Superhero rabbits were among the first characters created by novelist Margaret Atwood when she was maybe all of six. They flew around eating ice-cream cones, shooting off an occasional bullet, but for the most part fooling people and having fun.
In later speculative works, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Oryx and Crake,” and “The Year of the Flood,” her vision darkened.
“In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination,” the prolific Canadian author considers the weird characters with their nifty powers who populate the utopian and dystopian worlds of science fiction.
We spoke in the Cornell Club bar in New York.
Lundborg: Is “A Handmaid’s Tale” really science fiction?
Atwood: I’d call it speculative fiction -- it considers what it might be like if the U.S. entered a period of social unrest, which resulted in people wanting more security in exchange for personal freedom, and what if the form it took were a theocracy.
Lundborg: For candidates, there already seems to be a God test.
Atwood: A real theocracy would have a more narrow focus, and take the position that its view of divine affairs is the only correct one. It would eliminate heretics and that would include everybody else.
Lundborg: Are we closer now to a theocracy than we were when you wrote “Handmaid’s Tale” in 1985?
Atwood: There’s no question of that.
Lundborg: So, what’s causing it?
Atwood: You can almost draw it on a graph, the cyclical patterns the United States goes through. Hard times bring an upsurge of religious feeling, “Help us out, please, God, we’re having trouble here.”
But it also brings the “We’ve got to organize and overthrow something or other” feeling. That would be the French Revolution, where too much power and money were concentrated at the top, and they got in trouble through an expensive foreign war.
Where to raise money? Must tax the already quite thoroughly taxed people, and then the price of bread goes up. That’s the combination for a big explosion.
Means of Reproduction
Lundborg: Why do men always feel they want to control the means of reproduction?
Atwood: Boy, is that an old motif! You can’t have people just marrying anybody. Really early on, it was probably a way of preventing inbreeding. It works better to mix things up.
There have been many laws and rules about it, though the rules themselves may be very different.
Lundborg: So you can’t write sci fi without accounting for sex?
Atwood: You can’t. You have to account for it some way, even if you create a planet in which people have 50 different genders. If they don’t have sex, then to reproduce they’ll have to send out spores or rootlets. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any of them -- unless they’re immortal.
Lundborg: Tell me about the pointy metallic bra.
Pointy Metal Bra
Atwood: Whenever you see a clothing item that’s repeated quite a lot, or a costume trope, you wonder where it comes from, why it becomes obligatory, and why Bugs Bunny turns up wearing it in “What’s Opera, Doc?”
Lundborg: And Madonna!
Atwood: She took the Peter Pan bra with circular stitching and wore it on the outside of her clothing, but it does refer back to the Wagnerian Walkure outfits of the 19th century.
You put the metal bra on a woman, and make her a virgin. Plus they’ll never sag or droop.
Lundborg: What’s the function of the monsters?
Atwood: Heroes need monsters to establish their heroic credentials. You need something scary to overcome.
Lundborg: Hollywood can’t go through the comic book shelves fast enough. Why do we have multiple superhero franchises now?
Atwood: Technology has made it possible to create those worlds and make them look very real, very involving.
The 3-D “Avatar” world is a fully-created world. The scantily clad creatures, with their blue hue and pointy ears, refer back to Victorian fairy painting.
Lundborg: What are you working on now?
Atwood: It’s a third book after “Oryx and Crake” and “The Year of the Flood” called “Mad Adam,” about the activist group that broke away from God’s Gardeners. I’m up to page 80.
Lundborg: What the most dystopian thing you see coming in the future?
Atwood: The extinction of large terrestrial life forms other than ours, the extinction of most bird species. I don’t look forward to the death of the biosphere.
When that happens, we’re gone.
To buy Atwood’s “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination” in North America, click here.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)