The Past is What Matters: On Margaret Atwood’s Vision of the Future

October 10, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 3 6 min read

coverI was in college when I discovered The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my sophomore year, and the novel had been assigned in my literary criticism and theory course, my first introduction to the English department’s upper-division, a place I’d fantasized about almost since I learned to read.  I was 19. Before that semester, I had never heard the words “semiotics” or “simulacrum” or “cyborg;” I thought “PoMo” was just a silly nickname for the too-cool seniors who smoked outside the library in tight pants and pointy Beatles boots. I was a baby, basically.

I still recall the day I started The Handmaid’s Tale. It swept me away even as I underlined sentence after sentence, convinced that the narrator’s musings on language and storytelling would be discussed later in class.  “My self is a thing I must now compose as one composes a speech,” Offred narrates early on. “What I must present is a made thing, not something born.” I haven’t since found another book that captures as well as Atwood’s does the power of language and storytelling, how our identities are made and unmade by narrative.

That first time, I read for hours: on my narrow bed, and then on the floor, in the middle of my dorm room. Later that same evening, or maybe the next, I read some of the book aloud to my roommate, who kept falling asleep as I did so. Every few minutes, she’d wake up and describe to me her dreamscape, altered by Atwood’s descriptions. “Keep going,” she’d say and close her eyes again.

(Years later, I would dream that I was Offred, trapped on a large cruise ship, trying to escape some unseen threat. The memory of those dark, wood-paneled hallways, and my robe and wimple, still gives me the chills.)

I’ve since returned to The Handmaid’s Tale three more times, and on each read, it astonishes me. I love the novel’s insistence on back story, on Offred’s need to conjure a time when she still had her old identity, her “shining name,” when she and her best friend Moira were allowed to go to college, and smoke cigarettes, and make tasteless jokes (“It sounds like a dessert. Date rapé“). The novel imagines America as a totalitarian Christian state that has stripped the rights of women, and although it does so vividly and powerfully, the dystopian premise is never central to my reading experience. I always fixate instead on Offred’s language play, and on the way she comprehends herself — and her female body — in this new world.  Stories pass the time, yes, but they’re also a lifeline to the past, and they allow Offred to function in this terrible new world: “One detaches oneself,” she narrates, “one describes.”

The Handmaid’s Tale not only speculates a new world, filled with Unwomen, Pornomarts, and Birthmobiles, it also mourns the one that is gone. For instance, when Offred describes the housekeeper knocking on Offred’s door before entering, she says: “I like her for that. It means she thinks I have some of what we used to call privacy left.” For Atwood, the speculative effort is to imagine not just what the future might bring, but also what it might take away.

covercovercoverI was thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale as I read MaddAddam, the final book in Atwood’s latest dystopian trilogy, for it also imagines a dark future. The three more recent novels in Atwood’s oeuvre, however, which take place after a super-virus has eradicated most of humankind, are far more science-oriented than The Handmaid’s Tale. Here, Atwood is primarily interested in the havoc wrought by genetic splicing and  bio-engineering; instead of a Christian theocracy, money-hungry corporations run the government.

In the trilogy’s first book, Oryx and Crake, the main character, Snowman, is the lone human being among a new species known as Crakers, who were created in a laboratory by Snowman’s best friend, Crake. The perfect and beautiful Crakers eat leaves and their own excrement, and their urine wards off dangerous predators. The second book, The Year of the Flood, takes place at the same time that Oryx and Crake does, but it focuses on two female survivors of the apocalypse, Toby and Ren, who were once members of an ecology-based religion called God’s Gardeners. Their past overlaps with Snowman’s, and readers of both books will delight in seeing just how.

In these first two novels, the majority of the narrative is exposition dispensed via flashback. In fact, as I mentioned in a previous essay, much of the narrative drive comes from the reader wanting to know what in the bleep happened here?! In both novels, the present-day scenes cover very little time, and, save for a flurry of drama in the final third, not much occurs, action-wise. By contrast, the exposition in each book covers years: whole childhoods, a love affair or two, and the rise and fall of close friendships. In these flashbacks, Atwood anchors her sweeping sci-fi future with intimate, human conflicts. If Atwood were to cut out the back story in these novels, there wouldn’t be enough left for a book-length work. The past is what matters, and it’s what moves us.

Once the reader gets to MaddAddam, so much of this world has already been built (and stunningly so) that there’s a heavier expectation for the book’s present to provide the thrills. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite happen. There isn’t much for Atwood’s characters to do; Toby, Ren, Snowman, and a handful of former members of God’s Gardeners and the eco-terrorist group MaddAddam have reunited in a ruined world, but the threats they face as a group feel relatively minor. I suppose, once the world has ended, the urgency gets sucked right out of one’s day.

What MaddAddam lacks in terms of story, it makes up for with its keen investigation of story itself: of its persistence, and our persistent need for it. As brilliant as he was, Snowman’s friend Crake could not create an improved species that didn’t sing — or, it turns out,  one that also didn’t seek out a cosmology. Crakers long for stories about their creator, and it’s up to the humans in the book to provide them. In the trilogy’s first and third books we get the tales that Snowman and Toby tell these curious listeners, and the human-to-Craker translations are entertaining and enlightening. In MaddAddam, Toby wonders: “What kind of story — what kind of history, will be of any use at all, to people she can’t know will exist, in the future she can’t foresee?” When Toby teaches a child Craker how to write, she wonders, “How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?” Again, Atwood returns to her longtime interest in storytelling. Narrative makes us human, it informs us about ourselves and the world, it teaches us empathy; it can also constrain us, and much can be lost in the telling, or not told at all. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred thinks, “We lived in the gaps between the stories.” In MaddAddam, Toby thinks, “There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

It’s not only the Crakers who require narrative in MaddAddam, it’s the human players, too. Toby needs to know who her new lover (and old friend) Zeb was, before they met. The story of his past reveals him, and brings them closer. Zeb’s past is filtered by Toby’s narration, and the reader also gets the version told to the Crakers. The past only exists as long as we tell it, and the telling is the tricky part.

Occasionally,  Zeb’s story threatens to dissolve under the weight of Atwood’s sci-fi jargon:

“Maybe he knew about some of Zeb’s earlier capers and was hiring for a hithert0-unknown bunch of darksiders who wanted Zeb to tackle a bolus of seriously forbidden hackery; or maybe it was an extortion outfit after some plutocrat, or a hireling connected with IP thieves who needed a skein of professional trackwork to further their kidnapping of a Corps brainiac.”

Most of the time, though, his past sings with drama: familial dysfunction, globetrotting, computer hacking, and even bear eating. One can almost feel Atwood’s glee in lines like: “anyone who’d listen to him would be credited with a terminal case of brain herpes.” It’s impossible not to love a writer in her 70s who uses the word “lulz.”

Atwood’s dry humor and her continual interest in gender and the body are also on full display in MaddAddam.  Zeb’s story, to Toby’s chagrin, is peppered with details of his past lovers, and in the story’s present, Toby is hounded by her jealousy of Swift Fox, a younger female member of MaddAddam:

Toby knows she’s resenting the snide innuendos Swift Fox aimed at her earlier, not to mention the gauzy shift and the cute shorts. And the breast weaponry, and the girly-girl pigtails. They don’t go with your budding wrinkles, she feels like saying. Tanning takes its toll.

As all three books in Atwood’s trilogy attest, an apocalypse won’t destroy romantic attraction, longing, or jealousy, nor will it dismantle gender roles — if anything, these are magnified. Atwood’s characters have bodies, and she doesn’t let us forget that fact. (At the end of the world, people will still look at your ass, which is both a problem and a comfort. )

MaddAddam may not be Atwood’s strongest work, but the world she foresees in this trilogy is frighteningly realistic and vividly imagined, and one must read all three novels to get the complete picture. It’s no Handmaid, but that’s okay. I’ve been chasing that literary dragon for 13 years…and counting.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Lovely review. Especially appreciated the description of how The Handmaid’s Tale struck you when you first read it, and how that connects to your disappointment with MaddAddam.

  2. Fantatic review. I will put the book on my list. I loved reminiscing on Handmaid and agree with every word. I believe I even have the same sentences underlined. I am interested to see the frighteningly realistic future Atwood has imagined in the new trilogy.

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