What Choice Would You Make?: Margaret Atwood & Steve Paulson Discuss Dystopias, Prostibots & Hope

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood doesn’t rest on her laurels. For all of her acclaim over a publishing career that’s spanned more than half a century, she’s still experimenting with new literary forms and dissecting the oddities and inequities of our post-industrial society. Her latest novel, which began as a serialized story for an online magazine, conjures up a dystopian future that could be, as she puts it, “just around the corner.”

In The Heart Goes Last, a young married couple, Stan and Charmaine, are down on their luck and stuck in a gutted landscape that resembles a scary movie version of Detroit. When they stumble onto the Positron Project–where people are given a comfortable house in exchange for work in a prison–the situation seems too good to be true. It is, of course, as we learn with a mixture of horror and grim humor about what’s really happening in the Positron prison. This social canvas gives Atwood the chance to explore some of her trademark concerns, from new technologies–sexbots, in this case–to unfettered capitalism.

Some readers might call this science fiction, but Atwood prefers “speculative fiction” to describe this and previous novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. “I don’t consider it escape fantasy,” she told me. “I’m exploring potential big holes in the road that I don’t want you to fall into.” Atwood worries about current trends, but she’s also hopeful about the future. In fact, she wrote the first book for the Future Library project in Norway, which is commissioning works by notable writers that will be sealed in a box, not to be opened another hundred years.

I talked with Atwood about the current craze for dystopian stories, the legacy of Orwell and Huxley, and her longtime fascination with prisons. Our conversation will air on Public Radio International’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. You can subscribe to the TTBOOK podcast here.

Steve Paulson: Can you explain the premise of your story–this unusual pairing of prison and town where people voluntarily go to live?

Margaret Atwood: The voluntarily-go-to-live part is the only invention. Those pairings already exist. In fact, some towns would probably be a lot smaller if they didn’t have a prison attached.

SP: But people don’t alternate between spending one month in prison and the next month at home.

MA: Not yet, dear, no. Let’s hope not. The premise of the story is that there has been a 2008-style economic collapse in Stan’s and Charmaine’s part of the country, the Detroit-like part. A lot of people lost their houses in that financial meltdown and a lot of businesses closed, and it’s ongoing. Stan and Charmaine are a nice young married couple. They’ve had jobs, they’ve had a house and a mortgage, but they’ve lost those things in the meltdown, and now they’re living in their car. It’s unpleasant and also dangerous because the area is full of vandals and people on the loose who would like to get hold of their car. Charmaine works in a seedy bar, and when they see a television ad for the Positron project, with a digital tour of the house they would get, it’s just so appealing. You get white fluffy towels, you get sheets with flowers on them, you get a bed. It’s not very comfortable sleeping in your car. All of this is just very appealing, and they apply and get in.

SP: So this prison with a smile seems to offer refuge.

MA: It does offer refuge. Think of the alternatives. What choice would you make? But there are some questions to be asked about it, and Stan–the more skeptical of the two–starts asking them. For instance, if it’s a private for-profit prison scheme, he wants to know how the profit is made. He does find out.

SP: So half the time they’re in prison doing work, and the other half of the time they’re living in their nice house.

MA: And when they’re not living in their nice house but are in the prison, their alternate couple is living in their nice house, and they’re never actually supposed to meet those people. You wouldn’t want to be getting into arguments about who didn’t mow the lawn properly. But of course Stan and Charmaine do eventually encounter them. Stan would also like to know what happened to the actual criminals who were in prison before it became the Positron prison scheme, because you can’t have too many really criminal people there. That would be way too disruptive.

SP: You need compliant prisoners.

MA: You have to have people who are not going to disrupt the system by being too criminal.

SP: You said we already have this kind of system. Are you talking specifically about for-profit prisons?

MA: Yeah. Those exist in the United States. I was thinking more of small cities that really run on the prison that’s there because they don’t have a lot of other businesses anymore.

SP: What made you think about combining prison life and community life?

They criminalized more things because they needed to fill a quota.

MA: I guess I started thinking about it a long time ago when I was a Victorian literature student, and it was a big theme for a number of writers in that era. Notably Charles Dickens, who was pretty obsessed by prisons because his dad was in one when he was a child. And the history of prison reform in that age, but also the history of for-profit penal colonies, of which North Carolina was one. If you go there, a lot of people say, “Oh yeah, my ancestors were those people.” Australia is also instructive because at first they shipped only men to that colony, for housebreaking and other things they’d done, but then they realized the men were quite rowdy and they decided to send some women to marry them and settle them down. But they didn’t have women housebreakers, so they lowered the bar on what you had to do to get transported if you were a woman. They criminalized more things because they needed to fill a quota. Any time you’ve got a quota system like that, you’re going to see that effect. It drives criminalization of certain things so you can fill up your scheme. Where I am right now, which is Tennessee, they had a scandal called Kids For Cash in which there was a for-profit juvenile facility, which they needed to fill up. Judges were taking money to sentence kids for this scheme.

Then I wrote a novel called Alias Grace, which is set in Canada in the 19th century, and the central character ends up in the first penitentiary there. So I read a lot about that. Prisons have changed and had different objectives through the ages. I think we’re at a moment now in which people are rethinking how they’re handling all of that. California, for instance, had to back down on its harsh “fill ’em up” laws because they couldn’t afford to have that many people in the prison system.

SP: It would seem that you’ve written a crazy dystopian story of society run amok, but you’re suggesting maybe it’s not so far off from the real world.

MA: I don’t put things in those kinds of books that are far off from the real world.

SP: You want to have something that’s just…

MA: Just around the corner, you know. Just a couple of different decisions and we’d be there.

SP: The name of your town, Consilience, reminded me of the Florida town of Celebration.

MA: Oh, did it?

SP: It was created by the Disney Corporation to conjure up an idealized version of 1950s small town America.

MA: I didn’t even know about that. You see, you can’t invent this stuff. Somebody’s already thought about it first. There’s a TV show in my book called The Home Front, in which the interviewer goes around interviewing people who have had all their possessions thrown out on the lawn and lost their houses. And somebody asked me recently, doesn’t that already exist?

SP: How is your prison system self-sustaining?

MA: I’m not giving away that plot point. It’s not just self-sustaining. It’s profitable. This is a scheme that’s private, with investors who want a return on their investment. So how are they getting it? Let’s just say that I began this as a series on an online site called Byliner, and I did four episodes. And at the end of the fourth one, our hero Stan is disguised as an Elvis Presley sex robot, and he’s locked into a packing case, being shipped to Las Vegas.

SP: Speaking of Charles Dickens, you actually started writing this novel in serialized form, publishing one chapter at a time. What attracted you to that format?

MA: I got roped into it, actually, by an old editor of mine, Amy Grace Loyd, who’s a novelist in her own right and had a career in magazine editing. She moved over to Byliner and said “Why don’t we try this? You know, Amy Tan has done one. Why don’t you try doing something for Byliner?” So I wrote the first one, and that went pretty well, so I wrote a second one, and I ended up with four before my books-and-pages publisher got wind of it and became agitated and said, “Margaret, what are you doing? Why don’t you turn this into a pages-and-covers novel?” So I ended up doing just that, although it took quite a lot of rearranging and rewriting.

SP: This sounds like a different way to conceive a story. Was it liberating to write in serialized form?

MA: It was a different way to conceive a story. But did you ever go to summer camp?

SP: Oh yeah.

MA: Did you ever do that campfire thing of sitting around a fire and making something up, and then it’s somebody else’s turn?

SP: No, I never did that.

MA: Well, I was an improviser of stories in my youth. Not only did I do that because I was a summer camp counselor, but I also had a much younger sister, and part of entertaining her was to improvise stories. So it was a bit more like that. It gave me a greater appreciation of Charles Dickens because he was writing much more quickly than I was. And he was doing it with a quill pen. Imagine that!

SP: So you were a storyteller before you ever started writing fiction.

MA: Well, I started writing fiction when I was seven. I wrote my first novel at that time–novel in air quotes. It was about an ant, but there were some plot problems because the life of an ant is not very exciting until it gets legs. So at first it was an egg and did nothing. Then it was a larva; also not a lot of action. Then it was a pupa, so no action at all. Finally, at the very end, it gets legs and has some adventures, but not really a gripping way to start.

SP: In your new novel, The Heart Goes Last, your town of Consilience has a lot of rules. No rock music is allowed and you can’t interact with family outside of Consilience.

MA: When you’re in, you’re in.

SP: There’s also heavy surveillance. All the communication with the town is monitored. Is this strictly an imaginary landscape for you?

MA: No, no. It’s kind of where we live, except that we’re still able to communicate quite widely through the internet, social media, phones, all of those things. But as we’ve learned, there are a lot of people listening in on us.

SP: Do you see surveillance in particular as the real world analogy in your story?

MA: There’s more than one real world analogy. The other one is in the field of personal robotics, which is making great strides. You can catch up on Pepper, the robot that can read the expressions on your face, and you can catch up on the Japanese, who have now made a simulated person whose skin can get goose bumps, and the man in California who is making quite interesting talking sexbots. The sexbots started in Holland a little while ago, but they were kind of clunky. Remember how big cell phones used to be?

SP: Sure. And sex robots figure prominently in your story. You call these lifelike androids “prostibots.”

MA: I didn’t make that up. If you put prostibots into your web searcher, that’s what you’ll get.

SP: There’s a question you seem to be asking: If we’re offered enough pleasure, and if we’re provided the basic comforts of life, would we be willing to give up the freedom we have in the outside world? Essentially, could we be happy if we’re willing to check our free will at the door?

I think history has shown that when people feel really frightened, they will choose options that provide safety…and they will give up some of their freedoms in return.

MA: For some of it. I think it’s impossible to check all of your free will or all of your internal machinery by which you decide things. You would be a robot if you did that. I think history has shown that when people feel really frightened, they will choose options that provide safety, or that they think provide safety, and they will give up some of their freedoms in return. It’s happened time and time again.

SP: If you had to classify this novel, what would you call it?

MA: Oh no, let’s not go there.

SP: No? Is it dystopian fiction?

MA: Yeah, partly. You could put it there.

SP: But you don’t like having your fiction called “science fiction,” do you?

MA: Well, if it were, then I wouldn’t mind it at all. I’ve written some shorter pieces that are definitely science fiction. But when people use that term, they think of space ships, aliens, those sorts of things. I don’t write about those, or I haven’t written about them in longer fictions. I think it’s more truth in labeling. However, some people use science fiction in a very broad sense.

SP: You prefer “speculative fiction” to describe your own work?

I’m in the Jules Verne family of fiction. I don’t consider it escape fantasy…I’m exploring potential big holes in the road that I don’t want you to fall into.

MA: I think it’s more accurate. This whole genre had two granddaddies. One of them was Jules Verne, who wrote about submarines and going around the world in a balloon. He was writing about things that were happening or could happen. The other one was H.G. Wells, who wrote War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, which are two of the seminal works of sci-fi. He wrote about things that just weren’t going to happen. Martians being shot from Mars in tin cans that turn out to be super-intelligent–sort of tentacled heads that ate people or sucked the blood out of them. When Jules Verne heard about that, he was horrified. He said, “He’s making things up!” Those are the two origins, and I think they’re two families in this area. The Jules Verne one led to people like Orwell, and the H.G. Wells family led to things like Star Wars. I’m in the Jules Verne family of fiction. I don’t consider it escape fantasy. So yes, I’m exploring potential big holes in the road that I don’t want you to fall into.

SP: Why do you think we’re seeing so many dystopian books and movies these days? They’re everywhere.

MA: Of all kinds, fantasy and reality. I think it’s partly because people feel unsettled about the future, especially young people. They are envisaging a future in which there’s a lot more social instability. And climate changes factors into that in a really big way. In fact, there’s a whole subgenre called cli-fi–climate fiction–which has now become recognized and people are writing books about it. That’s coming just from where people fear they are, just as George Orwell’s 1984 was written in 1948. It was about Soviet-style socialism as it would get played out in England. Stuff comes from where we are. I think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World comes from him being traumatized by a visit to Hollywood in the ’30s. “Oh no, there are going to be perfume fountains–what are we going to do?”

SP: Various people have said that in dystopian fiction, Huxley’s Brave New World–being killed by pleasure–is more accurate than Orwell’s Big Brother world.

MA: I think it’s a combo. For instance, Orwell got the surveillance right, no question. Right after the Cold War ended and the Wall came down, everybody thought it was going to be Huxley all the way, but we now realize that we’re living in a blend, that each one of them got some of those things right.

SP: With all of these dystopian stories in our culture now, do you worry that we’re getting an unrelentingly grim picture of the future? Have we lost hope?

…I think we’re now going into the possibility of technotopias. Maybe we can get ourselves out of our present jam by inventing a lot of smart things.

MA: No, we have not lost hope. In fact, I’m waiting for the next spate of utopias to start appearing. In the 19th century, it was utopias all the way. It was wall-to-wall future worlds in which things were a lot better. That was because people in the 19th century did think things were getting better. Think of all the things they discovered, like germs, and all the advances and improvements they made, like the installation of sewage systems. Wow, what a difference that made! Steam engines, electricity, all of those things were making leaps and bounds, so they thought it was possible to imagine a future world without the squalor, misery, starvation and pollution of the world they were living in. That all changed in the 20th century, I think, with the First World War and then particularly with the Second. We saw systems that began as utopias in the Soviet Union, in Hitler’s Germany and Mao’s China. They began with utopian visions: things are going to get a lot better, but first we have to dig a big hole in the ground and put a lot of people into it. So that turned us off on wide, broad schemes that were utopian, but I think we’re now going into the possibility of technotopias. Maybe we can get ourselves out of our present jam by inventing a lot of smart things.

SP: Are you a little cynical about that depiction of the future?

MA: No. I just did a piece on the website Medium and Matter called “It’s Not Climate Change — It’s Everything Change.” It spells out two possible futures for us, but then I conclude with another posting called “The Carbonivore Fund,” which is an imaginary fund containing a lot of real tech. This is tech that takes carbon out of the atmosphere, so it’s not alternative energy or windmills; it’s things that actually suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and make it into something else. If that is widely deployed, it would be a real help to the place where we find ourselves right now.

SP: And people are working on that right now.

Another good utopian thing that I can mention is Elon Musk’s Tesla.

MA: Absolutely. These technologies already exist and are up and running. Another good utopian thing that I can mention is Elon Musk’s Tesla. It’s an all-electric car that gets its energy directly from the sun. To go along with that, he has the “Powerwall,” which is a battery you could put in your house, charge up with the sun, and then run your stuff off it when it’s dark. Direct solar is the first technology that’s not a 19th century energy-generating system that runs on turbines and machinery. I was around in the age of coal furnaces, when the coal man would come and dump a lot of coal into your cellar and then you would have to shovel it into the furnace. Then it took maybe ten years for everybody to switch over to oil furnaces once they came along, and then natural gas came along. Think of the progression from vinyl records to tape decks. Remember tape decks? Gone now. And then CDs and then streaming. So these things can evolve very quickly.

SP: You’ve also been imagining the future. You wrote a novel for the Future Library project in Norway. I’ve heard that your novel has been placed in a sealed box and won’t be opened for a hundred years.

MA: That’s right. This project was cooked up by a 34-year old conceptual artist named Katie Paterson. Her idea was to plant a thousand trees in a Norwegian forest near Oslo. They will grow for a hundred years, and in each of those years, a different writer from around the world, in any language, will be asked to contribute a manuscript to the future library. It doesn’t have to be a novel. It could be one word. It could be a poem, a play, a short story. It could be nonfiction or a letter. Any form, as long as it’s made of words, with no images. And the other rule is you can’t tell what’s in the box. You can reveal the title, which will be done when you hand over the box in the Norwegian forest every year, but you can’t reveal anything else about it. Only two copies of it will exist. And two digital copies will have to roll over every five years or you won’t be able to play them. So only the titles and the authors will be visible, and that goes on for a hundred years. This project seized the imaginations of people all around the world because it’s so hopeful. It assumes there will be people, that they will be interested in reading, the library will exist in a hundred years, and the forest will still exist. Think of all of that hopeful stuff.

SP: What’s the title of your book?

MA: Scribbler Moon.

SP: Did you spend much time working on this book?

MA: I think I got the invitation about a year ahead of the handover date, and the next author, David Mitchell, was announced in June, but he would have gotten the invitation earlier. You get about a year and a half to do it.

SP: It’s a fascinating imaginative exercise because you have to think about what people will want to read a hundred years from now.

MA: Of course, you have no idea. It’s all a gamble. The audience is even farther removed from you than when you’re publishing a book while you’re still alive.

SP: Did you have to think about this book any differently since it won’t be unveiled for another century?

Well, you’re addressing an unknown audience every time you publish a book…It really is a message in a bottle thrown into the sea.

MA: Well, you’re addressing an unknown audience every time you publish a book. You have no idea who might pick it up and read it. It really is a message in a bottle thrown into the sea. So this is the same, except the sea is much larger. You can’t assume anything. For instance, in a hundred years, people may say, “Who is that? Why did they ask her to be the first one?” You just don’t know what may happen. But I was the kind of child who liked to bury things in jars in the backyard and was quite thrilled whenever I was digging around, gardening and whatever, to find something from an earlier age. I love those stories of people discovering caches and hoards that were buried and have lain unknown for thousands of years.

SP: Well, I wish I could be around a hundred years from now so I could see how people respond to this project.

MA: With the advances we’re making, maybe you will be. Maybe you’ll be a brain in a jar.

SP: I don’t think I’d want that.

MA: If you were a brain in a jar, you wouldn’t know you were a brain in a jar.


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