Sunday, 15 July 2012

In Other Worlds

is the title of a book of essays by Margaret Atwood on science fiction and other literature which is set in worlds not our own.  She cites some books, and some writers, of which I know little or nothing, but is always interesting.  A writer called McKibben, who wrote a book called "Enough", of which I know nothing other than what Atwood has written about it here, said, apparently, that because a thing has been invented does not mean that you have to use it.  "McKibben offers as exempla the atomic bomb; the Japanese samurai rejection of guns; the Chinese abandonment of advanced sea power; and the Amish, who examine each new technology and accept or reject it according to social and spiritual criteria."  Atwood approves of what McKibben wants, but ends this chapter with "Perhaps we should leave well enough alone", always a dangerous notion, I feel.  Atwood's take on "Nineteen Eighty-Four" is very different from mine.  She doesn't even mention the torture, other than the rats, and the rats are not the point.  It wasn't the rats, nor was it the threat of them, which broke Winston Smith.  I don't think it was even the betrayal of Julia - who betrayed him, too, and went blithely on her way - it was seeing what had been done to others, and that there was no hope, no way out.  Atwood sees the final essay on Newspeak, written in plain English, apparently well after the events described in the book, as a message of hope - that the regime did not last, and that the human spirit survives.  I hope she is right.  I saw it more as a kind of Hays Code adjunct.  She says the section at the end of "The Handmaid's Tale", which treats the regime portrayed in the book as an episode in American history, owes much to the Newspeak essay.  I am sure she is right, I hadn't noticed the influence at the time, but i remember being hugely relieved that the essay told us that the regime did pass away.  To this day I get chills at the notion that a regime like that really could exist - and of course it does, in much of Afghanistan and in parts of the Middle East.  Atwood wrote "The Handmaid's Tale" in 1984, or at least it was published then, so perhaps at the time she was not thinking about the politics of the Middle East. but I am, now.

Atwood is wrong in her conclusion to this essay.  She says that the 2001 attacks opened up the prospect of two contradictory dystopias, because "state surveillance is back with a vengeance", the other dystopia being open markets, which seems to mean that the communist dream (in China) creates armies of exploited workers to make cheap consumer goods for us all to enjoy.  She makes the mistake here of being dismayed about "state surveillance" in "free" places like north America, and of completely ignoring the ideology behind 9/11 and similar - and how can the author of "The Handmaid's Tale" do this?  Afghan women?  But she can also be very funny.  Humans as viewed by aliens, in most science fiction, have a "cavern" or a "prong".  Hilarious.


Anonymous said...

I don't like Attwood's sci fi.

Cat's Eye remains a brilliant book - The Blind Assassin not bad either -- the short stories best fo all. Hairball superb. 'Kat' as in Kit Kat - a chocolate bar etc, etc.

Jane Griffiths said...

Nor me, much. Though Year of the Flood was good. I love Cat's Eye and The Robber Bride best of all. Re-read them regularly.

Anonymous said...

Robber Bride - forgot about it! It is great!! Jassy? Apropos of nothing at all - read The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing! Unless you have already read it!

Jane Griffiths said...

Good Terrorist, yes, have read more than once, it is a book I go back to, despite being dated, Doris is The Business