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Master Class

How Margaret Atwood Creates Scary-Plausible Future Worlds

Margaret Atwood writes stories that are deeply, troublingly human by building elaborate worlds that resemble ours. Here, she explains her process for conjuring up the future—and what you can learn about it from breakfast.

Note: This article is included in our year-end storytelling advice round-up.

A think tank composed of novelists and screenwriters reportedly convened at the Pentagon not long after the attacks on 9/11. Once assembled, the unlikely visitors began inventing scenarios for future attacks against the United States—the targets, the perpetrators, the methodology. It may sound like a desperate approach, but it's actually quite rational. Predicting what people might do next is what some of our greatest storytellers do best.

Sometimes the future in question is limited to specific individuals and situations. The sci-fi subgenre known as speculative fiction, however, is more concerned with broad swaths of society and the environment, and how they will fare in the years to come. With any luck, we'll never end up measuring our world against the predictions of Margaret Atwood, the most acclaimed speculative fiction author, and one of the most acclaimed writers in general working today.

Margaret AtwoodPhoto by Jean Malek

Margaret Atwood is rather beloved around the world for someone who has repeatedly forecast its eventual destruction and the grim dystopia that follows. The native Ontarian's works, such as The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx & Crake, put a scarily plausible spin on how technology, politics, and deeply human motivations might shape, and threaten, our future. (The multiple Booker Prize-winning author is also an accomplished poet, with 15 books of verse to her name.)

When Margaret Atwood predicts where the winds of change are blowing, though, she does not rely on mere instinct or editorial savvy. With the recently released MaddAddam completing the trilogy she began with Oryx & Crake,, the author talks to Co.Create about her approach to building future worlds and why she looks to breakfast for inspiration when she does so.

Ground Your World In the Possible.

In my own work, I like to keep it grounded firmly in the possible. For The Handmaid's Tale, I used no elements that had not been done somewhere at some time, or for which we did not have the tech already. For MaddAddam, I relied on initiatives that were already under way or contemplated, or that—given the other breakthroughs being made—could actually be done. Biotech is not only a game changer, but potentially a planet changer as well. I have to watch my factoids, however, as there are biologists in the family and they would call me on it if I got too fanciful.

When Imagining the Future—Start With Breakfast and Extrapolate.

This may sound silly, but I like to wonder what people would have for breakfast—which people, as their breakfasts would be different—and where they would get those food items, and whether or not they would say a prayer over them, and how they would pay for them, and what they would wear during that meal, and, if cooked, how, and what sort of bed they would have arisen from, and what else they might be doing while having the breakfast—talking to someone (who), in person or on a device (what?), and who would be allowed to do that, and what they might feel safe in saying. Breakfast can take you quite far.

Image: Flickr user Vincepal

Pay Attention to Both Animal and Human Nature.

I derived [the unusual mating rituals of the post-human Crakers in Oryx and Crake from penguins, bower birds (gift presentation), chimpanzees and baboons, fiddler crabs (the semaphore), birds (the singing, the display), and so forth. As well as the mating rituals of stockbrokers. Also, (the character) Crake's idea that it would be good to do away with territoriality and inheritance.

The notion of writing fiction about these things arrived quite suddenly, however, near Cairns in Australia, as we were watching some rare species. How much longer for them? And how much longer for us, unless we get smarter fast about the relationship between air, earth, water, and us?

The character Toby in MaddAddam [describes post-apocalyptic life as having all the petty jealousies of high school] because people—our style of people—would not change just because of a minor detail such as the almost total annihilation of their species. Life would continue to be social, and inter-individual. Jealousy is apparently rife in, for instance, old-age homes. Even dogs get jealous!

Margaret writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Berlin, 1984

Be Careful Not to Veer Into Farce Territory.

Too much preaching and explicating can slow things down—but [speculative fiction] is like any fiction in that you can't suddenly change the premises unless you're intending farce.

Image: Flickr user Barta IV

Follow Your Scientific Curiosity.

I have always read quite widely in this field—biology and associated disciplines, such as brain research—as I find it fascinating. And the other developing story I have followed closely is species extinction and its twin, biosphere degradation. The notion of writing fiction about these things arrived quite suddenly, however, near Cairns in Australia, as we were watching some rare species. How much longer for them? And how much longer for us, unless we get smarter fast about the relationship between air, earth, water, and us?

[Image: Flickr user Barta IV]