How Margaret Atwood Taught Me to Love Science Fiction

What's to come?
Oct. 12 2011 1:35 PM

For the Love of Science Fiction

Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

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Besides her relationship to science fiction, what stands out most are Atwood’s dual, and dueling, feelings about the future: She fears what we may do to ourselves and to our planet in the coming decades. Science fiction novels, Atwood writes:

can explore the consequences of new and proposed technologies in graphic ways by showing them as fully operational.… These stories in their darker modes are all versions of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” in which the apprentice starts up some of the sorcerer’s magic but doesn’t know how to turn it off. They may help us decide whether such apprentices could maybe use a little supervision.

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So Atwood hopes that through work like hers, and the cautionary tales woven by her fellow-future-travelers, we will avoid or at least consider nasty outcomes from ill-considered deployment of new “advances” like nanotechnology or gene splicing, which figures prominently in the Oryx and Crake. (It is no coincidence that the only nonfiction work discussed at length in In Other Worlds is 2004’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, by Bill McKibben.)

A limited-edition version of In Other Worlds comes with an eco-friendly gimmick, or promise, depending on how you look at it: For $100 Canadian, 300 lucky Atwood fans will be able to avoid any eco-guilt, because the extra-special version is printed on paper made partially of straw. A press release quotes Atwood as calling this “the kind of practical innovation that could make paper from endangered forests ancient history.” This “Second Harvest” paper is in short supply, as North America lacks the requisite pulping facilities. Ironically, this “practical innovation” is being distributed unevenly, to those with means, an inequity in the access to new technology with which Atwood seems otherwise uncomfortable; in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, for instance, a future society is divided between the wealthy workers who live in secure enclaves controlled by corporations and the have-not “plebe rats” in the crowded, dirty world.

Perhaps the most important guidance Atwood offers on reading and loving science fiction is to respect the craft’s ability to explore unintended consequences but not to overstate its predictive qualities: “I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an infinite number of roads lead away to ‘the future,’ each heading in a different direction,” she writes. I will cling to those words the next time I read a terrifying depiction of a technologically rich but morally bankrupt society in the years to come. Like the author who’s next up in my science fiction education: Neal Stephenson.

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