Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Canadian 'cli-fi' seer and futurist Margaret Atwood says she is *not* a prophet at all


Margaret Atwood says she is *not* a prophet at all

An interview with the Canadian futurist and cli-fi author of The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy.

Few writers have been so close to the pulse of this past tumultuous year of 2017 than Margaret Atwood. Over several decades her wry, lyrical prose has framed dystopian futures that manage to feel visceral and fable-like all at the same time. Readers have been turning and returning to her work as they confront the rise of authoritarian conservative politics, rapidly evolving biotechnologies, and the slow-motion disaster of climate change. Her harrowing 1985 novel of misogyny and oppression in a near-future fundamentalist Christian America, The Handmaid’s Tale¸ has reached millions of viewers as a Hulu series and prompted numerous costumed protests with “handmaids” advocating for reproductive and civil rights. Her MaddAdam trilogy (2003, 2009, 2013) envisions a calamitous finale for the human race in an all-too-near future dominated by bioengineering, rampant consumerism, and climate change.
The worlds Atwood describes are uncomfortably close to our own, and they seem to be drawing closer. I had the chance to talk with her recently about how stories shape our relationship with the future and why people sometimes mistake her work for prophecy. [This interview was double edited and condensed for clarity.]
Ed Finn: Many people have remarked on the seeming prescience of The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy. Did you predict the future in these books?
Margaret Atwood: The answer is no, I did not predict the future because you can’t really predict the future. There isn’t any “the future.” There are many possible futures, but we don’t know which one we’re going to have. We can guess. We can speculate. But we cannot really predict.

As someone who tells stories that frequently are set in a future, what kind of relationship do you see between the worlds you imagine and what we might call the nonfiction future, the changes we actually expect to see?
Well, all stories about the future are actually about the now. However, it’s also true that you generally look ahead of you to see where you’re going and that’s what those kinds of books are like. They’re like blueprints of the possible futures that help us to decide whether that is where we want to go. 1984 was actually about 1948 and looking down the road what might happen should England become like the Soviet Union of the now. So the Handmaid’s Tale was about trends that were already there in the now event, and what might happen if those trends continued on in that way. Would we like that? Is that where we want to live?
So how do you react to those who see works like the Handmaid’s Tale as prophetic or predictive of trends today?
I would say to them exactly what I have just said to you.
That’s what I thought you might say. Do you see a difference between the way people respond to the social dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale and how they respond to the MaddAddam trilogy with its depiction of science and technology?
MaddAddam is a social dystopia, too, just as the Handmaid’s Tale is also an environmental dystopia [with some cli-fi added in for good measure]. And those things are very much joined at the hip. I’m reading a book right now about the deep distant past. I’m at the part where it’s describing a climate change period that’s having kicked off a lot of warfare and village burnings. And this is a long time ago. It’s like 5000 B.C. So in general, when there’s enough food, you get less war—not always, but in general. And when you have a climate change events, you get less food. So that’s the connection. Social upheaval is frequently triggered by economic upheaval as in the French Revolution, as in the Great Depression. When things go wrong, of course, people want somebody else to blame.
Do you think the relationship between science fiction and reality is changing? It seems like speculative fiction and science fiction are everywhere now, infiltrating all sorts of other genres.
Isn’t it amazing? We wouldn’t have said that in the year 2000 at all. I think you might have said it in the ’30s when it was new in magazines. You might have said it, in the ’50s when a lot of people were writing science fiction because it was a way of writing about McCarthyism without actually naming it. But in the ’90s, after the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR collapsed, people were less interested in it because they thought everything was going to be fine. It’s when people think that everything isn’t fine that these stories come out. There were huge numbers of utopias in the 19th century, and a lot of them took off from the state of urban squalor and poverty and such that the people were seeing in London.
So they were writing utopias in which the world had been made quite a lot better through, quite frequently, technological improvements, because that’s what was happening in their now. There were all those improvements. And some things have gotten better. And so they didn’t see why that shouldn’t continue.
But the first world war put paid to that. And people’s illusions about the superiority, for instance, of white people kind of went out the window. You couldn’t blame the war on anybody else. They were doing it to one another.
And if you weren’t convinced by that, along came the second world war. So that’s why utopias became harder to write unless they were set on another planet. And dystopias became easier to write.
It’s interesting that you pinpointed the ’90s and the year 2000 because I agree with you that for a while there everybody in the West was sort of euphoric about the possibilities of a new era of peace and cooperation.
Yes. That’s when we got the book called The End of History. Remember that? Another prediction about the future that didn’t work out.
So, having talked about the ’30s and the two world wars, how would you characterize the current uptake in science fiction and speculative fiction?
Young people are worried about the future! The next question you may ask: Why are young people worried about the future?
What’s to worry about? Well, there’s climate. And it’s not just global warming. Probably the thing we should be most worried about is the death of the oceans, which is not due just to global warming. It would also be due to toxicity and the amount of plastic that’s going into the ocean. And should the oceans die, of course, there goes the major planetary source of oxygen without which we cannot breathe.
And young people are also worried about the fact that all of the global political chess pieces are in motion. We don’t have a stable state of affairs. And when you don’t have a stable state of affairs, it’s very hard to plan your own future, because you don’t know, for instance, if the currency that you are using in your country is suddenly devalued. There go your savings.
So naturally they’re worried. However, I like to give a little glimpses of hope. There’s a new book called Drawdown. It’s something like the most useful ideas for combating and reversing climate change. These are solutions that already exist. And people are already doing them.

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