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Margaret Atwood & Speculative Fiction

Margaret Atwood is an author of over 50 works. Well known for her feminist, dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, she has a knack for predicting a grim future. Kat shares about Atwood's life, a bit about her influences, and more about her. Gabe covers the classic themes in Atwood's work and how she masterfully blends real-world scientific, political, and economic horrors with a terrifying future.

Sources in this Episode:


A Mix of Science & Literature: Margaret Atwood's Life and History by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Thank you to and their Biography of Margaret Atwood as it helped in filling in areas of information that Britannica and Margaret Atwood's website were missing.

They have authored more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays.

Margaret Atwood was born on November 18th, 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Her parents were Margaret Atwood, née Killam, and Carl Atwood. Her mother was a dietitian and her father was an entomologist. Her mother read to her quite a lot and was described by Atwood as a tomboy. Her grandfather didn’t want to pay for her mother’s schooling, so she took a job teaching and saved to pay her own way. In college, she met her father - Carl Atwood and they got married. They spent much time in log cabins next to insect research labs, living for many years without electricity or running water. Her mother apparently was an ice dancer into her 70s. Margaret was the middle child, and had two siblings. In her youth, they moved around Canada, living in northern Ontario, Quebec and Toronto.

Atwood didn’t start attending traditional schooling until the age of twelve, but was an avid reader. She read a variety of things, from traditional literature to comic books. She loved writing as much as she loved reading, and wrote children’s plays and stories at the age of six. She continued her schooling, moving on to high school at Leaside High School, in Toronto. They moved onto college and their undergraduate was at Victoria college at the University of Toronto and their master’s was from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. She almost followed that up with a PHD but ended up not completing her dissertation.

Following school, Atwood married an American writer - Jim Polk. They got divorced five years later. She met and fell in love it a fellow Canadian novelist named Graeme Gibson in 1976 and they lived together until Gibson’s death in 2019. They never got married but they had a child together, Eleanor Atwood Gibson. Atwood published her first book of poetry in 1961 called Double Persephone.This book of poetry was well received and won the EJ Pratt Medal, naming Atwood one of the foremost Canadian poets of the modern era. Poetry made up most of Atwood’s early career, where she focused more on teaching. She worked teaching at three Canadian universities joining their English departments. This allowed for her to travel across Canada where she taught English at the University of British Columbia Vancouver, then at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, and finishing at the University of Alberta.

During this period of teaching, she also published three collections of poetry, the Kaleidoscopes Baroque, Talismans for Children, and Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein. In 1966 she published the Circle Game which one an award from the Governor General’s Literary Award. In 1968 she published The Animals in That Country. The first decade of her career in writing, poetry was their main focus, and they published poetry exclusively. In 1969, Atwood began taking on novels, and published her first novel The Edible Woman. This was the start of Atwood covering more societal critiques through speculative fiction. During her journey into novel writing, she continued to teach, this time at the University of Toronto where she became a writer in residence.

In her residency Atwood published three more novels known as Surfacing in 1972, Lady Oracle in 1976, and Life Before Man in 1979. In 1973 is when she got divorced, and soon after fell in love with Graeme Gibson. Their daughter was born the same year that Lady Oracle was published, in 1976. These novels carried similar themed as the Edible Woman and started to establish her as an author who covered themes of gender, sexual politics, and identity intersection between national and personal identity. While she pursued novels, she did continue to write poetry and gained more fame through poetry. She continued to publish six collections of poetry between 1970-1978. Her most famous book, the Handmaid’s Tale which we’ll discuss next week, was published in 1985. The perspectives shown in this are very reflective of the time period it was written in, and before technology, the internet had made a real impact on humanity.

In addition to being a writer she was also an inventor and worked on remote and robotic writing technology. Following Handmaid’s Tale - Atwood wrote Cat’s Eye which was also well received. Throughout the 1980s, Atwood continued teaching but did hope to eventually leave teaching to a lucrative enough writing career. Teaching did allow for her to travel more, and she was able to teach and write in New York, and Australia.

In the 1990s, Atwood continued novel writing that focused on morality and feminism, covering many topics and styles. In 1993 she published the Robber Bride, and in 1996, Alias Grace. Both novels depicted villainous female characters. Alias Grace is apparently based on a real story, where a maid was convicted of murdering her boss. Both novels won awards and recognition. At the turn of the century, Atwood published her tenth novel - The Blind Assassin which won many awards and earned her place into Canada’s Walk of Fame. This also moved Atwood towards including technology into her speculative fiction as well as in real life. She came up with the idea for a remote writing technology that allowed a user to write in real ink from a remote location. This technology is called LongPen, and she’s used it for book tours that she couldn’t attend in person.

In 2003, Atwood published Oryx and Crake which was a post-apocalyptic speculative fiction novel that turned into a trilogy called the MaddAddam Trilogy. The Trilogy follows a post-apocalyptic scenario where humans have pushed science and technology to alarming places, including genetic modification and medical experimentation. She also write an opera in the early 2000s called Pauline for the City Opera of Vancouver, that is about the life of a Canadian poet/performer named Pauline Johnson.

Atwood’s more recent work also includes some new takes on classical stories. Her 2005 novella The Penelopiad retells the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife; it was adapted for a theatrical production in 2007. In 2016, as part of a Penguin Random House series of Shakespeare retellings, she published Hag-Seed, which reimagines The Tempest’s revenge play as the story of an outcast theater director. Atwood’s most recent work is The Testaments (2019), a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel was one of two joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize.


The Future is Going to be so Incredibly Terrible Margaret Atwood & Speculative Fiction by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

Let’s talk about the TERF Elephant in the room

I have always appreciated Atwood’s work. I have read many of her pieces and even met her in person to have my books signed. (Including my Handmaid’s Tale). I understand the heartbreaking feeling you get when an idol or someone you trusted as an ally, reveals themselves to be something other. Looking at you Harry Potter fans! I feel your pain. So the question is, is Margaret Atwood a TERF?

There’s discussion of this online after she shared on twitter an article titled, "Why can’t we say 'woman' anymore?" that was anti-trans in nature. The article claimed that the word “woman” was being bastardized, villainized, erased by terms like "person who menstruates. Using this instead of "woman who menstruates," can honor transgender men and nonbinary people but according to this article, erases women. Margaret hasn’t been an outright TERF like JK but sharing this shows a passive indoctrination into trans-hate. Margaret encouraged twitter followers to read the work, stating the writer was not a TERF.

Later, she tweeted out a scientific article that pressed the idea that gender is a construct and we shouldn’t be placing folx into these boxes. When followers pushed back about the oppression of women in Gilead, she replied that, “In the novel, they had to be: divorced (Gilead doesn't allow divorce) +fertile. Or "immoral."(Though these might be Jezebels.) Women married only once would be Wives (high status) or Econowives. Some could choose celibacy+ be Aunts or Marthas.” explaining that the designation of Handmaiden wasn’t based on gender but these specific qualifications only. She has said on this gender issue in an article on Guardian, Margaret Atwood on feminism, culture wars and speaking her mind: 'I'm very willing to listen, but not to be scammed' that we should, “Rejoice in nature’s infinite variety! Everything in nature is on a bell curve. We have this two-box thinking [about gender] because it’s biblical, so wool over here, linen over there,” going further to explain, “OK, let me say this again,” she says more sharply. “This is going to take a while to settle down, but XY and XX are not the only chromosomal combinations possible. Look it up, OK? This has been in flux for a very long time and in the Bible, a male wearing female clothes would be – ” and she makes a slicing gesture across her neck. “You want to do that? No.”

In the end, I won’t defend her and say she’s not a TERF because of this conversation. Frankly, she needs to defend herself. Simply, she should be open to learning and hearing from the trans community. She’s posted since, articles that mention she has no right to speak on Trans issues, of which I absolutely agree. Sharing articles like, “Why can’t we say woman anymore?” is speaking out about trans issues, whether intentional or not. So she needs to choose. Learn from the communities and not speak for them but at least admit to your ignorance and that you need to unlearn. Apologize, even if you didn’t intend to harm the community, you did. Impact over intention, hun. Say sorry, learn about the issues, and let’s move on.

I will say that her limited, white, uneducated-about-trans-issues brand of feminism certainly affects her work. We’ll talk more about this insular POV next week when we compare her titular work, Handmaid’s Tale to something more worldly like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. So stay tuned. However, this week let’s focus on her work specifically, her influences and motivations.

Speculative Fiction

Margaret Atwood is well known for her work, The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian tale about the oppression of women. They’re reduced to tools, their status determined by how they can best serve the men of Gilead. As either incubators for their spawn, managers of their homes, or wives (still subservient). Atwood has a talent for writing horrifying, realistic futures. She refuses to label her work as science fiction but rather encourages the sub-genre of speculative fiction, entirely possible. My favorite of hers is the MadAddam Trilogy that focuses heavily on climate change, over-hunting, extinction, technological advances, and processed foods. (This trilogy is being adapted for TV by Hulu!). Even Handmaid’s Tale exists under the shadow of climate change, the environmental affects leaving most women barren and making those that could still bear children into rare delicacies for the men in power. She has also pushed back against having her works be labeled feminist (we’ll have more to say on this next week), dissatisfied with the specific label put upon her and other women in the genre such as Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. Asking herself if The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist story in the New York Times, she responded, “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes.” Her work is inherently feminist when her villain is so often weathly, white, and male - obvious oppressive forces of women (this is also the villain for WOC and BIPOC people but she’s not too focused on intersectional feminism, she really enjoys staying in her lane. Well, write what you know I guess.)

I found this awesome venn diagram of Atwood’s work and their overlapping themes on Vox, How Margaret Atwood became the voice of 2017

The overarching themes being, The Future is Going to be so Incredibly Terrible, Nature is Important & we Are Killing it, Children are Monsters, Capitalism is Evil, Men are Terrible to Women, Let’s Remix Some Old Stories & Tropes, Everyone Cheats on their Spouse, and Women are Terrible to Women.

In her MadAddam trilogy, there are many unsettling biological and environmental elements inspired by reality. In an article on Science Friday, Four Ways 'Oryx and Crake' Predicted the Future, authors Julie Leibach, Nicole Wetsman explain the possibility of Atwood’s predictions including glowing green bunnies. In 2000, self-described transgenic artist Eduardo Kac introduced the world to a real albino rabbit that glowed green under blue lighting conditions. Her name was Alba, and her verdure came from a protein called green fluorescent protein, or GFP, encoded by a gene that had been inserted at the rabbit’s zygote stage. Alba became the centerpiece of an art concept that Kac called “GFP Bunny,” which involved other components as well, such as a public discourse about “the cultural and ethical implications of genetic engineering.” Glowing green bunnies appear in Oryx and Crake (book one of the trilogy). “Across the clearing to the south comes a rabbit, hopping, listening, pausing to nibble at the grass with its gigantic teeth. It glows in the dusk, a greenish glow filched from the iridicytes of a deep-sea jellyfish in some long-ago experiment.”

There’s also organ farms and genetic experiments to allow humans to live longer by way of not dying by pesky organ failure. “The goal of the pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host—organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which there were more strains every year. A rapid maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were perfecting a pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time. Such a host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys; then, rather than be destroyed, it could keep on living and grow more organs, much as a lobster could grow another claw to replace a missing one. That would be less wasteful, as it took a lot of food and care to grow a pigoon.”

If that sounds terrifying, good news - it’s a real possibility! “An increasing number of researchers are interested in growing human tissues and organs in animals by introducing pluripotent human cells into early animal embryos,” wrote Carrie D. Wolinetz, the associate director for science policy for the NIH, in a blog post on August 4, 2016. “Formation of these types of human-animal organisms, referred to as ‘chimeras,’ holds tremendous potential for disease modeling, drug testing, and perhaps eventual organ transplant.” and in 2015, Science reported that Izpisúa Belmonte and his colleagues had identified “a new type of human pluripotent stem cell that seems to be especially good at contributing to animal embryos.” They injected those cells into pig embryos to create chimeras that developed for two to three weeks and found that the cells contributed to the growing pancreas and heart, according to Science. Their chimeric research is still very early stages, however, so don’t expect pigoon transplant organs to be available any time soon.

More than the scientific predictions, the MadAddam trilogy highlights the decaying society we live in with an emphasis on corporations and their power as well as an all-too-real apathetic reaction to a pandemic. However, despite the eerie and heartbreaking world painted in the trilogy there’s a line of hope. A message we’re familiar with in the Eco-horror genre, that the Earth and other life will continue without us. With the apocalypse, it is only our world that changes, the world doesn’t end completely. You don’t read the MaddAddam series to see how the world breaks, you read it more to see how a new world can come from something which seemed always destined to break. Explains writer Giles Allen-Bowden in The unnerving relevance of Margaret Atwood's 'MaddAddam' trilogy on the Boar. In Oryx & Crake, we meet the Crakers, genetically improved humainoids who are the next evolution of humanity.

In The Heart Goes Last, we’re offered a glimpse into an almost future inspired by the financial crisis of the early 2000s. Those who’ve suffered terrible economic failure, living in their cars and scraping pennies to get by, find refuge in a new working city. A city, built around a prison. The residence rotate shifts between being staff at this prison, and being inmates at this prison. I can see the appeal, all your needs are met: food, lodging, and safety. It’s a place I could easily see existing in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a new form of slavery. There’s also a whole theme about sex workers, technology, fetishes, and sexuality all mixed up together in a weird stew of Elvis sexbots.

“Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else.” Atwood’s speculative fiction morphs our realities into haunting mirrors. Whether painting a world in which the American government is replaced by a militarized theocracy (hello January 6th!) in The Handmaid’s Tale or a future in which civilization is wiped out by a man-made viral pandemic (O.O) in Oryx & Crake, Atwood makes some compelling cases for a change. We are on track to an even worse future, it’s only a matter of which we choose. Indentured servitude through our flawed and disgusting incarceration system? The reduction of women to cattle, vessels for giving birth, stripped of their rights and humanity? Ethically questionable technological advancements that could be our undoing? Each world she builds is possible and similar to Butler’s, a promise. And she, like Butler, doesn’t just want to scare us. She wants to inspire us. Atwodd has said, "But there's no point in placing your confidence in hope alone. Hope should inspire action, rather than be a substitute for it ... to know you have a chance is what drives people to do amazing things."

Random Fun Fact: In a New York Times Article titled, Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia by Rebecca Mead, they share a fascinating story about Atwood’s family history. Apparently, an ancestor of hers was dubbed a witch and hanged for it. Though hanged, she didn’t die. “But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn’t die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive.” Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary. Atwood would later name Mary in her dedication of Handmaid’s Tale.


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