happened somewhere somewhen in human history. Which is an interesting piece of information about the novel, save that I've read that many times over. To someone relatively new to the genre, the early essays are a nice historical overview, if brief, but the middle section has such a singular focus on particular books that I'm not sure it offers much to that reader. Finally, though Atwood has made an attempt to rid the book of repetitive lines or themes, always an issue when previously published works are collected, several such instances remain, such as a few mentions (more than two) of how the 20th century was a race between two dystopic vision--1984 and Brave New World--and how BNW seemed to win until post 9/11.

In the end, I'd call it a good library book. Take it out, satisfy your curiosity about a few points, come to a better understanding of a favorite author's point of view on the genre and on some of the authors working in or employing the genre. But I wouldn't call it a book you need on your shelf, unlike, say, Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid's Tale. And when her promised third book in the Oryx/Flood series comes out, I'll make room for that one, even if I have to give up my copy of In Other Worlds to do so.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars SF and the Human Imagination, November 24, 2011
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This review is from: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Hardcover)
You can always expect Margaret Atwood to come at a topic sideways, and this collection of essays is no exception. It opens with a series of three evocative pieces on the relationship between the human imagination and the development of a genre many only begrudgingly title and shelve as "science fiction."

What sets these early essays apart is Atwood's considered interpretation that the lines between genres are not nearly as hard and fast as we might think. Furthermore, she sees origins of the drive to write science fiction and fantasy differently than other authors, because she sees it a natural outgrowth the habits and activities of childhood. One theory she offers from her own childhood, that since she kept failing to build a windmill from her Tinkertoy set (she missed some of the necessary parts), she built fantastical structures and creatures instead.

Atwood continues this (might we call it Jungian?) analysis of science fiction writing throughout. She sees archetypes washing between the various genres--comparing superheroes to Greek mythology and modern fantasy. She sees her own early imaginative world influencing what she writes as an adult.

And in one of her most intriguing theses, she coins the term "ustopia": "A word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia--the imagined perfect society and its opposite--because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other" (66). I find this incredibly helpful, because as we know certain individuals thrive in dystopias and find their place there, whereas every utopia is only the perfect society for those who belong to it, certainly not those who feel excluded from it.

Finally, Atwood in this early section helpful defines "myth": Myths are stories that are central to their cultures and that are taken seriously enough that people organize their rituals and emotional lives around them, and can even start wars over them" (55). Atwood offers this definition in a wide-ranging essay that considers origin myths as well as contemporary sci-fi movies, and everything in between. It's really a lovely essay.

The middle section of this book is a collection of short reviews Atwood has written over the course of her career, all on "classics" in science fiction (H. Rider Haggard, Ursula K. Le Guin, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Jonathan Swift but also a bit more surprisingly Kazuo Ishiguro and Bill McKibben). I found this section very helpful because it introduced me to some important works with which I was unfamiliar, and also expanded my cartography of what I might map as "science fiction." Somehow the full range of what she included is perfectly indicative of the philosophy of science fiction she offered in the first section.

Finally, she concludes with six crisp selections from her own fiction. Although these don't move the argument forward per se, they do illustrate what Atwood has been pondering in her book.

It isn't every day that science fiction readers get the pleasure of reading sustained reflection on the craft by one of its outstanding practitioners. I recommend this book highly for that reason.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, educational and entertaining, October 31, 2011
This review is from: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Hardcover)
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is a curious book. But to understand some of its raison d'être you need a little background.

Once upon a time...
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Margaret Atwood seems to have had tense relationship with some elements of the science fiction community( and vice versa) since her release of the novel The Handmaid's Tale in 1985.

Atwood was awarded the Arthur C Clarke[1] for The Handmaid's Tale , which was also nominated for a Nebula[2] and a Prometheus [3] - all science fiction awards. It was also a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize for literature.

She has previously distanced herself from the science fiction scene stating that she doesn't consider what she writes to be science fiction, that she writes speculative fiction. Perhaps her early response to praise from the science fiction community, in the form of awards, can be viewed understandably as an impolite rebuff and characterising science fiction as "talking squids in space" as late as 2003 probably hasn't helped either.

She has been accused of protecting her brand as a writer of serious literature of not wanting to be branded or pigeon holed as genre fiction writer. I don't think that there's enough evidence to back this claim and Atwood herself dismisses it within the book.

Answering her critics or simply,"this is me take it or leave it"
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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination is an interesting a mix of biography, essay and fiction.

The first hundred or so pages are heavily biographical, while simultaneously being educative. This section consists of three chapters that grew out of her Ellman Lectures delivered at Emory University in 2010. They chart her development and her changing experience with what many would term science fiction. The Chapter "Flying Bunnies" covers her childhood and the origins and development of superheroes in popular culture.

The second chapter covers her undergraduate years and deals with her interest in the mythologies and metaphysics that were the fertile soil in which earlier science fiction grew.

The final chapter explores the Victorian underpinnings of Utopias and Dystopias, Metaphysical Romances and in terms of biography, covers her writing of the Dystopian fictions, The Handmaids Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

Her execution of this section of the book is seamless, like having a conversation with a learned friend, where you gain the benefit of learning about their life and developing a connection, while at the same time walking away with your brain firing on all cylinders due to the intellectual stimulation it's received.

It goes some way to explaining her position i.e. She generally doesn't write science fiction, her lauded science fiction works aren't science fiction they are speculative fiction and I think her argument for her position is sound.

We could argue that in this day and age it doesn't really matter. But I'm inclined to sit back respect her definition of herself and her writing - essentially I don't care, I'd read her fiction regardless of whether its speculative fiction, science fiction or romance - I think at times we get too hung up on labels and squeezing what should be a fluid art form into rigid categories.

The Analytical Atwood
--------------------------

Wherein she turns the analysis outward.

The next section labelled "Other Deliberations" an is a collection of what I suppose you would call her analytical pieces, this is Atwood the Academic/Reviewer, commenting on science fiction.

It was the discussions of Swift, Orwell, Wells and Huxley that really impressed me. I don't know that I am used to the sort of analysis and knowledge that Atwood can bring to the discussion of these writers but she has awoken a desire in me to reacquaint myself with them.

Now this is science fiction
---------------------------------

The final section is some selected science fiction that she has written over the years. It's science fiction by her definition and distinct from her speculative fiction. I can't help but think she's being a bit playful here, saying "look I'm not afraid to write science fiction and here it is".

While all the pieces are short they demonstrate the skill that she can bring to bear on the genre. Her short, "Cold-Blooded" about a race of sentient moth like creatures discovering Earth and observing and interacting with us is a truly beautiful piece and as expected full of the wit and cutting observation that Atwood weaves in her fiction.

Who is this book for?
----------------------

I think it has broad appeal. It is perhaps easier to say who wouldn't be interested. I think if you are too invested in the to and fro between arguing that her work is science fiction then there's not going to be much to persuade you here. If you are an Atwood fan you'll love it, if you a science fiction fan you'll appreciate and enjoy it.

Atwood is a writer, a brilliant writer of poetry, fiction and non fiction. Arguing that she is a science fiction writer seems to miss the point - that her while her science fiction as other might label it, is well regarded, it is but a small part of her overall body of work. Focussing on that aspect of Atwood alone is reducing her to a very small part of who she is.

This book was provided to me by the publisher.

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Footnotes

1. The United Kingdoms best Science Fiction novel of the previous year

2. The American equivalent of the best science fiction/fantasy novel

3. A libertarian science fiction award.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thin but interesting, October 21, 2011
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This review is from: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Hardcover)
I would happily read the scribbling on the pad next to Margaret Atwood's phone. Any time spent with her is time well spent. If you have not read The Blind Assassin and The Robber Bride, fix that lack immediately.

That said, the best thing about this book is the dedication, which made me laugh out loud. The book is dedicated, with whimsy as well as affection, to the reigning queen of the sort of science fiction Atwood is writing about, Ursula K Le Guin. While on the one hand, there is only one novel of UKLG's that I would insist on taking to my desert island (Always Coming Home), there are at least two of Atwood's, and probably, on departure day, I'd be vacillating about two or three more to stuff in my luggage. But Le Guin is the pro, in the scio/speculo fiction realm, and Atwood the gifted amateur. Atwood will justly win the Nobel one of these days and Le Guin probably not, but in her patch Le Guin rules.

This distinction accounts for the great difference between Atwood's book on science fiction and pretty much any of Le Guin's excellent collections of essays. (Try Dancing on the Edge of the World to see what this book could have been.) Atwood comes at her subject with genuine enthusiasm and considerable literary expertise, but the overall effect is somehow rather thin. Ok, the flying bunnies are cute, but we all had flying bunnies and siblings who drew maps and omnivorous reading habits, those of us who became hopelessly "bookish." Those opening chapters feel more like gossip than conversation; maybe the effect is different if you are not of Atwood's generation. For those of us who are, well, we done that. It's nice to know that Atwood's three "speculative fictions" were informed by some familiarity with the genre and that she was consciously engaging in conversation with Huxley, Orwell, etc. when she wrote them, but none of that was any surprise, really.

You will find essays here on Jonathan Swift (Gullivers Travels), Huxley (Brave New World), Wells (The Island of Dr. Moreau), and Orwell (1984) that will tempt you to read or re-read each of these writers, essays on H Rider Haggard and Ursula Le Guin that don't do much except exclaim over an enthusiasm, and the discovery of a book that sounds worth hunting up -- Visa for Avalon. That's, as one's Gran would say, nice. Only the essays on Dr. Moreau and Gulliver do much more than tell you why to read it. Ultimately there's no heavy lifting in this book, no place where you feel as if Atwood is pushing against much. The book ends with the rather self-indulgent anti-climax of a handful of Atwood's shorter sci-fi fictions. Again, nothing terribly exciting if you've read, say, Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences. No, I couldn't do better. But I've read better.

Man, writing this review is a bummer. I feel like the husband who doesn't like his wife's new haircut. If you love Atwood, you'll enjoy this book. If you love science fiction, probably not. I love both.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Factual errors take me out of the book, February 17, 2012
This review is from: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Hardcover)
Why is it that when outsiders to the world of comic books decide to write about them they can't be bothered to fact-check? I'm only 25 pages into this book and the author refers to the wizard who grants Captain Marvel his powers as "Shazamo" (after outlining what the magic word SHAZAM means), and mentions Wonder Woman's invisible helicopter (it was actually a plane, as anyone who has seen an episode of Super Friends can attest). These may seem like the minor complaints of the prototypical comic book nerd, but these factual errors make me question the authority with which she speaks. I can't imagine that Atwood or her editors would not have fact-checked any statement she made about any other form of literature. It is either laziness, or an unacknowledged disdain for the source material. Comics have a long history of being dismissed as not worthy if critical study (much like Science Fiction), and have only recently started to take their place in academic discourse. Atwood says this is not an academic work, and that's a legitimate approach, but errors in basic information are still errors. (For the record, Deepak Chopra makes the same kind of errors in his Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes).

All I'm really saying here, is authors should take the same care with research into comics as they would any other endeavor.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Echoed My Own Experience, November 13, 2011
By 
Timothy Haugh (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Hardcover)
Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite writers. And, though I've enjoyed many of her novels, the top of the list would have to be her SF-influenced novels: The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake. So, I was very interested to see what she had to say about this genre that, despite its literary gains, remains often disrespected by the establishment.

As it turns out, her thinking follows along the same lines as mine, making it very difficult for me not to like this book. My experience of getting into reading echoed hers, though with some different authors. Her thinking about Orwell and Huxley, two writers I much admire, is quite similar to mine. Also, she has useful things to say about a number of important writers in the genre such as Wells, Poe, and LeGuin.

Even better, for me, was her discussion of writers I knew little or nothing about. I knew of the character Allan Quatermain, for example, but couldn't have told you the author who created him is H. Rider Haggard. And, clearly, Haggard's novel She had a great impact on Atwood. I feel almost embarrassed to say that I'd never heard of this novel before. But good books lead you to other good books and now I've almost finished reading Haggard's book (and seen the movie, no less!). So, I have to compliment Ms. Atwood on opening my eyes.

In fact, my only complaints are small ones. First, the endnotes of each section would have been more useful as footnotes. (Or the text should have had marks indicating an associated note.) Second, and more importantly, in some ways, this is a book too late. With top writers like Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Jim Crace (and Ms. Atwood herself) taking on the field, SF is bordering on respectable. This book would have had more impact on me 30 years ago, when I felt my love of SF was more isolating. Still, I'm glad to have the book now.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not For Everyone, But Great For SF Lovers, January 28, 2012
This review is from: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Hardcover)
These days, it seems like everyone is writing their memoirs. While I agree that some biographies are worth the read, many seem just plain unnecessary. Did the world honestly need the life stories of Flavor Flav? It is not that I don't enjoy reading the occasional autobiography (I recently read and reviewed one that I really enjoyed), but many times, these stories get bogged down in details that are unimportant to the story and boring to the average readers.

In her latest book, In Other Worlds: Sf And The Human Imagination, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood has found a way to provide an insight into her beliefs, life, and writing process without following a typical "life story" format. Through personal stories and examples form her works and other influential novels, Atwood argues that there is a clear difference between works of Science Fiction, all of which must take place on some far away planet, and her "Speculative Fiction" novels, which are built upon the idea that everything "could" happen on Earth.

This is not a memoir. Instead, Atwood provides readers with small, essay style insights into her life. Because the book follows no real narrative structure, I can be very choppy at times. The ending section, in which the author provides short snapshots of stories, felt particularly tedious. I wouldn't recommend this book to all readers, but fans of the author, science fiction, and those looking for a history of the genre should definitely check this out. It is by no means perfect, but it is a commendable attempt at redefining the way opinions and histories are presented to readers.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Live To Read, October 20, 2011
This review is from: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Hardcover)
This book is an exploration of science fiction. Margaret Atwood splits the exploration into three parts. Part one is more of a foray, analyzing her approach to the subject and some of her works that have been considered science fiction. The second part takes a look at some major contributors to science fiction and the third part is a compilation of mini stories from Atwood herself in the science fiction genre.

Atwood leads the reader on a journey through science fiction as the genre appears to her. It is hard not to enjoy this book if you are, in any way, a fan of Margaret Atwood. The reader rarely gets to see inside an author's head so clearly. This book is highly recommended to adult readers.

*complimentary review copy provided, this does not affect my opinion in any way*
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2.0 out of 5 stars Resting on her laurels, October 22, 2014
I haven't read Atwood before-- I picked up this book because I am interested in 'writers on writing' especially SF, and because I am interested in several of the works/authors she is profiling here, but Atwood reveals herself as a not-very-powerful writer, of a much lower caliber than, say, Ursula Le Guin, whom she discusses in this book. I read several of the essays and then put the book down.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Science fiction in a nutshell (the size of the universe), November 9, 2013
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It's very interesting to read Ms. Atwood's exploration of the meaning of science fiction as a genre. Her books are hard to fit into any genre and she explores many different authors, their writing and how confining assigning a work or body of work to a genre can be. If you are into science fiction/fantasy, this is a great read. She mentions many authors and their works that I am eager to read.
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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination
In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood (Hardcover - October 11, 2011)
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