Margaret Atwood on Vampires, Gene-Splicing, and Talking Turnips
A Walking Conversation with One of the World's Greatest Living Writers
“Oh, she’s a national treasure!” says the customs officer. Though he looks mildly skeptical: what might bring a journalist here all the way from Oslo? But Margaret Atwood’s name is like saying open sesame, at least at the arrival gates of the Toronto International Airport.
I’ve come to talk to Atwood about not one, but two books she’s recently finished: The Heart Goes Last, her first standalone novel since she started writing the Oryx and Crake trilogy back in 2001; and a book of which only the title, Scribbler Moon, is known. And while The Heart Goes Last was originally serialized online, with feedback from readers between each installment, her other manuscript is to be stored away in an archive, not to be read by a single person for a hundred years.
Scribbler Moon is Atwood’s contribution to the so-called Future Library—part art project, part tree planting mission, part publishing experiment—created by Scottish artist Katie Patterson for the public library of Oslo. It’s a grandiose project not only in numbers—a hundred authors are involved, including writers that haven’t even been born yet—but also in its time frame. Each year, for the next 99 years, a new literary work (the next one is by David Mitchell) will be added to a vault of manuscripts. Not until 2114 will the scripts be taken out and published on paper made from a forest planted especially for this purpose.
“It will be like a time machine,” Atwood says of the project she has been chosen to spearhead. It’s fitting: her work is so often about building fictional future worlds on vast amounts of knowledge, and explores the concepts of “future” and “library” like that of few others.
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Editors and critics around Toronto are quick to affirm Atwood’s brilliance, wit and substantial contribution to Canadian literature, confirming the custom officer’s view of Canada’s most prized cultural export, adding with faint murmurs that ”she can be a little intimidating.”
The first impression of the woman who greets me in an unassuming cafe of her own choosing, asking if she can buy the interviewer a cup of coffee, is quite the opposite. In the outdoorsy spirit of the Future Library, Atwood has agreed to do the interview on a walk. And she has taken the task seriously, sporting a waterproof jacket, a new backpack, and comfortable walking shoes, mildly but correctly pointing out how much better equipped for the approaching hail storm she is than the Scandinavian who should know better.
Atwood explains she enjoys the idea of writing for readers who are yet to be born—“but go easy on the jokes, they don’t age well”—and doesn’t worry about writing into a void: “A lot of people write things that will never be read, period. Think about all those young unpublished authors, for example. And publishing any book is always a little like throwing the manuscript in a bottle into the sea, because you never know who’s going to find it. The time period is just a little bit longer here. The Future Library is the literary equivalent to slow cooking. “
The scope of the idea was what first attracted her to the project: “It’s very hopeful. Because we’re assuming a hundred years from now there will be a human race, we’re assuming there will be a Norway, an Oslo, and a library. We’re assuming people will be able to read and that they will be interested in reading. All of that is extremely hopeful. But I did check, the trees are planted on the top of a hill, so if the flood comes it will be safe.”
She explains how the growth of the trees in a wood outside Oslo will be monitored, and how changes in the biotope will be accounted for over time.
How important is the environmental side of the Future Library to you?
“It ought to be important to everyone. And it is increasingly important to everyone. The question of climate change has moved from the back pages of scientific journals to the front sections of newspapers. Events like Hurricane Sandy and the drought in California, have made people in this part of the world realize this is really happening. Once it starts hitting you in the pocket book, when you’re told you can’t have this or that because the crops have all died, that’s when things start to move out of speculative fiction. It already has. At last.”
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Atwood is one of the few serious contenders for the Nobel Prize in literature who is also renowned as a science fiction writer, a genre to which works like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake can easily be assigned.
Indeed, Atwood has written so boldly and vividly about the promise and possibilities of science fiction, it begs the question as to why she has preferred to disassociate her own work from the genre—a decision frequently challenged by sci-fi pioneer Ursula le Guin. The two queens of future literary worlds, who have been on friendly terms since they met at a conference in the 1960s, have carried on a passionate debate about genre for decades.
“She’s a naughty one, that Ursula,” Atwood laughs. And while she maintains her work is better described as speculative fiction than science fiction, she is very clear about the impact science has had on her own writing.
In the afterword to Maddaddam, the final installment in your trilogy about a brave new biotechnologically altered world, you claim to base everything on science. Is it really true “it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory”?
“Absolutely. I’m not interested in writing about fantastical things, I’m writing about things that are really happening.”
That she would find her place at the intersection between cultural and natural history is only logical: “Remember, I grew up with the scientists, not with the writers. My father was a forest entomologist and I grew up in a forest, except in winter. So it’s not a big jump for me to understand the connection between trees, paper, writing, environment and texts. Things that live in trees, and things that are made from trees, it’s all connected.”
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Margaret Atwood seems happy to play host, showing me the area around the University of Toronto, the neighborhood where she lives. As we walk along the aptly named “Philosopher’s Walk”—a beautiful, geometrically designed path around campus—she reflects on how her own history and thinking is intertwined with this place. This is where her father worked. This is where, an undergraduate student, she was introduced to the mythological underpinnings of literature by Northrop Frye, the legendary critic. And this is where Frye’s colleague, rival and friend, Marshall MacLuhan, first developed his influential ideas on the global village and the role of storytelling in a media-saturated age.
“Marshall lived just down the road from me when I was in college. I have his first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. In it he analyses advertisements in quite a funny way.”
Atwood remembers how conflicts surrounding the publication led MacLuhan to take the remainder of books to sell himself: “The only way you could get it was to buy it out of his cellar. So I got one, and I still have it, it’s quite wonderful. Being a child of the forest we didn’t have television, we had comic books. And when you were ill you would get magazines, and you would cut out things and put them in a scrap book. The most fun thing to cut out was ads, of course. Growing up in the woods we didn’t have any of those things, so all of that was pretty much a fantasy world, seeing a woman with her Electrolux vacuum cleaner.”
She even considered a career as a scientist: “My brother became one and I could have gone that way as well. Our marks were identical, in English and science, so there was a sameness in skills, but a difference in interest.”
Instead she found a way to use science in literature.
“And my background is probably part of why I’m capable of doing it. I think a lot of people who write novels and have only been trained in the humanities, don’t [include much science in their writing] because they never immersed themselves in it. They fear math and everything else: they don’t want to know what the ants are up to behind their backs. Whereas I do want to know.”
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Atwood laughs a lot, likes to makes jokes and frequently puts questions back on the interviewer: “What do you think?”
In keeping with her passion for science she‘s rarely content to just voice an opinion, but prefers backing up her answers with references to books on the subject, mixing anecdotes with scholarly asides on topics ranging from petroleum history to the cultural influences on the costume conventions in science fiction. I leave with a reading list, containing works on ecology, climate change, anthropology and the history of consumption, compiled by Margaret Atwood (see below for details).
Some of the things you write about, like the headless chicken—sold under the motto, “No brain, no pain”—are on the verge of happening?
“Yes. People really are working on the headless chicken, and they are also working on lab meat. Both of those things were very theoretical when I started writing, but now people have made advances. I don’t think they quite have the headless chicken yet, but scientists are working on making meat in a way that may seem to us a cross between an animal and a vegetable. Now, some may think: Isn’t that horrible? But there is an upside to it. With lab beef for example the upside is a lot less methane, and a lot less water use. And people have to start thinking about those things.”
You’ve coined the term “ustopia” to imply you can’t really separate utopias from dystopias?
“Yes, and this really applies to everything we do. Our mistake usually is to leave out one or the other. But how useful or dangerous an invention is must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. There’s no saying biotechnology is only a positive or only a negative. Better crops yes, but a very smart rat? I don’t think so, we don’t need them, even though we’ve already created a smarter mouse, that we also don’t need. That is the kind of bioengineering that goes on in my books. For example an asphalt eating microbe, that makes the roads dissolve, and you don’t even have to be there. You just set it loose, like Crake does.
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In 2015 the precision with which we can alter our genetic make-up has taken a crucial step from theoretical possibility to hands-on technology. In biotech terms the biggest news of the year is the so-called CRISPR/Cas9. While former methods for splicing DNA have been imprecise and unpredictable, this new tool allows a precise part of the DNA sequence to be taken out and replaced. It means editing the features of a human being—traditionally the biggest bogeyman of any biotech dystopia—has just been made that much easier.
Atwood is well aware of CRISPR/Cas9 and its implications.
“It’s going to make it a lot easier to just cut out and insert genes. It’s a little cutting machine as it were. Very smart and interesting.”
And she has no doubt the techniques that allow editing babies will be put to use:
“I remember there was this art project made a few years ago in which the artists put online a pretend business that would allow people to design their own baby. The people who made it thought it was an art project but people thought it was real and they were drowned in requests. And not just ‘get rid of my child’s horrible hereditary disease’ but ‘I want a taller one, I want a blonde one,’ the whole package.”
This cutting machine technique seems very similar to what your fictional scientist Crake is doing in Oryx and Crake?
“There’s no question about that. It was only a matter of time.”
Did you base Crake on that kind of research?
“His personality or what he’s doing? For what he’s doing, definitely that kind of research. When it comes to his personality, it’s very logical. Everything he says is true. But we don’t want to follow it to its logical conclusion. We prefer not to.”
What truths are you thinking about?
“What does Crake say that’s true? You tell me, ask me anything?”
Are you thinking about how he modifies the human system of reproduction to avoid conflicts arising from sexual competition?
“Oh, that’s pretty far down the line. His initial line of thinking is, the human race can’t continue to reproduce the way it’s reproducing without a lemming-like crash as a result. And that just happens to be true. The planet is finite. You can grow things more effectively, but you are ultimately still going to end up with the same problem. Exponential growth cannot continue indefinitely.”
Yet many bioengineering techniques are designed to make life longer, at least for the lucky few?
“I wrote a review in New York Review of Books of a book called Enough by Bill McKibben. Among other things it describes the so-called castle scenario, in which all those who have this enhanced life are going to have to lock themselves up, because everyone else will be so pissed with them, they’ll want to kill them. Of course, the longer they live, the longer it will be before their relatives will be able to inherit their wealth. I expect you saw that wonderful film called Let the right one in? Ok, well vampires are always quite rich, because they always keep accumulating, they never have to pass it on. Zombies are at the opposite end, they don’t own anything.”
So the lucky few will be human vampires?
“That’s why people will want to kill them! They never die. They only accumulate more and more. We always think long life would be a wonderful thing for ourselves, but not necessarily if everyone else has it.”
The day after our conversation Nature reports Chinese scientists have used CRISPR to change the DNA sequence of a human embryo.
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Atwood studied the history of war and frequently uses analogies taken from warfare—Ghengis Khan’s bow technology, the invention of the cannon—to illustrate a point.
Isn’t the danger of these kinds of discoveries that the new options tend to give rise to new desires?
“There is always a problem. Whoever invented the stirrup for horse riding, created a new problem. They got an advantage and could go about conquering everything—until other people got the stirrups. These things are typically seen as great if only you have them, like the atom bomb.”
Do you foresee an arms race in bio tech?
“If you think people aren’t already working on that you’re quite wrong. The only reason nobody has unleashed a killer virus is because there is no way they could prevent their own people from getting it. The history of gas warfare is instructive. Gas used to be very effective then both sides had it and then they it invented the gas mask. The effect was lost.”
Two Nobel Laureates, David Baltimore and Paul Berg, recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal, called “Let’s Hit ‘Pause’ Before Altering Humankind.” Do you think it’s time “hit the pause button” on bio tech?
“Well, no matter what you do, you cannot decide this once and for all, because once you have the tool, and the tool is known, people will play with the tool. So you may think that all right minded and good people have decided not to do x. But even if you decide we are not going to genetically design our babies, some other country might. So then the thinking is, if they’re going to do it and make a lot of money out of it, why don’t we do that and make a lot of money out of it. And that’s how it gallops along.”
Still, Atwood refuses to be an alarmist, and prefers seeing the latest development in the light of human history: “But it is still always true, because we haven’t altered human nature, at least not so far—that we make anything that is a reflection of our desires or our fears. We never make anything else—except a cute little thing that goes on in Japan where they have a prize for a perfectly useless invention.”
So even though Crake almost wipes out humanity, you don’t see it as a cautionary tale?
“Oh, I do. I’m not saying it will happen. But if you ask me: could it happen? Yes it could, and people are already making some of it happen.”
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In comparing Atwood to others authors, Pulitzer prize-winning naturalists like Stephen Jay Gould or Edward O. Wilson come to mind as readily as any fiction writer. Atwood frequently refers to Wilson, and his book The Future of Life, in which the distinguished professor of sociobiology sets out guidelines for specific routes of action to conquer the feeling that “nothing can be done” about climate change.
Like Edward Wilson you seem adamant about countering determinism and making people aware they have a choice…
“Well, we have a collective choice to make now: Are we going to manage the planet in a positive way, beginning now? Or are we going to continue along the road we are on, which leads over the edge of a cliff.”
And she does see changes for the better: “I see a lot of positive signs. Some of them are on the city level. Some on the level of provinces and states. Some of them are on a national level. Some are on the level of individual choice. We are no longer in a position in which most people are unaware of the problem. But we are still in a position where some people are denying the problem. The governor of Florida for example recently said people in public office are not to use the word climate change or global warming. They would call it “nuisance flooding.” This kind of thinking is like saying I don’t believe in the law of gravity. You can claim to, but it won’t change the facts on the ground, or help you when you walk off a cliff.”
Atwood has followed the concerns raised by scientists regarding climate change since at least the early 70s.
“But people have hard time believing it if it’s not right there. It’s like that old folk tale about death coming to pick up a man and the man complains ‘Why you didn’t give me a warning?’ To which death replies: ‘But I gave you all kinds of warnings: hair falling out, eyesight problems, hearing problems, rheumatism, what were those, if not my warnings?’”
Still she thinks we have the tools necessary to deal with the crisis if we want to: “Our inventiveness could be applied to building a building or destroying a building. It’s up to us. It’s all a form of inventiveness.”
You are very inventive yourself, inventing new objects, animals, brands, foods, in your books.
“Because I have a warped mind! But it is not an unusual warped mind. So I just assume if I’m thinking about it, others probably are too. And I find that very often to be the case. When I started the Oryx and Crake trilogy the response was a bit: ‘What’s that all about?’ But now there are lots of what are called ‘cli-fi books.’ But in 2003 that was not the case.
Do you think your books are read differently now?
“Of course. The Handmaid’s Tale is read differently because of the actions of the right wing in the US. When it was published people said it was far-fetched, that something like that could never happen. They were wrong. I didn’t put anything into it that people hadn’t already done, at some time. And now look at the last election, where Republican senators said things like a woman can’t get pregnant if she is raped, because her body will reject it. That sounds like something straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale.”
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“Open markets, closed minds” Atwood writes in an essay in her collection In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination. The essay explores the possibilities of reading the political landscape in terms of two scenarios: the tightly controlled totalitarian state of Orwell’s 1984 or the hedonistic consumer society of Huxley’s Brave New World.
“Until 1989 when the wall came down, it looked like a race between 1984 and Brave New World: Were we going to get totalitarianism or were we going get lots of fun and shopping? Then 1989 happened and for about ten years it looked like Brave New World had won. People were writing books like The End of History. What a delusion that was! But the balance of power shifted and things opened up as they do under those circumstances, and other powers moved in. So now we get both at once. We may get that kind of “Big Brother watching us” outcome—in fact we now know that has been happening on the internet for some years. But at the same time there’s still a lot of encouragement to consume, because that what’s makes things go round in the age of oil.”
Is the kind of speculative fiction you write always implicitly political?
“If you mean is it about what party to vote for: no. If you mean is it about human society and how power is arranged, and the result of choices that are made: yes.”
Isn’t inventing “other worlds” a way of pointing out alternatives to the given state of things?
“Yes, it can work like that, pointing out: This is where you are, and that’s where you’re headed, do you really want to go there? Probably not, if you have any sense. So instead you might want to go there.”
Do you think your books point out these kinds of directions?
“Not very well! More along the lines of don’t do that. There’s has to be a do this as well, but that will be up to you younger, smart people to figure out.”
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Atwood’s new book The Heart Goes Last, is set in a prison, where the guards and the prisoners take turns being imprisoned. In the novel a young couple trying to survive sign up for something called the Positron Project—a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own. All they have to do in return is give up their freedom every second month, swapping their home for a prison cell.
It sounds a bit Big Brother-like?
“It’s really based on a very simple idea, that the prison system in this country is run for profit. If it’s a for profit system, you need to make sure it is fully occupied at all times. And if there’s a situation where there’s a shortage of jobs, why not have people take turn being prisoners and prison guards? But with that you don’t get rid of the real criminals, because they’re too criminal, too difficult to have in prison. So it’s just people like you and me there. The novel describes a scenario where one month you spend in the prison, being a prisoner, and the next month you’re out working in the town that supports the prison.”
Again, you extrapolate from realities…
“There are a number of places, in the United States in particular, where really the only industry is the prison. So when you have that situation, it’s counterproductive to reduce criminality, you need to keep filling the prisons up.”
From the title, The Heart Goes Last, it sounds quite sinister?
“Yes, but it’s also quite funny I’d have to say. I always get advice on topics I write about and this time I needed it on things like the swearing habits amongst young people. I had to have my swearing notebook updated. Everybody just swears all the time, it’s just amazing how much swearing there is.
Your invented worlds are full of brand names, slogans?
“Well, it’s driven by what really exists. You think you’ve made one up, but then you have to go online to see if that thing really exists. You’d be surprised how many do. ‘Nighty-nite,’ for example, the assisted suicide livestream website I invented where you can plan your own death—that was the name of a sleepwear company so I had to change the spelling.”
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Atwood has copyrighted quite a few brand names and patents herself, with The Long Pen—a digital pen that allows you to sign books long distance—as her most famous invention.
“Oh, I have many patents! You would be amazed how many patents we have. I’ve lost count.”
The “we” turns out to be the two companies Atwood has founded. And it was one of her patents that led her to the world of robots featured in The Heart Goes Last, where domestic sex robots have moved into regular homes.
“My research led me to learn quite a bit about the sex robots that are under development in Holland and Japan and other places. How prevalent they will become we don’t know. They’ll be used as a novelty I would expect.”
From the theocracy of A Handmaid’s Tale to the Pygmalion story of robotic women, Atwood has always been inspired by classical myths.
These mythologies seem very often to have gender at their core?
“You know, it seems kind of baked into the human race, one way or the other, doesn’t it? I have a minor character that I haven’t really developed yet, it’s a political commentator and it’s a turnip! I doesn’t have gender issues, because it reproduces out of the top of its head, so it doesn’t think in terms of male and female turnips, because there aren’t any male and female turnips. But if you have male and female anything you’re going to get thinking about gender. Everybody thinks about it quite a lot in fact, not just me. But if I failed to think about, now that would be something to comment on!”
Margaret Atwood’s reading list:
Edward O. Wilson: The Future of Life
Barry Lord: Art and Energy
Ian Morris: Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels. How Human Values Evolve
Bill McKibben: Enough. Staying Human in an Engineered Age
This interview was first published in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet.