The Speculative Genius of Margaret Atwood


To celebrate Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, her fifth novel-length work of speculative fiction, we’ve decided to take a grand tour of her speculative novels since 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The results are by turns scary and absurd (but always brilliant).

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Nominally a dystopian novel in the vein of Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale strikes me (as others have said) as more of a Gothic or Late Victorian novel, albeit one that is intensely speculative, especially if we understand “speculation” to mean that she looked out from a vantage point in her place and time and tried to see into the future. “I made a rule for myself,” Atwood wrote of the novel in 2012, “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist.” After all, she started writing the novel in 1984.

From today’s perspective, it is perhaps unsurprising that Atwood found speculative “success” in a novel that erects its Gilead — its theocratic, militaristic patriarchy — from the stuff of the then-burgeoning Falwellian right, but it was Atwood’s layered take and (ironic) faith of vision that allowed her to write a novel that is now reflected everywhere in contemporary life and governance. Moments ago the US government only narrowly avoided a shutdown driven by a theocratic, rightist, patriarchal attack on Planned Parenthood.

But, as Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, Atwood’s novel should be remembered not only for its predictive capacity regarding the evolution of the American state, but also for its vision of (what Ehrenreich calls) “intra-feminist polemic,” one that highlights oppositions in the prevailing feminist discourse. Learning to see these oppositions, Atwood’s novel seems to say, is the more difficult form of speculation — the future lies somewhere in their resolution. To build the future you want, you have to see it first — and in the present.

Oryx and Crake (2003)

In many ways Atwood’s most robust speculative fiction, Oryx and Crake is also, fittingly, one of her most avowedly humanist novels. One of its chief virtues is the way it adds complexity to the speculative question, “What will the future look like?” by modulating it to ask: “What kind of person will engineer the future, and with what tools?”

That kind of person is Crake, the math-drunk, video game-obsessed, art- and language-hating, murderous nerd who doubles as the childhood friend of the novel’s protagonist, Jimmy (or Snowman). Both, in fact, are products of an extremely corporatist late capitalism, and both enjoy watching child pornography, animal murder, and live executions.

Atwood grew up with scientists, and she is here pointing out that science has reified into a culture of terrible values that privileges limit-testing over basic human and environmental needs. And it’s doing so in part because science lacks what you might call the “disease-modifying” virtues of art: symbolic consideration, self-reflection, interpersonality, emotion, etc.

Obviously it’s difficult to know whether the book is “accurate” in terms of its hard, speculative positions on bioengineering — whether or not one of us will create a future race of UV-resistant herbivores with glowing blue genitals remains to be seen. Still, the mass extinction of the human race in the manner of a violent video game perpetrated by sexually deranged, mental-adolescent males seems not at all farfetched when you consider the crescendo and tenor of mass violence in America.

The Year of the Flood (2009)

As brilliant as Oryx and Crake is — especially at drawing the godlike figures at the end of humanity — I prefer The Year of the Flood, with its view from below. By this I mean its speculative vision of a resistance that is (in the words of Frederic Jameson):

…ecological, communitarian, cunningly organised in decentralised units, each with its ‘Ararat’ of supplies stashed away against the inevitable Waterless Flood of plagues to come and police repression as well, and despite its regressive primitivism utilising computerised information and informers strategically planted among the elites…

Or, again, following Jameson, we could point out that the speculative world of The Year of the Flood can be seen from above — from Canada. An expression of Atwood’s enduring disgust with American corporatism and greed and penchant for environmental destruction, the novel does seem to pitch its speculative tent in the idea that American capitalism is late capitalism, and therefore the germ of the destruction of the modern world. Even the resistance is somehow American, with its lame predilection to follow a self-proclaimed messiah and Adamic windbag.

MaddAddam (2013)

Though MaddAddam is the conclusion to the trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake, and therefore, in many respects, of a piece with the speculative vision found in those novels, it’s also a transitional work, one that signals ahead to the absurdity of trying to speculate about the future at all. At its heart, though, it is a novel about the power of art and storytelling — the absence of which helped bury the world to begin with. Specifically, its emulation of oral storytelling is a formal way of speculating about how possible redemptive futures are (actually) organized and reorganized in the stories we tell each other (and ourselves). And it features green people with glowing genitals (see above) who won’t stop singing.

The Heart Goes Last (2015)

Atwood’s new book, her first standalone novel since 2005’s The Penelopiad, is her fifth and possibly craziest work of speculative fiction. It tells of the story of a couple, Stan and Charmaine, who are stricken by social and financial and emotional precarity in the wake of a financial meltdown. The couple are offered a simulacrum of middle-class existence in the form of a prison (Positron) where labor and incarceration are perilously blurred. This, of course, is not a far cry from the current situation faced especially by millennials in the 21st-century developed world, but as a schematic, it does have an unfortunate way of gentrifying the structural racism that undergirds the North American prison system.

Otherwise, though, complaints that the novel is absurd — and it is a book that features sex robots and Elvis impersonators — miss the point: Atwood is trying to point out that against the backdrop of a destabilizing precarity, a steadfast realism can seem dishonest. The form of the book, which was originally written as a serial, is also speculative. Like the novel’s protagonists, we’re on course for a future where we’ll get life, death, and fiction on the installment plan.