By Ruth Conniff
Margaret Atwood is a novelist, essayist, and poet.
Q: Your latest book, The Year of the Flood, concerns the environment. Why have you taken up this issue?
Margaret Atwood: I was born into this issue. My father was a forest entomologist, which means he was aware that spraying forests for spruce budworm was counterproductive in that it didn’t really work, and it killed everything else in the forests, and it wasn’t good for the people who were exposed to it, either. So he was an early proponent of not doing that, but, of course, nobody listened. My parents were gardeners themselves, and perforce they used environmental techniques because it was during the war, and you didn’t have the new sorts of chemicals. My family was scientifically inclined: My brother did turn into a neurophysiologist, and I almost became a scientist myself. I could have gone that way.
Q: Why didn’t you?
Atwood: I started writing. It was just very compelling. My brother and I were both teenage writers, and he was, I have to say, better than I was, but he went into science, and I went into writing.
Q: What are we looking at right now as far as the environment goes?
Atwood: We’re facing growing climate change, more floods, more droughts, more crisis on a planetary level, and the systems we put in place in the twentieth century are just not going to work. We’ve run out of stuff. Our big problems are going to be energy supplies and food supplies. This is not a right-left issue. It’s a people issue, and it cuts across all our categories. The problem is huge. We’ve just added seventy-five million people to the already large proportion of people in the world who are malnourished all the time, whose bodies are being starved.
Q: In The Year of the Flood, you have a private mercenary company like Blackwater essentially taking over.
Atwood: There’s more private security in the United States than there are publicly funded forces, like police. What you don’t want is a meld of government and commerce—you really want to keep those two things separate—because once you have that meld, you’ve got megacorruption, and you have no third force to whom you can say this stuff is poisoning our kids.
Q: How did you get on your dystopia jag?
Atwood: What can I say? I was born in 1939. We were losing the war at that time. It looked very, very bleak. I couldn’t have known, I was too young, but there’s an atmosphere that kids pick up on. After the war, we were still pretty possessed by it, and I remember reading Churchill’s history of the war.
Q:You also read Orwell?
Atwood: I read George Orwell probably as soon as 1984 came out, and read Animal Farm when I was a child, thinking it would be like Winnie the Pooh, and I didn’t know it wasn’t. I thought the pigs were real pigs and the horses real horses, and I was just wracked by it.
Q: You call your work not science fiction, but speculative fiction. What’s the distinction you’re drawing?
Atwood: The distinction has to do with lineages. It has to do with ancestries, and what family books belong to because books do belong in families. The ancestor of science fiction is H. G. Wells with books like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Those books involved things that are very unlikely to happen or are actually impossible, but they are ways of exploring possibilities and human nature and the way people react to certain things. And if you go to another planet, you get to build the whole society and you can draw blueprints and have fun with talking vegetation and other such things.
The lineage of speculative fiction traces back to Jules Verne, who wrote about things that he could see coming to pass that were possible on the Earth—this wasn’t about outer space or space invasions—but things that we could actually do.
There were a lot of utopias in the nineteenth century, wonderful societies that we might possibly construct. Those went pretty much out of fashion after World War I. And almost immediately one of the utopias that people were trying to construct, namely the Soviet Union, threw out a writer called Zamyatin who wrote a seminal book called We, which contains the seeds of Orwell and Huxley. Writers started doing dystopias after we saw the effects of trying to build utopias that required, unfortunately, the elimination of a lot of people before you could get to the perfect point, which never arrived.
Q: So you can’t see yourself ever writing a utopia?
Atwood: I don’t believe in a perfect world. I don’t believe it’s achievable, and I believe the people who try to achieve it usually end up turning it into something like Cambodia or something very similar because purity tests set in. Are you ideologically pure enough to be allowed to live? Well, it turns out that very few people are, so you end up with a big powerful struggle and a mass killing scene.
Q: How do you move people forward without holding up a myth of utopia?
Atwood: By going slower, more gradualist, by increments, more progressive, that’s what we have to hold onto because otherwise you descend into anarchy, chaos, criminality, and totalitarianism of a different kind: In order to keep you safe, we have to obliterate your civil rights.
Q: How fragile is the fabric of democracy?
Atwood: The fabric of democracy is always fragile everywhere because it depends on the will of citizens to protect it, and when they become scared, when it becomes dangerous for them to defend it, it can go very quickly.
Q: In your dystopias, many people quickly come to accept the totalitarian government as normal. Why?
Atwood: What is their choice? After I wrote Handmaid’s Tale, people came up to me and asked why weren’t there any protests. And I said, “You don’t understand totalitarianism.” A real totalitarianism doesn’t fool around with protests in the streets.
Q: I saw a line of yours where you said, “I don’t write pretty books.”
Atwood: No, sorry. I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels. There are novels that end well, but in between there are human beings acting like human beings. And human beings are not perfect. All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ materials. That’s where they have to go. And a lot of that just isn’t pretty. We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.
Q: Do you think everyone has the potential to be a fascist?
Atwood: Well, that’s one of those questions, “Does everyone have the potential to be a cannibal, if you were stuck on a lifeboat and your choice was dying or eating somebody else, which one would you do?” We do not know how we’d behave. But a lot of people facing fascism didn’t become fascists. I don’t happen to believe that we are all monsters.
Q: Yet you like to set up lifeboat situations.
Atwood: I think we’re in a lifeboat situation. Not in the United States yet, but a lot of people in this biosphere are in lifeboat situations right now.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Obama’s Musical Chairs: Continuity in a Bad Way."