Margaret Atwood on Modern Dystopias

An interview with Trisha Gupta for Caravan Magazine
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Margaret Atwood

[Margaret Atwood:] So I went to Harvard and became a nineteenth century specialist. You get to read a lot of utopias. They thought everything was going to get better and better. We didn’t get dystopias until the twentieth century.

That’s fascinating. Does that connect to what you said recently, that now isn’t the time for realistic fiction?

What I said was, it’s hard to write really realistic fiction, unless you pretend that nobody watches TV, or is on the internet. To make it plausible, people would have phones. Things get arranged differently. It’s not as easy as it was when reality was more static. Think of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, The Circle—is it predictive, or is it of the moment in which he wrote it? It has to be the latter, because there isn’t any “the future.” There’s an infinite number of possible futures, and we don’t know which one we’re going to get. So I say, write plausible fiction. The reader has to believe it.

Is this the key difference between science fiction and speculative fiction?

Yes, it’s the difference between something that could happen, and something that really couldn’t. Sci-fi, especially sci-fi fantasy—we know it’s not real. It’s another world, not without its excitements and adrenalin bursts, but it’s not going to happen to us tomorrow, or next year, or probably ever. It is a galaxy far, far away—though everybody looks like us, or Carrie Fisher [one of the stars of the Star Wars series of films].

Spec-fic is this world, this planet; it could happen, we’re thinking of it now. [The writer George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four], it had already happened. [The writer Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World, it was happening. My rule for The Handmaid’s Tale [a dystopian novel set in a United States that has become totalitarian Christian theocracy, where women have lost their rights], was that I would not put anything into it that we had not already done.“People say, you’ve got such a twisted, dark imagination.” Actually, it’s not my imagination.

Read the full interview at Caravan Magazine.

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