Ten years ago, Margaret Atwood ended the world, and in rather spectacular fashion. Oryx and Crake was a revelation: a harrowing vision of society gone terribly wrong, and a reminder that Atwood, author of the classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, is one of the best speculative-fiction writers alive. The first volume in a trilogy, it was followed by The Year of the Flood, which, in a bit of remarkable narrative showing-off, offered a completely different story that unfolded concurrently with Oryx and Crake. With the publication of MaddAddam next week, she concludes her epic account of what happens in the wake of the end, after her “waterless flood” has scrubbed the planet clean, leaving behind only a handful of people – or, at least, only a handful we know of – to survive in a landscape populated by fearsome pigoons (angry pigs genetically altered to grow human organs).
The trilogy is one of the most impressive achievements in contemporary literature, and stands as a grand document of humanity’s greatest failings but also a moving celebration of our greatest possibilities. They are frank and ugly books but also funny and beautiful. And for all their SF fireworks, all the world-building pyrotechnics, they are quietly realistic stories that recognize that any future the world can hope to have will be one of adaptation and synthesis, of our learning to live better with those around us to make the most of the diminished circumstances in which we’re likely to find ourselves.
On a recent hot and sunny afternoon, around the corner from her home in Toronto’s well-appointed Annex neighbourhood, Atwood met with up with me at a bustling café patio – to which she arrived an hour late, though to her credit, she had phoned 30 minutes into my waiting to belatedly warn me she was running behind. At times during our conversation – her first with a Canadian newspaper in anticipation of the publication of
MaddAddam – she was playful, quizzing me, for instance, on the reasons Stephen King might have called his hotel in The Shining “the Overlook.” At other moments, she could be quasi-adversarial, pointedly ignoring questions that didn’t interest her, answering instead those she wished had been posed.
Throughout, she offered her own revealing takes on the big themes that inform her work. Among them: feminism, utopia, and apocalypse. She also stooped to ponder whether someone like her, whose books have predicted so much that has come to pass, is a prophet. Atwood says not; future generations may beg to differ.
Toward the end of MaddAddam, a character complains that she hates gender roles. Toby, the female protagonist, replies that the complainer should stop performing them. These books have an interesting relationship with feminism. Is that, for you, an ever-present concern?
What? Girls, boys; boys, girls?
That’s one way of putting it.
I’m from the generation that had the boys door and the girls door when you went to school, and you got in big trouble if you went in the wrong one. It was so that the snips-and-snails-and-puppy-dog-tails nasty boys wouldn’t pull the pigtails of the girls, who were of course engaged in their own byzantine, evil plotting.
I’ve never bought into any sort of hard and fast, this-box/that-box characterization. People are individuals. Yes, they may be expected to be a particular way. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be that way. Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice, she’s very bad, but she’s a woman. And we are very pleased when Elizabeth Bennet faces her down and tells her to piss off and mind her own business. And that’s a woman-woman thing. It has nothing to do with theories of feminism. It has a lot to do with the class system and asserting yourself as an individual.
I found it fascinating that that moment came late in this book, after Toby’s ascendance to what is, in a sense, a much more traditionally gendered role: the laying open of her jealousy, her suspicion.
That’s not traditional. That’s just human. And in fact, it’s prehuman. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a dog. Have you ever had two dogs? Do you know that if you pat one of the dogs, the other is immediately there and wants to be patted? They keep count. Small children do this, too: “How much is for me?” When they’re grownups, it’s all about how much can they rightfully claim. “I know from my socialization that I shouldn’t be jealous, and no commitments have been made … but …”