Skip to content

Margaret Atwood explores the science in her fiction

‘If you are trained to observe precisely, you will write more precise prose.’ Margaret Atwood, speaking at New Scientist Live, October 2017

Margaret Atwood has always been a writer interested in scientific developments and the seemingly bottomless capacity for humans to be either truly inspirational or totally f**ked up. Unfortunately, as she discussed at New Scientist Live, she may no longer be a writer far ahead of her time, for it seems the present may be catching up with the author.

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction. However, the dystopian future contains key ingredients that are with us today. Its sinister world suddenly seemed within touching distance for many the morning after the American presidential election in November 2016. Just months later, women dressed as handmaids sat silently in court months later to protest an anti abortion bill.

‘Oh heck we didn’t dodge that bullet. People sitting as handmaids…Let’s make Margaret Atwood fiction again!’ said Margaret with a wry smile before continuing,

‘I don’t write things hoping they will happen, I write things hoping people will think that’s a really bad idea, let’s not do that!’

Oryx and Crake

A long-standing interest in extinction – especially human caused extinction – led to a thought experiment – what might bio-engineered people be like? Margaret said:

‘They wouldn’t need sunblock…therefore they didn’t need clothes.

They can eat leaves and grass so there’s no need for factories and agricuture.

They mate seasonally like mammals so there’s no rejected lovers.

They are non aggressvie so there is no war and no arms spending…’

And there you have the naked and peaceful humanoids of the Oynx and Crake trilogy. However, their creator Crake quickly realises for these creatures to be able to survive, the clothes wearing, emotionally irrational,violent humans must be eradicated or these purring peacekeepers wouldn’t stand a chance. However, Snowman, who becomes their caretaker, begins to feel bad about the impending extinction of the human race…

Like all utopian experiments, the world of the Crakers sounds idyllic. It would be a vast improvement from some people’s point of view. But , as Margaret says, ‘would you want to hang out with them, or have a drink with them?’

No tragedy means no drama . ‘Do utopias have to be boring?,’ muses Margaret, ‘You’re on a dream vacation for ever – how many beers could you drink? The joy is the end point…’

Transgenetic science developed in the late 1990s – 2000s and provided a rich seam of inspiration for Margaret’s imagination. Oynx and Crake may be closer to science fiction that her other work, yet Margaret revealed that when she went to a geneticist convention and gave them 3 real and 3 made up scenarios, the geneticists couldn’t tell what was made up.

‘One of them was sheep that could grow human hair…you heard it from me first!’

Usually, Margaret’s novels exisit in the world of the possible. She grew up with scientists – her brother is one – and when he read Madd Adam, he told his sister:

‘I think you did quite a good job with the sex, but I’m not sure about the purring.’

But science has since vindicated Margaret by proving that cats do purr to heal ‘so you really could have a laying of purring instead of hands. Just call me Margaret Catwood…’

Genetically modified animals and crops is like the biggest Pandora’s box in the world. How deep inside dare you go?

‘The headless chickens from the books -should they be liberated into the wild? Surely meat grown in labs is better than the alternative – it’s kinder both to the animals and to the environment – it would reduce methane and tropical deforestation…’

Extinction would be bad for humans but great for plants and animals. ‘The atmosphere of earth was origianally methane because of marine alges – they make 60% of oxygen..’

Speculative Fiction

In today’s fast-moving, uncertain, interconnected world, ethical dilemmas appear all the time. What role does Margaret believe speculative fiction have to play.?

‘I don’t think about roles – you can’t tell a writer what they will write…they will write what they feel called to write…if you ask for something specific, they may get stubborn and write something else. However, talking about what role a book may play once it’s written is different.’

In general, says Margaret, novelists tend to be optimistic – even speculative, apocalyptic ones. ‘Generally, the truth about novels is that somebody is left alive at the end. Take the start of Moby Dick ” call me Ishmeal” you know somebody is left standing…’

The art of storytelling

People used to think animals didn’t suffer – that there was no ghost in the machine. However, as Margaret says, ‘we know there isn’t such a distinct dividing line between species. But Rover the dog is unlikely to ask where did dogs come from, what will happen when I die? They don’t have a far reaching past tense or future perfect like we do.’

Storytelling is a very ancient human device, our way of making sense of the world. Reading and writing are two separate brain functions. ‘Writing possibly came out of animal tracking,’ says Margaret, ‘if you want somebody to remember something, tell them a story.’

Stories can be fact or fiction – however, Margaret is very clear that she wants her narrative universes to remain firmly fictional.



6 Music T-Shirt Day

It’s a day to dust down your favourite band t-shirt and re-live those gig memories. After years of listening, finally came the day where I could join the 6 Music team photo.

There I am in my Courtney Barnett t-shirt just behind Steve Lamacq.


We didn’t know it at the time, but they were secretly filming us getting into position – cue fast forward fidgeting which sounds like a track title that could have been requested on T-Shirt Day…


Donato di Camillo

In a five minute break from work, while I was mindlessly scrolling down my Facebook news feed, I saw an image that jolted me and made me stop and stare.

It’s a one eyed man, his mouth wide open revealing broken teeth and he’s staring up above him – in surprise or in fear? Is he looking at  the seagull that’s just flown past or at something unseen and terrible in the heavens? Behind his right shoulder is a brightly coloured seaside funfair. To his left, dark clouds are gathering over the pier and out to sea.

It’s like a scene from a film or the first picture from a novel. Except it’s real and it’s the work of a photographer called Donato di Camillo.

Donato is self taught – upon his release from prison, he began taking photos of the people he saw around him in New York, people on the fringes of society, people who are otherwise unseen or ignored.

Donato says:

“I want [my subjects] to understand that the reason I’m photographing them is because I see something in them that I see in me, or that I think the rest of the world could relate to.”

He is a photographer with a real talent for capturing portraits that reveal their subjects at a particular moment in time – sometimes chaotic, sometimes touching, always unique.

Related Content

Donato di Camillio’s website






My first time doing a live radio interview…

As a producer, I’m used to being on one side of the microphone. But during the course of BBC Music Get Playing, an opportunity presented itself for me to do a live radio interview.

I met Miranda Rae through Sound Women. Miranda presents her own show called The Word on Ujima Radio in Bristol. Her programme goes out live every Friday from 1400 to 1600 and is a wonderfully varied mix of art, culture and music.

The Virtual Orchestra deadline was fast approaching and I was trying to get as many people as possible to upload their videos of themselves playing Bizet’s Toreador Song. Miranda asked me if I’d like to go onto the programme to invite her listeners to join the Virtual Orchestra.

At first, I must confess I was was tempted to ask for a pre-recorded interview but soon decided to go for it.

Miranda has interviewed many people during her career including Massive Attack, Roni Size, Neneh Cherry…and now me.

I really enjoyed my first live radio experience and you can hear the interview here.

And you can follow Miranda on Mixcloud and hear more interviews here.

Useful Links

Ujima Radio

Sound Women

Jeff Mills: The Woman in the Moon Cinemix

Last night, I went on a spellbinding trip to the moon – while staying in South East London.

I was sat inside the lovely old theatre The Coronet, watching Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond, Fritz Lang’s futuristic silent movie from 1929)  while listening to techno DJ  Jeff Mills live mixing his stunning soundtrack.

It was an incredible fusion of the past, the present and the future. Women in the Moon was produced 40 years before the moon landings, and the rocket launch sequences were eerily prescient. Jeff Mills’ sound track underscored the shifting dynamics between the characters as well as underlining the dangers that lie in the overwhelming love of money.

From January 2017, another beautiful venue will be lost in London. The Coronet has been in the Elephant and Castle since 1879 – but will be disappearing next year  as the developers move in.

While I understand the need for progress, I wish gentrification didn’t so often signify the destroying of history, of buildings that made an area special, the universal conformity that seems to follow inevitably in its wake. Look to your left, there’s your luxury new developments. Look to your right – whether you are in Elephant or Castle or Ealing- there’s your Pret, your Starbucks, your Pizza Express.

Woman in the Moon at the Coronet – a nod towards the future and another ending.


Beckett Blindfolded: All that Fall

‘I’m going to see a play tonight,’ I told my friends. ‘Except I won’t actually see it -I’ll be wearing a blindfold.’

Their response was confused – but inquisitive. ‘Eh? Why are you wearing a blindfold?’

Because I was going to see Out of Joint’s production of All That Fall. This was Beckett’s lush, lyrical radio play that I read at university and had wanted to ‘see’ for years. I loved the rhythm and flow of the words, the story of Mrs Rooney travelling to the station to collect her blind husband as a surprise on his birthday.

All That Fall - programme cover

Despite being one of Beckett’s more naturalistic plays, All That Fall is not very well known as the playwright was firmly opposed to his radio plays being adapted for the stage or screen. Beckett believed a radio play was ‘for voices not bodies’ and ‘to “act” it is to kill it.’

Theatre company Out of Joint’s answer to this is simple: blindfold the audience.

Stripped of sight, the play is a very intimate, immersive experience. All That Fall takes place in the low lit Victorian brick surroundings of Wilton’s Music Hall. Within a few seconds, I found the music hall was merging with a country Irish road populated with larger than life characters.

Mrs Rooney is a complex woman. She is funny and full of self-pity; she is also determined and loving.  Maddy Rooney will get to the station to collect her husband, no matter what setbacks may befall her on the way.

There are many wonderful 3D sound effects. A bicycle weaving through country lanes, a horse very reluctantly starting to pull its dung cart and a train speeding through the station, so close I could almost feel the wind on my face as it sped by.

The actors move among the audience all the time. Sometimes they are on the opposite side of the auditorium, sometimes they are right next to me, creating long shots and close ups inside my head. This dynamism means each audience member gets a different experience and perhaps an alternative perspective on what did – or didn’t – happen on the train.

Out of Joint has made a great radio play into a wonderful stage production while remaining true to Beckett’s vision of the play. As the director, Max Stafford-Clark says, ‘…there was no vision at all. Beckett’s instruction was that the voices come “as from the void”.’

This aural-only landscape provides both slapstick humour and darkness.  There’s Mrs Rooney the ‘big fat jelly’ being hoisted up into Mr Slocumb’s car. And the train is delayed – for a tragic reason. Go to All That Fall and see what happens in your mind’s eye. Decide how big – or not – Mrs Rooney is – and decide for yourselves whether the very dark end to the play really did occur.

1 2 5