George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury…
Names like these get tossed around as examples of writers whose dystopian predictions of the future have come true in one way or another. Of possible candidates from our own time whose names might be added to this list, surely none is more worthy than Margaret Atwood. Atwood starting writing when she was six years old, despite not being enrolled in school full-time until she was eight. At age 75, and with a novel set to be released in September of this year, the Canadian author shows no sign of stopping. Despite not receiving a formal education during her early years, Atwood had a creative spark, reading whenever she could, deciding to pursue writing professionally as early as the age of 16. She now holds honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge University, and The Sorbonne among other notable institutions.
Atwood has a reputation for being a bold, forward-thinking writer. She recently agreed to be the first writer to make a contribution to The Future Library Project, a group seeking to collect original stories by prominent writers every year until 2114, at which point all of the material collected will be published in one volume. It’s an ambitious, interesting project, and Atwood’s involvement is (hopefully) a sign of good things to come.
But more than this, Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrates why Atwood has more than earned her place next to history’s most influential sci-fi and speculative fiction writers. The novel is set in the Republic of Gilead, which was formerly the United States of America. After a staged terrorist attack — blamed on Islamic extremists — incites a national panic, the constitution is suspended and the government is replaced by a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Atwood penned the novel in 1985. It’s important to note that politically salient science fiction usually exaggerates the circumstances it seeks to make a point about. That is to say, Ray Bradbury probably didn’t actually believe that reading would one day be outlawed, but by writing about a world where that was the case, he was able to stress the importance of books and free-thinking.
To be clear: we aren’t saying that Margaret Atwood predicted 9/11.
And more so, we aren’t saying it was a government-staged attack. What we are saying is that Atwood’s clairvoyance as a writer has been well-established by less extreme examples of the things she wrote about actually happening in the U.S. in the wake of a major national tragedy. Atwood’s novel explored the consequences of a society’s decision to trade freedom for safety, and in less pronounced ways, America has made the same gambit by allowing increased surveillance on the citizenry, the Patriot Act and its attendant NSA spying programs being prime examples.
In the grand tradition of books that contain dangerous ideas, schools all over the U.S. and Canada have banned or attempted to ban The Handmaid’s Tale. In 2006 a superintendent in Judson, Texas unilaterally decided to remove the book from the school’s curriculum after a parent complained about the graphic material contained in the novel. In the end, he was overruled by the school board, who restored the book.
Of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is hardly the only quality work of fiction penned by Atwood’s prolific hand. For her work she’s been nominated for and won myriad accolades. In 2114 when The Future Library is opened and readers get to set eyes on the story that Atwood wrote for that project, her reputation as a writer could be based on any number of her accomplishments. But those of us fortunate enough to live and breathe alongside her would do well to consider the parallels between even the most “speculative” elements of her writing and the world we actually live in. Through this, we may become more aware of our surroundings and therefore more capable of improving them.
- Are you comfortable with the idea of sacrificing some personal freedoms for the sake of safety from outside threats?
- Does the idea of writing something that won’t be read for 100 years intrigue you? Have you ever considered taking part in a similar project?
- Does knowing a book has been “banned” make you more or less likely to read it?