Future Tense

An Interview With Margaret Atwood

The acclaimed author on hope, science, and writing about the future.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood in Toronto on March 6, 2012.

Photo by Mark Blinch/Reuters

Climate fiction, or “cli fi,” can be a dreary genre. Storytellers like to make a grim business of climate change, populating their narratives with a humorless onslaught of death, destruction, drowned monuments, and starving children. Margaret Atwood is the conspicuous exception, somehow managing to tackle the subject, including these familiar elements, with deadpan wit and an irreverent playfulness, making it both more interesting and believable. The flood is coming, her MaddAddam trilogy promises, but there is hope.

Atwood’s intensely literary, human focus on environmental issues and the future of the planet is shaping a more optimistic vision of cli fi, one that sidesteps the blame games and the “will-they, won’t-they” battles over carbon emissions. Her response is clear and compelling: The planet is changing. We need creativity, ambition, and some powerful new stories to understand how we can change with it.

My colleagues and I invited Atwood to Arizona State University in November to help launch a new project about these challenges, the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) Our conversation was inspired by the idea that an effective response to what Atwood calls the “everything change” will take more than better batteries and lightbulbs (though we’ll need them too). To answer the challenge, we need to think much bigger about what it means to be human in the era when we dominate every corner of this world.

Last fall, you became the first author to submit work to the Future Library project—and no one will be able to read that story until 2114.

The Future Library project is something thought up by a conceptual artist called Katie Paterson. She was approached by the Oslo Library in Norway, which is building a new facility, and it wanted a special thing. What she came up with was Future Library. A forest has been planted in Norway that will grow for 100 years. Each one of those 100 years, one author will be invited to contribute something to the future library in a sealed box. It can be one word. It can be a poem. It can be a story. It can be a novel. It can be nonfiction. There are two stipulations: No. 1, no images. No. 2, you cannot tell anybody what is inside the box.

These boxes will accumulate in a special room—the Future Library room—and people will be able to go into that room and see the titles and the authors and imagine what’s in the boxes. Meanwhile the forest is growing, and at the 100-year moment, the boxes will all be opened and enough trees will be cut from this forest to make the paper to print the Future Library books. The first person to put a box in there—their book will be a hundred years old. The last person to put it in—it will be 1 year old. You will get a continuum through 100 years of what writers have seen fit to communicate to the future.

The selecting committee will renew itself as it will have to do, and the people who will be on that final committee have not been born yet nor have their parents been born. The final authors have not been born yet nor have their parents been born, so it’s completely an unknown. It’s the kind of project you are going to either say yes to immediately because it grabs your imagination, or you’re going to say no to it immediately because you’ll not be able to see the point of writing something that will not be published in your lifetime.

I think I said yes to it immediately partly because I’m used to thinking about build-outs into the future but also because I was one of those children who buried little jars with things in them in the backyard. It is the same sort of thing. You hope that someone might find it and open it up at some time in the future. It is a letter to the future. It is like any book that you would write today because the time when somebody reads that book is always different from the time in which the writer is writing it. Just that in this case, the length of time is quite a lot longer.

I’m so glad you used that word hope. Are you hopeful about the future?

The Future Library is in itself a very hopeful thing because No. 1, you’re assuming that there will be people a hundred years from now. That’s a big hope. No. 2, you assume that the forest will grow. You’re assuming that the library will still be there. You’re assuming that people will still be able to read and that they will still be interested in reading. All of these are very hopeful emotions to have. It is a vote of confidence in the future.

I think hope is among a number of things that are part of the human toolkit. It’s built in unless people are suffering from clinical depression. You might even define that state as something’s gone wrong with the hope. We are all hopeful in that respect. What was it that Oscar Wilde said about second marriages—a triumph of hope over experience. He was so naughty.

Whether you call it science fiction or speculative fiction, much of your work  imagines a future that many of us wouldn’t want. Do you see stories as a way to effect change in the world, especially about climate change?

I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change because when people think climate change, they think maybe it’s going to rain more or something like that. It’s much more extensive a change than that because when you change patterns of where it rains and how much and where it doesn’t rain, you’re also affecting just about everything. You’re affecting what you can grow in those places. You’re affecting whether you can live there. You’re affecting all of the species that are currently there because we are very water dependent. We’re water dependent and oxygen dependent.

The other thing that we really have to be worried about is killing the oceans, because should we do that there goes our major oxygen supply, and we will wheeze to death.

It’s rather useless to write a gripping narrative with nothing in it but climate change because novels are always about people even if they purport to be about rabbits or robots. They’re still really about people because that’s who we are and that’s what we write stories about.

You have to show people in the midst of change and people coping with change, or else it’s the background. In the MaddAddam books, people hardly mentioned “climate change,” but things have already changed. For instance, in the world of Jimmy who we follow in Oryx and Crake, the first book, as he’s growing up as an adolescent, they’re already getting tornadoes on the East Coast of the United States, the upper East Coast, because I like setting things in and around Boston. It’s nice and flat, and when the sea rises a bunch of it will flood. It’s the background, but it’s not in-your-face a sermon.

When you set things in the future, you’re thinking about all of the same things as the things that you’re thinking about when you’re writing historical fiction. But with the historical fiction, you’ve got more to go on, and you also know that people are going to be checking up on your details. If you put the wrong underpants on Henry VIII, you’re in trouble.

Especially if Henry finds out.

If Henry finds out, yes, he’ll be quite annoyed. I’m picky about those things, and if I put something in the future, it has to be consistent with everything else that’s there and also has to be plausible. It has to be something that could actually happen.

I’m quite curious about how you merge science and storytelling. How do you embed science into your wonderful novels?

Science is not something that exists apart from human beings. It’s one of the things we do as human beings, and we always have done science and technology in some form. Traditional herbal remedies—somebody experimented with those once upon a time. Somebody figured out that you had to cook this plant in order to eat it, or otherwise it would be poisonous. Other people experimented on things that were poisonous and thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to slip them into the tea of your enemy or maybe stick them on your arrow tips? All of that was science, by which I mean that it was experiment. It was observation of the results. It was trying things a different way, and technology has been with us ever since we started making little arrowheads and spear tips. That’s a technology. Our biggest technology that we ever, ever invented was articulated language with built-out grammar. It is that that allows us to imagine things far in the future and things way back in the past.

Atwood at Arizona State University in November.

Photo by Claire Doddman/ASU Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives

Science isn’t over there. It’s one of the things that human beings do when they’re interacting with the world. It’s not hard to build “science.” It’s not hard to build stuff we do into books about what we do. In the future, you just—I anyway—are using things we’re already working on and already experimenting with, and they have become realities in the future, whereas now they are just maybe in somebody’s lab. Things are moving so quickly that several items that were theoretical when I put them in Oryx & Crake in 2001–2003, which is when I was writing it, are now realities. On the other hand, some things that I could have put in hadn’t been invented and commercialized yet. In the first book, although there are cellphones, there’s no cloud. In the second and third books, people already knew and postulated the amount of cyberspying that we now know is going on. The God’s Gardeners, for instance, don’t use cellphones, and they don’t use computers because as they say quite rightly if you can see it, it can see you.

It’s like that. It’s using your brain and doing the research, which isn’t that hard if you’re looking for a specific thing. Since I grew up among the scientists not among the novelists, it’s not an alien way of thinking for me.

Do you do most of that research through texts, through journals and the Internet, or do you work with particular—?

How do I find out the stuff? There’s some very handy pop science magazines. By pop science, I mean they’ve got pretty pictures, and I don’t have to do the math. Those would be Scientific American and Discover and New Scientist. If I really need to know something, I will ask an expert in the field. Sometimes I ask Twitter. For instance, I asked Twitter: If everybody in the world died, would the methane released by the decaying of their bodies affect the atmosphere? The answer came back from the experts. “Negligible.”

Before you mentioned hope as one of the key items in humanity’s toolkit. What about imagination? Is that something that functions in the same way? How would you define imagination, and how is it relevant for you?

I think our ability to think symbolically and also to project into the future is another built-in. The ability to project into the future is obviously shared by a huge number of other animals. The higher end of the food chain—they all quite obviously plan stuff out. They even cooperate with other ones to gain their objective. Ravens, for instance, show a remarkable amount of intelligence. But the ability to imagine things that you can’t see and that may not even exist, I think that’s probably—I always have to say probably—unique.

What other writers inspire you in the way that they think about the future?

This is always a difficult question because in fact there are so many of them. Let’s just say the conglomerate of writers talking about the future, some of which are way out on the weird end. Some of which I think are probably quite wrong, and it won’t happen that way because they haven’t taken human nature into consideration. They haven’t read enough Shakespeare basically. People have sometimes quite starry-eyed views of things that might be possible.

For instance, I think getting yourself frozen is one of those schemes that is unlikely over time to work out very well, particularly if you have a living heir who would inherit your stuff were somebody to pull the plug on your frozen self. The incentive to do that would be very, very strong. The other incentive would be if you were running one of these freezing plants and the subscriptions ran out—if not enough new people kept coming in, the incentive to declare bankruptcy and toss everybody out the backdoor—that would also be very strong. In fact it would be inevitable.

If you could have one question about the future answered, what question would that be?

Will there be people in a hundred years?

You’ve placed your bet in a way with the library.

I have. As I say, hope is built in. I’m counting on it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.