Margaret Atwood and the Post-Human Future


I have a thing about The Handmaid’s Tale, of course: it was what formed my beliefs, aged about 12, about what “the religious right” was, and what the agenda of men who claimed to be Christians was, with regard to women.  I’m not sure I ever actually finished it, but I got through enough for my emotions about a “right” to abortion to be colored by a rejection of a system that made women into breeding stock.

I’ve written about this elsewhere; I came to realize that what pro-life people were arguing was that actually, the violation of the integrity of un-powerful people that is represented by abortion can only weaken the safeguards against the exploitation of other un-powerful people.  “As I would not be a slave,” said Lincoln, “so I would not be a master.”  What women who are conscious of the fact that women in general have less access to power than men ought to say about abortion is, “as I would not be discarded and abused, so I will not discard and abuse others.”

I know this now, and it really does seem to me that the Handmaid’s Tale view of what evangelicals are, and are up to, is not one that can survive a close encounter with an actual evangelical– just an actual conversation, I mean, let alone a conversion.

But I did love Atwood’s writing, and I have a copy of Oryx and Crake somewhere, that I’ve maybe been wanting to read.  Or possibly my stepmother has a copy.  Someone has a copy, anyway.

I’ve gotta say, though, that after listening to Atwood’s recent interview with Tim Wu on his Stranger than Fiction podcast, I’m a little less inclined to take it up.  She’s biohacked her characters so that they “come into season”– you know, like baboons do– and turn blue to indicate this fact.  This eliminates a lot of ambiguity and heartbreak, as you might imagine.  It also, Atwood admits, eliminates romance.

Tim Wu said something like, “I mean, I see how that society is less violent, but it just… it feels kind of boring.”

“Well,” said Atwood, “it feels boring to you.  A snail’s life would seem boring to you.  But it’s terribly exciting for the snail.”

Oryx and Crake is, officially, dystopian: Atwood doesn’t approve of or like the genetic tinkering that has resulted in this future.  But she doesn’t really have a reason for disliking it.  “I’m old-fashioned,” she says, “I’m biased in favor of humanity,” as against modifying human nature to make it more tractable.

But would she consider the idea that there might be a stable human nature on behalf of which it is in fact good to be a partisan; that the wisdom of her repugnance at this dystopia she has made corresponds to a moral reality?  I suspect not, and I understand why.  In our culture, those who say things like, there is a stable human nature; we are in favor of it; there is a good way to treat people and a bad one: the voices that say things like this would be linked in Atwood’s mind with those “fundamentalists” who were the bad guys in A Handmaid’s Tale.

Or at least they were linked in my mind, when I was younger.  Moral absolutism, a suspicion of infinite malleability, was the province of the right– those blinkered anti-science types.  The natural allies, at least in the logic of ideology, of the corporate biohackers of Oryx and Crake are women like Offred’s mother, who championed the absolute right of women to do what they want with their own bodies (and the bodies of their children).  The natural allies in terms of ideology of anyone who posits something eternal, sacred, unhackable about human nature– someone who regards the world of Oryx and Crake as indeed a dystopia– are those who are parodied as theocratic fascists in The Handmaid’s Tale.

All of which makes me actually want to read O&C now.  Because what this means is that the wisdom of fiction may run deeper than ideology.  And that novelists like Atwood paint a more accurate and humane picture of human nature than the ideologues who might use her fiction to make a cheap point.  Science fiction– all good fiction– lives in complexity: not infinite moral relativism, but the complexity of trying to see, and seek, the human good in the face of whatever forces that attack it, whether those forces are pseudo-Christian fascists, or corporate gene-hackers.  Fiction allows both the writer and the reader to be human rather than flatly ideological, but it also requires anyone who is philosophically a moral relativist to check her moral relativism at the door for the duration of the story, because to work, a story must contain characters who are seeking some good– even if that good is clouded.

You may be in favor of IVF, but when you read Brave New World, you may see something you don’t like.  You may be outraged at any restrictions on human genetic experimentation, but when you write a novel about the post-human, you may find your old-fashioned biases in favor of old-school human persons, with all their messiness and romance, bubbling to the surface.  Despite your best efforts.  And that’s all to the good.

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