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The Journey to Planet X: Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds

In her introduction to In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood states the book is about her “somewhat tangled” relationship with science fiction from childhood through her teen years, continuing into her university studies and eventual academic career, and culminating as the subject of her numerous book reviews, essays, and subsequently, her fiction, with the novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. However, Atwood’s explorations in the book amount to much more than a personal preoccupation; in a voice that engages by blending storytelling and scholarly investigation, precise illuminations and humor, the author lures us into the subject.

In Other Worlds is composed of three parts. The first contains three chapters based on Atwood’s Ellmann Lectures delivered in 2010, published here for the first time. The second section collects some of her other writings on specific works, ranging from the more obscure She by H. Rider Haggard to the Victorian classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells and more contemporary novels such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The third and final part of the book showcases five of Atwood’s own sci-fi pieces; that the selections in the capstone section are brief and varied, offering a taste of the author’s imaginings in the genre and no more, are a testament to the book’s balance and sensibility. We’re left wanting more, and lucky for us, the author indulges our piqued intellectual appetite in her appendices which contain “An Open Letter from Margaret Atwood to the Judson Independent School District” addressing the district’s ban of The Handmaid’s Tale. The letter serves as a succinct example of the logical reasoning, wit, and matter-of-fact tone Atwood maintains throughout the book—a tone which entertains as well as informs.    

But I’ve ventured ahead of myself. What has Atwood provided us with in this volume of various collected works that is so compelling? Many in her audience will be literary readers and writers whose prior familiarity with “science fiction,” “speculative,” “sword and sorcery fantasy,” and “slipstream” will be limited at best, confined to long-ago high school reading assignments of 1984 and perhaps Fahrenheit 451. In Other Worlds is concise in its arguments, perhaps deceptively so, for the questions Atwood raises and the points she articulates run deep. The crux of her treatise resides in the three Ellmann lectures-turned-essays. In the first, “Flying Rabbits,” she traces back the comic book heroes and heroines of her youth to their counterparts in ancient mythology, and while this connection isn’t in itself a terribly surprising one, the particularities prove fascinating (how many have seriously pondered Wonder Woman’s lineage to Diana the Huntress, for example? Or exactly how the superpowers and shortcomings of mythological heroes are conferred on their comic book cousins?) As the author points out, “For every Achilles there’s a heel, a condition of vulnerability; for every Superman there’s a kryptonite, a force that negates special powers.” Perhaps the most memorable analysis in this chapter is Atwood’s Jungian deconstruction of Batman, his nemeses, and Robin in the sub-section “The Double Identity,” doubles being a favorite device of Victorian novels with fantastical figures like Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde, to name a few; in the case of Batman, the Penguin and the Joker are Bruce Wayne’s “shadow” selves. Other subsections of this essay are “The Outfits” (on how special garments and talismans equate with shamanistic powers), “The Flying” (on the human desire to overcome bodily restrictions), and “Transformation and Tricks,” in which she peels back the why behind the human psyche’s need for these other worlds, superpowers, and all the mischief that goes along with the territory through the lens of her childhood self: “It was the notion of deceiving people that we really liked — the idea that you could walk around among unsuspecting adults — the people on the street in the comic books — knowing something about yourself that they didn’t know: that you secretly had the power to astonish them.” Atwood’s connecting the dots throughout our cultural history as to how these “otherworldly” facets appeal and astonish makes for an enthralling ride.

The subsequent chapters from the Ellmann Lectures continue this juicy foray into what makes other worlds, including utopias and dystopias, tick. Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of such works, Atwood’s investigation into archetypes, the influences of the 19th-century novel and romance on their sci-fi and speculative descendents and larger questions about storytelling itself prove an illuminating read. In “Burning Bushes,” she delves into the ways myths are created anew and emerge in other art forms; “For every question that myths address, SF has addressed also,” Atwood states. Thus follows a brief history of the science fiction genre as it evolved from its predecessor, scientific romances as the stories of H. G. Wells were dubbed, but Atwood’s closer introspection into the novel results in greater revelations. She reminds us that novels, preoccupied as they are with realism, are not the only types of prose works, something we are inclined to forget since the term “novel” fell into popularity. The speculative fiction of Jules Verne, the sci-fi of Wells, along with recent titles such as Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, are all in the direct tradition of the romance, not the novel, according to Atwood. There follows a nuts-and-bolts breakdown of what science fiction narratives can do that traditional novel can’t, suggesting that this is the reason for Western mythology’s migration to “Planet X” — because we believe the fantastical can take place there, whether the story is about an alternative social structure, the consequences of advanced technology, etc. Consider the Star Wars films and Avatar.

Which brings me to mention the indispensability of In Other Worlds to the prospective writer of any fiction which falls under Atwood’s “otherworldly” umbrella — the writings collected here are by no means comprehensive on the topic, but they will get you on your way if you’re aiming to create a fiction that hails Verne as its predecessor over Austen, and therefore in need of digging up literary roots. Indeed, a chief pleasure in reading In Other Worlds is recalling some of the books one may have curled up with and read as a child, but long forgot; as Atwood recounts her girlhood “low” and “middle brow” encounters with Wonder Woman and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, I found myself recalling the SF tomes I’d similarly devoured as a child: Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine, and countless others. For as much as it is an in-depth study into this category of literature and how it came to be, In Other Worlds is very much a narrative of Atwood’s curiosities as a young reader and, finally, a writer; that this personal thread is an ever-present but subtlety-woven component within these essays is worthwhile to note. By the time one arrives at the chapter on utopias and dystopias, her story-behind-the-story of how she came to write The Handmaid’s Tale and two other works of dystopic fiction is just as revelatory as the analysis and insights throughout. And what drives the impulse to tell such stories? “I’m more inclined to think that it’s unfinished business, of the kind represented by the questions people are increasingly asking themselves: how badly have we messed up the planet? Can we dig ourselves out?” is Atwood’s reply. Only the future will tell.

The Millions Interview: Natasha Vargas-Cooper

I’ve never been a great fortune teller.  For instance, I had the Dodgers and the Tigers in the World Series this year, and I was sure — sure! — that Avatar would win Best Picture at last year’s Oscars.  But when it comes to spotting great book ideas, I’m Nostradamus.  Or, at least I was when it came to Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America.  Just a day or two into the life of her now-hugely popular Footnotes of Mad Men blog — a blog that unpacks the historical and cultural trappings of the popular AMC show Mad Men —  I predicted it would “have a book deal by the end of Season 3.” And it did.

To be fair, it wasn’t hard to call.  Vargas-Cooper was already a rising star in the online world.  Her smart and moving series on the Jesse James Hollywood murder trial was one of the highlights of the early days of The Awl, the kind of smart reportage/memoir hybrid that demanded attention and rightly got it.  Her signature prose style — exuberant, tough, and daring — started popping up all over the place, from Gawker to The Daily Beast.  By the time the news broke that she had a book deal, the only surprise I felt was that it hadn’t happened sooner.  The book that came from Footnotes of Mad Men — Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America —  a gorgeous paperback full of slick, glossy reproductions of photos and advertisements from the era, is out now.   It is, as its blog predecessor was, a worthy companion to what many would call the best show currently airing on television.

The Millions: Take me back to the beginning.  You’re watching the show, you’re already blogging and writing about all sorts of things for The Awl, for your own site.  What made you say “I have to write about this show.  This needs to be a blog.”?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: I think, too often I have the thought, “this needs to be a blog.”  I was at a very bleak phase of my mid-twenties. During the summer of last year, I had a number of losses dealt to me in rapid succession, and in order to stave off constant wallowing, I started to rewatch the show.  Its mood and details had me enveloped; I wanted them all in one place and I wanted to walk around in them, so naturally comes the thought: “this needs to be a blog.”

TM: And what made you realize it could be a book?

NVC: Mainly the call from HarperCollins that asked if I’d like to make this into a book. Originally, I thought I would just continue writing the blog as is and the book would be a collection of the writing but that notion got junked pretty quickly. The blog has a purposefully ephemeral quality to it. The book is all original writing conceived with the idea that these arguments need to be lasting (but not boring).

TM: The book is broken into sections by theme – the ad business, style, sex – and it strikes me as a particularly genius way of organizing it, since it allows you to address each issue within its context both on the show and in the time period.  But it’s not how the blog is structured.  How did you come upon that?  Was there ever another structure in mind?

NVC: My first structure laid out the book geographically.

Manhattan (Sterling Cooper, advertising, professional life, men);
Brooklyn (the life of working girls, Peggy’s problems, scenes from the steno pool);
Ossining (Betty’s world, the domestic sphere, anything having to do with the kids, the lives of suburbanites);
Out There (the world at large, Kennedy, Los Angeles, Hilton).

That’s actually how I wrote the book, by trying to culturally map these places. I turned in that version and we decided it was a little too esoteric and indirect.

TM: That’s kind of brilliant, though, as the locations are so much a part of the fabric not just of the show, but of the time, as well.  The opening section of the finished book gives an impressively broad overview of the advertising industry, circa 1960.  In other interviews, you’ve mentioned research at CalArts, but it’s clear you also did a lot of reading.  Who wrote the best of the ad memoirs?  Where should people go next if they want to know more about that business at that time?

NVC: George Lois, the art director of Doyle Dane Bernach who worked on the Volkswagen campaign and went on to create most of the modern logos that are burned into our brains, as well as Esquire’s most iconic covers, has the best autobiographies because he’s really dishy while never giving up his tough guy style. You get all the swagger and war stories, but also a sense of how exciting it was to be a part of the creative revolution in advertising. David Ogilvy’s books [Ogilvy on Advertising, Confessions of an Advertising Man] are also my favorites because he’s so austere and witty. Ruthless even.

TM: Another section of the book that I connected with is the chapter on Don Draper and his trip to California.  A special circle of hell is reserved for East Coast film/TV people who move to LA to work in the industry and then make movies/TV that show LA completely inaccurately (Paging Greenberg).  I thought Mad Men showed a pretty nuanced version of California — the hedonism of the wealthy in Palm Springs, the working class enclaves like Long Beach and San Pedro.  Do you see California returning to the show in future seasons?

NVC: I hope so! Every time Don heads to the bungalow in Long Beach I go over the moon. Southern California should play a role in future episodes because more than any other city/region in the country, Southern California embodied all of the ideals that came to define the late 1960’s and beyond: youthful, informal, image-driven, ahistorical; a golden land of consumers.

TM: Let’s talk about Don Draper.  I think he’s an interesting character, but he’s also impenetrable, and the show sometimes seems to want to do nothing but revel in his darkness.  I get that he’s a sexy man (I understand the Jon Hamm fascination more than the Draper one), but what is it about him that makes him so compelling to so many people?  Myself, I’m a Pete Campbell man.  (You can imagine Pete Campbell saying that, if it helps.)

NVC: Yeah, well, Pete Campbell is a pretty extraordinarily conceived character; I like him when he’s at his most wolfish. Don Draper is appealing because he’s an existential hero, an alpha male, and sophisticated without being snotty. Don is faced with all the dilemmas of modern life, and all the achingly human ones. I think the tension between conforming to what your family wants from you and participating in some kind of social harmony with those close to you versus hoisting the black flag, going into full tilt nihilism, denying yourself nothing, pouring all your energies into trying to create something with vitality while the void looms is a conflict that exists in many of us. I think the way we see Don deal with those dueling impulses is enthralling. Pure drama, in the Greek sense.

TM: What do you make of the critiques leveled against the show, specifically those that Mark Greif presents in his piece in the London Review of Books – that the show doesn’t actually present any moments of advertising genius (Don’s “It’s Toasted” slogan had been in use since 1917, for instance), that the characters mostly lack dimension, and that the writers luxuriate in all the things we can’t do anymore (snap the secretaries’ bras and pound bourbon in the boardroom)?  Any truth to that?

NVC: Ugh, gross! First of all I’m suspicious, actually, downright hostile to any critique that starts from the premise of a swindle; that the popularity of certain cultural objects coming from some kind of bamboozlement of its fans and that we need members of The Academy, like Greif, to parse the lie, is a bore. Also, while it might be a kicky-thrill for wall-eyed Brooklynites to revel in the un-PC nature of Sterling Cooper, I think it’s much less about back patting and thinking “Look how far we’ve come!” and more about wish fulfillment. That’s where the real kick comes from, a desire to fuck, drink, smoke, and behave badly with impunity. To the point about uninspired advertising: wrong!  You are dealing with inherently banal products, nylons, cigarettes, cameras, hairspray; what’s incredible about the show is the allure Draper and Co inject into them, even tag lines that we’ve heard before are refreshed by the narrative Don develops behind them and all the psychological reasoning that goes into that narrative. Also, Don coming up with a brilliant pitch for every product for every episode would turn the show into some NBC primetime gimmick. I point to Don’s Kodak pitch as evidence of high art and Greif’s wrongness.

TM: Give me three predictions for the show (not counting your call that baby Gene is done for, as I suspect you might be right about that).

NVC: Don and Betty will hatefuck at some point this season.  Sally Draper is going to mirror the social upheaval by being totally out of control. I see arson, adolescent lesbian — general terror.  I think one of the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is going to bail because those boutique, scrappy shops had a very short lifespan. I see a Campbell vs. Sterling showdown.  One of those guys will walk and be a rival. Maybe even Don?

TM: Will the blog continue for as long as the show does?

NVC: I think so. It still remains an impulse, to watch the show and catalogue.

TM: What do you think of the blog-to-book phenomenon?  While I don’t think it’s right for every blog (My personal blog never, ever needs to be printed and bound), I think this project was a perfect fit for it, and I think it makes sense as a business move.  There’s a built-in audience there (and doubly so in this case, because of the people who love the show who might not know about your book).

NVC: What I find puzzling about the blog to book phenomenon is that the focus has been on user generated sites when there are thousands of blogs that feature original content and commentary from a single author or a group of them.  The appeal of user-generated content is that it’s constant, instant, and evolving. These are elements that are the opposite of what books offer.  I think there’s plenty of room for all sorts of books; the way they are conceived is beside the point.  Nevertheless, I would like to see a book from Ivy Style or This Recording or David Bry’s Public Apology column from The Awl those are endlessly more fascinating than a collection of aloof hipster pictures with sarcastic captions.

The Best Picture Wins Best Picture

The Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre):

Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars.

The Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature?

The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently.

Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.”

All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art.

Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life.

This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife.

My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors  and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.

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