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Margaret Atwood: The optimistic dystopian

November 9, 2009

atwodFor a writer who wipes out the human race in both her most recent novels, Margaret Atwood is a remarkably jolly in person. Last night at Miami Book Fair International, she all but bubbled with sly wit and good cheer.

Atwood said people ask why she would write–and why they should read, a novel like The Year of the Flood, in which almost everyone in the world is killed by a bio-engineered plague.

“First, there are jokes in it,” Atwood said. “Second, it’s only a book. You can close the covers and keep the future in the book. Don’t let it out.”

As Atwood told Connie Ogle in an excellent profile in yesterday’s Miami Herald, `You don’t write books if you’re totally pessimistic. If you’re totally pessimistic, you don’t believe in the possibilities of human communication.”

A tiny woman one week shy of her 70th birthday, Atwood commanded the stage with a rare combination of humor and grativas. She talked about her “green” book tour in support of The Year of the Flood, her experience as a newly minted blogger and Twitter user, why her books aren’t science fiction and her work for bird conservation and the importance of drinking only organic, shade-grown coffee.

Atwood read selections from The Year of the Flood, one each for the two female point-of-view characters, among the very few suvivors of the pandemic. To everyone’s delight, she also sang one of the 14 hymns included in the book, written by Atwood (an accomplished poet), for the God’s Gardeners, a neo-religious group trying to find a way to survive in a ravaged world. Atwood’s singing voice, let the record show, won’t cause Celine Dion any sleepless nights, but is nonetheless delicate and charming.

During the question-and-answer period, Atwood was asked her feelings on the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel published in the U.K., which she won for her first futuristic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian feminist novel published in 1987. This enabled her to address a minor literary controversy over why she insists her novels set in the future are not sci-fi.

“I was very pleased to receive the Arthur C. Clarke Award,” Atwood said. “Some people erroneously believe I do not approve of science fiction.”

On the contrary, Atwood said, she remembers the Golden Age of sci fi, which was the ’30s and ’40s. She read 1984 when it first came out in 1949. She read Curt Siodmak’s cautionary Donovan’s Brain when she was 12. “I’ve seen all the Lord of the Rings movies, and I can tell you the exact moment when you can see an orc wearing a wrist watch.”

Declaring a deep appreciation for Ursula K. Le Guinn, among other sci-fi authors, Atwood said it’s a matter of false advertising. To her mind, a science fiction novel, “if not set in a galaxy far, far away, should at least have alien beings visiting earth in tin cans.”

In other words, her futuristic novels, which Atwood calls “speculative fiction” do not have the elements she thinks true sci-fi requires. Instead, they are near-future projections of the use or misuse of technological or social trends already in existence.

I’ve long been amused and bemused by Atwood’s arguments. Her very narrow definition of science fiction would exclude such bona fide sci-fi writers as Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert J. Sawyer, Philip K. Dick, and even Golden Age grandmasters like Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics, devised in novels and short stories he wrote in the 1950s, are being taken very seriously by robot designers today.

I concluded, without thinking less of Atwood’s books, that she was indulging in literary snobbery: She’s a serious literary writer– a Man Booker Prize winner for heaven’s sake! –and therefore could not be capable of writing something so down market as science fiction.

After recently reading two troubling essays on genetic engineering –the theme of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood — I’ve come to rethink the matter. One from The New Yorker and one from The New York Review of Books, both essays mostly extol the new paradise the world is shortly to become, thanks to scientists now able to wrest control of evolution from natural selection.

If you think that’s a world you’d like, then don’t bother reading Atwood. But if the prospect of forests of trees with black leaves (to more efficiently capture solar energy) or scientists “improving” on the design of the human body does not appeal to you, then Atwood is a writer you’ll want to read.

None of the horrors in her two latest novels, Atwood has said again and again, is beyond the technology scientists already have today. While I still don’t agree with her distinction between sci-fi and speculative fiction, I get the point now.

I’m not as optimistic as Atwood about whether that future, rushing toward us at a pace similar to the digital revolution of the past 30 years, can be kept within the covers of book. But, like most of the thousand or so book lovers present last night, I raised my hand and took a pledge to drink only shade-grown organic coffee.

Maybe we can start by saving Atwood’s beloved songbirds.

Miami Book Fair International’s prestige Evening with series continues today, with food writer and memoirist Ruth Reichl at 6 p.m. and beloved novelist Barbara Kingsolver at 7:30. Reichl’s appearance is free, with first-come seating, while a $10 admission is charged for Kingsolver.

All book fair events are at the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College in downtown Miami, 300 NE 2nd Ave.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    November 9, 2009 4:39 pm

    Yes, I agree that Atwood distinctions between science fiction and speculative fiction seem a bit pretentious and almost silly, I also get the point. I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” in college and loved it. And in the back of the edition I have Atwood talked about how everything in the book either has happened at some point in time or is very capable of happening and that is why it isn’t science fiction. So while I love science fiction and do take it’s ideas and parallels seriously, I also understand what she is trying to do. It forces people to look at the things happening in her work not as “science fiction” which most people consider as complete fantasy, things that can never happen, or even if they might happen that they would happen in a very, very distant future, but as a realistic possibility with the way things are going and the things we are doing to the planet. With “The Handmaid’s Tale” Atwood not only completely won me over, but she also really scared me. I have not read her more recent work, but have it on my list. I wish I could have been there last night.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 9, 2009 4:51 pm

    In the 1980s, I covered several scholarly conventions, then held in Fort Lauderdale, on fantasy and sci fi, an experience that sensitized me to the different categories of fantastic literature. What Atwood calls “sci fi” strikes me as more like “science fantasy,” stories with a veneer of science but which really have no connection to possible realities. Like all literary categories, it’s fungible, with lots of overlap with other categories (Venn diagrams, anyone?), and can include everything from E.E. “Doc” Smith’s space operas to Ray Bradbury’s elegant Mars fantasies. It also includes, the way, Star Wars. (I can’t pass up the opportunity to say that Star Wars is the most wretched example of sci fi ever committed to print or film). Atwood’s system, though useful to her in describing her own work, causes more problems than it solves. Take H.G. Wells, for example: War of the Worlds would be sci fi, right Margaret? But what of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which sounds many of the themes and warnings found in The Year of the Flood?

  3. Colleen Lockwood permalink
    November 9, 2009 4:56 pm

    Hi Chauncey, thank you for the earlier writeup on this author. I went and purchased both her most recent book and the earlier one, Oryx and Crake. L-o-v-e-d them. She is a wonderful writer. As an avid fan of the potential of human genetics (for the better), I find her work stimulating and thought-provoking. Thank you for introducing me to her and a renewed interest in “speculative fiction”.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 9, 2009 5:04 pm

    I am horrified by the “promise” of genetic engineering, but then I’m not exactly an optimist. Dynamite was supposed to improve human life. Television was supposed to be a great educational tool. The Internet was supposed to be an information highway. What we got instead was bigger, better wars; mindless entertainment; fractured attention spans and the destruction of journalism.

    Anyone who thinks scientists know what the heck they’re doing should read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle….hmmm. I wonder if Margaret Atwood considers that science fiction or speculative fiction…?

    Thanks for the kind words, anyhow, Colleen.

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