Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004 to 2021 by Margaret Atwood

Review by Walter Cummins

Many readers of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale probably assume the abuses and restrictions inflicted on Offred and other women were products of Atwood’s dystopian imagination. One of her readers asked on Twitter, where does “she come up with this weird this”? Her response: “But it is not I who come up with this weird shit. It is human beings.” As she emphasizes in her new nonfiction collection, Burning Questions, every one of Offred’s abuses actually happened to women at some point in history.

What people have done to other humans and their physical world is Atwood’s dominant concern. Most of the essays in the collection appear to have been written in response to an invitation—a talk at a conference, a review, a book introduction.  As Atwood admits throughout, she turns the “assigned” topic into an outlet for one of her special interests, which tend to center on writers and writing, the social and political issues that confront humanity, and—most significantly—how these issue manifest in fiction, notably her own.

Because Atwood’s novels are often categorized as speculative fiction, in several of the essays she shows how such fiction is anything but make-believe, but rather considerations of possibilities latent in the actual world around us. She relates her concerns for observation and accuracy to the influence of living in a family of scientists, having spent months of her childhood camping in the Canadian wilderness as her entomologist father conducted research involving minute creatures. Such intimate knowledge of nature’s workings makes her aware of the dangers of climate change and other dislocations.

For Atwood, the twenty years in which these pieces were written is not just a calendar period. As she writes in her introduction, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 200l, “everything changed.” The questions we now face “are more than urgent.” Can we stop climate change? What can we do about unequal distribution of wealth? Is democracy in peril? What about the roles of writers and other creatives? Will books be burned?

This question about books is hardly ancillary, artistic creation not a mere diversion. It is essential for our future:

A society without the arts would have broken its mirror and cut out its heart. It would no longer be what we now recognize as human.

One shadow writers discover as they look into the mirror of the present is a projection of a possible future. For example, Atwood considers the recent popularity of zombie stories. Unlike other monsters, zombies possess no power. Werewolves have wild freedom and increased strength. Vampires have immortal life and the ability to mesmerize people. They also embody the characteristics of tuberculosis, such as bad breath, weight loss, and heightened sexual sensations. Zombies, in contract, are weak and shambling, lacking minds and language, having no souls.  These characteristics are those of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. They live outside time. “So,” Atwood suggests, “the zombie apocalypse may be an escape for a real future we quite rightly fear.”

“Every novel,” Atwood states, “begins with a ‘what if,’ and then sets forth its axioms.” Her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, stems from the scientific discovery of the CRISPR gene-editing tool and its ability to customize individual human beings through modification of genetic code. What are the implications and the potential consequences of this tool? She considers the “what if” of Oryx and Crake as, simply:

What if we continue down the road we’re already on? How slippery is the slope? What are our saving graces? Who’s got the will to stop us? Might we be able to bioengineer ourselves out of the brain wreck we seem already to have set in motion?

A paradox of these essays is the playful voice with which Atwood considers the dire situations we face in the twenty-first century, a voice that can call Oryx and Crake “a jolly, fun-filled romp in which almost the entire human race has been annihilated …” As much as she amuses the reader and probably enjoyed writing these essays, she is deadly serious.