London: It`s always a mystery why popular fiction writers delve into non-fiction. They`re so good at making stuff up, why bother writing a book that isn`t make-believe?
Margaret Atwood is at least upfront with readers in this collection of essays, some old, some new. "It is an exploration of my lifelong relationship with a literary form," she writes about the book. That form is science fiction, or SF, as she calls it for short.
Readers can decide for themselves whether that exploration is worth it, but if you`re looking for the imagination that created ‘The Handmaid`s Tale’ or ‘Oryx and Crake,’ you won`t find it here. The first half of ‘In Other Worlds’ is more like a doctoral thesis with a smattering of first-person narration. Atwood admits she never finished hers while at Harvard in the late 1960s, so perhaps this is partly her way of closing that chapter more than four decades later.
Fans will enjoy some of the more personal tidbits. She wrote ‘The Handmaid`s Tale’ while doing a fellowship in Berlin, for example. What better place to contemplate a totalitarian takeover of the US? Similarly, her concern about climate change inspired ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood.’ Some of the questions going through her mind at the time: "How badly have we messed up the planet? What would a species-wide self-rescue effort look like if played out in actuality?"
The first part of the book also gives Atwood a chance to answer her critics. About those cover-ups worn by women in Gilead that have been interpreted as both Catholic habits and Muslim burqas: "Their actual design was inspired by the Old Dutch Cleanser figure on the sink cleaner boxes of my childhood." And yes, she does think that post-9/11 the world may be moving closer to the dystopia she created in ‘The Handmaid`s Tale.’
After the new essays, the book is a collection of previously published work examining some of science fiction`s masters, including George Orwell, H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. Any reader who hasn`t read the source material is better served picking up a copy of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau,’ or ‘Brave New World.’ Then, if you really, really want to, you can read the Orwell chapter of "In Other Worlds" to find out why in the Atwood family it`s common to say, ‘Do it to Julia.’