“You get a get-out-of-jail-free card when you reach a certain age,” says Margaret Atwood, sitting on the edge of a chair in the austere library of midtown’s Cornell Club. “People are no longer afraid that you’re going to turn them down for a date.”
It’s the day before the 73-year-old Atwood—probably the world’s most distinguished doomsday novelist, who says she’s been going undercover lately as a benign old lady “handing out the gingerbread cookies”—takes a transatlantic journey on the Queen Mary 2 with her longtime partner Graeme Gibson (a former novelist who quit fiction for PEN-world literary philanthropy) and her two grandkids. It’s a literal and figurative launch to celebrate (and escape before) the publication of her upcoming novel, MaddAddam, the final installment of the postapocalyptic trilogy of “speculative fiction” that Atwood began with 2003’s Oryx & Crake and continued with 2009’s The Year of the Flood—a series in which a culture of bioengineering, genetic food modification, and pharmaceutically induced mega-orgasms has gone devastatingly awry, leaving a small group of humans, and some quasi-humans, to sift through the remains of a civilization decimated by an intentional pandemic and haunted by uncannily intelligent super-swine called Pigoons. And while the three books might not be the Booker Prize winner’s apex (that’s likely to remain 1985’s sadly prescient feminist parable The Handmaid’s Tale), it’s probably her most incisive and sociologically acute work—and that’s just as she means it to be. For Atwood, the books are not a fantasy vision but a picture of a very near and very plausible future. Which is exactly why she gets so peevish when anyone calls it sci-fi.
“I hate to tell you this, but you will never actually go to a galaxy far, far away and encounter Darth Vader. That’s science fiction; it isn’t going to happen,” says Atwood, dressed primly in a black blouse and pants and brightly patterned scarf, speaking in a clipped Canadian accent that makes her initially seem a bit more imposing than those gingerbread cookies would suggest. But the stuff in these books? She leans forward. “This could be you.
“We’re constantly presented with moral choices,” says Atwood, trying to explain the calculus of that “could.” “We might find lab meat icky, but on the other hand, think about the huge amount of methane that’s emitted by the livestock business. There’s a downside to everything. So what you really should be asking is, ‘Does the downside outweigh the upside?’ ”
Then there are things with weird upsides. The Black Plague, for example: not entirely bad! “The mortality rate was 50 percent,” she acknowledges, “but women had entry into a lot of fields that they had been excluded from before because there was such a shortage of people. Our problem right now is that we’re so specialized that if the lights go out, there are a huge number of people who are not going to know what to do. But within every dystopia there’s a little utopia.”
Atwood’s long complained of what she’s called “the sociobiology of literary criticism,” that one’s gender and age can cruelly shape reputation and status, but she seems now basically at peace with her own (at her age, she says, “you’re neither an honorary man or a dishonorary woman; you’re an elder”). Which makes sense, since her anachronistic-seeming apocalypticist-at-the-bake-sale temperament is, actually, a pretty good fit for our end-of-days pop culture—which she insists anyone could’ve seen coming. “Go back to 1000 A.D. and there was the same thing,” she says. “It clusters around the millennium. The whole Internet was supposed to melt down, remember? Even when Oryx & Crake was published, it was the moment the sars outbreak occurred. Wasn’t that fun? I would say, ‘I’m from Toronto’ and I’d cough and everybody would leave the room. Climate change is another reason. People are more attuned to that. Calgary flooding? Who ever heard of that? I guess we should have remembered it’s on a floodplain.”
Atwood’s made a lot out of Canada’s frontier legacy for its fiction, including her own, but these days, she’s probably most at home online—an enthusiastic, sweetly encouraging tweeter, with over 400,000 followers (she and comedian Rob Delaney had a puppyish tweet-cute this past spring), and an ardent supporter of web-based publishing concerns like WattPad and Writing Platform. You could almost mistake her for a publicist-bot, she’s so casually cross-promotional, and she’s similarly anything-goes in her life offline (the ever-availability being a big reason people find her so chummy and familial). She showed up posing with Klingons at Comic-Con last year, co-created (and recorded a voice part) for a mobile game called Zombies, Run!, and wrote the libretto for an opera about the late-nineteenth-century Canadian, Mohawk, and English poet and actress Pauline Johnson that’s scheduled to premiere in Vancouver in May 2014 (it involves, typically, “a secret love, a jealous sister, and an early death”).
“I have Gemini rising,” says Atwood with a laugh. “Gemini is the twins, so if you have the twins as your rising sign, you’re not going to have a problem with multiple anything: careers, forms in which you write, personae.
“You hear doom and gloom about the Internet ruining young people’s command of English—that’s nonsense,” she says, telling me the critics confuse a niche vernacular for a general trend. “Telegrams were short because you paid by the word, so you left words out of sentences—people didn’t go around talking like that.” The Internet, she says, “is a new set of toys,” and social media “is like a party. You’re there to facilitate an exchange amongst other people. To what extent should writers participate?” she asks. “It so happens that if you do it, your sales won’t necessarily be any higher—hate to break that sad news. But if you don’t do it, they will definitely be lower. Proust wouldn’t have done it; lucky Proust, he had an independent income.”
But “forget about doing anything online that you think can be kept secret,” she goes on. “WikiLeaks and Mr. Edward Snowden are not imaginable before the Internet. The compression of information into a very, very small space, it makes this stuff possible. Once upon a time the Establishment as such decided what you were going to hear about. Now we have ubiquitous publishers and ubiquitous distrust.” She grins, delighted to be getting dark again, and gives a warning. “Turn off your cell phone. Somebody knows where you are.”