I first encountered Atwood the summer before my senior year when she appeared on a list of summer reading as one of several different authors to choose from. I chose to read Lady Oracle (though admittedly because I didn't look to carefully and thought that it was called Lady Orange) and fell in love with it. I went on to read several more of her novels, no longer to fulfill school requirements, and loved every one. My two favorites were The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, both dystopias and both very different from one another. I shared Atwood with my friends and my mother and continue to check her shelf whenever I go to the bookstore to see if they're carrying any different titles (sadly, they insist on always carrying the same ones).
You can imagine my excitement when, while at school in New York in early 2006, I learned that Atwood would be coming to do a reading. My friend Sarah and I got all excited to go but, for some reason, her plans changed an it never happened. For years now I've been occasionally checking her website in search of another reading and finally, this summer, I struck gold. Sarah and I again planned to go, until she ended up having to go to California at the last minute. Fortunately, four years later, I am now equipped with not only the ability to go to such events alone but also a husband to drag along with me. So, as it happened, on Monday night the husband and I trekked into New York to see Margaret Atwood read at the 92nd Street Y.
Atwood mostly spoke about a proposed trilogy that she is writing, two of which she has already completed: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The first Oryx and Crake, I reread (almost) before the reading; the second I have yet to open.
These are "simultaneal" (AKA "Meanwhile…") dystopias about the near end of humankind due to a "waterless flood - a man-made virus to which we have no immunity" (Atwood). I will get more into this when I review the two books; for now I will just talk about what Atwood had to say.
After seeing Atwood, I can tell you confidently that the woman is a genius. She knows everything about technology and animals and the environment and pop culture, or at least seems to. I can't imagine how she possibly has time to write when she must spend so much time doing research. Of course, this conundrum could be explained by Atwood's claim that "I actually don't need to make things up, there's a lot out there." Atwood combines unbelievable facts to create a fantastic novel that is simultaneously unbelievable and quite close to home. If you don't believe that her books are based on facts, just ask her about the cockroach brains currently being used to develop antibiotics. So not only does this woman know everything, write amazingly, and travel the world, she is also addresses what Valerie Martin, who did her introductions, calls "the great moral problem of our time: environmental conservation." Yes, Atwood isn't just a genius for genius's sake; she is using her knowledge to make a difference in this world. Dare I suggest that she is a superwoman?
As I said, Atwood is a proponent of environmental conservation, yet she does not advise fear: "I wouldn't bother being really, really afraid of anything until it actually happens; I would advise being respectful." This seems like an excellent strategy to me: fear of what happens if and when humans destroy the planet could drive people to prepare rather than prevent. Martin asked Atwood at one point about wasps: if it was okay to kill them, and if, like bees, they produce honey. When Atwood said no, Martin asked, "So what's the point of them?" This was rather ironic; despite these two novels (never mind the rest of Atwood's work) and what Atwood had said up to then, Martin had completely missed the point. The planet is not here to provide for humans; humans are merely another life form, like wasps, who ought to feed into the cycle of life. Martin displayed the exact kind of mentality that Atwood tries to prevent and is absorbed in it that she can't even realize how problematic it is. After hearing that, the world that Atwood describes doesn't seem so crazy after all.
As a dystopia writer, Atwood is clearly interested in more than just the environment. Society is also a big issue. After all, as she says, dystopia is an "arranged society that is negative" - it is not a state of total chaos or anarchy; it is organized and intentional. Like the later reign of King Henry VIII, it is "not a state of ordinary human freedom"; like in Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most well-known dystopias, it is a government that is "controlling people at every stage of life." Dystopia is not the dissolution of society but an example of society gone wrong. To this end, Atwood repeatedly advised against the combination of government, religion, and corporation. Like the three branches of American government are meant to do, these three units provide a valuable counterbalance to one another, keeping things fair and level.
As serious as this all sounds, the reading and discussion were actually quite fun. Atwood made us both laugh even while giving us something to mull over, another sign of her extraordinary genius. Sadly, when I met her at the signing afterwards, I was too shy to squeak out anything other than "Hi, how are you?" in an incredibly high-pitched voice. Fortunately, the husband had his wits gathered well enough to tell her that we enjoyed the reading. Too bad. Among other questions, I wanted to ask if she is a vegetarian, because I really can't imagine that she's not. So, Ms. Atwood, if you're reading this: Are you a vegetarian? Why (not)? And what fiction authors do you read?
P.S. If Margarget Atwood were actually to respond to this post, I would probably pee my pants.