Margaret Atwood’s in town this month, performing at the Queensland Conservatorium as a guest of the Brisbane Writers Festival. The Canadian writer was here in 2001, touring The Blind Assassin, the novel that won her the Booker Prize. I know because I interviewed her, in front of a ballroom full of people. I was nervous. Atwood is one of the world’s great novelists. This was the final night of a long tour. A radio journalist told me not to make goofy jokes, because Atwood doesn’t tolerate fools. Uh huh. Goofy jokes are my best side.
After she left Brisbane, Atwood, a keen birder, travelled north where she happened upon the idea for her next novel, Oryx and Crake, a dark vision of the future in which the human species is all but destroyed. At first, I assumed my brilliant conversation must have led Atwood to… destroy all humans (she must really hate goofy jokes) but I later learned her inspiration was a bird. Atwood was standing on a verandah in Cairns, watching rednecked crakes forage in the undergrowth, when the novel arrived “almost in its entirety.” On the same trip, Atwood went to Arnhem Land, where, she wrote later, Aboriginal people had “lived continuously, in harmony with their environment, for tens of thousands of years.”
In Oryx and Crake, and in the The Year of the Flood which followed, harmony with the environment is long gone. Climate change has done its work – the east coast of North America is like far north Queensland, blisteringly hot days hardly relieved by late storms, and New York has been resumed by sea. In New New York, the wealthy live in secured compounds while the rest eke out hellish lives in the Pleeblands. Unchecked development has led to genetically-engineered creatures you wouldn’t want to meet, from snats and rakunks to pigoons and wolvogs. And then there’s Crake, a geek originally called Glenn who takes the name of the (by then) extinct bird. Crake intends to (spoiler alert) get rid of humans (feel-good sex pill, deadly pathogen), replacing us with his genetically designed, much better adapted Crakers who eat leaves, mate every three years and die blissful and innocent at 30.
Atwood comes from a family of scientists and has said that these novels – with the third in the series MaddAddam to be published later this year – are in the genre of speculative not science fiction; they’re based on what already exists rather than made up stuff. You can’t blame Atwood for telling it like it could be, but you might be wondering where the hope’s gone. Perhaps there is none in the future we’re facing.
Although some people still dispute global warming, even real estate journalists are getting with the plan. I saw an article recently. “Buy close to the coast!” it said. “But not too close.” Last month saw floods again in Queensland and fire destroyed Warrumbungle National Park in New South Wales. I confess that like many people I’m at the stage where I see another terrible weather event somewhere else and feel vague hopelessness. But Queensland is my home and the Warrumbungles are a magic place our children may not experience. We may already be seeing the climate chaos scientists have been warning us about.
Atwood has written about hope recently which, she says, is built in for humans. And we’ll need it in order to survive the future we’re heading into. While some hopes are groundless, Atwood says, “where there is no hope, there is merely grim acceptance, or else despair; and neither of those has ever inspired a new creation, or motivated anyone to dig his way out of a dungeon.”
In 2001, Atwood and I talked about the Weather Channel which was my favourite thing in Canada – watching as the temperature reached a new low then running outside – also the favourite thing of Iris, the central character of The Blind Assassin. I shouldn’t have been nervous. We had a welcoming Brisbane crowd. Atwood was funny, clever, even wise, and she liked goofy jokes. And on this visit to Brisbane, 25 Feb, she’s bringing music written for the hymns in The Year of the Flood. I’ll be there. I’d always rather go down singing than give in to hopelessness.