Nigel Dickson

Margaret Atwood, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, 1999. This photograph is on view in the exhibition ‘Canadian Content: Portraits by Nigel Dickson,’ at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Institute for Contemporary Culture, Toronto, through March 21, 2010.

Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, announced on her Facebook page that she didn’t want the lives of her elderly parents or her Down syndrome infant to be judged before Barack Obama’s “death panel.” It may be that Palin has been reading the works of Margaret Atwood, the distinguished Canadian writer, northerners alike in their mistrust of the Lower Forty-Eight. Palin’s conception of health care reform might come from any of Atwood’s chilling dystopias, most recently The Year of the Flood, a continuation of her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, a postapocalyptic tale about the end days of a totalitarian, corporation-run America, collapsing after a laboratory-engineered virus has begun to kill almost everyone on earth.

Atwood has long had America in her sights, and who is to say she is wrong? Her fictional warnings since the 1970s —about our corporations, biotechnologies, greed, sexual mores, rising fundamentalist right-wing ideologies, loony lefties, and the pollution of the environment—have been confirmed with a regularity that ought to give pause. Oryx and Crake uses an epigraph from Swift: “my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you.”


Atwood has reigned for forty years in Canada’s pantheon of intellectuals and great writers, with Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and several recently gone: the late Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, and Robertson Davies, to name those best known in the US. Born in 1939 and educated at the University of Toronto, Radcliffe, and Harvard, Atwood has received the Booker Prize and the Order of Canada and innumerable other honors, and has written twenty-one acclaimed novels and distinguished works of nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. She has plenty to say.

Joyce Carol Oates, in her review of Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake in these pages,1 recapitulates her career in more detail and calls attention to her idea that the dominant symbol of Canadian literature is Survival. (America’s is The Frontier, England’s is The Island.) She quotes from Atwood’s 1972 Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature:

Our [Canada’s] central idea is one which generates, not the excitement and sense of danger which The Frontier holds out, not the smugness and/or sense of security, of everything in its place, which The Island can offer, but an almost intolerable anxiety. Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival.

Some critics now find this a bit simplistic, but certainly, along with women’s issues, survival turns out to be a dominant theme in Atwood’s own work, both in her earlier, more realistic novels, some of them historical ( Alias Grace), and her recent “speculative” fiction set in the near future.

One of the first of the speculative novels, and the most important, is The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The world of this novel was imagined in such convincing detail that it made Orwell’s 1984 society seem sketchy and programmatic, a mere blueprint for the dystopia actually built and peopled by Atwood in Breughelian profusion. Most dystopic novels have arisen from the writer’s apprehensions of an oppressive state. Whether monarchist, Communist, or fascist, the effect is the same: they are essentially libertarian projections written in response to restraints on individual liberties, and are usually presented as the likely evolution of tendencies all too present in the contemporary world.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, a right-wing fundamentalist Christian group, resembling the right-wing “base” of today, has taken over the United States in a terrorist coup, renamed the country “Gilead,” and instituted many of the legislative controls over women this same “pro-life” population is battling to impose today. Society in Gilead is reorganized along lines derived from the dictates of various religions, which converge in their attitudes about women—most interestingly in sharia law, which as we know has been seriously proposed as a possibly legitimate judicial institution in both Canada and England, despite its inequities in the legal status of women and advice about stoning adulteresses.

In Gilead, the State is particularly preoccupied with women and their reproductive potential. They must cover their heads, are not allowed to read or learn, and are the property of men, hence the name of the heroine Offred, who belongs to Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy (a televangelist). Sex is rigorously ritualized, and all children are the property of ruling-caste families. Offred, in the fertile or Handmaid category, is required to have ritual sex with Commander Fred while lying against the infertile Serena Joy, whose simulated participation in the process ostensibly confers her approval. If a baby is born, it belongs to the couple, not Offred. Defective babies, called “shredders,” disappear.


Offred’s function is to reproduce, but there are other elaborate systems of surrogates and concubines, and a caste of women (Marthas) to do the housework. And there are secret Playboy Club–like night spots with floor shows and women wearing retro Bunny costumes, to amuse the Commanders—the ruling-caste men—and foreign visitors. The action in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place around Harvard Yard, where men are executed and their bodies draped on the walls; the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates might have given Atwood an I-told-you-so moment about the approach of the punitive forces. And although Islam is not specifically one of her targets, the rise of the head-scarf and burqa today is another good example of her prescience—in Gilead, the Handmaids have to dress in a sort of burqa, robes and a head covering that conceals the hair and restricts the peripheral vision, as in contemporary Afghanistan and parts of Paris.

The action concerns Offred’s hope to escape to another part of the world, perhaps Canada, where things are still as they used to be in Offred’s childhood memories of Massachusetts, and her escape generates a good deal of plain old-fashioned narrative suspense as we follow the dangerous plan, pulling for her to succeed. The Handmaid’s Tale is a considerable work, the more so now that its world begins to seem less and less like fiction.

The much-admired Handmaid’s Tale was followed in 2003 (after several other novels) by Oryx and Crake, which continues Atwood’s explorations of the dystopic future. Now the protagonist is a boy, Jimmy, who must survive a society run by corporations, in particular CorpSeCorps, and other biotech firms creating mutations, medicines, and even new diseases so that scientists can keep their jobs. It is a parable of science gone wrong, of parental neglect and yuppie self-indulgence, and ultimately of the end of the human race in a pandemic. In a sort of Last Man scenario, Jimmy, eventually called Snowman, must kill Crake, a childhood friend turned mad scientist whose manipulations have created the virus that is killing virtually everyone on earth except certain genetically modified beings—the Crakers—and Jimmy himself, who had been immunized.


The action of The Year of the Flood overlaps with that of Oryx and Crake; the world is succumbing to the pandemic, now referred to as the Waterless Flood, the same viral contagion we learned in the earlier book had been spread in Blysspluss pills, a Viagrish concoction devised by Crake to cure venereal disease, enable multiple orgasms, and confer youthfulness. In Oryx and Crake, the leading characters are male, and the novel has a rather willed quality, as if Atwood, after The Handmaid’s Tale, had asked herself what it would be like to write a novel from the male point of view. The Year of the Flood returns to sympathetic female victims as central to the story, a choice Atwood seems more comfortable with. Postapocalyptic dystopic tales such as The Year of the Flood typically feature a protagonist on the lam from the forces of an oppressive government—in Oryx and Crake it’s Jimmy, evading the state run by CorpSeCorps. In the devastated and dangerous wasteland of The Year of the Flood, there are only a few women survivors and some violent, predatory males who had escaped infection by having been in prison.

The women are Toby, Amanda, and Ren. The middle-aged Toby is holed up with the young Amanda and Ren in a spa (AnooYoo) and a nearby sex club (Scales and Tails), sealed away from the same spreading plague we saw in Oryx and Crake. Here, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood emphasizes the effects on women of likely future social tendencies, inferred from conditions today. It differs from the classic versions of dystopia, which are typically male-oriented; and in fact women are often seen by male sci-fi writers and futurists as collaborating agents of an oppressive state rather than as its victims.

Toby, in The Year of the Flood, has been a member of God’s Gardeners, an idealistic Christian-like cult that grows its own food on the tops of buildings and preaches vegetarianism, manual labor, kindness, and community. According to its leader, Adam One:

The Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity; from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into an anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.

This gives us, more or less, Atwood’s agenda, essentially an expression of romantic disappointment with man and his works. Toby’s sections are told in the third person; the teenager Ren tells her own story, and both accounts are interspersed with messages and sermons from Adam One, the head of God’s Gardeners, who are managing for a while to escape the contagion of the plague and cling to their nice-hippie principles. During the time Toby was a Gardener, one of her tasks was to be a keeper of bees, those models of industry and sustenance praised in The God’s Gardeners Oral Hymnbook —and the Koran. Toby and her colleagues thank the bees and their queen for their honey, and when Toby has to stun the bees with smoke, she apologizes to them. Besides bees, says Adam One:


Consider also His workers in the Earth! Without the Earthworms and Nematodes and Ants, and their endless tilling of the soil, without which it would harden into a cement-like mass, extinguishing all Life. Think too of the antibiotic properties of the Maggots and of the various Moulds, and of the honey our Bees make, and also of the Spider’s web, so useful in stopping of blood flow from a wound.

By the end we, along with the followers of Adam One, will have submitted to many of his improving homilies and lectures, not one word of which we could really disagree with. On April Fool’s Day, Adam says things like:

Others may take the Specist View that we Humans are smarter than Fish, and thus an April Fish is being marked as mute and foolish. But the life of the spirit always seems foolish to those who do not share it: therefore we must accept and wear the label of God’s Fools gladly…. To be an April Fish is to humbly accept our own silliness….

Please join me now in a Meditation on our Fish brethren…. Let love and aid be brought to the Sea Creatures in their present peril and great suffering; which has come to them through the warming of the Sea, and through the dragging of nets and hooks along the bottom of it, and through the slaughtering of all within it…. We hold in our mind the Great Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Dead Zone in Lake Erie; and the Great Dead Zone in the Black Sea…. Let us be forgiven for our oceanic murders.

At times, reading the sermons in The Year of the Flood, one has a vaguely retro feeling of having been sitting for a long time in the choir—it is the hectored feeling that reading D.H. Lawrence or Thomas Carlyle sometimes gives you. In her wonderful nonfiction book Payback (2008), about the economy and debt, Atwood observes, writing of The Merchant of Venice, that Portia’s lovely speech about mercy is unconvincing, “as such speeches usually are,” and as Adam One’s are, alas. Despite his woolly goodness and harmless, laudable greenness, he is chased from his garden, and when we last see him and his few remaining followers, he’s showing symptoms of the plague that has already killed most of mankind, including many of the members of his cult. His sermons and observances, occurring at intervals throughout the book, are based on Christian and old green doctrines we would all admire, but of course they are mocked, in our minds if not in Atwood’s, for their irrelevance to the harsh destiny mankind is organizing for itself.

Oryx and Crake ended on a note of ambiguous possibility: Jimmy/Snowman, alone in the world, mourning his dead, and lonesome for human companionship, sees other humans nearby. Uncertain about them, he moves toward them and we aren’t sure what will happen. But when we meet Jimmy again at the end of The Year of the Flood at this same moment, we learn that he is in fact planning to kill the new humans. Luckily, when they identify themselves, he sees that he knows them—Ren, Toby, and Amanda, people from his past life. They have survived, that abiding Atwood theme. This is a less hesitant, more positive resolution than she has sometimes granted her readers.

The narrative alternates between the present story of Toby and that of Ren twenty-five years after the onset of the Waterless Flood, told in flashbacks. The chronology of both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood is exceedingly complex, with the flashbacks referring to “year one,” “year twenty-five,” “year ten,” and so on (perhaps without entirely repaying the effort to follow the complicated time shifts). These passages cover moments in the characters’ past lives, with nostalgic memories of childhood and the period before the apocalyptic virus. (Childhood memories recur in much of Atwood’s work, her own, as the daughter of a forest entomologist, apparently having been idyllic, close to nature in remote woods in northern Quebec, as in a fairy tale.) But the complicated chronology impedes the reader getting swept up in the tale, almost as if the author doesn’t want us to submerge ourselves in old-fashioned readerly pleasures lest we miss what we are meant to internalize about our own behavior and our world.


There comes a moment in the working life of a prolific and inventive writer—especially of a science fiction writer like Isaac Asimov, but one thinks of certain literary writers, like the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake too—when the densely imagined and thoroughly worked-out imaginary world becomes more real to the writer than all but the most attentive readers can possibly be brought along to see. The Year of the Flood rests on that cusp. Because Atwood’s frightening future is imagined in such baroque detail, it takes the reader a certain amount of time to learn its terms: What is the Extinctathon, what is a Rakunk?

Once you get familiar with the world she inhabits, the action is engrossing and suspenseful: Toby and Ren are being stalked by the scary tough-guy criminals who have survived because they were isolated in Painball—a prison where the inmates shoot at each other as in the game of Paintball, but shoot to kill. The women’s flight, their isolation and joyful reunions, and the ghastly experiences that they have along the way are as engrossing as in any such narrative in whatever costumes. Yet the characters may have failed to engage us as individuals, if only because our sympathy is diffused among the three main protagonists. Something of novelistic interest is sacrificed to the novelist’s agenda, and, of course, most readers will have an inner resistance to the unpleasant warnings inherent in the tale. We’d rather not think about it.

If the central Canadian image is that of Survival, then the survivor must survive something, some form of peril or victimization: hence these fables of being tormented and pursued, divertingly far-fetched when the characters are fending off enemies with spray guns, and appallingly realistic when Atwood is describing conditions in the brothels or the torments of the abused little Asian girl Oryx. Atwood rarely misses a chance to instance the abuse of women by men; a tone of distaste about sex and indignation about the sexual victimization of women predominates or is a preoccupation in all of her work, and we know she isn’t making up the details. In The Year of the Flood, Toby has been the victim of the brutal Bloat. Once safe at God’s Gardeners, she reflects that

she’d had no sex recently, nor did she miss it: during her immersion in the Sewage Lagoon she’d had far too much sex, though not the kind anyone would want. Freedom from the Bloat was worth a lot: she was lucky she hadn’t ended up fucked into a purée and battered to a pulp and poured out onto a vacant lot.

Back in the days of Atwood’s early novels—I’m especially thinking of Surfacing (1972), the romantic tale of a rather self-centered, unhappy woman reinventing herself by means of reconnecting with Nature—there were readier forms of redemption, Nature being one, divorce or adultery others. Atwood was raised in the north woods of Canada and leaned to Nature. Some, this reader included, found her faith in Nature and orthodox feminism and her reflexive dislike of the US a bit naive back then. I remember thinking that Surfacing was naive in imagining that Canada could resist the horrors of American influence; and I remember doubting that Canadians would keep themselves as pure as she imagined they would in the face of the influence of the great Satan.

I also thought the situation was worse than she imagined. Today Canada, though it did virtuously resist George W. Bush’s Iraq war, has pretty much collaborated with most US programs, acid rain notwithstanding, and gone it one better in the matter of reflexive multi-culturalism. Few would have predicted the cooperation of Canadians in, say, fighting alongside the US in Afghanistan (having strong-mindedly resisted Iraq); and welcoming other cultures to the point of seriously entertaining, in the name of political correctness, instituting sharia law in Ontario, with its total disregard for the rights of women or their actual circumstances.

By now, we must acknowledge that Atwood’s are not views to be dismissed, although there are almost too many targets of her scorn to enumerate—there is fundamentalist religion, with its harsh mistreatment of women, as in The Handmaid’s Tale; there is misguided technology, as in Oryx and Crake; there is the degradation of the environment, cruelty to animals, teenaged angst, indifferent parenting, precocious sexuality and delinquency, violence, and oh, much, much more; and all are subjects of urgent significance. Years later, it is clear that Atwood has been right, even uncannily prescient, all along, about everything from global viruses to Starbucks (the “Happicuppa” chain), genetic modification and bioengineering—Rakunks (or bioengineered raccoon/skunks)—but mostly about human nature, its cruelty and wickedness. Like other moralistic and pessimistic writers (one also thinks of Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison), she has found a form and created an expressive world in which to articulate her worst predictions and enact her frightening premonitions, and in the course of a long career has acquired the authority to compel the attention of society to her vision of the future.

Whether we read novels to improve ourselves, or whether sermons ever change things, are other matters. Did the world take steps to avoid the Brave New World, or consciously modify its ways as 1984 drew near? Not really, which may explain the note of increasing horror and urgency in our most distinguished dystopist’s works as we move closer to having the societies she envisions in such minute and horrific detail; their particulars are regularly realized. Hers is the Swiftian tone of desperate exasperation, a wise woman finally driven to terminal crossness by a bewildering proliferation of evils, in her view mostly promulgated by America.

In some of her works, parts of the rest of the world, especially Canada, stand offshore as potentially unspoiled refuges. In The Handmaid’s Tale, people can escape there or to Israel to elude the relentless corporate masters who have taken control of the US (although many of the Jews who elected Israel were mysteriously drowned on the way there). In The Year of the Flood, the image of the global pandemic eclipses much hope of refuge anywhere. Meanwhile, in real life preliminary reports on the trials of a vaccine against the global spread of H1N1 have begun to appear.

It’s not uncommon for visionaries, especially exasperated visionaries, to have difficulty bringing their followers with them as far as they themselves can see. We now learn, however, that Atwood is taking the messages of God’s Gardeners on a three-month tour of six countries, accompanied by a chorus and actors2 ; and since hers are messages we can all wish to be heard, we must hope her road show will be more effective than were the old medicine shows and WCTU rallies and other didactic pageants so popular at the turn of the twentieth century.

This Issue

November 5, 2009