Here are some of the things you talk about (or, more properly, hear about) given the better part of an hour with Margaret Atwood.
Crows: “Crows can tell the difference between a man who’s shot at them with a gun and another person who has not done that. And they’ll give the alarm cry when they see that individual person, with or without his gun.”
Lab-grown artificial meat: “Their problem is the texture. It’s sort of mush. So they’re trying to figure out a way to exercise it.”
The film Avatar: “Victorian fairy painting writ large. The blue people with big ears, the light-up mushrooms – it’s all there.”
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: “Horrifying, especially if you’ve never seen a movie before.”
Marbles: “Winning them was very honourable. Buying them was sucky.”
What happened after the arrows fell at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415: “The English troops by that time pretty much all had dysentery, so they’d taken off their pants. There was a post they hammered in to steady their bows on and they picked up their posts and went around to the sides of the French massed nobility on horseback and started hitting them with their posts. The French nobility, imbued in the ethics of chivalry, did not know how to respond. It was ignoble to actually engage in combat with some peasant hitting you with a piece of wood with no pants on.”
Which leads, naturally enough, to the author’s own ignoble but decisive encounter with proudly Philistine Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, brother of the mayor, Rob, and the intervention that appears to have saved the city’s public library system from destruction.
“It wasn’t even an intervention,” she complains. “You’re standing on the sidewalk and somebody comes along and hits you with their car. In what way is that an intervention?”
True, she didn’t seek out the fight. She signed a petition to save libraries from cutbacks, and Doug Ford attacked her as a nobody. But in the aftermath of the collision, it is the hefty Fords who are spinning their wheels in the ditch while the five-footish, soon-to-be-72-year-old doyenne of Canadian literature stands tall – albeit slightly taken aback by the power of her non-intervention.
“It was a bit shocking,” she says. “But those things are only possible if people feel strongly about something, and people in Toronto felt very strongly about their library system.” She switches metaphors. “You may be a lightning rod, but unless there’s some lightning, nothing happens.”
Later rather than sooner, Atwood comes around to the subject at hand – In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a new book of essays in which she riffs playful and profound on such subjects as flying rabbits, bug-eyed monsters, skin-tight spacesuits and that iconic science-fiction image, the girl with the brass brassiere, she of the “tin titties.”
By way of illustration, Atwood made cartoon drawings of these and other dubious creatures to adorn the endpapers of the book. If its purpose was nothing more than to overthrow the image of its author as a humourless bluestocking, it could only be judged a success.
The author’s more serious purpose was to reply to readers, critics and even one of her own heroes – author Ursula K. LeGuin, to whom she dedicates the book – who have accused her of snobbery for disclaiming the term “science fiction” as it applies to Atwood’s yet-to-be completed trilogy (whose first two volumes are Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) set in a future that genetic engineering and social breakdown have made almost intolerable. Atwood’s distinction between “speculative” and “science” fiction is “arbitrarily restrictive,” LeGuin wrote in reviewing The Year of the Flood two years ago. “She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.”
On the contrary, Atwood declares (and demonstrates) throughout In Other Worlds, the literary ghetto is her home and native land, one she has explored from the inside out since her earliest youth drawing flying-rabbit comics. Her new book charts its intricate geography in three essays delivered as lectures at Emory University in Atlanta last year, fleshes it out with incidental writing on fantastic themes, and spices it with small “wonder tales” of her own, including the story of the ever-amenable Peach Women of the planet Aa’A, who torture space cowboys by giving them everything they ever wanted.
Aa’A, she says, “sounded like a sigh of repletion, with a small gasp in the middle of it of the kind babies make when they turn over in their sleep,” she writes. “It also sounded like the last breath of the dying.”
Ultimately, Atwood suggests, the taxonomical distinctions are useful only to help bookstore owners develop shelving plans. “When it comes to genres, the borders are increasingly undefended, and things slip back and forth across them with insouciance,” she writes. The genres may have many different names. “But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, through a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown.”
Seen in that light, the world of the wonder tale is so rich as to make the realm of the modern realistic novel seems paltry by comparison. In fact, Atwood contends, many of the most popular fictions today are not really novels at all. People today use the term “novel” simply to denote fiction of a certain length, she says. “That’s how they’re using it, but it’s not useful.” In her schema, the time-honoured name for non-realistic fiction is romance.
“In the novel tradition, we expect the work to resemble real life,” she says. “In the romance tradition, we expect it not to resemble real life.”
Although she does have fun at the novel’s expense, unlike others Atwood does not fear its death. Literary fiction will never be “just another genre” because “it’s much more open-ended than genre work,” she says – acknowledging at the same time that modern genre writers make the identical claim for their work.
She is equally ambivalent about defending her contentious distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction – the former, by her definition, completely fantastic, the latter dealing in possible outcomes of real trends. “I kind of don’t care what you call it as long as you make it clear that Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the same kind of book as The Time Machine,” she says by way of the final word.
The rules of the game never applied to her in any case, Atwood insists. “Growing up in a household which was full of scientists, but also filled with people who read – and they read all kinds of things – I just didn’t get that one set of rules,” she says.
As a semi-mythical child of nature in the north woods, for Atwood media meant intermittent shortwave broadcasts from the Soviet Union combined with whatever printed matter she could grab, including her brother’s stupendous comic-book collection. In Other Worlds includes both the best-ever cheat sheet to the work of Northrop Frye and the definitive answers to pressing questions. Among them: “Are Batman and Robin gay?”
In other words, anything is possible during an hour with Margaret Atwood – on the page or in person. “Your computer could be spying on you from that little camera on the top,” she points out.
And as her latest book demonstrates, imagination may be our only defence.