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Margaret Atwood (Photo by Andrew MacNaughton)
Realizing author Margaret Atwood's speculative fiction is a scary thing indeed

"You know what? I write novels rather than sociological tracts," said an exasperated Margaret Atwood after the third question about the social implications of her latest novel, Oryx and Crake.

Nonetheless, Atwood's most famous novel to date (her 2000 Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin notwithstanding), The Handmaid's Tale, has been taught in political philosophy classes around the country as just that, a sociological exercise in dark human trends. The Library Journal called Oryx and Crake, which takes place in a disastrous future where a lone human survivor wanders a genetically modified wasteland, "Atwood's impassioned plea for responsible management of our human, scientific, and natural resources." Federal judge Richard Posner has compared her to H.G. Wells and George Orwell.

Atwood has written dozens of novels (as well as poems and essays), most of them not set in a putative future. An anthology of her stories was dramatized on W Network last winter, and her 1998 novel Alias Grace is being produced as a major motion picture starring Cate Blanchett. The list of prizes is long, and Oryx and Crake is among the top choices for the 2003 Man Booker prize (the winner will be announced October 14). Yet Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake attract special attention because they strike a nerve. Here is a highly respected woman of letters, a popular literary author, writing in a style generally considered pulp. So like Wells and Orwell before her (and now William Gibson to some extent), Atwood is regarded as slightly dangerous. Are these stories predictions, and if so, is she qualified to make them?

Timeless human themes interest Atwood, who likes to use speculative fiction (a term she prefers over "science fiction") as a way for characters to experience the possibilities on behalf of the reader - to do "the kinds of things that used to get done in Paradise Lost or in, say, Pilgrim's Progress." The tension in her version of this genre comes from the classic conflict between radically changed external circumstances and immutable human nature. Her distrust in the possibilities of genetic modification is fueled not so much by the science itself, but by her modest estimation of the human imagination.

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"By which I mean there's only certain things we want to do, but we have wanted to do the same kinds of things as far back as we know," Atwood explains. The difference, she says, between past and present is that, "some people now think that they might be able to come closer to those dreams, or approximate them."

Although Atwood is inclined to jest about serious issues with a dry and deprecating Canadian wit, a real sense of urgency pervades her writing about environmental and scientific issues. In a review last June of Bill McKibben's Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, Atwood concluded "that the argument for the perfectability of mankind rests on a logical fallacy. Thus: Man is by definition imperfect, say those who would perfect him. But those who would perfect him are themselves, by their own definition, imperfect. And imperfect beings cannot make perfect decisions." The wry asides about multiple mouths and a defecation-free future don't hide an underlying fear that we will in fact make the biggest mistakes. There is good reason, she says, why literary immortals have traditionally been vampires.

Published in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale grabbed academic and popular attention because its dystopia was founded on perceptible trends: the ongoing conversion from cash to electronic currency, declining fertility rates among affluent women in first-world countries, and a new rise in fundamentalist religions in the United States. For good measure, she imagined entire regions of the country that had been reduced to Superfund sites where rebels and criminals were sent to labor unto death. What remained unchanged was an economy and social structure oriented toward consumerism and male desires: Prostitution and bordellos flourished; the sterile marriage based on mutual social gain became institutionalized; childhood was both made overly precious and commodified.

Almost 20 years later, the transition to a cash-free economy is nearing completion, and a socially conservative administration, whose supporters include religious leaders who advocate a return to traditional women's roles, is in the White House. But we are arguably more environmentally aware, and the Religious Right aside, women's equality is on the rise, whether it's measured by the number of female CEOs, or college syllabuses containing women authors.

However we read the tea leaves, The Handmaid's Tale remains relevant because, like great science fiction, it imagines the tools of technology in the service of humanity's darker side. For the same reasons, Oryx and Crake is likely to be recommended reading for decades to come. "Everything that's in it people are working on today," says Atwood, including the genetic engineering of human beings, bio-engineered super plagues, and food substitutes. The characters in the book consume fish sticks that are 20 percent real fish, a fraction that Atwood thinks is optimistic because we've consumed 90 percent of the ocean's fish stocks in the last 50 years alone.

Here is a highly respected woman of letters, a popular literary author, writing in a style generally considered pulp. So like Wells and Orwell before her (and now William Gibson to some extent), Atwood is regarded as slightly dangerous.
The daughter of a biologist, Atwood believes equally in the power of socialization and genetic destiny, an interesting trait in an author who is often taken as something of a liberal feminist icon because The Handmaid's Tale's axis of evil was dominated by a male theocracy. She observes that even though the male/female dynamic has changed considerably in the 40 years since she published her first novel, men still "like beautiful girls and sex. Big surprise."

"There's a lot of things `in male behavior` that girls used to think were just built in that they won't tolerate anymore, and that has changed behavior to a certain extent. It hasn't necessarily changed preference."

Asked why the protagonists of Oryx and Crake are men, Atwood replies that that is how she finds them in the world. By choice, she says, girls are not, "gizmo-oriented. It's not a question of skill particularly, it's a question of preference."

Atwood believes the nature of socialization itself is being changed by technology. "If you take a child of about 10, most of the human beings that child will have seen are not real," she observes. "So, a lot of kids are interacting with people that don't exist." The protagonists of Oryx and Crake, Jimmy and the genetic mastermind, Crake, first become captivated as teenagers by Oryx, an Asian girl who they see on an Internet porn site. In the boys' world of extreme para-reality games - "Kwiktime Osama," "Extinctathon" - their initial virtual encounter with Oryx is catalytic.

With her imagination inhabited by such dark potential futures, how is it that Atwood still finds pleasure in a new grandson (born September 2) and chicken fried steak (which she is looking forward to eating during her visit to SA)? In "Against Ice Cream," her review of McKibben's Enough, Atwood approvingly notes the Amish practice for adopting new technology. As a community, they consider each new invention and accept or reject it based on shared social and spiritual criteria. Atwood believes this is possible even in a polyglot society because, "human beings are all human beings. They do share values," even if their ideas about how those values should be expressed are quite different.

Nonetheless, "McKibben is an optimist," she concluded in that review, "I agree with him about what we should do, but I'm not too sure we'll do it." •

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