Fiction Meets Science in Atwood Novel

“I grew up amongst the scientists,” Margaret Atwood says wistfully, seated in the lobby of the Kendall Square Hotel. The Canadian novelist seems completely at home in the cement-block shadow of MIT, where she spoke last week, as well she should be.

Oryx and Crake, Atwood’s newest novel, explores the dark side of cloning and other scientific endeavors, comes from a long line of lab rats—her grandfather was a doctor, her father a biologist and her nephew and brother are researchers. Atwood herself planned to follow the family tradition, before landing in her current occupation. “I was headed toward being a biologist of some kind before I got kidnapped by writing,” she says.

Atwood is white-haired and would be almost grandmotherly if her sharp wit did not the periodically break the spell. In the past few weeks, she has traveled through Japan, San Diego and Denver to promote her new book, and the day before coming to Cambridge, she was in Salt Lake City. Atwood says she enjoys her whirlwind speaking tours, but advises that “you have to take your vitamins.” But if she’s tired, she’s not letting on. Today, fresh from a reading at MIT, she exults that “with a crowd like that you don’t have to explain the science.”

Although she’s now a determinedly literary person, Atwood keeps up with the latest scientific developments, which she says is partly out of a sense of family loyalty. She reads Scientific American and other popular science publications.

“By popular science, I mean books where you don’t have to do the math,” she says.

Atwood says her scientific background helped her when she began work on Oryx and Crake. The book, which reviewers have likened to the best of Orwell, Swift and Huxley, is narrated by one of the survivors of a genetic holocaust.

Atwood invents hybrid creatures like pigoons, the disastrous fusing of pig and human DNA, genetic engineering companies with names like HelthWyzer and a computer game called Kwiktime Osama. Although the names are fanciful, many of the details are based on real science, which is what makes Atwood’s cautionary tale so frighteningly plausible.

From worries about terrorism to deadly viruses to glow-in-the-dark creatures, Atwood’s ideas for her book, she admits, are cribbed from the current climate. For example, the narrator spent his childhood in a gated community owned by his parents’ science lab, in which the schools, homes and parks are all controlled by corporate interests.

Although such ideas are now just gleams in the eye of some real estate developer, Atwood is betting that it will someday become a reality. The novel’s website boasts dozens of real-life headlines—from the Times to the Post to Scientific American—that inspired specific events in the novel.

Atwood’s most famous work to date is about a completely different dystopia —the sexual nightmare that was reading-list favorite, the 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale. Oryx and Crake is somewhat of a return to her roots after a series of well-received realist novels, including Cat’s Eye and the Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin.

For the book, Atwood says she drew on her studies of English literature at the University of Toronto. She had started out studying Philosophy, but says she hated logical positivism and dropped the course.

Atwood says the intense study did much to help her as a writer. “These were the days before deconstructionism. We simply read books.” She also enjoyed the rigidity of her courses in English grammar, responding to its scientific laws of “right and wrong”.

After Toronto, Atwood attended graduate school at Radcliffe, from which she received a Master’s degree in English in 1962. She finished three-quarters of a thesis, but graduated just short of a PhD. “By that time, it was obvious that I was going to be making a living being a writer,” she says, having already come out with several books of poetry by this time.

Considering her scientific origins, Atwood’s approach to writing is appropriately methodical. “I use graph paper,” she says and begins by making charts showing the characters’ ages. She then researches their lifespans by finding headlines from old newspapers, as she did for The Blind Assassin, which was set in the first half of the 20th century.

Like The Blind Assassin and many of her other novels, the bulk of Oryx and Crake is told in flashback, giving the reader a peculiar sense of suspense for events that have already taken place. In a mystery novel, Atwood says, “the immediate story is who gets to be dead. If, however, you’re dealing with a family, then that’s where the story iss.”

—Staff writer Veronique E. Hyland can be reached at be reached at hyland@fas.harvard.edu.