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Moral Disorder
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on 2 July 2017
Margaret Atwood has been often been criticised for referring to her work as 'speculative fiction' rather than 'science fiction,' as many readers have taken this as a slight against the genre and more than a little pretentious. Atwood seems very aware of this and has pretty much just written this entire book to explain herself. To give a brief summary, Atwood considers 'Speculative Fiction' to be any story which involves plausible scientific mechanisms which are already in-use today. While 'Science Fiction' employs fantastical elements which are not supported by an current science. So far so good! However, the real puzzle lies in what Atwood considers plausible science. Apparently dragons (yes DRAGONS!) are scientifically plausible but ALIENS are not! To be fair, Atwood does clarify that she is referring only to the types of dragons which could be developed by humans in laboratory conditions. (Essentially, these would just be genetically-modified dinosaurs or giant lizards, like those seen in Jurassic Park.) However Atwood is happy to accept ALL elements of dragon mythology, including the ability to breath fire, which seems a bit of stretch. I think that this all comes from Atwood's firm acceptance of cloning and genetic modification. She considers this to be established science and therefore any stories involving these mechanisms are entirely plausible. If you're like me, you may not as sold on the idea as all our current experiments involving 'cloning' and genetic modification are clumsy and rudimentary to say the least. By any standards, the type of genetic wizardry that Atwood employs in the Oryx and Crake/MaddAddam Trilogy seem pretty outlandish. To my mind, the possibility of life naturally occurring on other planets seems far more plausible, even if the chances of ever making contact are practically non-existent. Obviously, what people think is scientifically possible is always going to vary wildly, which is why people argue so much about what is 'good' or 'bad' science fiction or what constitutes 'science fiction' in the first place. Atwood is definitely more reasonably than she seems when quoted out-of-context but she does have her own prejudices regarding space operas and the like. The book doesn't give too in-depth of an overview of the science fiction/SF genre and its history so if you're looking for something like that for an essay or research then this may not be the best choice. There are also large sections of autobiographical reminiscences regarding Atwood's childhood and her journey as a writer, which are also not as useful for essay-writing! There are a few good quotes, here and there, and it is an interesting read, especially if you are a fan of Atwood's work! The book also includes several short SF stories by Atwood which may be of interest, although one is simply lifted from The Blind Assassin so will not be new to anyone who has read this novel. Atwood introduces them, stating that they are the few examples of science fiction that she has actually written (rather than speculative fiction) and as far as I can see this is because they deal with aliens and not genetically-modified clones! ;)
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on 14 March 2012
I remember reading a very negative piece somewhere that claimed Margaret Atwood didn't want to be labelled as a science fiction writer and thought `that's a bit snobby' but this was taken out of context. Then came the Ursula K. Le Guin review of Atwood's last novel `The Year of the Flood' in which she quoted from (are you keeping up) Atwood's essays `Moving Targets', which I now really want to read, saying that Atwood didn't believe her books were science fiction because the things in them were possible and may be happening, therefore they are speculative. Longer story shorter, `In Other Worlds' is Margaret Atwood's response to this and is even dedicated to Le Guin. It is so much more than a simple SFF vs. the rest of the literary world book though.

The book is set into three sections. In the first `In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination' we are treated to three long essays. The first of which Margaret Atwood discusses her love of science fiction, based on the fact that growing up in rural Canada she would read anything and everything and this meant a lot of her father's science fiction, comic books, pulp, noir, you name it. She went on to draw and create stories of her own superhero's... flying rabbits, and looks at the myth of the superhero and compares it to science fiction. The second looks at the myths and religions that make up science fiction in varying ways and the third how Margaret Atwood created `ustopia's' based on merging utopias and dystopias. I loved this section, in part because the way Atwood writes makes it feel like you are sat having a conversation about these things with her (if only), there is a humour and knowingness as you go along, secondly because it shows the forming of a writer which I always find fascinating and thirdly because it made me think. A lot. This isn't writing you can rush, you need to read it, pause, think a bit, make some mental notes, read on, have a bigger pause, think more. I loved that this was the effect it had on me.

The second section entitled `Other Deliberations' is a selection of reviews and essays about novels or writing that people see is either definitely science fiction, definitely literary fiction with a science fiction twist or seen as speculative fiction. One of the books she covers is `Never Let Me Go' by Kazuo Ishiguro (another book I love) and it's here I think she shows that really does it matter what genre or pigeon hole books are pushed, good and thought provoking writing is what matters. "Ishiguro isn't much interested in the practicalities of cloning and organ donation... Nor is this a novel about future horrors: it's set not in a Britain-yet-to-come but a Britain-off-to-the-side." Not only did I want to rush and read that again, I found all the books she discussed which i hadn't read such as H. Rider Haggard's `She' and `Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley are going to be racing up the TBR and being borrowed from the library.

The final main section of the book 'Five Tributes' are works of Atwoood's which she believes are truly SF works of fiction, they are all slight but all wonderful, I loved everyone of these. I also thought it was particularly clever of her to choose `The Peach Women of Aa'A' from `The Blind Assassin' as the final one. This is a fictional tale written inside her fictional tale at the heart of `The Blind Assassin' and not only reminded me of what an incredible writer she is but how diverse, I smiled to myself that a book which won the Booker does indeed have a science fictional twist in it's heart and then felt a little cross people forget that. It also reminds the reader that reading shouldn't be about boundaries people confine them to, in fact all literature should celebrate the fact that the boundaries are endless full stop, so why are we so obsessed with defining it?

I hope that you come away from this long ramble that forms a `review' or set of `book thoughts' with an inclination to pick up this book when you can. It's a book for book lovers in the fact that it's overall theme is the celebration of writing, and then looking at the way we take writing in and pass on our thoughts. It also shows once again what a wonderful writer Margaret Atwood is regardless of whatever genre of writer you might feel the need to put her in. `In Other Worlds' is certainly one of my books of the year without a doubt.
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on 26 December 2012
Rather like some of Atwood's own literary creations, Science Fiction is quite hard to pin down. Is it techno-fantasy, reinvented myth or legend, crystal ball gazing or all of these combined? There is no short answer.

In this remarkable, sometimes autobiographical work, Atwood takes the reader on an anthropological journey , a history of science fiction if you like, delving as far back as the time of cave paintings before turning, reluctantly perhaps, towards our present era. And taking in - as you will - Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Industrial Revolution along the way.

Were the Mayans there too, with their alleged end-of-the-world apocalypse (or five thousand year hoax) or did I just imagine that bit?

By the time the phrase was coined (sometime between the world wars) the fiction that now is preceded with the word 'science', was already many millennia old. Woven into this fascinating story are the modern era pioneers: Wells, Huxley, Haggard, Swift, McKibben and of course Le Guin. Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time) gets a deserved mention too.

And to this list, we must now add Atwood herself, taking SF into a new realm that she terms Speculative Fiction: fiction that might turn out to be true. Or at least, some bits of it.

Having read the blurb for the book, with its mention of childhood superhero rabbits and other odd creatures, I wasn't quite sure what to expect (superhero bunnies not really being my thing). But then, I didn't think 'science fiction' was my bag either, before I read Le Guin and Piercy and leaned they also belonged to this eclectic gang.

As it turned out, I couldn't put the book down. Thanks to Atwood, the superhero bobtails have their place too (even, yes really, if their fur is green and they glow in the dark).
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on 18 February 2018
Moral Disorder is a collection of 11 short stories and a number of these revolve around the characters Tig and Nell. But my overall favourite short story in the book was ‘The Labrador Fiasco’ about a camping expedition story to the Labrador wilds by Hubbard, Wallace and George being read to a man entering dementia following a stroke. The camping expedition story itself provides a sort of analogy for the man’s passage through his own dementia.

‘The Boys at the Lab’ was the other stand out story for me; all about a daughter’s experiences with her ageing mother approaching death and reflections of the past prompted by looking through a photo album - just a really wonderful story.

A good review of Moral Disorder is given by the author Ursula K Le Guin, and I agree with her “What the stories..have in common...is a clear eye, a fine wit, and a command of language so complete it's invisible except when it’s dazzling.” Worth reading Moral Disorder for ‘The Labrador Wilds’ and ‘The Boys at the Lab’ alone.
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on 16 January 2008
What an unusual book! On the surface it is a series of short stories, almost thrown carelessly together and telling the life of a Canadian woman from childhood through to old age.

Along the way, various themes are introduced, some glancingly and others returned to from varying viewpoints in a number of different stories. Children and their parents are visited at the beginnings of life for one and nearing the end for the other. There is a wonderful account of a teenage girl becoming immersed in the study of literature with `a lot of ground still to cover' before the crucial end-of-school-years examination. Atwood skewers the 1970s - from the penniless central character, Nell, painting a second hand dining table orange through to `adultery' being `not a cool word' where `to pronounce it was a social gaffe'. A sister's mental health problems appear at times severe and deteriorating irreparably whilst at others they impress more as a misperception or a temporary fluctuation.

Perhaps the most persistent theme is the centrality of stories, either in the form of established literature or as fondly repeated favourite anecdotes from real life. But what is really distinctive about this book is its structure - eleven short stories, not all arranged chronologically, some written in the first and some the third person. The position in time of the `author' of some of these is also unusual; a story can end with a paragraph or two saying in effect that the events just described had taken place years ago and that things are now very different.

One interpretation of this strange structure is that the stories, some of which were published separately over a number of years, have merely been shoe-horned to hang untidily together in book form. But surely Atwood is too skilled and careful a writer to succumb to such laziness - it would take very little effort, after all, to tweak and rearrange these into a conventional cradle to grave account.

I prefer instead to see this as a subtle statement about the ways in which we really give an account to ourselves of our lives in an episodic and thematic fashion. So, instead of `chapter one my childhood', `chapter two my teens' and so on, we might think of long-lived themes such as our changing relationships with our parents and perhaps more intense and time-constrained events such as the death of somebody close or sexual awakening during puberty.

And in the book Atwood's themes can be seen to have a beginning, a middle and, in true short story fashion, a gentle thud or a wistful speculation with which to finish. There is a sense that she is experimenting not only with the deep structure of book composition but also with the way in which we `author' our own lives.

In many ways this is not one of Margaret Atwood's `big books' but I found it an extremely enjoyable and accessible read - and one that won't yet let me put it down and move on to something new.
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on 22 September 2013
Margaret Atwood writes so well in everything she does, and this selection of essays, observations, literary criticisms as well as original pieces by the author, is no exception.

I've read an awful lot of literary criticism in my time and - even though I'm an enthusiast and I LOVE my subject, I'll be the first to admit, some of the essays written on the subject are just DULL, DULL, DULL. Indeed, it cannot be overstated enough the wonder, when as a student of the subject you find someone who can actually write about it enlighteningly and do it well. Margaret Atwood does just that in this book. In fact, I've got to say, it would be rare for me to pick up a book like this and not just focus on the area I was studying at the time (for instance, in this selection you can find pieces on Gulliver's Travels and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go), but I felt compelled to read the entire book. This, I've got to say, is a miracle in itself. She is so funny, so witty and always with such a neat turn of phrase, it was hard to put it down.

I loved the original pieces and I loved the pieces about works I've read (I hadn't read them all). The stuff about Ishiguro I particularly enjoyed, as I did the essay on Mad Scientists. Cannot recommend this enough, particularly if you are studying Lit - merely including a few quotations from this book in your essays is going to liven up any written work and provide those marking them with a treat.
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on 25 November 2012
This new volume of essays by the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood is dedicated to what she regards as two allied types of fiction, Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction. Her lucid survey of early fiction preceding science fiction is a delight, and her comments on the three novels she has published all of them featuring dystopias and one of which, "The handmaid's tale" has by now the status of a classic, should enlighten those who have read them or attract new readers. Fans of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea quartet and other works of fantasy fiction and science fiction will find much food for thought in her review of Le Guin's "The birthday of the world". I am very glad to add "In other worlds" to my largish collection of works in verse and prose by Atwood.
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on 8 April 2015
these are stories about real people; taken all together, they read like a memoir, although each story stands alone, As in real life, there are loose ends, inexplicable events; people change with the passage of time, their opinions are modified; there are no good guys or bad guys, just people some of whom you like more than others, As you read, you find yourself thinking over episodes in your own life and seeing them in a different light, perhaps understanding what was really going on a little better than before.
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VINE VOICEon 17 January 2012
Pure genius as ever by Margaret Atwood. I read in one sitting. It also has inspired me to get into Ursula k Le Guin. Many casual readers of Margaret atwood may have missed the science Fiction elements. I for one am delighted that the medium of Science Fiction is beginning to be acknowledged as the potentially valueable literary form it can be. Margaret highlights the various differences within the genre very convincingly. If you want 'hard' sci-fi with guns and ship, go for it. However the genre contains many more genuinely questioning authors with serious thought about society and the nature of reality. You can not go wrong if nervous about entering the worls of sci-fi, than read this extremely readeable work.
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on 15 October 2015
Enjoyed this great work very much. An absorbing account of a Human life, treated with great compassion and tenderly rendered. I loved the format- indeed it mirrors what one's life distills down to: a series of memories and accompanying feelings.
This is the first Atwood novel I have read and I can say I'll definitely be reading more of her works; she could well become one of my favourite authors. She writes assuredly, with great wit and an incisive eye that misses nothing.
One knows one's reading a good book when one sees the diminishing number of pages and could almost cry out in frustration. However, all good things must come to an end... though Atwood could have comfortably and skillfully produced a volume twice as thick.
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