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Atwood muses on writing, science

“Human attempts on utopia often end up in bone heaps.”

Margaret Atwood filled the Special Events Center on Thursday night with wise reflections on literature, government and the arts in education. She spoke to an audience of approximately 200 faculty members and students about her experiences as an author and her perspectives on writing.

Atwood, who was born in 1939, has published several works of fiction and prose, including The Handmaid’s Tale and, most recently, Oryx and Crake. Atwood classified both works as dystopian novels, and spoke of the difference between science fiction and secular fiction. Science fiction, she specified, reports the future as it could be, while secular fiction uses “already existing socially realistic circumstances, such as DNA and credit cards.

“I put nothing in (my novels) that cannot be backed up by factoid,” Atwood said.

The Handmaid’s Tale, she said, “explores the meaning of what it means to be human.” In summary, it is a utopian fiction about a society in the near future in which all creativity is suppressed. “We have a much better idea of how to make a dystopia than a utopia,” Atwood said. “There have been 20th century countries who tried to make utopia, but ended up with Inferno.”

Atwood cited George Orwell’s 1984 as a major inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale. “I started writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984,” said Atwood, a time when most dystopian novels were written about male characters. “I wanted to try a dystopia from the female point of view, from Julia’s (the leading female character of 1984) perspective, if you will.”

“‘Are you against science?’ I was once asked.” To this, she responded, “Without science, we’d all be dead of smallpox, not to mention tuberculosis.”

Her newest novel, Oryx and Crake, is not quite dystopian, Atwood said, because, “We see the central characters living their lives in a small corner of society,” so the reader does not get a complete picture of the culture. She labels this work as an “adventure/romance.”

“An education system that only teaches us about our tools … and not their functions … may as well be a school of toaster repair,” she said. Atwood went on to say that a society without the arts would have “broken the mirror and cut out our hearts.” It is the human imagination, Atwood declared, that directs what we do with these tools.