Margaret Atwood on books: "Push comes to shove, they’re great insulating material"

The author talks about "MaddAddam," how technology affects our lives, and being dubbed "Queen of the Nerds"

Published September 8, 2013 8:00PM (EDT)

Margaret Atwood      (Reuters/Mark Blinch)
Margaret Atwood (Reuters/Mark Blinch)

Since winning the 2000 Booker Prize for "The Blind Assassin," the perennially Nobel-tipped Margaret Atwood has devoted most of her writing career to that literary black sheep, science fiction. She’d prefer we call her writing “speculative fiction” (in a move dismissed by Ursula K. Le Guin as “designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders”); regardless, it’s clear that the author of "The Handmaid’s Tale" (1985) is still fond of a good dystopia. This past May, she wrapped up her Orwellian Web serial, "Positron," on, and her just-published novel, "MaddAddam," concludes a hefty near-future trilogy that started with "Oryx and Crake" (2003) and "The Year of the Flood" (2009).

The trilogy concerns “the Waterless Flood”: the mass extinction of humanity brought about by the rogue geneticist Crake so that his creations, the Crakers (like humans, but idealized pacifists), may inherit the Earth. A few humans survive, eking out a parlous existence in a rundown world; by the end, they’re repurposing bedsheets as clothes. At the center of "MaddAddam" is Zeb, a leather-jacket-wearing, wisecracking outlaw hacker who becomes a patriarch in a doomsday cult that, fittingly enough, ends up well prepared to survive the Flood.

Zeb also makes up bawdy songs, and despite the book’s bleakness, it’s often very funny. So, too, is Atwood herself. On a sunny summer day, she’s curled up with a coffee in a corner of a cafe near her Toronto home to meet journalists; she has a perpetual quarter-smile, an amused stare, and the deadpan air of a raconteur whose disconcerting tales are laced with dark humor. In SF, she has found a form that suits her voracious reading and the breadth of her interests. "MaddAddam" alone takes up religion, education, evolution, punishment and ubiquitous government surveillance. As I put my recorder down in front of her, she says, “It can join all the other little devices that are circling over our heads.” She looks up to the sky. “Hello! Enjoy the interview!”

As the trilogy is set in a potential near future, did you have to rethink certain ideas along the way from writing "Oryx and Crake" to "MaddAddam" as technology changed?

Well, since I depicted them as already happening, it was probably more of a challenge for the reader. Things pile onto my Twitter. The lab-meat hamburger which appears in this book? It’s here. The genetically modified pigs? They’ve actually blended human DNA with pig DNA at the egg level, and the resulting animals are surprisingly loaded up with human DNA.

From the time when you began the trilogy, did any technological change surpass what you were writing about?

Yeah, in "Oryx and Crake," in the libraries, Jimmy’s job is to throw out paper books and put things on CD-ROM. [Now] it would be the Cloud. Though you never know; they still have a lot of stuff on microfiche. I think every age lives in a blend of technology so there’s always older ones mixed in with newer ones, and when the new technology goes down, the immediate fallback position is either that technology just before that or one several technologies back.

Like books.

Exactly. And books are good for a couple of things: No. 1: They’re still readable when the Cloud goes down. No. 2: They make great kindling.

The word “Kindle” takes on new meaning –

Right! No. 3: Push comes to shove, they’re great insulating material. You could make a little igloo out of books if you really had to. I think of them as a form of carbon sequestration – all the CO2 is tied up in books. They don’t decay for a long time, if you bury them deep enough. It has to be below the ant level.

"MaddAddam’s" narrator, Toby, writes down her experiences on paper, so the book itself does take on an importance.

Communications technology changes possibilities for communication, but that doesn’t mean it changes the inherited structure of the brain. So you may think that you’re addicted to online reading, but as soon as it isn’t available anymore, your brain will pretty immediately adjust to other forms of reading. It’s a habit like all habits.

One of "Maddaddam’s" characters references brain plasticity as an argument against the death penalty. There are many passages in the book where it’s tempting to view the characters’ debates as analogues to ones we’re having now –

I think they’re just the debates that people would have – that’s what they would be thinking and talking about.

But would people debate the death penalty in the same way in every circumstance?

The death penalty as we have it now depends on prisons. You have to have somewhere to put people before you death-penalty them. This is a society in the future that doesn’t have prisons, doesn’t have the manpower to do prison-guarding, etc., so what are they going to do?

So even ideas that people tend to think about as absolutes, such as the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment –

They’re not absolutes. They’re entirely dependent on what kind of resources we have to enable them. So in nomadic societies, you’re not going to have a justice system that incarcerates people for long periods of time and has long trials, are you? And you’re not going to have anything like a life sentence, because where are you going to put these people? If they’re a threat to you and your society, you will kill them, and that’s typically what happened ... One of the sources for how people were treated is the Bible, and the other is the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey." What did you do when you won the Trojan War? You took all of the males, including children, and you threw them off a cliff. You didn’t want them around, wreaking revenge on you. And then you enslaved the females … So the whole criminal justice system that we have is entirely dependent on buildings.

Sometimes genre science fiction takes people as they are today and puts them in a different situation where they manage to make things work out the way they might here; clearly you’ve done something different.

It entirely depends on what kind of technological situation you’re going to put them into. So what are the tools that they have? Because we are very tool-driven. And it’s very fascinating to me to read the speculation going on amongst paleo-anthropologists. For instance, the over-arm baseball throw – only human beings can do that because of the structure of their bodies. What’s the over-arm throw good for, supposing you’re in the Pleistocene?


Right. So it enables you to kill at a distance, and killing at a distance enables you to kill without being physically wounded yourself. Big plus. Why did we develop drones? Same idea. Allows you to kill at a distance without endangering your own life or getting wounded. So the drones we have today are an extension of the over-arm throw. And everything we do is an extension of stuff we want to do and have always wanted to do. We never make anything [that isn’t] – with one exception: In Japan, they have a contest devoted to completely useless inventions.

When you were writing "Oryx & Crake," did you have the idea that you’d present the back stories of its minor characters in sequels?

I had it about five minutes afterward. I thought, “Oh-oh, we’ve left it hanging. Now everybody’s going to say, ‘What did he do? Did he kill them or not kill them?’” [At the end of "Oryx and Crake," the Crakers’ human shepherd, “Jimmy,” encounters three other humans whom he perceives as a potential threat.] So I ended it that way, saying to the reader, “What would you do?” Everybody then went into a frenzy of trying to decide what they would do.

Ten years is a long time to leave readers hanging, isn’t it? Especially as the events in "The Year of the Flood" end just a few hours after those in "Oryx & Crake."

[Laughs] If I were a younger and more energetic person, I would have written it faster. "Year of the Flood" was done in 2008, but the U.S. publisher said, “We can’t publish it now because there’s a presidential election – it’s either going to be Hillary Clinton or Obama running, and either way, all eyes will be on it,” which was true. So we postponed it a year. And similar with this one: This is 2013. It could have been 2012. That wasn’t going to happen because of the U.S. presidential election. All of the air gets sucked out of the media at that time, especially when it’s presented as such a cliffhanger. So all of the nail-biting goes into watching the election unfold, unless you have absolute faith in Nate Silver.

Speaking of President Obama, I was thinking while reading "MaddAddam" –

What you were thinking was, “Oh my God, they’ve been spying on us through the Internet all along. Who knew that?”

It had been written about, but it hadn’t been leaked in such spectacular fashion.

It was true when I was writing ["MaddAddam"], and it’s been true every since there was a developed Internet and GPS devices on your phone and all the rest of it. So what we didn’t know is the extent, but we certainly knew the mechanism, and that is why Zeb is so extremely careful about his online activities.

Is your attitude similar to Zeb’s?

Well, I’m not on the run from the law – yet. And I’m not doing anything of interest to anybody. If they want to read my dentist appointments, they’re very welcome, but anybody who really was doing a criminal activity wouldn’t be doing it in a traceable way if they could help it.

Do you have sympathy for someone like Edward Snowden?

You have to have mixed feelings. On the one hand, people do stuff under the secret of darkness that they shouldn’t be doing. On the other, governments have to have some things that are secret, so where do you draw that line, and who’s going to monitor that? The ethical landscape is laid out in [John Le Carré’s novels] "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "Smiley’s People." What are we allowed to do? What are the bad guys doing to us? From their point of view it’s similar, but then we’re the bad guys … [For Snowden], as an individual who made that choice, it’s [like] a novel. You have to say, “Wow, did you ever not know what you were getting into.” You have sympathy for the human predicament.

The ethical problem is much bigger: Where do we draw the line? What do we think about torture? Are the physical things that we’re doing to people better or worse than the physical things [our enemies are] doing to other people? I think the normalization of torture is very bad. Then it becomes what you might do on a Saturday night in the privacy of your own home, because, heck, if the U.S. government is doing it, why can’t I?

Looking at how things play out in the trilogy, Crake’s mass slaughter is horrific, but given how likable the Crakers are, some might see the situation as potentially idyllic ... 

Or not. [laughs] They are going to run out of bedsheets sooner or later. There’s no more mass wars because there’s no more mass. Simple solution to that problem. The only thing that’s gone down in this world is old-style human beings. Crake has decided that they’re too destructive, and he’s got a better model.

What is it about human beings that has gotten them into so much trouble? Number one, they have to wear clothes, because they have spread out into lots of environments that are not exactly the temperature and degree of sunlight that they can sustain. So where are you going to get the clothes? Number two, they are riddled with romantic jealousy, because of the nature of their sexuality, unlike every other primate except Bonobo chimps, who deal with it in a separate way. They are sexually turned on all the time. The Crakers, on the other hand, come into season like other mammals. The sexual selection is done by the females like everybody else, except there are certain ducks that go in for rape – I hate to break this to you. And like cats, they have multiple partners, so there’s never any question about paternity. The children are everybody’s children, and that’s fine because they don’t inherit property. They don’t need agriculture. They are completely equipped to live in a space without having to cultivate the land, which in the Bible is seen as a great curse. They’re eating naturally produced vegetable items; they can eat meat, like rabbits. They’ve got built-in insect repellent, built-in sunblock, and animal-deterrent pee.

Sounds great …

Well, try it in your backyard if you don’t like the cats. It only works for guys. I got this from Farley Mowat when he was defending his encampment against wolves.

Has your partner done this for the two of you?

We won’t go into that. I’m just telling you it works. [Laughs]

The one thing the Crakers don’t appear to have is a sense of humor. There’s a passage early on where the narrator, Toby, thinks, “Why is war so much like a practical joke? Not much difference between boo and bang.” Your own humor can be very cutting.

Yeah, but that’s just true. If you read John Keegan’s history, warfare is about the element of surprise. If you look at it throughout the ages, including the battles described in the Old Testament, there’s a huge amount of ambushing going on: “Boo. Surprise. Bang bang.”

Do you do that as a novelist?

Of course. I think we’re hard-wired to like surprises of certain kinds. I don’t mean being ambushed by a superior military force, but unless there’s going to be a surprise in the book, you are not going to be very motivated to read it, because it would be too much like paint-by-numbers. Even with police procedurals, there has to be something that gets found out that you didn’t know before.

Finally, how do you feel about being referred to, on the cover of Zoomer magazine, as Queen of the Nerds?

I think it’s funny, but they're so naughty. I’ve been called the queen of various other things, so I guess you might as well add that to the list. I guess it’s kind of funnier to be the “Queen of the Nerds” than the “Queen of Angst,” and it’s a surprise, isn’t it. Would you have expected that? Not me. At least it didn’t say “Canada’s icon.” Icons invite iconoclasts, and they always make me a bit nervous.


Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the novel for which Atwood won the Booker Prize. It was "The Blind Assassin."

By Mike Doherty

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