Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Forecast

Atwood blog insert

Our planet faces increasing climate change and overpopulation. Genetic engineering allows scientists to customize nature on an unprecedented scale. Private security firms in the U.S. employ more personnel than U.S. local, state, and federal governments combined.

It’s not fiction—this is our present day reality.

Author Margaret Atwood observed these trends, then considered what might happen if human beings continue on the path that we’re on. As she began writing, she committed to including only biobeings that exist or are possible in theory with developing technologies. The result is a dystopian trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake, continued with The Year of the Flood, and recently concluded with the novel MaddAddam.

In Atwood’s vision of a near-future society, transgenic pigs grow human organs for transplant harvest. ChickieNobs, which are designed on a sea-anemone body plan, have no beaks, eyes, brains, or feathers, but do produce edible breasts in two weeks with their built-in high growth rate.

Society is sharply divided. Educated and wealthy scientists live and work in gated corporation compounds, where every luxury is supplied for the scientific brains who are hard at work developing new products to market to the masses. Citizens who are not working for the corporations live in the pleeblands, declining urban centers that are under the control of the mob. Corporation security firms stepped in to maintain public order when funding failed for public services, and individual freedoms were gradually eroded. Corporations control health care, too, so doctors aim to sell products rather than help people. Fringe groups work to undermine the power structure and reveal the truth, but they work underground to avoid execution.

Oryx and Crake introduces us to this society through the eyes of Jimmy, a words person who does not fit into his world. The novel begins after the collapse of society, from an unspecified cause. Jimmy, now known as Snowman, reveals the events leading up to the catastrophe through flashbacks.  Jimmy befriended Glenn, a scientific genius, when both were high school students. After graduation, Glenn was recruited by a prestigious institute, and was then hired by a top corporation, where he officially took on the name Crake as he began his work. Crake was tasked with creating the ultimate sex enhancement drug with birth control and disease protection built in, but his real passion was an ambitious project to create the ultimate human. His design for the species eliminated sexual jealousy and deviancy, as well as the drive for religion. His creations featured built-in insect repellant and sunscreen, and matured faster to avoid wasted time in prolonged childhood and in child rearing.  They were born in a rainbow of colors.

Crake set out to eliminate war and suffering.  Will human beings have to be eliminated to achieve the goal?

After Oryx and Crake, read The Year of the Flood to learn more about this society and to see the aftermath of Crake’s work, this time from the perspective of two women living in the pleeblands. Finish up the trilogy with Maddaddam, an action-packed finale with surprising allies and unexpected twists.

About the Author
Margaret Atwood knew at the age of 16 that she wanted to be a writer, and she made good on her goal.  The Canadian author turns 74 years old this month, and has been publishing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction since the 1960’s.  She’s collected a host of prestigious awards along the way, including a Guggenheim fellowship, Booker Prize, and an Arthur C Clarke Award.  She has also won Canada’s highest literary honor, the Governor General’s Award, twice.

Many readers encountered Atwood’s work for the first time with the publication of her first dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. It was published in Canada in 1985 and the US and UK in 1986.  The Handmaid’s Tale has never been out of print, has sold millions of copies worldwide, and has been adapted for film, stage, opera, and ballet.

To learn more about Margaret Atwood’s life and work, check out episode 48 of our library’s HUSH podcast:

Check out Atwood’s work in print and audio through your library’s catalog, or ask a librarian to guide you to the stacks or place Atwood’s work on hold.

Miranda Ericsson

Miranda loves to talk lit! Her favorite reads are poetry, literary fiction, and speculative science fiction, and she's passionate about promoting great literature written by Kansas authors. She works with library programs that support and engage writers in our community, so ask her for more information about the Local Writers Workshop and Great Writers Right Here author fair. Miranda also facilitates TALK book discussions and co-leads the Bean There, Read That book discussion group, and serves as a member of the library's 2Book Topeka team.