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
She sees clear parallels between science and literature. “They are both narrative forms,” she says. “Especially biology. That’s why so many medical doctors have become novelists . . . Every illness has a narrative. There’s before you were ill, when you started feeling ill, when you became ill and then whether you got cured or not. It’s all a sequence of events, which is what narrative is.”
Pointing out that very young children can understand basic stories, Atwood believes storytelling is innate, and probably began as a teaching aid, a way of telling others how some things were done and why other things should be avoided.
That wouldn’t work if the stories weren’t enjoyable. “We seem to be pre-programmed to understand and enjoy stories. The two elements are information and entertainment. If you only have the entertainment, it’s going to be a read-it-once book. But if you have only the information, it’s going to be a text book.”
Whatever stories we tell will inevitably be about the world we live in now – no matter where or when we set them. “Any novel is about the time in which it’s written,” says Atwood. “You can’t help it.”
This is true of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s first fictional dystopia, first published in 1985. It is set in a future US that has become a theocratic state in which women’s sexuality is strictly controlled (and yes, she does see the similarities between the novel’s Republic of Gilead and 20th-century Ireland).
“It’s set in the future, but it’s about 1984 or ’85, which is when it was written,” she says. “And what was incipient then to people who spent some time studying American culture was that the strain of fundamentalist puritanism never really went away, no matter what Ivy League- educated people might think.
“Which is why I set it at Harvard. Don’t say it can’t happen here – it has happened here, in the home of puritan theocracy. And it could happen here again, because anything can happen anywhere. The question I was attempting to answer was: if you were aiming to have totalitarianism in the United States, what form would it take?”
New Canadian breed
Along with such writers as Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje, Atwood was part of the first generation of Canadian writers to come to international attention in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Ezra Pound said ‘make it new’. Whereas in Canada in the ’60s we were just saying ‘make it’. It was a fairly open field.”
The same could be said now for the internet, a platform Atwood has embraced. She is a regular tweeter, and has published fiction online. The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home was posted on Wattpad, a story-sharing website.
She has also been writing a serial on Byliner.com, Positron, which she is building into “a fully fledged novel”. When she posted the first instalment, she didn’t know how the story would develop. “I was writing it as I was going along. It’s really energising, because you have to think pretty hard about what you’re going to do next.”
‘The clock is ticking’
When I ask if she will return to the world of the MaddAddamites, she says, “I don’t really feel there’s time in my life to do that.” Atwood, now 73, has been forced to prioritise her work in a new way.