art of the anthropocene / anthropocene art

Margaret Atwood: A Novelist of the Anthropocene

by Azl Saeed

Atwood at a Glance

Born in 1939, Margaret Atwood is arguable one of the most influential novelists ­of our time. From the time she was six months old, Atwood spent the majority of her childhood traveling around different parts of Canada with her family so that her father could pursue his entomology research. As a result of this constant travel, Atwood did not enroll in formal school and instead relied on her own reading and exploration, simultaneously falling in love with literature and the natural world. This early love of literature stuck with Atwood as she went on to study English at the University of Toronto, and then later on, a master’s degree from Radcliffe. Following that, she taught at several institutions, including the University of British Columbia, the Sir George Williams University, the University of Alberta, York University, the University of Alabama, and New York University. Now at the age of 78, Atwood has published over 20 novels in addition to several children’s books, essays, poems, and other collections. Not only that, but this accomplished activist, writer, poet, and inventor has received many honorary degrees from institutions ranging from Oxford to Harvard, and has won countless awards throughout her life thus far. Her passionate background with nature and the environment can also be seen through her Twitter, in which she often she retweets environmental and climate change related tweets.

Check out this documentary to her about Atwood's life from her own perspective, and also from the perspective of her parents!

Speculative Fiction

Speculative fiction can explore consequences of new technologies, the nature of what it means to be a human being, the relationship between humans and the universe, changes in social organization, or the realms of our own imaginations.​

For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can't yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth.

­As Atwood herself claims in the quote above, many of her works, especially the more recent ones, fall into this intriguing genre of literature. Unlike many science fiction dystopian works, speculative fiction takes place in the not-too-distant future. Essentially, these stories could be taking place right now in an alternate version of our own reality.

In fact, it is because Atwood’s works are speculative fiction that she is an Anthropocentric novelist. Speculative fiction of the Anthropocene aims to reveal how human exploitation of the natural world is inextricable from human exploitation of ourselves. What makes this specific form of dystopia so unique is that it invites us to connect our current power struggles with the world it represents. All of this is done to effectively provoke alarm and a sense of urgency in its audience. And unlike nonfiction works, speculative fiction appeals to a wider audience by integrating these ideas in an interesting storyline.

When asked about her speculative fiction, Atwood stated, "You don't write those books you hope those things will happen, you write those books because you think they might happen, but you would rather they didn't." Check out the interview here to hear more about her thoughts on the topic!

Specific Elements
While the formal elements of this genre have been outlined above, there are some special elements in Atwood's writing that make them especially effective. 

  1. Choice: The stories mention a choice made by a character or a group that led to conditions of their reality. It is essential that this choice is emphasized because it illustrates that there is an alternative that could lead to different outcome. It also forces the audience to note that the choices we are making now have consequences. It implies that there is still hope because of this choice. While these tales may seem bleak, the underlying tone of hope is still there.
  2. Nostalgia: The characters mention times past, during which the world was different and better. The characters long for a time when conditions weren't so bad or times in which they were free from burdens that they are now facing. This creates an emotional appeal in the audience because we certainly do not want to share those emotions.

Featured Works

While there are anthropocentric elements found throughout Atwood's extensive oeuvre, there are a couple specific novels that really exemplify her speculative writing.

The Handmaid's Tale

While at first glance, this book seems like a classic dystopian novel, the first element that differentiates this story from many others is that the plot revolves heavily around women. In fact, in an essay by Lois Feuer, this novel is described as being a feminist version of George Orwell's iconic 1984. This might have to do with the fact that this novel is written by firstly, an individual who is a woman, and secondly, an individual who often incorporates feminist themes in her writing. What makes this plot especially interesting is that it depicts a society in which the reproductive rights of women are stripped away by a highly patriarchal society, causing their reality to entirely shift. Going back to the idea of speculative fiction, this concept hits close to home because conversations about reproductive rights are controversial nowadays, especially with the current political climate. This creates a sense of alarm because the audience can see the issues in the novel connect with current issues in their own lives. It makes it more real to see how a single choice we could make today could lead to a reality when an entirely different social organization, like the one in this book. Furthermore, this novel challenges the idea of what it means to be a human being because of the strong theme of identity (or lack thereof) found throughout the story. As a result of reproductive oppression, the women in this story are dehumanized, as they are only seen as their physical ability rather than individual identity. Another aspect of humanity this explores is the ability of a human to endure oppressive conditions. While it is easy to point fingers at others and say what we would do in their situation, this makes the audience realize that we often times are just as complacent in our own conditions. Sure, this novel paints a pretty extreme picture, but it easy to see elements of our current reality interwoven into the plot in a way that makes us a little weary of some the paths we are currently headed down.

This book has also turned into a super popular TV show on Hulu. Check out the trailer!


Oryx and Crake

While this novel is similar to previous in many ways, including that it is also a dystopian tale, the premise is entirely different. Instead of a dystopia resulting from oppression of reproduction rights, this dystopia has resulted from advancements in scientific technology. Specifically, this story deals with advancements in genetic engineering and the industries that are making these advancements. In fact, the "improvements" that have been made in this society make everything that is ordinarily seen as being natural become entirely unnatural. In a sense, what is boils down to is this idea of "cheating the natural." This story also deals with the concept of extinction, as the main character, Jimmy/Snowman, is the only human being, surrounded by a bunch of engineered humanoid Crakers. This allows for the exploration of human nature, which is a key feature of speculative fiction. Because this character is the only human surrounded by nature-less beings, his thoughts, feelings, emotions, and actions are all a reflection of what it means to be a human. Let's take look at a specific thought this character had in the novel.

Anyway, maybe there weren't any solutions. Human society, corpses and rubble. It never learned, it made the same cretinous mistakes over and over, trading short-term gain for long-term pain. It was like a giant slug eating its easy relentlessly through all other bioforms on the planet, grinding up life on earth and shitting it out the backside in the form of pieces of manufactured and soon-to-be-obsolete plastic junk.

As you can most certainly tell from this quote alone, this is certainly not a "feel good" type of book. It's actually the very opposite: it causes great discomfort. The crass and sarcastic tone is a bit humorous, but also a social commentary that can be applied to today's times. We often focus on this positive aspects of humanity, but this passage forces us to inspect the other side, one that is much darker. It is this greedy and flawed version of humanity that resulted in Snowman's grim reality. Like The Handmaid's Tale, this novel portrays a pretty extreme scenario, but still one we can relate to. We see this greed and this destruction in our own world so it doesn't seem absolutely absurd or unrealistic to consider this human tendency destroying the natural world and everything that is natural about it.

To learn more and stay up to date on all things Margaret Atwood, check out her website or the Margaret Atwood Society.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.
Bowden, Gary. "An Environmental Sociology for the Anthropocene."
                  Canadian Review of Sociology, vol. 54, no. 1, Feb. 2017, pp. 48-68.
                  EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/cars.12138.
Bouson, J. Brooks. "A “Joke-Filled Romp” through End Times: Radical
                  Environmentalism, Deep Ecology, and Human Extinction in Margaret
                  Atwood’s Eco-Apocalyptic Maddaddam Trilogy." Journal of
                  Commonwealth Literature, vol. 51, no. 3, Sept. 2016,
                  pp. 341-357. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1177/0021989415573558.
“Iconic Author Margaret Atwood on Abortion, Twitter, and Predicting
                  Everything We're Doing Wrong.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Jan. 2016,
“Margaret Atwood.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media,
Mead, Rebecca. “Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia.” The New
                  Yorker, The New Yorker, 16 July 2017,
Northover, Richard Alan. "Ecological apocalypse in Margaret Atwood’s
                  MaddAddam trilogy." Studia Neophilologica 88.sup1 (2016): 81-95.
Rowland, Lucy. "Speculative Solutions: The Development of Environmental
                  and Ecofeminist Discourse in Margaret Atwood's Maddaddam."
                  Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en Littérature Canadienne,
                  vol. 40, no. 2, July 2015, pp. 46-68.
Snyder, Katherine V. "" Time to go": The Post-apocalyptic and The Post-
                  traumatic in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake." Studies in the Novel 43.4
                  (2011): 470-489.

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