Atwood On Science, Fiction And 'The Flood'

Margaret Atwood's new book The Year of the Flood describes a dystopic world full of evil corporations, barbaric criminals and science gone wrong. She talks about the real science in the novel and what can be done to keep her fiction from becoming reality.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Imagine a world where evil biotech corporations control the government, where scientists splice animals to make lion-lamb combinations, raccoon-skunk combinations, where the punishment for criminals is a death match. Then, bam, a global pandemic takes over, wipes out the planet population, leaving only a few survivors. Well, that's the world in Margaret Atwood's latest novel, "The Year of the Flood." But she says it's not exactly fiction. Don't call her a science fiction writer. If we're not careful, we could be facing some of these problems.

Joining me now to talk about "The Year of the Flood" is Margaret Atwood. If she needs any sort of introduction, she is the author of over 35 volumes of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, including "The Handmaid's Tale," "The Blind Assassin," which won her the Booker Prize. Her latest novel, as I say, "The Year of the Flood," now out in paperback. And she's joining us from Toronto. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. MARGARET ATWOOD (Novelist): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: It's always a pleasure to have you.

Ms. ATWOOD: A pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: And is this book a follow-up to "Oryx and Crake," would you say?

Ms. ATWOOD: It's a simultanial. That is, it's not a prequel, it's not a sequel. It's that thing that in a Victorian novel would be chapter beginning meanwhile.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Ms. ATWOOD: So, meanwhile in another part of the world this was going on while the stuff in "Oryx and Crake" was also going on. And the difference is that the narrator in "Oryx and Crake" lives inside the wall of privilege and the people in this book live very, very far outside it.

FLATOW: Hmm. 1-800-989-8255, if you'd like to talk to Margaret Atwood. Why did you want to revisit this topic?

Ms. ATWOOD: Well, because about two minutes after I finished "Oryx and Crake" people started asking me what happened two minutes after the end of this novel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ATWOOD: And since I didn't know, I had to write a whole other book to find out. But also, I wanted to see what the world was like on the other side of the wall.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ATWOOD: And on the other side of the wall, things are pretty unregulated, down at the bottom of the heap, as they usually are. And we do have a very idealistic green religious group growing vegetables and bees on rooftops. And there's evolved there a whole theology and their own set of hymns and rules. One of the rules is you have to be vegetarian, unless you got really, really hungry.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you have interesting saints. You have, for example, St. E.O. Wilson.

Ms. ATWOOD: Oh, I think he definitely would be a saint among these people. My saints go all the way back. For instance, Buddha is a saint. And Francis of Assisi, of course, and Robert Burns, who is the saint of mice. And some of the saints in the future are still with us on the planet today. For instance, you'll be happy to know that in the future Al Gore is a saint.

FLATOW: How do you like that? Does he know that? Did you tell him that?

Ms. ATWOOD: I don't think he knows it yet. But, you know, saints are often not aware of their own sainthood. So it may dawn on him gradually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, as you know, I'm(ph) sharing with my listeners that there is a lot of science in the book that seems sort of wacky stuff. But you're not a science fiction writer because you believe a lot of these things can actually happen, like genetically modified animals and the secret meat factories and...

Ms. ATWOOD: They're happening already. In fact, there's been quite a lot in the papers recently about vat-grown meat and will we need it in the future. And we already have done a number of the things that are in the book. For instance, the glowing green rabbits. We've got those already. "Oryx and Crake" had the spider silk that comes out of a goat. We are doing that happily in Montreal. Apparently it makes very good bulletproof vest material. And since the book was published, out in the science magazines come the news that we have now the ability to create an organism. Not just to combine things from other organisms - we can build one from scratch.

FLATOW: You know, in your books, science and technology don't necessarily make the world a better place. They don't necessarily mean that we're making progress.

Ms. ATWOOD: Science is a tool. I should say, science is two tools. One is a tool for investigating, just finding out and knowing. And the other is, we call it technology. It's a way of taking what we know and turning it into what, if it were an iPhone, you would call apps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ATWOOD: Make apps. We make applications. And I think you've just enraged about five million science fiction fans by implying there is not any truth in science fiction, which of course isn't the case. A lot of science fiction writers have, in fact, anticipated things that we later did.

FLATOW: Sure. I never meant to imply that.

Ms. ATWOOD: Oh, yeah. Take it back now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ATWOOD: (Unintelligible) But what I what I call my books is speculative fiction, what you might call a subset of the genre, and what it means of those who seek other planets in the universe far, far away. And I don't want to lead them on into believing they're going to find it...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. ATWOOD: ...inside, because it's not there. It's in a series called "Star Trek."

FLATOW: Right. You mentioned the apps, and you were and now, actually, very into technology, I mean current technology. You blog. You're on Twitter. You use social media all the time.

Ms. ATWOOD: Yeah. Yeah, I got thrown into it. I got into it because they built a website last year for the novel. And we really built it as a fundraising device for bird conservation. In fact, I did my whole tour as a fundraising device for bird conservation. And I know have a brand of shade-grown organic coffee named after me. No, I do not own stock in it, but a dollar goes to one bird conservation organization and 25 cents goes to the Smithsonian. That's in Canada, however. Sorry. For once, offer good only in Canada. But if anybody out there wants to do the same thing in the States, I'm open to offers. But you have to be you have to be sincere.

FLATOW: Shade-grown coffee underneath the canopy, instead of wiping out the canopy.

Ms. ATWOOD: Much better for biodiversity and birds that require biodiversity.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ATWOOD: So the sub-tropicals that this is particularly good for.

FLATOW: And you're also an inventor. You invented something called the LongPen.

Ms. ATWOOD: Yeah. Well, let's put that in quotation marks. I was not the person with the beanie with the little windmill thing on top that did the actual algorithm. You know, I did not do those algorithms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ATWOOD: That wasn't me. I had the science fiction, the idea, which was, can we sign things remotely? Can I sit in Toronto and sign your book in New York? And I was, in fact, so uninformed that I thought maybe I could do that with that little signy(ph) thing that FedEx presents you with. I thought, okay, if I write it on this, is it going to go flying through the air and come out as ink somewhere? Well, it turned out that it doesn't, but it now does with the LongPen and many other things that we're currently developing...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ATWOOD: ...having to do with being in two place at once, which has always been a dream of science fiction.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get some of your fans in 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Mark in South Bend, Indiana. Hi, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Hey, how's it going?

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

MARK: Awesome. Hi, Margaret. I love your new book. It's amazing. I love how like similar it is to - you can notice things going out in the real life that are so similar into that book. It's amazing how you weave like fiction and nonfiction. I was wondering if you could, like, turn me on to some other writers that kind of write maybe at least similar stuff to like what you have or anything that - any other authors you can turn me on to. That would be awesome. And I'll take my question off the air. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Ms. ATWOOD: Which part of it do you want, the disaster part or the dystopic part or the strange sciency(ph) part? Strange sciency part, probably -actually, there's a great online thing called asknature.com and...

FLATOW: Say that again.

Ms. ATWOOD: Asknature.com.

FLATOW: Asknature.com.

Ms. ATWOOD: Yeah. And it's involved in a whole new movement called Biomimicry. In fact, there's a book called "Biomimicry" which you can look up as well. And there's - okay, how does nature do things?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ATWOOD: For instance, how does nature make colors or how does nature cause liquids to move through tubes, et cetera? And the people involved in biomimicry are re-engineering things we thought we knew about, like fan blades. It turns out that a humpback whale fin gives you a much more efficient design for a fan blade than the one we've got now. So stuff like that. You might enjoy exploring that.

But if you want a really good jaunt through the future of an unattractive kind, you might try "Riddley Walker." R-I-D-D-L-E-Y W-A-L-K-E-R is the name of the novel. There's actually a huge amount of peculiar books out there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We'll put all these up on our website at sciencefriday.com, where Margaret Atwood is listed on our website. And you can - if you missed them, we'll have the links up there to them. Last year, you did an eco-conscious book tour.

Ms. ATWOOD: I did.

FLATOW: Were you just trying to offset your carbon footprint then on the tour?

Ms. ATWOOD: Well, we offsetted our carbon footprint through an outfit called Zerofootprint, which you can find not only on my website, called www.yearoftheflood.com, but you can also find it online, zerofootprint, all one word, and it gives you a calculator by which you can calculate how much carbon you have been putting out there and what you need to do to offset it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ATWOOD: And for part of the tour, the publisher offset it, and for the rest it we had to calculate - and in fact, I'm even a bit behind on the calculations. And we couldn't factor in everything. For instance, they said, well, how much energy is the theater that you're putting this event on in? What sort of lights does it have? Of course I had no idea.

FLATOW: It's very hard doing carbon footprint. There are so many factors you may not even...

Ms. ATWOOD: So many factors. Yeah. We did say if people are doing food events associated with it, that it should be as local as possible and also themed to the book.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ATWOOD: So they did. They hopped right in and did it all. In fact, one of the events that we put on made all their own costumes and they made the hats out of wet twist(ph) and recycled newspaper.

FLATOW: Wow.

Ms. ATWOOD: They didn't have to put them on when wet. They let them dry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ATWOOD: They were very fetching. They looked sort of like ancient Japanese hats.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm talking with Margaret Atwood, author of "The Year of the Flood," out in paperback now, on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here. Let's go to Kate(ph) in St. Paul. Hi, Kate.

KATE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to tell Ms. Atwood that my mother lent me a copy of "The Handmaid's Tale" when I was about 13, and we were on a family vacation and I'd run out of my own stuff to read. And whenever anybody asks me to this day, when did you become a feminist, I say the day I finished that book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATE: Because I was a young woman reading a book in a - it was a book about women who weren't allowed to read. And I thought, ooh, we can't have that.

Ms. ATWOOD: Yeah, well, that - again, into "The Handmaid's Tale" I put nothing that has not already happened on the planet somewhere.

KATE: Exactly. Anyway, thank you very much.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend. Thanks for calling.

KATE: Bye-bye.

Ms. ATWOOD: Bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. Let's go to another let's go to another phone call. Folks are getting on. Carl(ph) in Tallahassee. Hi, Carl.

CARL (Caller): Hey, hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

CARL: An honor to get onto this with you. I believe I've read everything you've written. And I am wondering - the "Oryx and Crake" and "Year of the Flood," is there a follow-up...

Ms. ATWOOD: Yeah.

CARL: ...to it? And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CARL: I've also recently run into the works of Orson Scott Card. And for some reason I'm finding a similar reaction in myself to your work and his. I'm wondering if you're familiar with his work. And so two questions, but I'll pop off the line here.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Ms. ATWOOD: Yes, I am writing a third one. So, yes, that's true. And it's going to be called "Mad Adam." It's about the group that is the breakaway activist group from the God's Gardeners. And I have - I'm not familiar with the work of Orson Scott Card, but of course, quick as a bunny, I will go home and look it up.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, you - I remember you've talked about this with us last time. You grew up around a whole bunch of science, about - your parents were biologists.

Ms. ATWOOD: Yeah. My dad was an entomologist. He was a - he ran a field research station in the woods of Northern Quebec, so I did grow up amongst the biologists. And my brother then became one, and he started out as a marine biologist and then became a neurophysiologist...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ATWOOD: ...specializing in the synapse. So the reason I have to pay attention to the science in my book is that if I don't, I'm going to get a note. I'll get a note from older brother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Are you pessimistic personally about our future...

Ms. ATWOOD: Well...

FLATOW: ...given the global warming and these diseases and things like that?

Ms. ATWOOD: Sure. I think people - unless they're suffering from depression, I mean the serious kind of depression - I think people have hopefulness built in. That is, you wake up every morning, and instead of thinking this is going to be a really crummy day, you think, I wonder what will happen today?

So personally, I'm the I-wonder-what-will-happen-today kind of person. But looking at the total picture, I and Bill McKibben and about a patillion(ph) of other people realize that we have a lot of challenges coming up. And I don't know whether you noticed the weather in Russia or the floods in Pakistan, but these are all being put down to climate change.

FLATOW: Yeah, there are some people who are willing to say these are not coincidences anymore.

Ms. ATWOOD: Well, I don't think they're coincidences anymore. And if you travel in the North and all, and if you're anywhere near glaciers, you can see how fast and far they have been receding.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ATWOOD: So this is not - I mean, it is a change, and the attitude that Bill McKibben takes towards it in his book "Eaarth" - that's E-A-A-R-T-H - he says we're past the point where we're saying it might change. It's changing. So what do we do to adapt to those changes?

FLATOW: And maybe that'll be the topic in a future book someday.

Ms. ATWOOD: Well, and probably the topic in his - actually, it won't even be a topic in his future books. He covered it very well...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ATWOOD: ...in the last chapter of his current book.

FLATOW: Well, Margaret, we've run out of time, but it's always a great pleasure and an honor to have you come on our program. And...

Ms. ATWOOD: And...

FLATOW: ...good luck...

Ms. ATWOOD: ...a pleasure for me.

FLATOW: Thank you. And good luck with the book.

Ms. ATWOOD: And thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Margaret Atwood is author of over 35 volumes, and her latest novel, "The Year of the Flood," out in paperback now - it's, of course, a good read.

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Disease And Dystopia In Atwood's 'Flood'

200 'The Year of the Flood'
The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
Hardcover, 448 pages
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday
List Price: $26.00

Read An Excerpt.

Margaret Atwood has been writing original and provocative works of fiction for nearly a half-century. The Year of the Flood, her 63rd book, is her third work of speculative fiction. She has an uncanny ability to spin timely, very plausible and sometimes even terrifyingly prescient tales.

1985's landmark The Handmaid's Tale posited a theocracy that controls women's childbearing. Oryx and Crake, published in 2003, at the outbreak of the SARS epidemic, is narrated by a survivor of a biological disaster.

In The Year of the Flood Atwood imagines a country run by a corporate elite and policed by a corporate security force (CorpsSeCorps) trained in "Internal Rendition." Genetic engineers have invented hybrid creatures, like the liobam, a lion-lamb mix, and recreational meds such as BlyssPluss, a sex drug that promises multiple orgasms with no medical risk. These scientists are working toward the ultimate goal — immortality. Meanwhile, the balance between the human and natural worlds has gone awry, with "great dead zones" in major bodies of water and many animals passing into extinction.

Atwood is close enough to recent headlines and sophisticated scientific research to make her invented universe believable. And, she reminds us, scientists are capable of terrible, Earth-changing errors.

As The Year of the Flood opens, most of the human population has been wiped out by a fast-moving airborne plague. Toby and Ren, two women associated with a nature-embracing group called God's Gardeners, are among the few still alive. The cult's founder, Adam One, has warned of doomsday by Waterless Flood, and set up a series of food storehouses dubbed "Ararats" in anticipation of disaster.

Margaret Atwood i i

hide captionMargaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books, including The Blind Assassin, for which she received the 2000 Man Booker Prize.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 50 books, including The Blind Assassin, for which she received the 2000 Man Booker Prize.

Toby is holed up in a former spa, using her Gardener skills — gardening, foraging, using herbal medicines and, if necessary, a gun — to survive in the wilderness. Ren, a trapeze dancer at a high-end sex club, has stayed alive because she's locked in quarantine while awaiting test results after a client ripped her Biofilm Bodyglove.

As Toby and Ren struggle to find others, and to fend off nightmarish predators, they tell the stories of God's Gardeners, with its Edencliff Rooftop Garden blooming in the midst of urban slums, and the increasingly repressive years leading up to the pandemic they have both survived.

There are slow-going parts — the section breaks made up of sermons by Adam One, founder of the Gardeners, and songs from "The God's Gardeners Oral Hymnbook" are difficult to decipher at first. But even here, it's hard not to chuckle at Atwood's inventive naming of saints' days (Saints Rachel Carson and Euell Gibbons, among others) and to wonder what dire events are in store as the sermons and hymns become increasingly ominous.

Atwood orchestrates her narratives into a heart-pounding, mysterious and surprisingly touching finale. She enchants us so convincingly that after her spell is over, the "real" world seems temporarily transformed. The Year of the Flood is both a warning and a gift.

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