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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 agriculture.

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

They are non aggressive 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. 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 exist 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 one of  the biggest Pandora’s boxes 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 originally methane because of marine algae – 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 Ishmael” 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.