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Surprising Science

Novelist Margaret Atwood Tells Us a Racy Joke

“Canadians have a reprehensible habit of making fun of just about everything,” says novelist Margaret Atwood. In her Big Think interview, she tries to explain Canadian humor, asking us, “What does a Canadian girl say when you ask her if she’d like some sex?”

Though highly entertaining in person, Atwood as a novelist is not particularly known for her humor. She describes her work as “speculative fiction,” a type of science-fiction based on extrapolating from technologies that already exist.  Writing this type of fiction allows her to explore some of the most important global issues like climate change and synthetic biology. Her most recent novel “The Year of the Flood” is about a future in which mankind has been decimated by a man-made virus. Discussing the preponderance of books and movies about the apocalypse in recent years, Atwood said that they become popular “when people have suddenly realized that things may not necessarily go on along the same set of assumptions that they have been going on for the last little while.” The reality of global warming has many fearing for the worst, she says. 

Atwood’s books may talk about technology as a threat to mankind, but she’s no luddite. The sprightly 71-year-old is an active Twitter user, with over 85,000 followers. She told us about some of her favorite Twitter threads, including the recent push to elect a turnip as Prime Minister of Canada. She also warned that people should realize that Twittering is publishing. “You can end up with a libel suit on your hands; that hasn’t quite sunk in, in some areas, but it’s true,” she says. But in the end Twitter is just an extension of the diary, she says. In fact, all new forms of communication are just modernizations of older forms. Twitter, for instance, is an analogue to African tribal drums, which “could send very complex messages over great distances.”

Atwood is also a proponent of e-books, which she hopes will ultimately result in more reading. She also thinks they might be used to help kids with reading problems like dyslexia. But she does have a bit of nostalgia for the experience of serendipity of stumbling upon a new book at a bookstore. She also lists three unorthodox reasons why physical books are should never be entirely replaced.

A prolific author of more than thirty books, Atwood told us about her creative process and what it’s like for her to begin a new book. “For me, it’s not a question of sitting around wondering what I’m going to write,” she says. “It’s a question of sitting around wondering which of the far-fetched and absurd ideas I’m going to try to tackle. Sometimes, I think I should be a lot safer and less risk-taking and stick to somebody, or something, a little bit more manageable. But those aren’t the things that appeal to me, unfortunately.” She also talked about the hardest part about writing fiction for her: exposition.

Atwood comes from a scientific family, so she knows much about the evolutionary science and neurology behind reading and storytelling. “it has been proposed that reading is built on very ancient program that had to do with reading animal tracks,” she explains. “What you’re doing is you’re looking for visual signs made by somebody else, and you are interpreting those back into a story that originally, of course, allowed you to track the animal or to figure out if the animal was tracking you—equally important.  You were able to tell what was around in your vicinity by reading those tracks.”  Storytelling is also a deeply human activity, one that may have emerged as an evolutionary adaptation. “If I can tell you that right over there in that river was where the crocodile ate Uncle George, you do not have to test that in your own life by going over there and getting eaten by the crocodile.” 


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