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Science Friction

She’s that rarest of literary creatures: a respected author who dabbles in science fiction. Margaret Atwood discusses her latest dystopian tour de force and explains why – boo, hiss! – she won’t be writing about dinosaurs and spaceships any time soon.

Anne Sexton, 18 Sep 2013

argaret Atwood is warm, gracious and happy to pose for photographs but I’m slightly terrified of her. She is, after all, one of the most important writers of the last forty years, the recipient of more than fifty literary prizes and honorary degrees, and the author of a slew of critically-acclaimed novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Oryx And Crake. who is known to have a fearsome and wide-ranging intellect.


Atwood’s latest novel MaddAddam has just been published, and concludes the trilogy that began with 2003’s Oryx And Crake. Humanity has been all but wiped out by a man-made virus, and a new species, known as Crakers, have been bioengineered to take our place. The Crakers are gentle herbivores who mate seasonally and are free from sexual jealousy and greed. Their designer Crake wished to eradicate the characteristics he believed caused human misery. The trilogy is best described as speculative fiction set in a dystopian near future.

“There are no spaceships!” laughs Atwood. “I asked somebody recently, ‘What do you think of when you think of science fiction?’ and he said, ‘Spaceships and lycra.’ So if that’s what you think of as science fiction, this is not science fiction. But if what you think of as science fiction is something placed in the future, then it is. There are a lot of books placed in the future, which are not technically science fiction – they’re utopias or dystopias but there’s nothing particularly science-y about then. The terms are used rather loosely. So tighten them up a bit and you get something more truly descriptive. However, we’re pretty much all agreed that if there are dragons in it, that’s fantasy. But people are doing cross-over forms in which they have spaceships and dragons!”

Doctor Who had dinosaurs on a spaceship.

“But not dragons! Not yet – I don’t think so. But maybe that’ll be viewed as a challenge to get dragons into Doctor Who!”

While Atwood’s output has covered a wide variety of genres and forms, she seems to have a recurring attraction to utopian and dystopian worlds. The MaddAddam trilogy, The Handmaid’s Tale, and more recently The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, an online novel written with Naomi Alderman, are all set in future worlds.

“It probably comes from playing with building blocks!” she laughs. “One of the first utopias I came across was The Wizard Of Oz, of course, and the wizard is a fraud. He says, ‘I’m a very bad wizard, but I’m a good man.’ We wonder if he is, but he’s made an ideal society, but we also see some other societies including that of the Wicked Witch of the West, which is a tyranny. I suppose those were my first introductions to utopias and dystopias.”

Atwood’s dystopian novels are disquieting because she extrapolates futures that seem possible, and often, probable. At times her work appears to be eerily prescient – a number of the biotechnological features of the MaddAddam world, such as synthetic meat and pigs being used to grow human organs, are no longer science fiction but science fact. Atwood’s father was a biologist and she has long had an interest in the field.

“I knew they were working on it and it was only a matter of time,” she resumes. “They were already working on transgenic pigs when I was writing Oryx And Crake and they’d come to barriers that were making things difficult for them to actually do it, but they seem to have cracked that code so now they can.”

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