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