SF and the Human Imagination
by Margaret Atwood
I’ve been on something of a kick reading about stories/storytelling lately and this book definitely fits the theme. It is ostensibly about certain kinds of stories — science fiction — though is really about imagination, and how these kinds of stories are but one lens to examine ourselves and our world and to explore what makes us tick.
In some ways it’s an odd collection, mixing new essays with older review-type pieces and excerpts from longer, previously published work. Atwood has been a fan and creator from an early age: witness the flying rabbit superhero of her childhood. She’s also been a voracious reader, paying little attention to whether or not something was supposed to be good or bad. It didn’t matter to her if it was serious literature or seriously schlocky, she read it. (Though she does note “it’s always encouraging to be told that it is intellectually acceptable to read the sorts of things that you like reading anyway.”)
She talks about utopias and dystopias, inventing the word ustopia to combine the two, because in her view “each contains a latent version of the the other”. She talks about cartography:
With every map there’s an edge — a border between the known and the unknown. In old medieval and early Renaissance maps, the edges were where the monsters were drawn — the sea serpents and many-headed hydras, which were, as we say, off the map. Monsters live under the bed when you’re little because you can’t see under the bed when you’re actually in the bed.
I loved that bit about it’s because you can’t see under the bed. Of course.
In her piece on Bill McKibben’s Enough, she brings up his point that just because we have a technology doesn’t mean we have to use it, and cites among his examples the Amish (“who examine each new technology and accept it or reject it according to social and spiritual criteria”). We might accept a higher level of technology than the Amish, but as Atwood reminds us, we should still be setting social and spiritual acceptance criteria for what we let into our lives.
The collection does move around, from the aforementioned flying rabbits to adventure stories, to Victorian “scientific romances” to Orwell and Le Guin, to mad scientists and H.G. Wells to pulp cover art. Part of the fun in reading this collection is following Atwood as her mind wanders — not so much off course, as making and remaking connections.
We need her clear voice, and recognition of the need to act with conscience.
…this is the beginning of Newspeak. Fancy verbiage is what confuses Boxer the horse [in Animal Farm] and underpins the chantings of the sheep. To insist on what is, in the face of ideological spin, popular consensus, and official denial: Orwell knew this takes honesty, and a lot of guts. The position of odd man out is always an uneasy one, but the moment we look around and find that there are no longer any odd men among our public voices is the moment of most danger — because that’s when we’ll be in lockstep, ready for the Three Minutes’ Hate.
Yes, you’d expect the author of The Handmaid’s Tale to see this — and continue helping us to see. It’s not that she has particularly high expectations for society, it’s that she has a sense of right and wrong. It’s an author’s place to explore all the ground in the middle, true, but I like to think there’s a greater point than just poking around in the dark. You have to know some monsters must really be there, and stories help us prepare for finding them.