Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most decorated and famous writers. Over the course of her long and prolific career, she has published more than fifty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. However, Atwood remains best known for her novels. Two of those novels have received one of fiction's most prestigious honors: the Booker Prize. Atwood first won the Booker in 2000 for her novel The Blind Assassin , and she won again in 2019 for The Testaments . In addition to receiving many prestigious honors and awards, Atwood has a large readership. Her fiction became even more popular following the release of the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale , based on Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name. This series, which began airing in 2017, has won popular and critical acclaim alike, and it has drawn a new generation of readers to Atwood’s work.
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and she spent much of her childhood in the heavily forested areas of northern Quebec, where her father conducted research on forest insect life. An insatiable reader from childhood, Atwood felt inclined to a writing career from an early age. She pursued literary studies at university, first at Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1961, and then at Radcliffe College at Harvard University, where she completed a master’s degree in 1962. Although Atwood began work on a doctoral degree, her dissertation, which she never finished, took a backseat to her burgeoning career as a writer. In 1961, she published her first book of poetry, Double Persephone . She went on to publish nine more collections of poetry throughout the 1960s and 70s. Her first novel, The Edible Woman , appeared in 1969. Atwood wrote four more novels before her landmark book The Handmaid’s Tale appeared in 1985. The Handmaid’s Tale was a finalist for the Booker Prize, and it won two other important awards: the Governor General’s Award for Canadian literature and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction.
The publication of The Handmaid’s Tale marked Atwood’s growing interest in speculative fiction, a broad category of imaginative fiction that speculates on what could become of the world given the current social, political, and/or technological state of affairs. Although some critics believe that science fiction and fantasy belong under the umbrella of speculative fiction, Atwood distances herself from these genres. As she has stated in numerous public interviews, she understands science fiction as a genre that imagines a world filled with futuristic technologies that do not yet exist. By contrast, speculative fiction imagines events that could really happen given the political and technological means that are already part of our world. In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale , for example, Atwood explored the possibility of a near-future dystopia in which a totalitarian state replaces the United States government and institutes a repressive patriarchal regime that strips women of all their rights. The dystopian world Atwood imagines in The Handmaid’s Tale could conceivably happen, and this plausibility gives the novel both its power and relevance for contemporary readers.
Atwood’s interest in speculative fiction resurfaced again in 2003 with the publication of Oryx and Crake, which was also a finalist for the Booker Prize. As with The Handmaid’s Tale , Atwood set Oryx and Crake in a near-future dystopia that resembles our own in many disturbing ways. Oryx and Crake takes place sometime near the end of the twenty-first century, in the aftermath of a catastrophic global pandemic that has killed off most of the world’s population, leaving only a handful of scattered survivors. The novel moves back and forth between the post-apocalyptic present and the pre-apocalyptic past in order to explain how the global catastrophe came about. In the process, Oryx and Crake reveals a disturbing logic that could very well lead from our present day to a future disaster. Just as she did in The Handmaid’s Tale , Atwood uses speculative fiction to direct her readers to important contemporary issues, such as the moral implications of genetic research and the dangers of corporate tyranny. The story of Oryx and Crake continues in the other two volumes of Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy: The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam , published in 2009 and 2013 respectively.