Margaret Atwood’s zombies: the present state of the future
Atwood places her novels in the Jules Verne tradition of science fiction: within the realms of possibility
Margaret Atwood: ‘I’ve always been a multiple-form writer.’ Photograph: Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images
If a zombie apocalypse ever takes place, I want to be with Margaret Atwood. We’re sitting in an Edinburgh hotel talking about The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, the online novel she co-wrote with English writer Naomi Alderman. The two authors wrote alternating chapters, with neither knowing where the other would take the story next. So when Alderman ended a chapter with a character trapped by a zombie in a shack containing nothing but a chair, a bucket and what we call a chest of drawers but North Americans call a bureau, it was up to Atwood to figure out how she escaped.
“I had to get her out of the shack,” says Atwood. “How would you do it? You push the bureau over to the door, so all of the zombie cannot get in. Then you open the door enough so that the [zombie’s] upper half can protrude through the doorway.
“You then turn the bucket over its head, and, with one of the drawers that you’ve taken out of the bureau, hit the bucket very hard. And then you would kick the zombie in the chest, and it would topple over backwards and you would leap lightly through the door from the bureau over the zombie and run away very fast.”
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at Atwood’s skill at devising cunning escape plans. She has just published MaddAddam, the final part of a trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and continued six years later with The Year of the Flood. Unsettling, funny and savagely satirical, the books are set in a not-too-distant future in which most of humanity has been killed by a man-made illness, leaving a handful of survivors to reflect on their pasts and cope with a present that includes murderous fellow survivors, terrifying bioengineered pigs and gentle bioengineered people who may be the future of humanity.
The Jules Verne school of sci-fi
Atwood offers a vivid picture of how technology could affect society over the next century. And it’s not far-fetched speculation – the scientific breakthroughs in her books are all technically possible. In this sense, the books are part of one of two traditions in science fiction. “There’s one line of descent in modern sci-fi which goes from Jules Verne, who was writing about stuff he thought would or could come true,” she says. “Things that are within the realms of possibility.
“Then you have HG Wells with The Time Machine – no way, José, it’s not going to happen. One of them leads to Star Wars and the other one leads to 1984. So that’s the distinction. There are no dragons or time machines. But there are a lot of new bioengineered forms and, yes, we can make that virus.”
As the daughter of an entomologist and a nutritionist, science was always part of her life. “It wasn’t a question of being interested in it, I was just immersed in it,” she says. This was reflected in her earliest writing. “My first novel, at the age of seven, was about an ant. There’s something about the first three stages in the life of an ant that are not very lively.” She laughs. “Once it had legs, things became more fun.”