Margaret Atwood, author of "The Handmaid's Tale," Talks about her Favorite "Beets"

AtwoodUnless you have been living under a rock or avoiding Facebook (in which case, you're probably more emotionally healthy than the rest of us), you have probably heard that Margaret Atwood's pioneering work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid's Tale, will soon be a Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, and Joseph Fiennes. This is not the first time it has been adapted for the (big or little) screen, and it's even been made into an opera. But the story, originally published in 1985, seems particularly relevant, and prophetic, today. Grappling with themes including reproductive rights (or lack thereof), racism, fundamentalism, and even fake news, it's a cautionary tale flirting with the truth.

Here, Ms. Atwood reveals some of her favorite speculative fictions, after a little terminology lesson.


There is still some fuzziness around the terms “speculative fiction” and “science fiction.” Some say that “speculative fiction” includes such things as horror and reality-based dystopias and vampire stories, with “science fiction” being a subset. Others make a distinction between “science fiction” – hard and soft, but involving other planets and universes accessed by devices we do not currently have and cannot realistically expect to have – and “speculative fiction,” located on this earth and containing no devices that we cannot currently foresee. Let’s just say that there is a difference in nature between stories set in a universe far, far away – some call these “science fiction fantasy” -- and those set on this planet, in a future we can plausibly describe, though not infallibly predict. (No predictions are infallible.) All fictions both entertain – otherwise nobody turns the pages – and also instruct – because stories will inevitably be given a moral interpretation by readers, language and people being what they are. But the far, far away galaxy kind – let us call them “zucchinis” – will inspire less immediate fear than the other kind – let us call them “beets.”

The list below is a list of “beets.”  There are many more, but these are some of the books I have read and enjoyed. They concern this earth and what is possible on it, given the knowledge available at the time of their writing. They are mostly dystopias – they describe a world we would rather not have. But some are utopias – they point to improvements. Every utopia contains a little dystopia, and every dystopia contains a little utopia, or at least a better world. Otherwise, farewell to hope and fear.


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The Iron Heel by Jack London
The old original; perhaps the first twentieth-century dystopia. Plague followed by social chaos; emphasis on evils wrought by oligarchy; but a better world in the future, which looks back on these horrible times. Inspired 1984.
 

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Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
The nineteenth century sprouted utopias in great profusion. What shall we say of The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton? Or A Crystal Age, by W.H. Hudson? Or News from Nowhere, by William Morris? Not everyone has the stomach for the ornate vocabulary in these, despite the flowing robes of the outfits. Looking Backward is more 20th C in its briskness, and it predicted credit cards, for what that’s worth. But – whisper who dare – it highlights one of the problems with utopias: they can be boring. Everyone is so Good.
 

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
You do know about this one! If not, you can read the introduction to it, by myself. Man frightened by Hollywood underwear and hedonism writes utopia in which man addled by Shakespeare and religion comes to grief. Which is better, shopping or a soul? Your choice!
 

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1984 by George Orwell
You know about this one, too. And you need to know. Orwell nailed fake news and distortions of language before anyone else did. He was writing about the Soviet Union of 1948, but this book is eerily relevant, which is why it’s right back up there on the best-seller lists. Orwell knew Double Plus Ungood when he saw it.
 

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Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
A personal favourite. Written in the Future-English of a post-apocalyptic British teenager. The apocalypse has been atomic, as they once were. Young Riddley is on a quest, as his riddle-based first name and his ambulatory last one would suggest. A puppet show featuring Mister Clevver is his day job, insofar as he has one. Beware of Mister Clevver!
 

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The Death of Grass by John Christoper (Sam Youd)
A fifties classic, not well enough known. All the grass on earth has died, including major food grasses such as wheat. Well, you can imagine. Replace “wheat” with “bees” and “fish,” both in difficulty at present, and we’re kind of staring at it right now.
 

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
I snuck this one in even though it is technically a zucchini rather than a beet – being set on another planet -- because I like it a lot, and because it’s even more relevant now than when it was written. The two kinds of society described have lessons for us all -- I prefer the society that goes in for court intrigues rather than wars, but I may be very old-fashioned. As for the gender-shifting, “intersectionality” doesn’t even touch it. Radical in the ways it forces the reader to imagine other ways of being human. A footnote: Well worth a view is the short story “Consider Her Ways,” by John Wyndham. Another proposed solution to gender issues. You may not like the result, but hey – it’s those dang plagues again, and this time the virus kills only men. All of them.
 

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Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Technically a utopia – the future world the narrator either really travels to or hallucinates is “better” than ours, in some respects – but you may have your doubts. It tackles various social issues, especially those concerning gender, unsparingly and with considerable ferocity, and forces the reader to decide how he or she might solve these problems. How many non-conformists are you willing to kill? (Brave New World relocates them to Iceland, but no such luck here.) There is another future in this book, too: highly dystopic, except for the rich. And kind of weirdly familiar.
 

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The Parable Series by Octavia Butler
Among the first fictions that you might term “eco-feminist,” if you were in a terming mood. This series is now a classic, and underlines a true thing: the condition of women and the condition of the environment are closely joined. These three books follow the small community of Earthseed as it struggles against both horrible conditions and horrible people. Much to ponder.
 

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The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
A “climate fiction,” among other things. Yes, there will be water wars. And there will be enforcers, strong men, assassins… A “water knife” is a hired gun for big water interests. We follow one of these on his skullduggericious rounds (I made that word up, but it’s not too shabby), as he slogs through the mud of necessity towards some kind of revelation. Philip Marlowe on speed, with water as blue gold.
 

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A spiritual relative of Riddley Walker. This apocalypse is caused by a plague, but some survive it. We follow a wandering troupe of players – remember Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal? – as they meander from beleaguered hamlet to beleaguered hamlet, putting on semi-amateur theatricals and dogged by a murderous extremist religious cult. Gripping, tense, dense in detail, cleverly put together. It all fits, finally.
 

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Company Town by Madeline Ashby
A tough female central character who’s a misfit because she’s not genetically enhanced, an authoritarian offshore oilrig community – oligarchy become oiligarchy—and you’re off and run-run-running in this noir version of something we might well become, and, in some areas of the world, already are. This author doubles as a “futurist,” so pay attention. She’s also well up on the progress of AI, if progress it is.
 

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The Power by Naomi Alderman
Due to a military experiment that got into the drinking water in WW2 (but which, in real life and due to CRISPR, might conceivably be possible), girls are being born with electrical organs – like those of eels ¬– that allows them to electrocute people, from titillating zip to killing zap. The balance of physical gender power has now been reversed, and payback is in the air. We follow several characters as they pick their way through the minefields. Do the newly-empowered women always behave well? Do men, currently empowered? Does power corrupt? Read on! (Warning: not always pretty.)
 

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Comments (4)

I'd add my favorite "Daemon" by Daniel Suarez, together with second book "Freedom".

Posted by: akuukis | Saturday April 1, 2017 at 12:52 AM

...Another great dystopian classic:
The Rainbow Cadenza is a science fiction novel by J. Neil Schulman which won the 1984 Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction. It tells the story of Joan Darris, a laser art composer and performer, and her interactions with her society.

The novel portrays a future nominally-libertarian world government, in which many social taboos of the middle-twentieth century have been eliminated—for instance, gay marriage, drug use, sex work, and Wicca are all deemed socially acceptable. However, women, greatly outnumbered by men, are required to perform a three-year term of sexual servitude, and the "Touchables" underclass can be hunted for sport.

The main themes of the novel are social libertarianism vs. societal control, freedom of self, and what is permissible for the greater good.

Posted by: Adam Leight | Monday April 3, 2017 at 9:51 PM

Atwood is at it again.
The distinction she is trying so hard to make is really non-existent, but hews very closely to a movement within the SCIENCE FICTION genre known as MUNDANE Science Fiction.
Why we keep pandering to this author's desire to hold herself away from (and seemingly above) the genre she so obviously loves is beyond me. Cry all she wants, she's still writing Science Fiction and she ought to be PROUD of that.

Posted by: steve davidson | Saturday April 15, 2017 at 6:09 AM

I'm surprised that Ray Bradbury didn't make the list, for Fahrenheit 451 at least.

I'll definitely be checking out some of the books on this list.

Posted by: James Simmons | Friday April 28, 2017 at 3:09 PM

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