In a recent article for the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood describes the moment that inspired the latest of her dystopian fantasies, Oryx and Crake, which, as its eponymous allusion to endangered species suggests, is concerned with ecological disaster in the not-too-distant future:
I was still on a book tour for my previous novel, The Blind Assassin, but by that time I had reached Australia. After I’d finished the book-related events, my spouse and I and two friends travelled north, to Max Davidson’s camp in the monsoon rain forest of Arnheimland. For the most part we were bird-watching, but we also visited several open-sided cave complexes where Aboriginal people had lived continuously, in harmony with their environment, for tens of thousands of years. After that we went to Cassowary House, near Cairns, operated by Philip Gregory, an extraordinary birder; and it was while looking over Philip’s balcony at the red-necked crakes scuttling about in the underbrush that Oryx and Crake appeared to me almost in its entirety. I began making notes on it that night.
This is an old-fashioned, indeed almost Horatian scenario of writerly inspiration: the idyll in the untamed countryside, offering a respite from the wearying obligations of citified life in the upper ether of High Culture; the wistful invocation of noble savages (“in harmony with their environment”); the sudden epiphany that brings on a torrential creative output which cannot be stemmed.
And yet this dreamy scene of Beauty, Nature, and Creation could not have had a grimmer outcome. Nightmarish visions of alternative worlds are hardly new to Atwood, who has been writing novels for four decades but whose first popular hit was the 1986 fantasy of patriarchy gone wild, The Handmaid’s Tale, which was subsequently made into a movie. The author’s penchant for richly textured fantasy narratives surfaced as recently as her Booker-winning 2000 tour de force, The Blind Assassin, the crucial narrative of which, nested Chinese-box fashion within two further narratives—a framing autobiography, a novel-within-a-novel—was a dazzlingly imagined science-fiction mythology which a proletarian agitator dreams up for the amusement of his high-society lover in the Thirties.
These two brief examples, framing as they do the fully mature years of Atwood’s career, must suffice to suggest the extent to which the writer’s taste for what is now called “fantasy” literature serves, as all good science fiction does, a very serious, larger set of concerns about the nature of contemporary society. For Atwood, the greatest preoccupations have been sexism and class injustice. These, indeed, surface again in the new novel, although it suggests a new focus for the author’s moral and political outrage, one that is very up-to-the-minute: abuses not of women or the underclasses, but of Nature itself, by a culture whose intellectual sophistication has outpaced its moral awareness.
Of course, you could say that for Atwood, it all boils down to the same problem. There’s a point in The Blind Assassin in which …