As technology, culture and politics evolve at unprecedented speed, speculative literature faces an identity crisis. When the future is now and the dystopia is here, isn’t the dystopian writer actually describing possible versions of the present? In agreement, Margaret Atwood quotes from William Gibson’s NPR interview: “‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ As a dystopian writer, I can’t keep up. In The Heart Goes Last (her new novel from Bloomsbury India), for instance, I put in child robot sex dolls designed for paedophiles. And then I find that they’re already making them in Japan…”
Paradoxically, the diva of dystopia is an optimist. Last year, she submitted the first book of the Future Library, a literary meditation on time in Norway, in which 100 authors in all the world’s languages will submit 100 books, one every year, in sealed boxes. No one will know their contents until they are opened a century from now, and printed on paper made from a forest which has just been planted. The rules of the game are simple: the text must consist of words, not images (death to comics!), submit two copies well sealed and if it’s in a minor language, throw in a dictionary — in case the language dies out in the next century.
“Isn’t that fun?” asks Atwood, describing a business plan that would horrify the insurance industry. “Think of all the inherent assumptions. First, we assume that there will be people a century later, which is very optimistic. We assume that there will be a Norway, with people in it. We assume that those people will be able to read, and want to read. These are big assumptions.”
You also assume, like the Scandinavians, that people do not cheat. The Future Library guidelines specify that a submission can’t be all blank pages, like the once-popular trick book titled The Joy of Taxes, but random spam harvested from your email would seem to constitute a legitimate book. Viagra mailers consist of words, don’t they?
“If you were doing that in the year 95 of the project, you would probably think twice because you would still be alive in the year 100,” confirms Atwood. “But writer number three, two, or me, Writer Number One, could get away with it. Of course, we must assume that no one hacks the project. The moment you do a sealed box, secret content thing, it’s a challenge to a certain kind of person.”
The future presents a perplexing challenge just by being there. Or not there, perchance. It is like the crisis of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, as he wonders why he is writing a diary: ‘Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him: or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.’
For Atwood — poet, essayist, fiction writer, children’s writer, environmental and animal rights activist — the question of whom she wrote for in the remote future was not intimidating because every act of writing is asynchronous. It’s not like a performance, where the audience and the performer are in the same space at the same time. “And after the internet, you don’t know your reader any more. You could be read by anyone, anywhere in the world. My readers have only one thing in common — they can read.” And so, “throwing a note to an audience 100 years in the future” holds no special anxieties. Writing is anyway a leap into the dark.
However, there are places in the future where Atwood is determined not to go. She will not write hard science fiction, for instance — “neither fiction with science in it, nor space opera with ray guns.” It is familiar territory, though. “I grew up just after the era of Weird Tales, with Flash Gordon and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451,” she says. “Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventures, too — I read everything as a teenager. We think aliens are green because Burroughs made them so. I was reading John Wyndham, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley. And Jules Verne and HG Wells, the two big granddaddies of speculative fiction and science fiction proper.”
“I had my own superheroes when I was about six, two flying rabbits,” she continues. “Not very imaginatively, they were named after their capes. One had a cape with a steel bar motif across it and was named Steel, the other had dots on the cape and was named Dotty. Not very good superhero names, really. My older brother had a much more built-out universe with extraterrestrial travel, lots of wars and ray guns. I remember that I had red, orange and yellow pencils. We traded and I got the gold, purple and pink ones, you know what for? Princess dresses! He needed the red, orange and yellow pencils for explosions.”
Interestingly, Atwood was involved with a small press in the Sixties — Toronto’s House of Anansi — and knows the joys of that perilous pastime. She regards slush piles as troves of surprises, and recalls the balancing act that the publishing firm, created by writers to discover writers, performed. It subsidised its poetry list with bestsellers like Canada’s first guide to venereal disease and a bestseller titled Law, Law, Law which, among other things, served as a DIY divorce guide.
Atwood is now working on Hag-seed, her contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which she joins Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler and Jeanette Winterson to revisit a Shakespeare play in novel form. Her choice is The Tempest, which satisfies her interest in frame tales (as in The Blind Assassin, which won her the Booker Prize). The Tempest is about “a man putting on a play, within which is another play.” How will she treat Caliban, a figure of perennial interest to colonised nations? “A number of people want to put their hand up for Caliban, but not for all of Caliban,” Atwood cautions. “Nobody wants to say, oh yeah, we’re all rapists by nature. They concentrate on the oppressed nature of Caliban, but not his dangerous nature.”
The Tempest was Shakespeare’s end-of-life play, sort of, and inversely apt for Atwood, who has grappled with the future disguised as the present in her latest novel. “The future is real estate up for grabs,” she laughs, “because no one really knows what it holds, anyone can make up a future and they won’t be contradicted by any real future until it arrives.” Now, there’s a business plan that no insurance company would turn down.