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.
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.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.