In The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood returned to a dystopian, postpandemic world: the "waterless flood" of disease and environmental destruction in which was set her earlier book Oryx and Crake. It's a world that Atwood feels could come to be, if we don't make the right social and scientific choices. With the paperback version of The Year of the Flood set for release this week, the author discusses why she sees more reason than ever to beware a horrible future.
What is the draw for you to return not only to this dystopian future but to dystopias in general, as you did with The Handmaid's Tale?
I've been involved with this for a long time [as a reader and student]and finally felt I was able to tackle it when I wrote The Handmaid's Tale. I finally felt I was able to write a book in this genre without falling into a lot of the traps of that kind of writing. And also, of course, you don't write those kinds of books without an impetus. The impetus for that one was the combination of 17th-century theology and the late 20th-century resurgence of it that was taking place in the United States. If we took the Bible literally, what would [the world]look like?
And the impetus for Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood ?
Well, as you know, I grew up amongst biologists. I follow the biological plot line [of scientific advances] They've just succeeded in building an artificial, but biological, lung. I collect these kinds of stories. Not in any systematic way, but I'm aware of them. I read Scientific American [magazine] I read New Scientist. Discover is another one.
One of the things people are working on now, and were working on in 2001 when I was actually halfway through Oryx and Crake, is the ability to create diseases. We can do that now. You can create a disease to which nobody has any immunity. The only reason people have not let them loose yet is that nobody has any immunity. You'll destroy your own side. They are not effective biological weapons in that sense. The blowback factor is too great.
So we have that capability. What is it that would inspire somebody to actually do it? What else are we working on? That intersection, if you like: What could we do? What are we in fact working on now? People thought when I wrote Oryx and Crake that I made all this stuff up. I actually hadn't. Year of the Flood? Granted I stretch it a bit, but these things are quite doable.
You've described The Year of the Flood as the blueprint for a possible future, a warning. Is it correct to describe this as a form of activist writing?
What is activism? I'm not an activist by nature. I'm a rabbit in the Eastern astrological chart, and we like to stay in our burrows and lead quiet lives. In the Western astrological chart, I'm a Scorpio, and we like to spend our time in the toes of shoes, and we're quite happy there unless somebody puts their foot in. [laughs]
I mean, some people are professional activists. That would be Naomi Klein and other people. It's their métier, it's their business. So I would say that it's not activist writing in that sense, since there is no "one thing" that I want the reader to do.
I don't want you to come out from the book and sign a petition. I don't want you to invent a disease that will wipe out humanity. I would say activist writing has a goal in mind, a very specific goal that they want the reader to do.
There are, though, elements of satire, such as the religious sect in the book, God's Gardeners, turning the energy-saving habit of not taking elevators into a religious dictate, or the Secret Burger restaurant that serves meat of highly suspicious origin.
Utopias, dystopias - which are actually the flipside of each other - they always have a satirical element, either explicit or implied, because you cannot really write about the future: We actually don't know what's going to be in the future.
But do you believe that dystopias are actually possible?
Mine are. Yes, absolutely.
Surely if [George Orwell's] 1984 came to pass, wouldn't people rise up against that?
You've never lived through a real dictatorship if you say that. Have you ever seen the film called The White Rose?It was a group of people under the Nazis, who tried to oppose them. They all ended up on meat hooks. When you know you're in a real police state is when the police shoot. With the recent G20 protests [in Toronto] if they had actually shot people, we would know that something had really fallen off the cliff. That's why Kent State was so deeply shocking to people. It just wasn't supposed to happen.
This interview has been condensed and edited.