This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
The workout my credit card gets at Amazon is structured so I won’t get repetition fatigue: I keep my reading list balanced between the highbrow and low, the fiction and non, the popular and the below-the-radar, the new and the old. Yet there is one realm I have long neglected: science fiction. Despite a youthful binge in Arthur C. Clarke, particularly the Rama books, I disdained science fiction for many years, considering it too short on humanity and too long on pointless technical specs.
But I have discovered the error of my snobby ways and am embarking on a science-fiction education. Perhaps the greatest surprise of this journey is my newfound love for all novels post-apocalyptic. The second-greatest has been that I was already well-acquainted with some “science fiction” that I had not considered such, namely Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Soon I devoured her cautionary tales of science, capitalism, and societal degeneration, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. One of my favorite writers tackling my guilty pleasure of post-apocalyptic fiction buoyed my decision to give sci-fi a try. (Atwood, though, bristles at the label post-apocalyptic: She writes: “[I]n a true apocalypse everything on Earth is destroyed, whereas in these two books the only element that’s annihilated is the human race, or most of it.”)
Now, with her new work of literary criticism, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Atwood continues to be my sci-fi guide. In Other Worlds is a meditative love letter to science fiction, a scrapbook of decades’ work and passion for this divisive genre. Atwood recollects her early reading years, full of unsophisticated novels of space and superheroes; her work in and eventual abandonment of a Ph.D. thesis “The English Metaphorical Romance,” which explored fantasy at a time when it was an ill-regarded genre; her philosophical motivations in writing her speculative novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Atwood also shares a handful of older essays on science fiction, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to Never Let Me Go to the work of Ursula K. Le Guin. We also are treated to a cheerfully scolding open letter to a school district that banned The Handmaid’s Tale, ruling it “offensive to Christians.” (“[W]hy are some Christians so quick to see themselves in this mirror?” she asks. The ban has since been overturned.) She ties up In Other Worlds with five short works of her own sci-fi, including one gleaned from her book The Robber Bride. In Other Worlds even contains some illustrations from Atwood, like a kidney surgeon-cum-superhero.
This is an eclectic mix, to be sure, but to Atwood fans and science fiction fans—or, more properly, to Atwood fans who also relish sci-fi—it is a satisfying buffet. To extricate Atwood’s thoughts on the genre, its fuzzy borders and its déclassé status, from her own experience in writing and reading it, would be impossible; several of her critical essays open with recollections of the first time she read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, say, or H. Rider Haggard’s 19th-century fantasy novel She, describing why she picked it up, her early impressions, and her later, deeper understanding. In Other Worlds is perhaps best understood as a literary memoir.
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.
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.