The Word in the Speculative Fiction of Margaret Atwood

Sermon: The Word in the Speculative Fiction of Margaret Atwood

Texts: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Isaiah 58:9b-14

Date: August 11, 2013

I’m a big fan of writer Margaret Atwood’s body of work. I have admired her ever since her early novel Surfacing was included in the curriculum in one of my college literature classes. I have read (and own) most of her fiction; she speaks to me. You probably all have authors you admire enough to have read everything they have written; that would be an interesting topic for a small group discussion.

I would guess that Atwood’s best known book is The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel about a future in which women are completely ruled over by men and childbearing is strictly regulated. In it she explored questions such as “How thin is the ice on which supposedly ‘liberated’ Western women stand? How far can they go?..What’s down there if they fall? If you were attempting a totalitarian takeover of the United States, how would you do it?…How much social instability would it take before people would renounce their hard-won civil liberties in a tradeoff for ‘safety’?”[1] It was a pretty scary, thought-provoking book. I think of it sometimes when I hear about yet another restriction imposed on women’s child-bearing choices, or when people hand over another slice of liberty out of fear.

Atwood said that while she was writing that story she wondered if people would believe it—not as in literal belief, but as in “find the story compelling and plausible enough to go along for the ride.” It was plausible, I thought; it wasn’t happening, but somehow it made you think “this could happen” in a way that made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I find myself wondering if the people who listened to the Hebrew prophets had a similar experience as they listened to the prophets talk about doom right around the corner. The destruction of which they spoke so colorfully must have seemed both impossible and entirely plausible, because they knew that unfaithfulness to their covenant with Yahweh would have consequences. The prophets were often just spelling out for them what they tried hard to ignore.

After The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood went on to write two other books that can be described as dystopian novels. She herself prefers to call them “Ustopian,” a word she made up by combining “utopian” and “dystopian.” She explains it in the book In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. The word Utopia comes from Thomas More’s book of that name, which in his case might mean either “no place” or “good place” or both. Some are of the opinion that More’s book was a sort of joke: utopia can’t exist because fallen human nature doesn’t permit it. His word is now in general usage and has come to portray ideal societies whose program is to do away with the ills that plague us, such as wars, social inequalities, poverty and famine, gender inequalities, and the like. Dystopias are usually described as the opposite of utopias—they are the Great Bad Places rather than the Great Good Places and are characterized by suffering, tyranny, and oppression of all kinds.

Atwood coined the word “Ustopia” because she says if you scratch the surface a little, you see within each utopia, there is a concealed dystopia; within each dystopia, a hidden utopia. A yin and yang pattern of sorts. She gives the example of a little speck of utopia in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most unrelievedly gloomy dystopias ever concocted, present in the form of an antique glass paperweight and a little woodland glade beside a stream. And in utopias from Thomas More onwards, there is always provision made for renegades, those who don’t or won’t follow the rules: prison, enslavement, exile, exclusion, or execution.[2]

Fictions that move reality off a bit, either into other worlds as many science fiction novels do, or into the future, as Atwood’s newer ustopian novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood do, give us enough space to consider some big questions about human existence. Atwood suggests that such stories may be viewed as the literary offspring of theology; the angels and devils have moved out of heaven and hell and into other planets or the future to help us consider who we are and who we are becoming. I think her recent ustopian/dystopian novels do just that, and may provide a prophetic service to humanity. The picture painted in their pages is unlike our times enough to give us breathing room to contemplate it, and at the same time plausible enough to conclude that something like this might happen, or might be happening, raising some alarm bells.

In Atwood’s undefined future time North American society is split into two parts: a technocracy and an anarchy. Well-heeled people live in gated communities, guarded enclaves sponsored by large corporations such as Health-Wyzer. People who work for the companies live in planned communities and have access to health care, food, and security provided by CorpSeCorp, which has replaced the government as a profit-making strong-arm security company. Outside the corporate communities, anarchy reigns; it’s every man and woman for herself, unless they are provided for and protected by an employer such as the Scales and Fins sex club. The security forces are the enemy outside the corporate compounds; the only justice is represented by some of the murderers and rapists captured by the CorpSeCorp being thrown into the Painball prison encampment, where prisoners hunt each other and fight to the death for a popular reality television show.

Questions about genetic manipulation of various life forms loom large in these novels. For instance, one popular food source is “Chickie Nobs,” chicken objects modified so that they grow multiple legs, wings, and breasts. They have no heads, just a nutritional orifice at the top, solving a problem for animal rights workers—“no brain, no pain,” is the motto of their creators. Atwood dreamed up Chickie Nobs in 2003, and here we are in 2013, this very week reading about lab-grown beef fried up in a burger. Her books raise questions about how far we can go manipulating our environment without completely upsetting nature’s balance—very lively issues for us today as we struggle over the acceptability or desirability of genetically modified crops.

Religion is often a missing element in many pictures painted of future communities. I suspect it’s because some folks continue to think, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, that humans will somehow grow beyond the need for religious communities and beliefs as they evolve. Or maybe they think science will squeeze religion out altogether as a way of answering questions about the mysteries of life. At any rate, faith communities don’t seem to be a big part of either utopian or dystopian visions, unless a faith group dreamed up the utopian community in the first place.

I was at Disney World’s Epcot Center some years ago when I spent a little time studying a model of the town of the future that some Disney “imagineer” had created. It was a kind of utopian model with flying cars and perfectly ordered homes and businesses, groomed parks with trees all in rows, and so forth. It had little models of many recognizable institutions, updated, clean, and futuristic. There was something missing in the future, though: any structure that looked like church or temple. In Disney’s utopian model, as in John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” there’s no religion.

This religious silence in many future-set fictions made Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood doubly interesting to me, since the protagonists belong to a little religious sect called God’s Gardeners. God’s Gardeners are a religious order set apart from the rough and tumble future ghetto in which they live. They live together communally, growing their own food on rooftop gardens, keeping bees, making medicines. They have a liturgical practice that includes a hymnal (we’re singing three of their hymns today) and a full calendar of Saint’s Days and special feasts. Their saints include Rachel Carson, Euell Gibbons, Dian Fossey, to name a few. Their leader gives sermons, their children are trained up by the elders of the community, they wear what amounts to a religious habit. Like the Dominicans, they make vinegar and soap, collect honey, and sell it to the public at a sort of farmer’s market. Like Hindus and Jains, they practice vegetarianism. Like indigenous religious folk, they apologize to the spirit of any creature whose life they have to take. Like numerous cults through the centuries, they spend their energy preparing for the end times, foreseeing a “Waterless Flood” that they anticipate sweeping the world and wiping out much of life on earth.

The God’s Gardeners group is a mix of old and new in religious practice. They look and sound like a Christian religious order, but Jesus is absent. Their primary message is about celebrating God’s creation in all its beautiful complexity, and recovering a sense of stewardship of the Earth. They have adopted the language of evolutionary science while challenging the atheism of pure science. Here is an excerpt from a sermon given on the feast day for Adam and all primates:

“On the Feast of Adam and all Primates, we affirm our Primate ancestry—an affirmation that has brought down wrath upon us from those who arrogantly persist in evolutionary denial. But we affirm, also, the Divine agency that has caused us to be created in the way that we were, and this has enraged those scientific fools who say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ These claim to prove the none-existence of God because they cannot put Him in a test tube and weigh and measure Him. But God is pure Spirit; how can anyone reason that the failure to measure the Immeasurable proves its non-existence?… Where were the scientific fools when God laid the foundations of the Earth by interposing his own Spirit between one blob of matter and another, thus giving rise to forms?…God could have made Man out of pure Word, but he did not use this method…He created us through the long and complex process of Natural and Sexual Selection, which is none other than His ingenious device for instilling humility in Man. He made us ‘a little lower than the angels,’ but in other ways—and Science bears this out—we are closely related to our fellow Primates…Our appetites, our desires, our more uncontrollable emotions—all are Primate! Our Fall from the original Garden was a Fall from the innocent acting-out of such patterns and impulses to a conscious and shamed awareness of them; and from thence comes our sadness, our anxiety, our doubt, our rage against God…Why did He not make us pure Spirit, like Himself? Why did he embed us in perishable matter, and a matter so unfortunately Monkey-like? So goes the ancient cry.”

The preacher goes on to expound on the Gardener’s understanding of the Fall, which is ongoing, just as the creation is ongoing: “Ours is a fall into greed; why do we think that everything on Earth belongs to us, while in reality we belong to Everything? We have betrayed the trust of the Animals, and defiled our sacred task of stewardship. God’s commandment to ‘replenish the Earth’ did not mean we should fill it to overflowing with ourselves, thus wiping out everything else. How many other Species have we already annihilated? Insofar as you do it to the least of God’s Creatures, you do it unto Him. Please consider that, my friends, the next time you crush a Worm underfoot or disparage a Beetle! We pray that we may not fall into the error of pride by considering ourselves as exceptional, alone in all Creation in having Souls; and that we will not vainly imagine that we are set above all other Life, and may destroy it at our pleasure, and with impunity.”[3]

I think that’s a fair snapshot of God’s Gardeners’ essential theology. The Gardeners represent a form of radical resistance in their broken-down world. They are re-learning skills of gardening, herbal remedies, how to make things like clothing and shelter, how to hunt if survival comes to that. They are building a principled social order that is woven out of ritual and myth, reaching back into ancient traditions for a way of life that will heal rather than further exploit the ravaged Earth.

The God’s Gardeners group certainly isn’t perfect. The hierarchies and interactions with the wider world are viewed with a critical eye by the author by making the protagonists characters who join the movement accidentally, rather than being true believers. The religious community is a little like seed of utopia in the broader dystopia of the social breakdown, but with seeds of dystopia sown in the community itself. The yin and yang thing Atwood spoke about.

Here are a few things this particular book and its religious community made me think about.

I wonder if the proper next evolution of religion might be in the direction the God’s Gardeners went, at least in terms of their creation-centered theology. Human beings have a way of living as if they have no real connection with the non-human world, and have no obligations toward other species. One of the things the God’s Gardeners teach the children is to recite an alphabet of extinct species, a kind of regular ritual lament for those species already done in by human impact on the environment. Who speaks for the Earth? If God’s people aren’t involved in preservation, who will be? Could it be our role to cast aside less pressing concerns and throw our energies into a prophetic call to live as if we belong to Everything rather than living as if Everything belongs to us?

The first chapter of Isaiah, that ancient prophet, includes a critique of the religious ritual of his day. The prophet speaks for God who insists that the sacrifices they bring to the temple, the incense they burn, the solemn assemblies and festivals have become an abomination to God, because the people are not living justly. “Your hands are full of blood,” God says through the prophet. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” I wonder how God’s critique of our religious practice would sound? In what ways are we uncritically participating in world-wrecking action while feeling smug about our devotional, worship or prayer life? Maybe a revision, a reformation of the whole church enterprise is needed in our era so that our faith is reflected in our pleas not just for the oppressed and orphaned humans but for the other species dying our watch.

Now, that doesn’t sound like gospel. It doesn’t sound like good news. But the prophets always spoke a word of hope, eventually. Isaiah 58contains words of promise about how the reformed people of God will be able to rebuild the ruins, and raise up the foundations of many generations. The prophet says, “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” That invitation to participate in the work of restoration is always extended to the faithful, no matter how mired we are in the world’s fall into greed. I so appreciate Atwood’s bringing a group of faithful people into her future scenario—a recognition that folks with faith belong to tomorrow as well as yesterday and today. Imperfect as they are, they are an important part of the resistance to the manipulation and exploitation of earth. They are a voice of protest in a world deaf to the music of the created order. God’s Gardeners are not able to save everyone in the waterless flood that occurs (a worldwide pandemic created by a misanthrope who thought the world would be better off without humans). But they were able to save a remnant, with deep roots in a healing faith tradition.

We are not trying to live apart from the community as the God’s Gardeners were. We’re not building arks, making survival caches and hoping to ride out an impending disaster. Those are practices of Atwood’s Gardeners that don’t seem like they would be faithful practices at this time. Those are practices of a community resigned to destruction and merely hoping to survive. We’re not trying to create a Utopia, either, thinking we can create a perfect society. Our experience and faith tradition both teach us that such Utopian visions amount to wishful thinking.

By contrast, we hope to be more like the yeast that leavens the loaf, recalling for our fellow humans our place in creation and our calling as stewards of Earth. Encouraging one another in loving community, we may yet act as prophets, amplifying God’s warning about a destructive lifestyle and offering a hopeful and healthy alternative. The “ustopia” we want to create is a world which respects our limits and lives in sustainable harmony on God’s green earth. A world in which the “Us” in “Ustopia” draws a circle wide enough to include all God’s creatures.

This calling is a tough row to hoe in our challenging times. A few verses of encouragement, from one of The Gardener’s hymns:

The last mile is the longest mile—

`Tis then we weaken;

We lose the strength to run the race,

We doubt Hope’s beacon…

Take heart, oh dusty Travelers:

Though you may falter,

Though you be felled along the way,

You’ll reach the Altar.

Race on, race on, though eyes grow dim,

And faint the Chorus;

God gives us Nature’s green applause—

Such will restore us.

For in the effort is the Goal,

`Tis thus we’re treasured:

He knows us by our Pilgrim Soul—

`Tis thus we’re measured.[4]


[1] Atwood, Margaret In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination New York: Doubleday, 2011, p. 87

[2] Ibid, p. 85-86

[3] Atwood, Margaret The Year of the Flood New York: Doubleday, 2009, p.51-52

[4] Atwood, Margaret “The Longest Mile” The Year of the Flood New York: Doubleday, 2009, p. 405-06


Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive updates.

Comments are closed.