Stanislaw Lem (Ed. Franz Rottensteiner), “Microworlds” (1984) & Margaret Atwood, “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination” (2011)

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The history of science fiction and fantasy literature seems a endless debate amongst their constituents – between authors and fans, authors and critics, fans and critics, and newer works and the genre’s entire history. The definitions are fickle and changing every decade, the ideas of stagnation and genre limitations remain the same – for a time, being an ambitious writer of sf basically entails being constantly embattled with whoever prevents you from reaching the “literature of ideas”’s true potential. In a postmodern age, it would seem that we are beyond these types of arguments, genre now being as typical a touchstone as anything else in “high” culture – they happen anyway, but usually only in the most close-knit of circles.

So the main interest in reading Lem and Atwood’s book of critical writing back-to-back is comparing the highly-critical ambitions of a literary science fiction writer in the seventies with someone writing more from the modern day, where the lines between genre and literary fiction blur. It’s two different eras in the history of genre, with the noticeable presence and absence of those old battlegrounds. The genre landscape is reflects in the divergent topics chosen by the two – Atwood (for many obvious reasons) is not so concerned with the way the genres are being discussed in various American fanzines, and writes analytically on the history and influence of trash literature by the likes of H. Rider Haggard. Lem, from his vantage point during one of the major transitional periods for sf, sees the influence of the “lower realm of trivial literature” as a millstone on the modern writers, leading only to stock plots and faulty imagination. Although both are interested in the historical/structural points of genre, only Atwood sees everything from the pulps and their precursors to the more openly intellectual works of someone like Ursula K. Le Guin as being within the same realm, fitting them amongst older mythologies as well – Lem seemed to be fighting against such a notion, and hoped to develop a more literate form of criticism to address it. It’s possible that Atwood being able to look at the whole of the field more broadly was only made possible because writers like Lem made the style of the Weird Tales thrillers a historical curiosity to be analyzed, rather than the continuing, dreary, market-dictated reality of the scene.

Aside from connecting the strand of fantasy throughout history, In Other Worlds‘ other essays stay more on the literary borderline between genre and non-genre – Wells, Orwell, Huxley, all the way back to Swift and Gulliver’s Travels – and focuses on the dystopic/utopic dischotomy, which is one that Atwood often explored in her own novels. This gives her book more a general audience (I mean, in a hopefully non-dismissive way) approach, more inclined to readers who don’t seem themselves in the genre ghetto – which is perfectly in line with the discussion of pulps and childrens’ literature, being able to appreciate these things without a reflexive fear of pigeonholing that many in sf community tend towards. The writing on dystopic literature also works into Atwood’s more critical approach to technology and innovation for innovation’s sake – the essay about the Bill McKibben book Enough, where it is given its most straightforward ideological pitch. All of it is part of a very cohesive throughline these scattered article – including short examples of her own work, we can see how different parts of the genre landscape make their way into her writing.

Many of those sorts of themes don’t show up much in Lem’s writing – he seems more interested in exploring humanity’s position in the face of a wide universe and new frontiers of their own creation (thus his recurring use of AI) – and seems to view the problems coming from such less as possible Orwellian nightmares, and more as cosmic jokes at humanity’s expense. In his essays, his focus seems more in analyzing the structure of science fiction, and how futuristic ideas are integrated into new realities in the stories – advocating for quality first and foremost. Once science fiction writing has the thoroughness, logical consistency, and creativity that Lem advances, it may be able to rise to the occasion of being socially engaged.

Which is not the say that there isn’t more common ground between them – both write about Wells as the font of sf (Lem sees his works as a model that then-modern entries had strayed from), and both regard Borges as one of the most critically talented and influential figures in entirety of fantastic literature. As mentioned, the differences are mostly in the aim and milieu of the collected essays – Lem working with mostly contemporary (at the time) science fiction (and is constantly addressing other critical works in the field, which mostly means quoting Damon Knight’s work from various fanzines), and Atwood going much broader, working in superheroes and fantasy into one cohesive genre universe. This is also reflected in the positive/negative tenor in the essays – Lem’s harshness stems from his desire to pinpoint the rot in the field.

Both the books seem to write extensive, favourable pieces on certain authors within the genre, those that they see as exceeding the standards of the genre – for Atwood, it’s Le Guin, while for Lem it’s Philip K. Dick (“A visionary among the charlatans”.) Both writers are well-known for the way they infuse their particular philosophies and other idiosyncrasies into their work, elevating stories of space travel and psychic powers and other standard tropes, and so singling them out in these cases allows for additional reflection on how the genres can become more. I would actually find it interesting to have seen those authors discussed in the other book – Atwood on Dick, Lem on Le Guin – as reading their thoughts on them would have added something I felt missing in their collection of critiques (in Atwood it was of the new wave and related sf, and in Lem more authors outside the white/male demographic.) (Incidentally, according to the introduction to Microworlds by Franz Rottensteiner, Lem had included a recommendation for Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea in the same book that his chapter on PKD originated from.)

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