Margaret Atwood on Trump: “You don’t write these things hoping they become more relevant”
The Handmaid’s Tale has a habit of popping up in my life every few years. Originally published when I turned one, it was part of my university dissertation 19 years later, and just over a decade on, it’s winning a fresh set of hearts and minds as an Emmy award-winning Hulu drama. Its reemergence isn’t accidental: the concept of a totalitarian religious theonomy gaining power in the United States doesn’t feel as unlikely a concept as it did when I was writing my dissertation around the 2004 election.
It’s against the backdrop of a Trump presidency that the book’s Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, took the stage on the final day at New Scientist Live to discuss her thoughts on science, science fiction and the state of the world with Dr Carlone Edwards of Birkbeck University.
Atwood describes the Trump administration’s first 254 days as “a push-back against women’s equality across the board, not just in the area of reproductive health but in any area you’d care to mention.”
That said, while it is tempting to see the recent TV dramatisation of The Handmaid’s Tale as a direct response to Trump, the truth is that it had been in production long before such a thing was viewed realistically – let alone as a foregone conclusion. “They had been filming the show for several months when November 9th rolled around,” Atwood explains. “And they woke up that morning and they said: ‘our show just got framed in a different way’ – which it was.
“Had Hillary Clinton won the election, the show would have been viewed differently, but it would have been the same show. It would have been viewed as ‘phew, we dodged that bullet.’ After November 9 it was viewed as ‘uh oh, we didn’t dodge that bullet.’”
This is, of course, depressing to Atwood: “You don’t write these things hoping they become more relevant, you’re hoping they become less relevant,” she observes. “You don’t want people to pick up the novel and say ‘let’s do this.’”
While the interview was loosely framed around science fiction, Atwood herself prefers the term “speculative fiction” – and that tends to involve biogenetics rather than robotics because that’s the era that she grew up in, she says.
But even then, her books are grounded in things that already exist, or have existed. “I tend not to put things into my books that have never been done. It’s all human behaviour, unfortunately. It’s happened already. There isn’t any ‘the future’ – there are a number of possible futures, but there isn’t a ‘the future’. You’re always writing about now.” That view even applies to period pieces, no matter how much they strive for the much holy grail of ‘historical accuracy’: “The outlook on life is ours, because what else do we know?”
The novel to her has a special way of connecting with people. “Telling a story about something has much more impact than just showing the graph – unless you’re an expert in the graph material, in which case it already means something to you.”
Her most seemingly pure science fiction novels are the MaddAddam trilogy, which imagines a world a world where bio-engineered “crakers” are created with the most desirable traits of humans. In our world, where CRISPR is a thing, this no longer feels quite so far removed from reality as it did in 2003. And that’s clearly something Atwood is keenly aware of.
“People are always having conferences and issuing statements about what they won’t do, but you know they will, or somebody will,” she says. “Because every time human beings have invented a tool, people want to play with that tool to its ultimate extent to see what you can do with it. It’s like opening the biggest Pandora’s Box in the world and seeing what is inside.” What might be inside, she fears, is man-made disease.
That’s not to say she’s in any way anti-science. “There’s no point blaming science,” she argues. “It’s a tool, it’s something that we invent and any handled tool can be use for purposes that we haven’t anticipated. You can say the same thing about hammers: you can pick it up and build a house with it, or you could kill your neighbour.”
Back in 2009, when the second novel in the MaddAddam trilogy, The Year of the Flood was released, Atwood gave an interview to Wired where she declared herself “an optimist,” adding that “Anyone who writes this kind of stuff probably is. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t waste your time writing the books.” This led to a headline referring to her as an “apocalyptic optimist.” When this title is put to her by Edwards, she seems slightly less keen to embrace it – which is understandably given the events of the eight intervening years.
“If you get to page 72 and then everybody is wiped out and it’s blank pages from there to page 350, your readers are going to be quite annoyed,” she replies. “It’s generally true about novels that there’s someone left over at the end, so in that way they’re sort of inherently optimistic are they not?”
It’s perhaps a weak kind of optimism, but in an age where The Handmaid’s Tale is a resurgent cultural touchstone, perhaps that’s the best we can hope for – even from an optimist.
Today is the last day of New Scientist Live – keep an eye on the website to see upcoming plans for 2018.