In 2001 Margaret Atwood began writing the novel Oryx and Crake. She started from the idea of species extinction, including human extinction. How long have we got? And would we bring about our own demise?
The premise of Oryx and Crake was that, since we have the capability to bioengineer a virus capable of wiping out humanity, someone might be tempted to do just that – in order to save everything else. In this imagined future, humans have been replaced with a vegan, peace-loving, self-healing upgrade. Twenty years after the novel was published, Atwood writes, as the climate crisis accelerates, there is a high probability a Crake might appear among us to put us out of our misery. And in the real world, there would be no new replacement.
Atwood’s novel continues to have relevance, as does a question she is frequently asked: why write dystopias? Why not imagine worlds where there is greater equality, not less? In this essay, she explores the 19th-century boom in literary utopias, from William Morris to Edward Bellamy, and then their 20th-century demise, as “several nightmares that began as utopian social visions” unfolded. As a thought experiment, Atwood imagines what a 21st-century utopia might look like and how it might address the many contradictions of civilisation. Could she write a practical utopia? And would anyone want to read it?
Written by Margaret Atwood and read by Amelia Stubberfield.
You might also enjoy listening to Wrestling with Orwell: Ian McEwan on the art of the political novel
This article appeared in a special issue of the New Statesman on 21 October 2022 guest edited by Greta Thunberg. You can read the text version here, and more from the issue here.
The essay is also included in “The Climate Book”, curated by Greta Thunberg and published by Allen Lane. It is available with a 15 per cent discount here, using the promo code ClimateNS (purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops).
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