"Mohair sheep, they haven't done that yet," she says in the Atwoodian tone, a kind of steely levity. "I think it would be quite a good commercial venture. You can imagine a lot of people wanting to get their own DNA hair." The 73-year-old smiles, thinly. "I'm offering it as a free gift to the world."
Now everyone is doing it, but when Atwood first wrote science fiction it seemed an eccentric departure, a position with which she has always been comfortable. Ever since the early 1970s when she was asked how she coped with being a novelist and doing the housework ("I would say, look under the sofa"), she has been aggressively indifferent to criticism. "So I'm told," she says coolly on the question of whether greater visibility increases the impact of failure. She will write what she wants, and that's all there is to it.
In any case, she believes, these three novels - the middle one is The Year of the Flood, which Atwood wanted to call God's Gardeners but couldn't risk it being mistaken for "a rightwing nut-bar book" - barely qualify as science fiction. "If I were writing about Planet Xenor, that would be different. It is our world, except with a few twists." In brief: in the near future, a "bioterrorist group" attacks the corporations that have replaced government to keep most of the population in drug-assisted servitude, and unleashes a pandemic that erases humanity. (With a few exceptions.) In this world, pig hybrids outsmart humans and an off-shoot species of mankind wanders about purring, but it is, at the same time, a realistic novel full of tight domestic dramas in the midst of the apocalypse.
It is also a novel about self-definition. "There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told," realises Toby, the protagonist, and asks herself, as a proxy for the author: "What else to write, besides the bare-facts daily chronicle she's begun?"
Thus every story begins, unfolding on the understanding that all accounts are partial, all impressions subject to change. As a child, for example, Atwood and her family would spend their summers out in the wilds and their winters in the city, so that "my idea of a city was that it was always cold and covered with snow, because that was the only time that we went." Her father,
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