Speculative dystopia

Every so often I manage to catch an episode of BBC Talking Books and Sunday, after booting the kids into the sunlight for some peace and quiet,  I watched Margaret Atwood talk about her books.  Although I have enjoyed her novels (Handmaids Tale & Oryx and Crake) I never really liked her political activism and what I thought was her general curmudgeonly (her word) attitudes to general things. I don’t disagree with some of her views – I actually agree with the sentiment of a lot of them –  it’s just how she comes across that somehow rubs me the wrong way.  Nevertheless, she is a brilliant author and the interview was interesting in that she said some things that stuck.  For a 73 year old with a hairstyle Einstein would have been proud of, it is very obvious that the old bird is still very much alive and kicking.

“… you do not have to teach a child to be interested in stories.  They just pick it up.  You DO have to teach them algebra.”

In response to when she knew she wanted to be a writer and how children automatically absorb language and how they read everything and anything.  My kids already love reading and my five year old is frustrated that he cannot read (on his own) about how palaeontologists think T-Rex hunted its prey.  Yet I know many adults who simply do not read beyond what is required for their daily grind.  I can finish a book in a day or two and am happiest when I have a pile to read (or a list on the Kindle) and I get antsy when I do not.  Strange that kids somehow lose this desire by the time they are adults.

“… a rule that I would put nothing into it that had not already happened somewhere of for which we did not have the technology.”   and   “I didn’t put things in that are in another galaxy far far away.”

In talking about her works, she prefers the speculative fiction genre rather than science fiction because everything she included in Handmaids Tale and Oryx & Crake (and others) are all possible and totally probable in today’s world.  I found her explanation very simple and surprisingly obvious after thinking about it for a moment.  There is nothing in the books that is way out sci-fi,  everything is possible and could happen right now.  It also made me wonder about making rules when you are attempting to write a novel…  Beyond the usual craft rules of course.  None of the writing books and advice I have read have ever mentioned making a rule in a similar way that Atwood did and it intrigues me because it seems to me that it could add an interesting dimension to the writing and in this particular example, makes the works ‘touch home’ in a frightening way by asking the question “Could this really happen?” and realising that the answer is “Yes.”

“Anything can happen anywhere, and pretty suddenly given adverse conditions.”

She mentions this in answer to why she set Handmaids Tale in Boston, a seemingly unlikely place considering the story.  Again, another interesting, yet simple, take on choosing settings in a book.  Why can’t you have an outbreak of religious fervor in the heart of an atheist stronghold like the Science Department of MIT.  Why can’t the next American Idol be someone who does not speak English?  Even for something like fantasy, why can’t the source of all magical power exist in a place where there is none?  I like the possibilities…

She makes a few other comments but those are the ones that I remember most….  I can’t embed BBC video here but you can watch the interview on BBCs website : Margaret Atwood BBC Talking Books (link active as at 9 Sept 2013)

Happy writing



One thought on “Speculative dystopia

  1. mmm…as far as geriatrics go I have yet to read a better effort than that of 80 Plus Heather Couzyn’s The Cosmic Microbe… as far as I know still alive and well in Parkhurst Johannesburg…

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