Wild Authors: Margaret Atwood

Popular author Margaret Atwood called climate change the “everything change.” Atwood’s novels are generally about the human experience, at times notably the female’s, but she also writes about this everything change. Her genre-busting books range from literary to speculative. Global warming occurs prominently in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (which she calls “speculative fiction”) – Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013) – which describe a post-apocalyptic Earth set in the near future.1

I think it’s interesting that, like Jeff VanderMeer, discussed earlier of this series, Atwood has many close relatives who are scientists. This certainly must have inspired her imagination when bringing the natural world into the intricate human environments about which she writes.

At the beginning of the trilogy, in Oryx and Crake, the reader can tell by the descriptions of the world that global warming is taking place due to rising seas, harshly pounding large waves, incredible heat, and so on. In a holistic way, it is not surprising that the world Atwood created in this trilogy reflects one of corporate greed, dystopian values, genetic cloning, and other human manipulations of nature – a mirror of the world we made ourselves, most particularly where we could be heading. The MaddAddam trilogy, according to Quill and Quire: 2

It’s a story about The End of Civilization As We Know It, but the event is coming up very soon – around the year 2050, it seems, from the hints Atwood provides. That’s close enough to the present for us to be able to recognize the seeds of catastrophe in our morning newspaper. Environmental degradation, global warming, and the resultant floods up the East Coast (Harvard has drowned) provide the backdrop, but the central action involves our most disturbing current headlines: cloning and genetic manipulation, toxic microbes and viruses, and a culture that has handed all the important decisions over to the “numbers people.”

The second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, came six years after Oryx and Crake. Rather than being a true sequel, it is a retelling of the first part of the trilogy from the perspective of two new characters. Using flashbacks and fleshing out the original mythology and narrative, Year of the Flood, like I noted in the Jeff VanderMeer piece in this series, also reminded me – at least in structure somewhat – of the television show “Lost,” which filled in blanks later with new perspectives. Again, in the third part of the trilogy, MaddAddam, Atwood retells the story and builds it with the underlying idea of a “fresh start”. According to LitReactor:3

Even though Atwood gives us a new beginning in each of these novels, it is not until Maddaddam [sic], the final installment of the trilogy, that she truly explores the theme of starting over. And even then, she poses the questions but doesn’t give the answers. Questions about creation, the infallibility of “God,” and the evolution of religion. She does this once again by flashing to the characters’ pasts, focusing on backstory to expand the world’s mythology even further. At this point, the narratives of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood have converged. Jimmy and the Maddaddamites (the survivors introduced in The Year of the Flood) are united in the day to day struggles of dystopian life. The Crakers, however, those Adam and Eve’s of the new world, are more preoccupied with where they came from than where they are going (much like Atwood) and demand nightly stories of life before “the Great Rearrangement.” These remnants of the old world, knowledge of good and evil, taint the Crakers’ so-called fresh start.

“Lost” offered, indeed, one of my favorite mythologies ever, so I am very keen to the idea that in storytelling we can deepen the story by bringing in new characters and new truths later that examine the initial story. New perspectives give a sort of humanities type of peer review and offer the reader a fuller and clearer look into the world being created by the author – often reflecting upon our own world and speculating on what may happen if we continue going at our current rate. I like the “Lost” quotes below, where two of the oldest people on the island (therefore hopefully the keys for the audience to understand the cosmology and existence of the island) are talking about why characters are brought to the island.

MAN IN BLACK: I don’t have to ask. You brought them here. Still trying to prove me wrong, aren’t you?
JACOB: You are wrong.
MAN IN BLACK: Am I? They come. They fight. They destroy. They corrupt. It always ends the same.
JACOB:  It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress.

The final line above has some similarities to what happens in our world with climate change. “What happens next?” That’s what readers wanted to know from Margaret Atwood after Oryx and Crake. Well, in fact, the world only ends once. Anything that happens before is just progress. And we can look at this progress through different lenses, but I think Atwood’s treatment of climate change – or rather, everything change – is particularly clever.

Note that Atwood has included environmental themes in many of her books – it’s part of our human condition, after all. And global warming is not some tiny object within fiction that we can hold in our hands – rather it is indeed everything change, with up- and down-stream effects, many of which Atwood has explored in fiction, poetry, and even the graphic novel, whether about overpopulation, environmental degradation, or an assortment of issues that generally play into the reasons behind why our world is warming. And, for sure, those reasons have to do with the human species.

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1. Kirkus Reviews. “Genre and Margaret Atwood,” by Andrew Liptak. August 4, 2015.
2. Quill and Quire. “Oryx and Crake,” by Bronwyn Drainie. 2003.
3. LitReactor. “Starting from Scratch: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdamm Trilogy,” by Joshua Chaplinsky. September 3, 2013.

(Photo by Liam Sharp.)

This article was originally published on Eco-Fiction.com on October 9, 2016. It is part of our Wild Authors series.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Eco-Fiction.com and Dragonfly.eco, sites that explore ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

One thought on “Wild Authors: Margaret Atwood

  1. I loved these books because her future is very plausible. Like the world we have now, there is a divide between the rich middle class which lives in gated communities and the wild street life. The future is a great vehicle for speaking about the present and in her trilogy she touches on many of our fears about genetic modification and corrupt science but she balances that with the flawed but well meaning Mad Adam cult. I am a visual artist dealing with dystopian themes and I was very inspired by this series of books.

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