An interview with the award-winning author about her new book, In Other Worlds
Margaret Atwood has written everything from historical fiction to volumes of poetry to dystopian novels. But the science fictional impulse that informed the The Handmaid's Tale, her 1985 classic of speculative fiction, has recurred in her novels of environmental catastrophe Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and as a theme in her sweeping survey of the 20th century, The Blind Assassin. In her latest book, a non-fiction exploration of science fiction and collection of Atwood's science fiction criticism, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Atwood plumbs the depths of her life-long relationship with the genre, and considers how science fiction can lead us to a better future. Atwood spoke to The Atlantic about the importance of defining science fiction, the risks of trying to build an ideal society, and the relationship between science fiction and religion.
Nan A. Talese
You begin In Other Worlds with a discussion of the definition of science fiction. Why is it important to demarcate the boundaries between, say, science fiction and fantasy, or science fiction and speculative fiction?
When I pick up the cornflakes box, I want there to be cornflakes inside of it. I think that [George Orwell's] 1984 is different than the [H.G. Wells'] War of the Worlds...It's a matter of whether you're building with your Lego set, do you get to use just the Legos, or can you use rutabagas? The tool kit is different. Kafka is experimental work. But I don't know whether you'd call it science fiction. Gogol has a story in which a man wakes up one morning and finds out that his nose is gone, and it's living an independent life as a government bureaucrat. What would you call that? Science fiction, to me, has not only things that wouldn't happen, but other planets. What is that sparkly vampire one? The Twilight series. Is it science fiction? Is Star Trek science fiction? Of course it is. It's got spaceships, it's got spacesuits. They're both wonder tales in that none of this is likely to happen.
1984 is not a wonder tale. Not only could it happen, but it has happened, but under different names. If I pick up a book with vampires on the cover, I want there to be vampires. If I pick up a book with spaceships on the cover, I want spaceships. If I see one with dragons, I want there to be dragons inside the book. Proper labeling. Ethical labeling. I don't want to open up my cornflakes and find that they're full of pebbles....You need to respect the reader enough not to call it something it isn't.
You ask, at one point, "How much social instability would it take before people would renounce their hard-won civil liberties in a tradeoff for safety?" and discuss how the repression in The Handmaid's Tale has seemed more and less likely since you wrote it. Where do you think we are on that scale now? What do you think it might take to push the U.S. as it stands towards a radical reorganization of the social order?
It has come to pass before, except with different names and different outfits. I don't know whether you've been noticing, some of the presidential candidates would be quite happy with a theocracy. All you need is 30 percent to put it over...Why do the talk if you don't intend the action? ... I tend to feel if people say they're going to do something, they will, if given the chance...A tipping point in American society might look like a social disruption, plus environmental catastrophe, plus too much wealth at the top, plus an eroding middle class. If social stability goes pear-shaped, you have a choice between anarchy and dictatorship. Most people will opt for more security, even if they have to give up some personal freedom.
In your discussion of Brave New World, you talk about all the questions that science fiction lets us play with. In a world where politics often get broken down issue by issue, is science fiction one of the only places we can imagine holistic solutions?
Yes, I think so. That's certainly true, because you're creating a 3D world, and of course, any world that you create, you're going to have to account for the same kinds of thing. I don't think a television soundbyte can accommodate that. I think maybe in the days of FDR's fireside chats, you could take a more multi-dimensional approach. In something like the State of the Union address you can deal with it because it's a longer form.