Future Tense

Margaret Atwood, Prophet?

An interview with the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.
Margaret Atwood

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

Few writers have been so close to the pulse of this past tumultuous year than Margaret Atwood. Over several decades her wry, lyrical prose has framed dystopian futures that manage to feel visceral and fable-like all at the same time. Readers have been turning and returning to her work as they confront the rise of authoritarian conservative politics, rapidly evolving biotechnologies, and the slow-motion disaster of climate change. Her harrowing 1985 novel of misogyny and oppression in a near-future fundamentalist Christian America, The Handmaid’s Tale¸ has reached millions of viewers as a Hulu series and prompted numerous costumed protests with “handmaids” advocating for reproductive and civil rights. Her MaddAdam trilogy (2003, 2009, 2013) envisions a calamitous finale for the human race in an all-too-near future dominated by bioengineering, rampant consumerism, and climate change.

The worlds Atwood describes are uncomfortably close to our own, and they seem to be drawing closer. I had the chance to talk with her recently about how stories shape our relationship with the future and why people sometimes mistake her work for prophecy. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ed Finn: Many people have remarked on the seeming prescience of The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy. Did you predict the future in these books?

Margaret Atwood: The answer is no, I did not predict the future because you can’t really predict the future. There isn’t any “the future.” There are many possible futures, but we don’t know which one we’re going to have. We can guess. We can speculate. But we cannot really predict.

As someone who tells stories that frequently are set in a future, what kind of relationship do you see between the worlds you imagine and what we might call the nonfiction future, the changes we actually expect to see?

Well, all stories about the future are actually about the now. However, it’s also true that you generally look ahead of you to see where you’re going and that’s what those kinds of books are like. They’re like blueprints of the possible futures that help us to decide whether that is where we want to go. 1984 was actually about 1948 and looking down the road what might happen should England become like the Soviet Union of the now. So the Handmaid’s Tale was about trends that were already there in the now event, and what might happen if those trends continued on in that way. Would we like that? Is that where we want to live?

So how do you react to those who see works like the Handmaid’s Tale as prophetic or predictive of trends today?

I would say to them exactly what I have just said to you.

That’s what I thought you might say. Do you see a difference between the way people respond to the social dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale and how they respond to the MaddAddam trilogy with its depiction of science and technology?

MaddAddam is a social dystopia, too, just as the Handmaid’s Tale is also an environmental dystopia. And those things are very much joined at the hip. I’m reading a book right now about the deep distant past. I’m at the part where it’s describing a climate change period that’s having kicked off a lot of warfare and village burnings. And this is a long time ago. It’s like 5000 B.C. So in general, when there’s enough food, you get less war—not always, but in general. And when you have a climate change events, you get less food. So that’s the connection. Social upheaval is frequently triggered by economic upheaval as in the French Revolution, as in the Great Depression. When things go wrong, of course, people want somebody else to blame.

Do you think the relationship between science fiction and reality is changing? It seems like speculative fiction and science fiction are everywhere now, infiltrating all sorts of other genres.

Isn’t it amazing? We wouldn’t have said that in the year 2000 at all. I think you might have said it in the ’30s when it was new in magazines. You might have said it, in the ’50s when a lot of people were writing science fiction because it was a way of writing about McCarthyism without actually naming it. But in the ’90s, after the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR collapsed, people were less interested in it because they thought everything was going to be fine. It’s when people think that everything isn’t fine that these stories come out. There were huge numbers of utopias in the 19th century, and a lot of them took off from the state of urban squalor and poverty and such that the people were seeing in London.

So they were writing utopias in which the world had been made quite a lot better through, quite frequently, technological improvements, because that’s what was happening in their now. There were all those improvements. And some things have gotten better. And so they didn’t see why that shouldn’t continue.

But the first world war put paid to that. And people’s illusions about the superiority, for instance, of white people kind of went out the window. You couldn’t blame the war on anybody else. They were doing it to one another.

And if you weren’t convinced by that, along came the second world war. So that’s why utopias became harder to write unless they were set on another planet. And dystopias became easier to write.

It’s interesting that you pinpointed the ’90s and the year 2000 because I agree with you that for a while there everybody in the West was sort of euphoric about the possibilities of a new era of peace and cooperation.

Yes. That’s when we got the book called The End of History. Remember that? Another prediction about the future that didn’t work out.

So, having talked about the ’30s and the two world wars, how would you characterize the current uptake in science fiction and speculative fiction?

Young people are worried about the future! The next question you may ask: Why are young people worried about the future?


What’s to worry about? Well, there’s climate. And it’s not just global warming. Probably the thing we should be most worried about is the death of the oceans, which is not due just to global warming. It would also be due to toxicity and the amount of plastic that’s going into the ocean. And should the oceans die, of course, there goes the major planetary source of oxygen without which we cannot breathe.

And young people are also worried about the fact that all of the global political chess pieces are in motion. We don’t have a stable state of affairs. And when you don’t have a stable state of affairs, it’s very hard to plan your own future, because you don’t know, for instance, if the currency that you are using in your country is suddenly devalued. There go your savings.

So naturally they’re worried. However, I like to give a little glimpses of hope. There’s a new book called Drawdown. It’s something like the most useful ideas for combating and reversing climate change. These are solutions that already exist. And people are already doing them.

Do you feel a responsibility or a motivation to respond to that anxiety?

Well, I’ve kind of already responded to it. So having written The Handmaid’s Tale, the MaddAddam trilogy, a not inconsiderable number of words, and more recently The Heart Goes Last, how much more response do you think it is in me to come up with at my age? Enough is enough.

My other adventure, and another response, is the Angel Catbird graphic novel trilogy, which is at heart a bird conservation project. Have you come across that?

I’ve seen it online. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m quite excited to.

Oh Ed, I’m ashamed of you.

I’m sorry. At least, I didn’t lie to you.

No, you didn’t. You wouldn’t have gotten away with it, anyway.

Angel Catbird is in three volumes, which is a response to the fact that the four big enemies facing migratory birds are glass windows, habitat loss, toxicity, and cats. Conservationists have generally tiptoed around the cats because they didn’t want the death threats and hate mail. How dare you say that my kitty-witty is killing 2 billion birds a year?

Do not cross the cat lovers.

Oh, you don’t, no, you don’t want them to piss off. And anyway, it wouldn’t do any good if you did. What you want them to do is, is treat their cats the same way you would treat a dog. So if you’re going to have a pet and companion, you should take care of that entity better than cat lovers frequently do. And therefore, in the Angel Catbird, we have the kinds of facts that people really ought to know such as the chances of your cat being returned if it gets lost is 3 percent. And some cities hire people to go around at night and pick up all the dead cats that have been hit by cars because the sight is distressing. They’re not smart about cars.

Well, this makes me glad I’m a dog person. One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot is the notion of time as a cultural construct, something that changes across different cultures. Do you think that our broader social relationship to the whole idea of the future has changed? Have politics or the rise of the internet changed it?

I think that, once upon a time, people didn’t think about the future much at all. And just in the same way, they didn’t much think about the distant past because they knew very little about it. If you’re living in a stable society, the future is going to be much the same as the present.

Thinking about the future took off partly when people discovered deep time—just how old a lot of things were and that there are many, many different cultures that had preceded theirs and were no longer around. When people started digging things up, in other words—when archaeology got going. And people realized that civilizations had risen and fallen. Was theirs going to do that, too?

So some of the early sci-fi writers were pretty fixated on that. For instance, The Time Machine goes into the future and finds that very thing happening, so that scared people. And once you’re talking about things changing, you’re talking about stories, about worlds in which we do not yet live. So I think that’s when that whole trend in literature got going. You don’t find much about it earlier. You find people traveling to different places. There are a lot of stories like that in Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver’s Travels are not time travels. Time traveling doesn’t come in until the 20th century, late 19th and 20th. Even Frankenstein is not a time-travel book.

One thing that I wonder about is whether the span of the future that we think about today is actually shrinking. We’re no longer thinking 10 or 20 years ahead. We’re not creating that many long-term projects. We’re not doing things that last more than one election cycle. Do you think that’s true?

No, I don’t think it’s true. And when you read Drawdown, you’ll realize that it’s not true because they’re all thinking in terms of 2050. How long does it take for a project X to sequester Y amounts of carbon? That’s what’s on their minds. Of course, if we had started these kinds of projects in the 1970s, we wouldn’t be in the fix that we are in today. Because we already would have dealt with this problem. So the later we leave it, the worse it is going to be and the harder it will be to clean up. But when you read Drawdown, you will see that help is on the way.

At the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, which I direct, we’re almost finished with a comic book that takes on the same challenge called Drawn Futures: Arizona 2045, which is about what it will be like to live in Phoenix in the midst of climate change. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)

That’s long-term thinking. In other words, if we do these things, what will Arizona look like in 2045?

Yeah. And we’re writing it for fifth- to eighth-grade students.

That’s a good plan. Those are the people who will put it into practice.

Do you think we need new kinds of stories to pose these questions to the young people who are going to be inheriting this planet?

I think we need new ways of deploying stories. But those ways already exist and you just did one of them. So there’s graphic novels. There’s podcasts. There’s audiobooks. There’s interactive projects. There’s a lot of different ways. But I think it’s really about: Are we going to like the results of how we are living today? Will we like it? And that goes on and gets more magnified. Is that who we want to be? Is that how we want to live? And or, even worse, if we keep on going this way, will we live?

So aside from Drawdown and Angel Catbird, both of which I’m going to order right after we finish talking, what else should we be reading or looking at these days to help us understand this whole notion of the future of the future?

I am loath to tell people what they ought to read and do because everybody is different. If their interests are in the human race not remaining viable on the planet, there have been some pretty good studies on gene splicing. So maybe they would want to be reading those.

Why do you think people want to hear the story where everybody dies?

That story usually is about how almost everybody dies except the protagonist of the story. Because if everybody dies, there’s just a lot of blank paper after that. So it’s usually about what would you do if and how would you et cetera and so forth? And people like thinking about that because it’s like planning. It’s like if the worst comes to the worst, I would at least have some idea of what to do.

And if you really want those kinds of books, there’s a group of books by a man called Survivorman. And they’re very good practical guides. What to do if you’re lost in the woods? What to do when the lights go out? All those kinds of things. What not to do? You can make really good foot insulators out of the stuffing from the upholstery in your car; that kind of thing.

I’m going to hang on to that one. That’s a good tip.

Survivorman. His name is Les Stroud, He’s got a TV series too. How not to burn yourself up in the shelter you have built?

These sound like extremely useful tips. But aside from practical survivor guides, if you were to think about a kind of cultural or psychological survival strategy, what’s the most important thing that young people need to survive to be resilient to adapt in the future that is coming?

To survive what?

Well, whatever happens.

No, you’ve got to be more specific.

Well, I guess, let’s go with climate change.

OK. So it’s going to depend where you live, isn’t it? And it’s going to depend how the weather patterns in your particular area are affecting what is going on in that area. So it’s going to depend on are you in a place where it’s going to rain a lot more? Or are you in a place where it’s going to rain a lot less, just for instance? Look up from your phone for one instant and figure out where you yourself are actually living. What kind of a place are you living in? How are conditions likely to alter? What will you do if they do alter? And alter how? Hotter, colder, wetter, drier?

What things can you eat? Does all the food that you’ll eat come from somewhere else? And what will happen to you if the supply chain is interrupted, just for instance? Since World War II, because of cheap energy, food has been brought in from far, far away to people. And they’ve come to take that for granted. But suppose that condition alters. Then you’re going to have to figure out what is it that you can eat that is more immediately available to you and does not include such menu items as your next-door neighbor.

I was in Rome a long time ago and I found the famous sunken temple where a lot of cats hang out. So I went back to the landlady of the pensione where I was staying, and I said, “Why are there all those cats at the temple of whatever it was?” And she said, “During the war, there were far fewer.” What did that mean? It meant that people were eating them. So after you’ve eaten Rover, what else are you going to eat?

Well, I think that sounds like a pretty good place to wrap up this interview.

Isn’t it dark? That’s why you need to get Drawdown, which has much more cheering ideas. I like to follow sites and entities that are acting positively. On Twitter, you might look up Professor Trash Wheel, which is busily collecting plastics in Baltimore Harbor. It’s a solar-powered wheel that looks a lot like a paddle-wheel steamer. And it picks up these floating plastics and keeps them from getting into the ocean. And there’s another project called the Ocean Cleanup. And the X-Prize Science Fiction Advisory Council. They’ve instituted a panel of sci-fi writers, including me, to think about some of these concepts and come up with out-of-the-box ideas. Ask a sci-fi writer, they’ll invent something. And then sooner or later, somebody might try to do it. So, yes, those are pretty positive.

Those are great. I feel like we could all use a little more optimism these days.

It’s absolutely true. If you tell people it’s all doom and gloom, they’re going to say, “Well, in that case I’m just going to party.” But if you say there is something practical that you can do, nine out of 10 people will do it.

The other thing is don’t look to the billionaires for help because they already have their fallback position. They’re going to buy a lot of oxygen makers and stick themselves in a cave somewhere with all modern conveniences. And that is their private solution. They probably each have one. But you are not one of those people. And in fact, most of us are not those people. So it’s up to us if we really want them, if we’re really that keen on the human race to act in such a way that there will be one.

Retreating to a hole is really not our best aspiration as a species.

Well, it’s also very expensive. So you and I cannot afford to retreat to such a hole. And such holes are vulnerable, anyway, because if somebody finds your energy supply and cuts the line, which they might well out of resentment, that’s it for you. We’ve read those sci-fi books. We know what happens.

Well, this was fantastic. Thank you so much for taking the time.

You’re so welcome. And I hope everything is going to be going well in Arizona in 2045.

Oh, well me too. We’ll see about that.

Maybe you’ll see about it. I’m not going to be around but possibly you will be.

Well, I’ll write you a letter.

OK. You’ll be very, very surprised if you get an answer.

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, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.