In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood – Is Science Fiction Fantasy?

Is it time that we became atheists to the final frontier?

Tom Murphy at Do the Math has written “Why Not Space?”  His math is very convincing, because of the fantastic distances involved, the likelihood of space travel beyond the Moon is tiny.  We haven’t been beyond low Earth orbit since 1972 and there appears to be little public support or political will to do so again.

But it’s more than that.  I’ve just read In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood where she psychoanalyzes literature for the origins of science fiction.  The roots of literature are in the earliest of myths, but then so are the roots of science fiction.  The core of the book is about what is science fiction.  Atwood doesn’t like calling her science fiction like novels science fiction because she thinks they are realistic speculation about possible futures.  She feels science fiction is about far out stuff that can’t happen. Now hard core science fiction fans like me want to believe that science fiction is realistic speculation about possible futures, but I have to admit few other people think that way.  The public lumps any weird-ass story into the science fiction genre category and so it’s gotten the reputation for unbelievable stories.


Margaret Atwood says what she written is like what Jules Verne wrote, stuff that could happen, and that it was H. G. Wells who wrote stuff that couldn’t happen, citing The War of the Worlds as her prime example – and that’s what she calls science fiction.  Of course, there are those of us who believe Wells was speculating about something that could have happened, but his conjectures have been disproven by later science.

What Tom Murphy is saying, and there are many like him in recent years, is that human exploration of space might not happen, that it’s not practical, or even wise.  And wouldn’t that make Margaret Atwood right?  That science fiction is about stuff that can’t happen.  Which means science fiction is fantasy.

Normally, I would argue against that, because I still think we have a chance with space exploration.  Of course, I will admit that 99.999% of science fiction about space travel is patently bogus speculation and thus fantasy.  But I still hold out the possibility that humans will go into space, maybe even to the stars.  It just won’t be like what science fiction has predicted so far.

However, reading In Other Worlds made me think differently – not about space travel, but science fiction.  I’ve read other books linking science fiction to its origins in myths before, but this book is making me think about it in new ways.  Atwood links myths, religions, literature, comic books, science fiction and fantasy all into one human tendency to make up far out shit.  As a species one of our defining characteristics is we dream up fantastic concepts to think about, and its when you start studying this tendency as a whole, from the earliest times that we have records of human thought to the latest, that we see it’s all of one cloth.

I’m becoming an atheist to my own religion – science fiction.

Science fiction fans believe their stories are better than myths and fantasies because of the science and technology, and they believe their fantastic stories represented something new and different – and possible!  After reading In Other Worlds, I think we’re all smoking the same opium.  Science fiction, fantasy and comic books fuel the same need in modern minds that myths and religions feed to primitive minds.

What we need is a label that encompasses the whole kit and caboodle, that defines and explains our craving for the fantastic.  Until someone comes up with a definitive term, I’m going to call it all fantasy.  Evidently humans need air, water, food, friendship and fantasy to survive.

Now what’s fascinating about In Other Worlds, and why I encourage you to read it, is Atwood’s writing about her love of science fiction, especially the chapter on Ursula K. LeGuin.  Atwood loves both science fiction as she defines it and speculative fiction.  Her hunger for reading and fantasy as a child, adolescent and adult knows no bounds.  And as an academic, writer and savvy reader she traces our love of the fantastic back as far as history and anthropology can take us.

JWH – 10/23/11

16 thoughts on “In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood – Is Science Fiction Fantasy?”

  1. Jim, I really don’t like anyone telling me what isn’t science fiction. Tell me what is science fiction, if you wish, but as soon as you try to limit it, it becomes too limiting.

    Of course, you could say that all fiction is fantasy, since none of it is true. But that kind of definition would make the fantasy genre pretty useless. Likewise, claiming that everything is science fiction would make that term useless, I know. Labels need definitions, if they’re to be any use at all.

    But I still don’t like someone telling me that science fiction has to be such-and-such. Using Atwood’s definition would throw out a lot of good science fiction. And for what reason? None, that I can see.

    And re. the plausibility of science fiction, who knows? Historically, most of the time someone boldly claimed that something was impossible, we learned how to do it. Human beings can’t fly! The whole idea is ridiculous, right?

    Claiming that we will never be able to do something – even when you have good reason to think that – is foolish. We simply don’t know what we’ll discover in the future. There’s good reason to think that the stars may be forever beyond our reach. But to be certain about that is foolish, just as foolish as it was to believe that we’d never fly.

    I’m an atheist, but not when it comes to science fiction. Why not? Well, science fiction isn’t a religion. Science fiction is FICTION. The primary purpose of science fiction is entertainment, not prediction. Do you really need more reasons? 🙂

    1. Atwood has caused a lot of ill feelings with some SF fans. The trouble is the term “science fiction” means too many different things to too many different people. For many people it’s just a kind of movie. For others it’s just a section at the bookstore. For others it’s a genre of writing. And for a few people it’s a tool for speculating about the future. And for some people it’s something to believe in.

      Of course science fiction isn’t a religion – unless you consider Scientology – but more and more it appears that people like science fiction in the same way people like religion or myths. Have you not met a science fiction true believer? You know as well as anyone that religion is just wild ideas. Well, for some people science fiction appeals to them in the same way the religion appeals to people – as a comforting explanation of reality. To you Bill, science fiction is entertainment. I guess you haven’t been to a science fiction convention – where science fiction is a way of life. Science fiction can give meaning to reality in the same way religion gives meaning to reality for certain people.

      Bill I think you are such a skeptic and expect everything to be completely logical and scientific that you can’t see how most people just believe stuff about reality. The will to believe all kinds of crap is much stronger in people then the will to understand reality.

      1. Jim, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t understand that science fiction was fiction. I wouldn’t claim there aren’t any, but I doubt that very many people even at science fiction conventions are confused about that!

        1. No, I didn’t mean it that way. I meant that people believe in science fictional ideas like in the future humans will jaunt around the galaxy like in Star Wars and Star Trek, and have FTL travel, teleportation, fighting aliens like in Starship Troopers, and things like that. Religion makes people believe in Gods, heaven and life after death. Science fiction convinces people that our future is galactic empires and people with PSI abilities.

      2. Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.” Why? Well, partly, it’s probably because we live in a society where science and technology are critically important.

        But also, science fiction lets us imagine weird things before they happen. Not all of them will happen. The vast majority won’t, no doubt. But there’s one thing we know for certain about the future, that it will surprise us, at least in some ways. Well, science fiction keeps your brain flexible and gets you used to thinking about change.

        Are psi abilities and robotics and genetic engineering and nanotechnology all crazy fantasies? Well, whether they are or not, we know that the future holds new developments that aren’t widely understood today. We may not know exactly what they will be, but we do know that the future will be different – maybe better, maybe worse, but definitely different in some ways.

        Yeah, and what about those crazy SF true believers? Paul Krugman says that he became an economist because it was the closest he could get to psychohistory. That ended up leading to a Nobel Prize. And many of the people at NASA who got us to the Moon were inspired, at least in part, by science fiction.

        Sure, colonies on the Moon and Mars might be crazy. But sometimes crazy believers accomplish great things. Someone enthused about terraforming other planets might end up with discoveries to help us here on Earth, when we end up with runaway global warming.

        And sure, science fiction might make some people think that our future is robotics and genetic engineering and nanotechnology – heck, even colonies on the Moon. But is that so bad? Do you know for sure that those things aren’t in our future? Even if they aren’t, there will be new things in our future. You can pretty well count on that. I think that science fiction fans will be better prepared than most people to cope with them.

        I say again that science fiction is FICTION. The vast majority of science fiction “believers” know that. Can you say the same thing about believers in religion? Yes, SF fans might hope that some of those fictional things might come true, but how do we know that none of them will?

        1. And I agree Bill, science fiction is FICTION. I can’t say that enough that I agree with you. SF = Fiction. And I think most people read SF just to be entertained. But some people read SF because they believe it’s fiction that speculates about possibilities in the future and they love to think about those possibilities. Some even devote their lives to either hoping those things will come true, or even trying to make them come true.

          Bill, you just proved my point. Some people believe science fiction has ideas that won’t be fiction in the future, such as Paul Krugman and psychohistory.

          Some things in SF do come to pass – like men going to the Moon. But most don’t, or haven’t yet. I’m saying there are people out there that find meaning in life based on science fictional ideas – the most common being manned space travel to the planets and stars, but others believe in life extension, FTL, AI, robots and androids, downloading the human brain, suspended animation, PSI powers, Humans 2.0, and even immortality.

          And I’m saying most of these people believe in these concepts and others because they got them from reading science fiction. Sure they know the stories are fiction, but for some of them, they don’t believe the ideas are fiction.

          Finally, I’m saying some of these ideas are possible but others aren’t but some people will continue to believe in them because that’s what they want to believe.

  2. I’ll not comment on your take on the book and Atwood’s contentions as I’ve not had a chance to read it.

    However, I think that there’s a bit of confusion in some cases over the use of the word “belief”.

    I don’t ‘believe’ that we’ll be jaunting around the galaxy “like in Star Wars…” – but I do entertain the idea that some galactic jaunting – given our understanding of how the universe works – remains a possibility. “PSI” may become reality through the application of advanced versions of some currently existent electronic technologies. In the same respect, many of the fantastical things it sounds like Atwood indicted are still on the table, however remote and convoluted the relationship between idea and actuality may eventually turn out to be.

    Somewhere the dividing line of ‘stories founded on speculation and extrapolation of known science/technologies’ vs ‘stories based on whatever we want to imagine’ seems to have gotten lost.

    Furthermore, creating a division between Wells and Verne strikes me as a bad example; Well’s contributions were wider than War of the Worlds – a story in which I’d argue that the main focus was not non-existent Martians (mere stand-ins for ‘the other’) but on the dawning realization that microbes can make an effective military weapon – and in that regard you’d have to say that Wells was prophetic (just as he was with ‘The Land Ironclads’ and many other stories). I’d argue that Verne stands on the other side of Atwood’s line not because his stories were so different from Wells, but because of two instances that hewed closer to reality than we normally see (Trip to the Moon, 20,000 Leagues) – while forgetting that others came nowhere close to reality (Journey to the Center, Robur etc).

    1. But what if we discover that manned space travel to the other planets and the stars is just plain impractical or impossible? If you surveyed most science fiction fans and asked them about faster-than-light travel they will say they think it will happen. They believe some kind of hyperdrive or space warp or wormhole technology will be developed. They have a faith that technology will solve the problem. I think this kind of faith is similar, but not the same as people put into believe in life after death, a personal god that answer prayers, etc. For science fiction fans its something we want, it’s how we feel the universe should work. But physics is quite clear on this point – no FTL. What I’m asking is if FTL is really any different than heaven? They are both concepts that people want to believe in despite the evidence of science. Sure, either one might be possible, but if we follow science the chances are pretty close to zero.

      When I compare science fiction to religion I’m comparing the basic desires and why people pursue each. Religious people want eternal life, to live in a paradise in the sky, and to know beings with super powers. Science fiction people want to become immortal, live on planets far away in the sky, and get to know alien beings with vast powers. You gotta see the similarities don’t you?

  3. Again, I think the use of the words faith and belief carry with them connotations (of the religious variety) that muddle the discussion.

    First – we don’t know enough physics to rule out a FTL or even time travel, and the history of science will demonstrate quite clearly that there is a huge space between zero probability and some probability greater than 0.

    Hoping, dreaming & fantasizing about having that capability is, to my mind, a far different thing than the absolute certainty that after you die, St. Peter will be interrogating you at the Pearly Gates.

    One possibility (FTL) remains a probability greater than 0 – for which there is theory and evidence, testing and adherence to what we have verified as being real (or at least what works consistently and is reaffirmed by continuous re-testing) in this particular iteration of the multiverse) – the other has none of those things backing it up.

    I also think that you will find that if you ask a science fiction fan whether they ‘believe’ that they personally are going to take a trip to Rigel aboard a faster than light spaceship and will be back for lunch, they’ll tell you that – barring some fantastic scientific breakthrough – they don’t think this will happen in their lifetimes, versus asking a true believer whether or not they think they’ll be learning to play a harp while sitting at the feet of Jeebus when they die, who will tell you with absolute certainty that this is the case.

    Case in point: when growing up, I had every reason to believe that getting to the moon was a real possibility; I even managed to get an appointment to the Air Force Academy in pursuit of that goal (never went btw) – but the path was clear and open – Air Force, apply for the astronaut program, get accepted, go to the moon.

    Reality did not stand in the way of that happening – politics and economics did. We’ve been there so we know it is reality, and we also know that we possess technologies greater and more efficient than those used to get their in the 60s. Even economically, it’s been demonstrated again and again that the Apollo program gave back far more than it spent. The failure in that regard is our nation’s inability to engage in sustained long-term thinking. And yes, I know the impetuous was political (space race), but there was nothing to stop us other than a lack of will.

    Even now, private space enterprise is being looked to for resupplying the space station and some others are working on private enterprise efforts at getting to Mars and/or developing the Moon.

    That’s reality, and a far cry from a belief in things mystical based on nothing demonstrated. I think there remains a huge difference between the two, as huge a difference as there is between the base definitions of ‘faith’ and ‘speculation’.

    Faith does not (and almost always necessarily can’t) have any grounding in reality. Speculation BEGINS with reality.

    1. That’s cool about the Air Force Academy. My father was in the Air Force and dreamed I’d go there too even though I never had the academics to support it.

      When it comes to space travel there is a certain amount we know is practical now. And we hope a certain deal more will be practical in the future. But as of now, FTL is a pipe dream. According to the science we know today FTL is completely faith based.

      To me, the word faith means believing in something that has absolutely no evidence for existing but we want it to exist. Right now heaven and FTL have equal possibilities – zero. Religious people have faith heaven exists, and final frontier believers have faith FTL exists. We may discover new evidence for each in the future, but as of now there are none for each.

      If we are to use science as our tool to understand reality we have to stick to it. We can’t just say science is wrong or incomplete when it doesn’t favor us.

      Faith is a special kind of believing – the belief in the known impossible. It works for all kinds of hypotheses.

      Steve, I know we’re mincing words here. I think when people say “I believe we’ll have people landing on Mars before the end of the century” that’s a kind of belief that’s based on realistic speculation. But when I hear people saying science “we’ll find a way around the FTL problem,” I see that as faith and not belief.

      I agree with your last sentence. I’m saying that speculation about FTL is not based in reality.

      1. “Religious people want eternal life, to live in a paradise in the sky, and to know beings with super powers. Science fiction people want to become immortal, live on planets far away in the sky, and get to know alien beings with vast powers. You gotta see the similarities don’t you?”

        Nope. I agree with Steve about this. I don’t know what most SF fans believe, but I would bet you that it’s not anything like what religious people believe (except, of course, for those who are religious, themselves).

        Jim, it’s not even close. Even for people who think that we might have a colony on the Moon someday, it’s got to be a tiny, tiny fraction who think that they’ll get their themselves. Immortality? Maybe not, but it’s not complete fantasy to think that we might find the solution to aging. We’re already coming a long way on regenerating body parts.

        Even the hope of eventual FTL travel isn’t completely crazy. Science has solved problems before, and who knows what problems it might solve in the future. I’d say the chances are very, very slim, but we don’t know. We don’t know what we’ll discover in the future. That’s the whole point.

        Still, FTL travel might be a bit extreme. What about robotics and genetic engineering and nanotechnology? You’re comparing science fiction to religious faith, but you’re cherry-picking your examples. And note that you haven’t provided any evidence – not one bit – that science fiction fans actually believe what you claim they do.

        Do people dressing up as Star Wars figures at conventions prove that science fiction fans believe Star Wars is real? I don’t think even those particular people believe it’s real, let alone the vast majority of SF fans who don’t dress up as fictional characters. Are there people who have faith FTL travel exists? Probably, but I’ve never met any.

        I agree with you about faith, but you can’t use that label on people hoping that we might someday contact an alien civilization or build a colony on the Moon – or people decades ago who hoped we might someday build robots, genetically engineer plants and animals, create nano-sized machines, or just visit the Moon.

      2. James,

        Ok – lets not quibble about “faith” and “belief”. Instead, I’ll suggest that your seeing an equivalency between “…heaven and FTL…” (both have an equal chance of existing which is, as you put it – zero) is a misapplication of probability.

        We can’t prove a negative, we all know that. No one has yet provided any testable evidence for Heaven. Let’s call it an “after life” in order to get away from sect-specific issues. Research into anything that might hint at the existence of such comes down on the side of vanishingly small to zero probability.

        On the other hand, methods of FTL (if we stretch in the same manner as above when moving from “heaven” to “afterlife) are at least an order of magnitude greater than the vanishingly small probability I have to give to the afterlife if I’m going to be honest.

        Let’s start with what we have now. I can offer you Fast as Light travel to the stars given our existing technologies – and enough patience. Send a Von Neuman machine of sorts to a distant star, wait until it arrives and then begin transmitting instructions to replicate humans at the remote location.

        The recent announcement that some sub-atomic particles may violate the limit is probably going to resolve into an error in calculation – but other experiments are also suggesting that the multiverse theory is getting stronger, and that theory suggests that other instances of the universe obey different physical constraints. Whether or not we can take advantage of that is not yet known – but it is another open door.

        Then there’s that ‘wave’ theory (bubble of space time that doesn’t violate the laws) and a variety of different thought-experiments that play well within the boundaries of what we know now that can offer a possible FTL-like solution.

        There’s another area of comparison that you seem to hint at, which is that the consumers of SF are treating what they read in the same manner as religious adherents do their beliefs, which I think is completely inaccurate. I don’t think I’m going to die and go to the Death Star (I think I’m going to die and dissolve into my constituent atoms, after which the only existence I’ll have is in things like this comment). I don’t treat SF works as a catechism; I don’t worship at the feet of author so and so.

        What I do engage in is either receiving entertainment in a form I like, am familiar with and enjoy and/or speculate and imagine – inspired by the ideas presented by authors under the guise of SF. I’m not sharing the gospel according to St. Asimov; furthermore, I’m perfectly capable of discarding ideas and speculations that no longer work (are innaccurate: I doubt very much we’re going to see Cavorite created and I certainly wouldn’t write a story using that substance as my space drive); religious belief is cast in stone, unalterable (at least if you don’t want to be labeled a heretic). No new thought is generated by those beliefs, there is no self-correcting mechanism (I tested your hypothesis and did not get the same results is only ever greeted by an excommunication, a stoning or re-education – usually incorporating starvation – in the religious realm). The government does not fly a bunch of priests to Washington for a symposium on generation ships, but it does fly in science fiction writers.

        Why? Because there is a fundamental difference between the two activities. One is rote, culturally inculcated, baseless belief, the other is an offshoot of the scientific method. Physicists concerned with things that might lead to an FTL drive don’t just wave their hands in the air and declaim “here is your drive”, they’re doing the math and looking for holes in existing theory, holes that they’ve acknowledged exist and which, if things break the right way, retain the possibility.

        Imagine this discussion in an era in which the inclined plane and fulcrum had not yet been discovered. The path to their existence is open because they are a consequence of the physical laws that govern our universe. Until they were discovered, however, a statement such as “there is no way you can move that 2500 lb boulder by yourself” would have been seen as absolute truth. The only exception would have been an invocation to the gods – and they wouldn’t have done anything either.

        Discover a “new thing” – the fulcrum – and everything changes. Whereas before the discovery, moving that boulder physically was on an equal plane with the gods moving it – zero. Take advantage of a physical law that already existed – but that was unknown – changed all of that. Someone who had said “there has got to be a way for one person to move that boulder by themselves without godly interference” would have been viewed in the same manner as you are viewing SF fans, because right now we are in the same situation; we don’t know all of the physical laws of the universe and the holes that do exist allow for the same possibility as the discovery of the fulcrum. Maybe, perhaps. There’s just as much chance right now that we’ll discover a fulcrum for FTL as there is that one doesn’t exist.

        One remains in the realm of the possible, the other never did.

        1. I don’t think there’s a direct comparison between heaven and FTL. But the reason I linked them is because I’d say religious people want to go to heaven more than anything else, and science fiction people want faster than light travel more than anything else. They are cornerstone technologies to each desire.

          I have read a bunch of ideas about faster-than-light travel over the years. Physicists and mathematicians can come up with theoretical exceptions to Einstein’s speed law, but generally they are usually beyond comprehension, or very energy intensive. On NOVA, the PBS science show, they had a scientist talk about warm holes as a possible method for star travel. But he said, and this is from memory, that to open a 1 meter wide worm hole 1 second would take converting all the matter of Jupiter into energy. Now I don’t know if this is from exact calculations or just speculation on his part, but I think it suggests the magnitude of the problem.

          I don’t want to be a science fictional doomsayer, or grinch that steals FTL, but what if Einstein was right? I say we focus on STL travel until some genius can see a way around Einstein’s reality the way Einstein saw past Newton. There’s lots we can do now. Have you heard of the 100 Year Starship Study?

          By the way Steve, I read your blog about bringing back Amazing Stories. I hope you can make that happen. I have fond memories of Cele Goldsmith and Ted White’s Amazing from the 1960s and early 1970s.

  4. This book is terribly dated, much like the rest of Atwood’s recent oeuvre. She doesn’t like calling it scifi because 1) it wouldn’t sell as well if she did and 2) it’s bad scifi on scifi’s terms.

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