Margaret Atwood—the author of dozens of books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and criticism—has not only been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize five times and won the Governor General’s Award twice; she has also received the Arthur C. Clarke Award, given annually to the best science-fiction novel. (Atwood won it for her classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale.)
She has a new book out called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, which explores the history and the meanings of science fiction, from Jonathan Swift and Aldous Huxley to Ursula K. Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Slate: Your new book not only considers some of the famous masters of science fiction, but lesser known figures as well. Can you tell us some of the science-fiction stories you’ve encountered that our readers are unlikely to have read?
Margaret Atwood: The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The Purple Cloud, by M.P. Shiel. The Green Child, by Herbert Read. A Crystal Age, by W.H. Hudson. Donovan’s Brain, by Curt Siodmak. These are not recommendations as such. But you are unlikely to have read them.
Slate: Science fiction is often relegated to a kind of literary ghetto, kept at arm’s length from “serious literature.” Why do you think that is?
Atwood: There is good and mediocre writing within every “genre.” But I’m not sure about this ghetto claim: less true than it was, in any case. It’s hard to get through an account of 20th-century literature in English without Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. SF and cognate forms are increasingly reviewed in “upmarket” literary journals—I myself have done reviews of Ursula K. Le Guin and of Bryher’s Visa for Avalon in the New York Review of Books, not exactly a pulp. The Key West Literary Seminar has taken as the theme for 2012 “Yet Another World”; this seminar is curated by James Gleick, author of Chaos, and not someone you’d call a lightweight.
Slate: Why are aliens so often depicted in science fiction as little green men?
Atwood: Search me, but some SF imagery came from Victorian fairy paintings, and gnomes and such were often bald, and of unusual skin colours such as green, blue, and mauve. The original Martians (in H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds) were big-headed and bald, but not green. Could the Wizard of Oz—very gnome-like, green when viewed through the Emerald City’s spectacles, and bald—have anything to do with it?
Slate: Where did you get the great cover for this book?
Atwood: Through Twitter! A follower sent me a url—www.alexandfelix.com—and when I opened it I found a piece called “Thirteen Queens,” a mix of photography and image manipulation, I believe. I sent the url to the publisher and they chose “Queen Happy.” You’ll note she has a lot of pills, some poppies, and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on her shoulders.
Slate: The endpapers for the book (see below) depict a variety of familiar science-fiction figures—which you drew yourself. Do any of the figures represent you?
Atwood: On benevolent days, the fairy with the magic wand and butterfly wings. On edgy days, the girl with the snake hair and extra eyes on stalks hatching out of the egg. On bad days, the one running and screaming while being chased by the wolf/goat splice. Although I was not thinking about any of this while drawing.