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Interview: Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is the author of the classic dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, about a takeover of the American government by religious fundamentalists, as well as the book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, an essay collection that examines mythology, utopias, and science fiction. Her most recent book is MaddAddam, a sequel to her novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, about a mad scientist who tries to replace humanity with genetically engineered people of his own creation.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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Your new book MaddAddam is set in the same world as your previous books Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Would you recommend that people jump right into this book, or would you recommend that people read the other two books first?

I think that would be the reader’s own choice. You could certainly come in at any entry point. The first two books run during the same time period, and the third one takes off from the end of both of them. I did put a little Lord of the Rings-type summary at the beginning for those who might stumble upon the third one without knowing about the other two.

A lot of the book deals with the backstory of the character, Zeb, whose father was this sleazy televangelist type who headed up the church called The Church of Petrol Oleum. Could you talk about the creative process you went through in inventing that church?

It wasn’t much of a stretch. The word petroleum does come from those two Latin words, and there is a crossover already. But also it comes from people’s true religion, as what they worship, whether it’s called a church or not. So if you’re dedicated, for instance, to the stock market to the exclusion of all else, you have a religion of the stock market. It’s an invisible force that you pray to, whether you know you’re doing that or not. So, just as there was once a sun god, why would there not be an oil god?

I guess we should maybe explain, if people haven’t read the book, that the Church of Petrol Oleum thinks God gave humans dominion over the Earth and therefore it’s our holy obligation to extract as much oil as possible.

Well, because oil is holy and because, what do we anoint people with in the Bible but oil? Therefore it must be holy. Wouldn’t you say?

Yeah, that a pretty good argument.

(Laughing). I’m glad you’re convinced.

(Laughing). Do you think you could make up a church about anything you could imagine and find justification for it in the Bible?

No, you couldn’t. There are some things that you could absolutely not make up a religion about because they’re not in the Bible. So you couldn’t make up a Church of Avocados. I don’t think avocado is mentioned once. So it is restricted by what words are actually there, but people have interpreted those words many different ways and continue to do so.

One thing I think about a lot is that, it seems to me, speculative fiction has a lot of the virtues of religion without any of its downsides.

You are not the first person to have noticed that. Science fiction more particularly; we can no longer do the burning bush, plausibly, say on Fifth Avenue. Anybody who saw a burning bush on Fifth Avenue that they said talked to them would probably be on some drug, having a mental episode, or such would our interpretation be. But if you get on a space ship and go to Planet X, the whole thing can be littered with burning bushes that talk; they would simply be an alien life form. That is why certain kinds of theological discussions have moved off planet, and are acted out on other planets with imagined beings that can debate these questions much as angelic beings once debated them in Paradise Lost.

I also read your book, In Other Worlds, which is sort of an essay collection about speculative fiction and related subjects, and—

And science fiction. There’s plain old, outright science fiction too.

Yep. And in that book you talk a lot about utopian stories, which are about ideal societies, and dystopian stories which are about nightmarish societies, and you also coined the term “usetopias,” which are either a utopia or dystopia depending on the way you look at it, they’re kind of a blend of the two. How would you say that your studies on that form of literature have informed the Oryx and Crake trilogy?

Oh, well, quite deeply, I’ve been reading the raw material since I was about ten, and thinking about it in a more organized way since I was about twenty-one. One of the things you can say is that having read so much of it, I know what some of the pitfalls are and tried to avoid them therefore. Particularly with utopias, there’s always a part where you get more or less a tour, which you did quite a lot in communist countries—you get a tour of the factory, and a lecture that goes, “In olden days, societies made these horrible mistakes and did these bad things, but we’ve fixed that now. Here’s how we do it!”

Do you want to talk a little bit about usetopias? Where would you put the Oryx and Crake trilogy on—

I think they’re the same. I think utopia and dystopia are essentially flipsides of the same form, and that every utopia has a dystopia concealed within it. And every dystopia has got a utopia concealed within it, otherwise you wouldn’t have anything to judge the “bad” by.

The nineteenth century utopias, of which there were really a lot, many were written then because people did think great improvements were being made and that the world was, if not perfectible, almost so. They wanted to do something about the deplorable slum conditions and the polluted environments that they saw around them then. So they wrote a lot of utopia stories, and they started utopian societies. Coleridge had the idea of being part of one of them, Nathaniel Hawthorne dabbled in it, the Shakers and Quakers were, of course, both utopian communities, and the American adventure started as another such thing, with the seventeenth century Puritans thinking that they were going to build God’s kingdom on earth, or close to it.

Utopianism is something people both wrote about and did, from the seventeenth to maybe the end of the nineteenth century. Then it kind of blew up, literally, with the First World War, and the Second World War, and a couple of other experiments in utopias. So the USSR and Hitler’s Germany were both experiments in utopianism. “Grand Plan, going to make everything much better, except first of all we have to get rid of these people.” These were followed by Mao’s China and Pol Pot. There’s some minor ones too, Ceaușescu’s Romania and the Albanian Adventure, etc.

Utopias became much harder for us to credit, the perfect society that was going to come into being as the result of the imposition of an overarching plan.

Each utopia always had a little bit of dystopia, the part where “we had to get rid of those people.” And each dystopia had a utopia, the better society that we either remembered or hoped to escape to.

In the Oryx and Crake trilogy, what aspects of that world do you see as the utopian aspects and which as the dystopian aspects?

The utopian thinking, of course, is done by Crake himself, things are going to be so much better, except first we have to get rid of “those people.” “Those people” would be—

Everybody.

That would be the human race. Not quite everybody, he leaves Jimmy alive as the shepherd to the new new-people, who have had some of what he considered to be our imperfections removed from them. Thus, they have built-in sunblock and insect repellent, which I think would be good things. They don’t need clothing and therefore will never have a cotton industry, or a fashion industry, or any cotton mills. They’re not only vegetarian, they can eat grass and leaves, so they will never have to have agriculture. They will not have to have herd animals, and therefore they will not be territorial. They will not suffer from romantic despair, they will never be rejected romantically because they breed seasonally, like most other mammals. They aren’t partially “on” all the time like us. To that end, in the breeding season, parts of them turn blue, so there’s never any mistake. Because they breed in groups, they’re not worried about paternity.

So you say that things like built-in insect repellent you see as a good thing.

Wouldn’t you think it would be a good thing?

I do, for sure. But your review of Bill McKibben’s book, Enough, gave me the idea that you were not in favor of the idea of genetically engineering humans.

I’m not in favor of genetic engineering as a commercial pursuit today. There are genetic engineering programs on offer in the world of Oryx and Crake in which you can get your baby tweaked. Is it going to be like out of the catalog where you pick the height, weight, eye color, intelligence level, and curliness of hair? I think that’s probably a pretty bad idea. On the other hand, if it’s a matter of disease elimination, then it’s probably a very good thing.

Earlier it came up a little, about speculative fiction and science fiction. You’ve defined “speculative fiction,” essentially, as stories that take place on Earth and employ elements that already exist in some form.

Yeah, so it’s a matter of truth and labeling. When people think science fiction they think, whether you like it or not, of spaceships and, as one person said, Lycra. So that’s just a question of what you’re going to put on the box. I like there to be, inside the box, what it says on the outside there is going to be.

Somebody did quite a wonderful book a few years back about comic book promises, that is, things that you could send away for from the backs of comic books. They sent away for all of them, and then they compared the promise with what they actually got. In most cases there was very little resemblance. So, I like there to be some resemblance between what is promised on the outside and what you get on the inside. If it says science fiction I want there to be something that doesn’t already exist.

Do you think that causes confusion?

Only amongst people who are already using a label in a very large sense, that includes all kinds of stuff. And we could usually go through and say what it isn’t. For instance, is Dracula science fiction?

The way that most people that I know define speculative fiction would be: a wide range of fantasy, supernatural, horror, and science fiction.

Because they think those things might actually exist?

Well, speculative fiction is often just an umbrella term for a wide range of non-realistic fiction.

Okay, I would put a different label over the top of that and I would call it all “wondertale.” That includes everything. And then underneath that you could have various subsets, which is sword and sorcery fantasy, with dragons, without dragons; you could have science fiction proper, which would be with spaceships and other planets and really amazing inventions; you could have what I would call speculative fiction, which would be things we could actually do and probably have done to some extent.

Right, but if you’re asking how I would define science fiction, I would tend to think of it as wondertales, as you put it, that presuppose the scientific worldview. So it’s not so much, “is this possible or impossible,” but “if it were to be explained, would the explanation be scientific?”

Yeah, but a lot of stuff that people would call science fiction, the worldview is not scientific at all. It has a sort of palaver of scientism applied on to it. But it isn’t really scientific, quite often there’s a lot of magical thinking in it.

Like Star Wars for example?

Star Wars, exactly.

That’s why I wouldn’t actually classify Star Wars as science fiction in particular.

You’d call it science fiction fantasy.

Yeah, science fantasy.

Or galactic fantasy of some kind. And where would we put Star Trek? We would probably put Star Trek somewhere in the middle.

I think Star Trek does have it where everything is, presumably, explained by science. It’s just a lot of the science is not particularly rigorous.

It’s just science we haven’t done yet.

But, I mean, I guess, you said that people are sometimes hostile to you when you don’t want to use the term science fiction for some of your books.

There’s truth in labeling again.

What have been some of the most intense reactions that you’ve experienced?

I don’t know. I think, probably, you might ask—Jonathan Lethem actually wrote quite a good piece about this a while ago, about hanging out with these science fiction cultists. His worldview is probably a bit out of date now because it was presupposed on, “literary people scorn us, they won’t let us into their clubhouse, or we’re not going to let them into ours.” But when you have The New Yorker doing a science fiction issue, I would say that that particular door is no longer closed. And it should never have been closed in the first place because you cannot write a history of prose narrative in the twentieth century without including H.G. Wells, without Brave New World, without 1984. Those are key books of the century, I would say.

Anyway, so there was this sort of skirmish going on in the book world about who was allowed to be in what group. People lay claim to literary territories a lot, and then they try to fence them off, but it never works.

When we interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin last year, she mentioned that she’s had a long-running debate with you about the term science fiction.

Yeah, it’s about terminology, but she wouldn’t deny that there are those two kinds of fiction. I think it’s just a question of what to call them. And we did, in fact, do an onstage conversation when I published In Other Worlds, and in the preface to that book you can find that matter discussed. She was a naughty Ursula. (Laughter).

Speaking of Ursula K. Le Guin, you discuss her work quite a bit in In Other Worlds. You also mention other recent science fiction authors like Octavia Butler, Stanislaw Lem, and William Gibson. Is it fair to say that those are some of your favorite science fiction authors?

I guess you would have to say that, wouldn’t you? Does that mean there are others that I also like that I haven’t mentioned, I’m not sure, I’d have to go back and look at the index.

I heard it suggested that Octavia Butler is, and that Lilith’s Brood, was an influence on the Oryx and Crake trilogy.

No, because I didn’t read it until after I’d written Oryx and Crake. It was through writing Oryx and Crake that people came to suggest it.

You also say in the book that when you were working on the dissertation, you covered all sorts of authors who might be considered somewhere on the fantasy and science fiction spectrum.

All sorts, yeah. Nobody else was doing any academic work on that kind of thing then.

You called them metaphysical romances, the books you were focused on?

I made that up. (Laughter).

I like it, though.

Yeah, I think it’s pretty good. It was that string that led from George MacDonald through H. Rider Haggard into C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. I was mostly interested in the supernatural women figures who had pre-comic book super powers of various kinds. And that was very distinct from the other thing that was forming in the nineteenth century, which was that Jules Verne, who I would call the great-granddaddy of speculative fiction, wrote about stuff that he thought could actually happen, such as submarines. And when H.G. Wells came along, he created stuff everybody knew couldn’t happen, such as The Time Machine. Jules Verne was horrified. He said, “Mais, il invente!” (“But he’s inventing things!”). Which, we now take it for granted that people invent things. But it was perfectly new then, and the term science fiction was not used for it. It didn’t come into use until the late ’20s.

It seems like that distinction is problematic in a way because it presupposes that we can know what’s possible and what isn’t. I know a lot of very smart people who are absolutely convinced that we’ll be uploading our minds to computers within the next century, and an equally number of equally smart people who think that’s completely ridiculous.

Yeah, well, the fact that you can argue it means that it’s within the realm of speculative fiction.

But I would’ve said that teleportation was completely ridiculous as well, but there have been recent experiments with quantum teleportation, which shows that it’s maybe not as ridiculous as you would’ve thought.

Maybe not in theory, but we’re not in the land of the fly yet.

No.

(High-pitched, squeaky voice) Help me, help me!

We’re not there yet.

You’re not troubled by that at all, that it’s hard to say what might actually be possible and what might not be?

No, I’m not troubled by that at all. And I know it’s hard to say. I wrote a piece in that book, In Other Worlds, about Jonathan Swift in which I look at Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels, a book that most people skip because it doesn’t really interest them, but it’s the one in which he’s making fun of the royal academy essentially, in the early age of scientific experiments. And a lot of the stuff he was making fun of, in a kind of backhanded way, is now actually coming into being. So yes, I know that can happen, that one age’s common sense is another one’s discarded superstition. We surely all know that by now. The one thing about science and the way it proceeds is that it’s constantly self-correcting.

Another thing you say in In Other Worlds is that, at various times, the real world has seemed to drift dangerously close to Brave New World, or 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale. And so, in our current situation, which dystopia or dystopias do you fear most?

I think we’re going to get them all at once. (Laughter). Yeah, actually, I’m about to review a book that takes on another version of Brave New World. Our version, the version that we actually find ourselves enmeshed in, even as we speak, and that would be the ability to track, and as it were, publish everyone all the time.

You’re reviewing a book about this?

I’m reviewing a book that’s taking that on and it’s by Dave Eggers. It’s called The Circle and it’s coming out in October.

But that is what’s concerning us right now because of the revelations about data mining that has been done by, for instance, the U.S. government, and they’re not alone. So tracking people through the Internet is basically what it is.

David Brin wrote a book called The Transparent Society where he argued that that would be a good thing and that we should just forget about privacy.

Sure, I know him, and then some of the people in Dave Eggers book are arguing exactly that. So that harks back to a lot of earlier work. I don’t know whether you remember a play by Ionesco called Rhinoceros. The idea that if everybody could see everybody all of the time, nobody would ever do anything bad. But would that be such a good thing? Because what you’re actually proposing is a kind of very paranoia-inducing crowd mentality, which is really pretty close to Newspeak in 1984. In other words, “We’ll make it impossible for you to think certain thoughts because we will just remove the possibility from you.”

Another recent project you’ve been working on is The Positron.

Yes. Positron on Byliner. So another example of how new technologies enable old forms. Dickens published in serial form in the nineteenth century, and so did a lot of writers then, in mid-century, and serials migrated to newspapers and magazines, and then short fiction magazines shrank and faded in the ’70s and ’80s, leaving The New Yorker standing like a lone mountain peak. So what the Internet has enabled is the return of short fiction online, read-it-in-one-go investigative journalism, and serial publishing. So there’s that one but then there’s also Wattpad, where a lot of people are writing and publishing in serial form, using their phones.

I noticed in the book description for Positron, Episode 4, you were described as the “Diva of Dystopias.” I was wondering what you thought about that.

That wasn’t my description. But it’s fun.

All right, are there any other projects, what are you up to right now? Is there anything you want to mention?

Well, there’s a couple of associated things. Some kids came and said, “How about doing MaddAddam as a video game?” And I said, “I think it would be too huge for that. But there is a video game inside MaddAddam itself, actually there are three of them in the chapter called ‘Intestinal Parasites: The Game.’ So why don’t you make those?” And so they have done it. They’ve made Intestinal Parasites: The Game, and you can download it as an app, and so far I think they’re going to do a number of different organs, and so far they’ve gone as far as the lungs.

Have you played it? Are you a gamer at all?

I’ve played it; I’m going to have to practice because I can’t get past level three. And every time you fail at a level a sign comes up saying: “You have died.” It’s quite blunt.

So if that does well, will we see Extinctathon?

They wanted to make Extinctathon and I told them it would be way too boring as an actual game. You could make a game called Extinctathon that would be quite a lot more exciting than the one that’s described in the book. But Intestinal Parasites, I think, is going to keep everyone occupied for the foreseeable future.

All right, great, I think we’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Margaret Atwood; her new book is called MaddAddam. Thanks for joining us!

Thank you.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.