Margaret Atwood on Sci-Fi, Religion, and Her Love of 'Blade Runner'

In your discussion of utopias, you suggest that "the future societies imagined by mid- and late-twentieth-century writers, and indeed by early twenty-first century ones, are more likely to be dark than bright." If that's the case, is utopian fiction really meant to reconcile us to the current state of affairs? To suggest that we should settle for reform rather than revolution because revolution's always likely to end in disaster?

Yeah. I think there might be something to that, but remember, it's based on real-world experience where radical things were tried, and the results were not at first what we expected.

But isn't there the risk that we might not take action until it's too late to prevent catastrophe?

There's always that risk? Yes, I think there might be something to that, but of course, taking a very radical approach could be radically if not more risky. Pol Pot in Cambodia intended to make the world better by killing many of his subjects. You can propose a great many desirable and wonderful things. But people won't necessarily act that way. I don't think the relationship between novels and realities are one to one. Of course novels play different roles. It's essentially just a long narrative form. What you use that long narrative form for can be very different.

I tell people that I feel that Oryx and Crake is quite hopeful because people are still alive at the end of it compared with what we might end up doing. Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you're assuming that someone will be around to do it. It's why Jimmy doesn't write at the end of Oryx and Crake, because he can't assume a reader.

I love your point about the idea that theological questions and theological figures have taken up residence in science fiction because "they're acceptable to us there, whereas they wouldn't be here." What do you think that displacement suggests about our attitudes towards religion?

I think it suggests something about the possibility or impossibility of constructing a 3D religious world in art after Milton. You'll notice that the next person who came along and did something similar after Milton was William Blake, and his prophecies are not couched in the form of angels or devils, he made up new things and some of them are quite scientific.

I think that the religious strand is probably part of human hard-wiring...by religious strand, I don't mean any particular religion, I mean the part of human beings that feels that the seen world is not the only world, that the world you see is not the only world that there is and that it can become awestruck. If that is the case, religion was selected for in the Pleistocene by many, many millennia of human evolution. That would make sense. If you think there's an unseen somebody or other helping you out, you're more likely to feel encouraged. Suppose that the religious thing is kind of a given and you can't act it out using your old figures and images, because time has moved on and people no longer quite believe, and if you announce that you have seen a bunch of angels sitting in a tree, you're likely to be locked up in a bin, so instead you put them on planet X, where they're like to feel quite at home.

I think it says something about the disjunct between people who say they interpret the Bible literally, which nobody does, and people who take a historical view of the Bible...that has made it more difficult to posit a world that is imaginatively complete and identical with the earlier medieval cathedral view of the universe. The imagination likes to deal with imaginatively complete worlds. It's made it harder to do that than the old arrangement from creative to revelation, that you used to be able to see marching around the ceiling of cathedrals...It was a 3D house of the universe.

In In Other Worlds, you mention Avatar. What other recent science fiction have you enjoyed? Have your tastes in science fiction changed at all over the years, particularly as you've written it?

I'm a big fan of Blade Runner. Mister [Ray] Bradbury, indeed, is an early read of mine, and very important...I'm a big fan of this book called Ridley Walker, Russell Hoban.

I'm not sure that I have any taste. I'm a ubiquitous reader. I am the person who will read the airline magazine on the plane if there is nothing else to read. I'm interested in it all.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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