Margaret Atwood, Apocalyptic Optimist

For a speculative-fiction visionary who writes about bioengineered catastrophe, commodified humanity and environmental devastation, Margaret Atwood is one seriously sunny personality.

“I’m an optimist,” the decorated Canadian author explained to me by phone during a tour for her most recent book, The Year of the Flood, published in September. “Anyone who writes this kind of stuff probably is. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t waste your time writing the books.”

Atwood, who turns 70 in November, has an uncanny knack for tapping into humanity’s uncertain future and predicting mankind’s cultural, scientific and sociopolitical falls from glory. Whether it’s the rise of a fundamentalist American political regime poisoned by militarism and sexual perversity in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 1985, or the genetic pandemic of 2003’s Oryx and Crake, her fiction has peeled back the skin of our disturbing subcutaneous nightmares.

Even her nonfiction wields a prescient hammer: Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Atwood’s series of 2008 lectures analyzing the concept of debt through historical, scientific and literary prisms, emerged as a global economic recession built on excessive debt securitization strangled humanity’s financial state.

This is the nature of her speculative occupation, Atwood explained. Unlike sci-fi, spec-fi — especially her disastrously scary strain — has a chance of phasing into reality within our lifetime. (Just don’t confuse the two, she insists.)

Whether humans experience the genetic apocalypse or waterless flood found in her latest speculative effort, or the fantastically clever but simple ways of forestalling an enviropocalypse most scientists have already priced into the market, Atwood suggests that science can save us all. Hailing from a family of scientists, she’s well aware of technology’s power to help humanity evolve rather than wiping it out. What matters is who’s wielding that power, and why.

You come at science convincingly from the direction of fiction, and you’re pretty precise about your work, which you maintain is speculative fiction rather than sci-fi.

I like exact labeling. Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see. We can do the lineage: Sci-fi descends from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; speculative fiction descends from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Out of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea came Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, out of which came We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, then George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Ray Bradbury‘s Fahreneheit 451 was speculative fiction, while The Martian Chronicles was not.

But merges exist, aside from the historical designations.

Well, there’s a crossover park where sci-fi and fantasy play together. But it’s really just a question of who is related to whom. If you could do a DNA of books, you could trace the classifications of these kinds of writing.

It seems that much of the blurring comes more from a lack of experience with these works, rather than some kind of postmodern sampling that erases points of reference.

Right. People haven’t really read these books. They want to know where to put it on the bookstore shelf. When people first started writing this stuff, they didn’t call it science fiction. The first were called scientific romances. Before that, there were utopias and dystopias.

Are you a fan of that term, which is used to describe your work quite a bit?

Atwood: People bat the term around a lot. Dystopia means “unpleasant society” [Laughs]. We generally know the area we are in when we say it, of course.

Year of the Flood is pretty dystopian, given it deals with the aftermath of an apocalyptic wipeout that reshapes our connection to the planet. But it seems entirely plausible, given your research and the dense reading list posted on the book’s official site.

Atwood: I like to keep up. I collect work that I think is pertinent to what I am doing. It’s often interesting to see things that I’ve written into the future, and find that years later, they’ve been done.

Given Year of the Flood’s narrative of God’s Gardeners, who try to reconnect survivors to the ravaged planet using science and religion after predicting its eventual apocalypse, I’m guessing you’ve been following the news on climate change. Can science and technology save us from the crazy world that scientists see coming our way this century and the next?

Atwood: The green technology plot is getting more interesting by the minute. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Now that people see the great big mess coming before them, they are more interested in inventing things that can help. I’m really interested in solar fabrics that you can wear or put on walls. Or Zerofootprint’s building reskinning contest, which puts a new skin on old buildings that are inefficient. I saw another good one on algae walls.

Year of the Flood features rooftop gardens, which have caught on.

Atwood: That’s a growing movement; so is urban beekeeping. Same with growing certain weeds on your lawn, which are more adaptable to the climate and edible. These are trends that people thought would be a good idea a while ago, and now they’re becoming necessary.

But you’re also a fan of scientific solutions, even though Year of the Flood’s predecessor, Oryx and Crake, hinged on wipeout thanks to bad bioengineering.

Atwood: Some bioengineering is good, especially if it results in plants that are more drought-resistant or perennial food crops. Science is a tool, and we invent tools to do things we want. It’s a question of how those tools are used by people. A hammer isn’t good or bad when it is lying on the table. It’s about who and what are human beings? What are we doing to ourselves? What tools could we invent? What tools are we using unwisely?

Which do you think we’re using most unwisely?

Atwood: We’re using our engines, furnaces and heating technology unwisely at the moment. We’re just wasting too much, and dumping too much carbon into the atmosphere, which everyone already knows. We have to rethink our whole energy approach, which is hard to do because we’re so dependent on oil, not just for fuel but also plastic. If plastic vanished, there would be total chaos. We have to think quite carefully about using oil, and its derivatives, because it’s not going to be around forever.

But you are optimistic we will be around to survive these catastrophes?

Atwood: The future is going to be a matter of will. It will depend on the popular will, what you and I think, and getting that to politicians, who convert it to political will. Of course, it does help if you’ve got money to help put that will into place. It’s a race against time. Which comes first? Getting smart and doing something? Or watching time overtake us as everything falls apart

Atwood Waxes Technophilic:

On a possible sequel to Year of the Flood: “You know the Map app for the iPhone? You load a grid, which starts coloring in where you are. Then you get the blue directional pin that allows you to move the map. Then you get more grid, which is then colored in for you. Year of the Flood’s sequel is the part of that grid that is not colored in. But I think it will have to do with Zeb, who breaks off from the pacifist Gardeners.”

Inventing the LongPen: “It’s a remote signature device. It saves a ton of carbon. We just did a LongPen event that took place simultaneously in Halifax, Vancouver, Toronto and Kitchener. We signed books and staged a reading and Q&A that everyone could hear and see onscreen at the same time.”

Science in the blood:
“I grew up amongst the scientists. My nephew is a physicist and another is a materials engineer. My brother is a neuroscientist, so it’s not completely off the radar. Wired is my recreational reading from the world of what I didn’t become…. I’ve followed it for a while, and was part of Wired’s six-word story experiment.”

This interview appeared at Wired

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