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 …"
One of the interesting things to me is that, right now, some of the most feminist books out there are being written by men. In Stephen King, there are two big no-nos. One is being mean to women; one is being mean to kids. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy: If a woman wrote that, she would just be accused of being the most hate-filled, anti-male kind of person. So it is actually men writing the most extreme books of that kind. That's interesting to me, just as the most extreme criticism of women's behaviour, if it's not just "slut" kinds of things, is going to be written by women.
Does the notion of writing actively feminist work not interest you?
No, it's that that term itself has always been very rubbery. It's hard to get people to say exactly what they mean by it. So they say "feminist." Does that mean all the female characters are good and all the men are bad? Would we believe that? Probably not, unless it was some kind of other-planet-type science-fiction sort of thing. Does it mean that we are exploring ways in which life is unpleasant for women? Well, it might mean that.
But do we honestly believe that life is not unpleasant for a lot of men? Life is actually quite unpleasant for a lot of men. What does that mean? What exactly are we looking at? The division, with this set of characteristics being over here, and that set being over there, doesn't hold up to scrutiny.
Does it mean, for instance, that we should not have laws that enable women to perform as individuals? No, we should have laws that enable women to perform as individuals. It's not a particularly extreme point of view. If you go back through history and you could vote on every single issue that has been hotly debated at the time, most people in our society would vote for the side that turned out to be the feminist one. Should women be allowed to read? Should women be allowed to have jobs? Should women be allowed to control their own money?
There's a moment early in the novel when someone notes that perfection exacts a price, but it's the imperfect who pay it.
That's partly true. I think the perfect also pay.
So much of this trilogy is about what can go wrong when perfection is sought in an extreme way. How should we balance our desire to improve as people, and as a society, with the perils that come from going too far?
That's the utopia question. Every utopia – let's just stick with the literary ones – faces the same problem: What do you do with the people who don't fit in? The real ones also did that. Remember that National Socialism presented itself as utopia. In order to achieve this wonderful future in which everything's going to be terrific, who are you going to shove into a hole in the ground? Every one of them has had to face that, including the literary ones, beginning with Thomas More. Even including Jonathan Swift's utopia of the Houyhnhnms, who finally decide they have to get rid of Gulliver, because he doesn't fit. He can't be. So he has to go, much though they like him. Goodbye to you.
But where's the line between a whole set of desirable incremental improvements …
…and a utopia? Utopia is usually a total blueprint: This is how we're going to run everything; this is how everything fits. Typically in literary utopias you get a traveller to that place, or an observer within that place, who is shown the thing once it's already complete – you don't see it in the stages of evolving. And then you get what I call the "touring the sewage system" problem. In your bad, inferior society, you handled the sewage system this way. But we have vastly improved on that, and now I'm going to show you how all that works. And that's usually kind of a boring part; it poses narrative problems.
How do you make that interesting?
There are various ways of doing it. A lot of the 19th-century utopias were essentially guided tours. They were written by people who really did think those ideas should be implemented. They put it into fictional form to show what it would look like. Then you get more extreme, less realistic examples, like W.H. Hudson's A Crystal Age, a wonderful William Morris type society in which people are doing a lot of weaving in beautiful stained-glass houses in the woods.
But the catch is that nobody has sex – they're not even interested in it, except these two tragic figures called the mother and the father who have to do this awful thing that everybody pities them for. Then the unfortunate mother has to do this horrible thing called giving birth. But it's a tragedy because our traveller from the past falls in love with one of these beauteous maidens who doesn't know what he's talking about – "You want me to do what?"
In this book, and The Year of the Flood though, there's this utopian vision emerging from a spiritual survivalist movement, God's Gardeners …
… well, they're holding the fort. But this kind of thinking has been built into mythology for a very long time. Deucalion's flood. Noah's flood. Utnapishtim's flood in Gilgamesh. There's always been some kind of thing that's wiped out quite a few people. Actually, as Homer presents the Trojan War, Zeus says at some point that there are too many people; we have to get rid of some of them! But there's always the seed of beginning again. Nobody can actually go so far as to say it's all going to be wiped out and then there'll be nothing.
In MaddAddam, the people holding the fort systematically harmonize themselves with the things that, quite literally, fall outside their square. They have their boundaries, they have their adversaries, and they ally themselves with them, in the end.
Have you read 1491? It's about what North and South America were like in 1491, after which the mortality rate was something like 95 per cent. It's probably the biggest mass extinction of human beings that has ever happened. Black Death was 50 per cent, overall. Ninety-five per cent is really pretty high. But that is not the first bottleneck the human species went through, which we know from counting back through the mitochondrial DNA. We have had ups and downs, as with any species. If you follow whooping cranes, they were down to 25 in the world; they're now up to 600. Now those are going to be somewhat inbred. It is a problem.
So is a bottleneck coming again?
I'm not a prophet. What I'm saying is: You can kill a lot of them, but until you kill every last … until you kill it down to the nub … That's true of every animal, including us.
A strange month to not be a prophet, with so much of what you predicted in the first two books of this trilogy coming to pass: lab-manufactured meat, and news of approval being given in Japan to grow human organs inside pigs.
They'll grow kidneys first, like I said would happen. They're trying to put this law in place that says you can never have human cortex tissue in an animal. Dream on. Somebody's going to do it, just to see what happens.
That must be one of the strange realities of working on a project that's this future-oriented and that took this long.
To see it come true. I know. It's scary. But as usual I didn't put anything in at the beginning that wasn't already in process. The question wasn't "Will they be able to do it?" but "Will they keep trying to do it?" And the answer is "Yes."