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Opinion | Margaret Atwood on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Totalitarianism and U.F.O.s

A good rule of thumb is that whatever Margaret Atwood is worried about now is likely what the rest of us will be worried about a decade from now. The rise of authoritarianism. A backlash against women’s social progress. The seductions and dangers of genetic engineering. Climate change leading to social unrest. Advertising culture permeating more and more of our lives. Atwood — the author of the Booker Prize-winning novels “The Blind Assassin” and “The Testaments,” as well as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Oryx and Crake” and, most recently, the essay collection “Burning Questions” — was writing about these topics decades ago, forecasting the unsettling world that we inhabit now. Pick up any one of her 17 published novels, and you will likely come across a theme or a quality of the setting that rings eerily true in the present day.

This is especially true of Atwood’s magnum opus, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which takes place in a future America where climate change, droughts, a decaying economy and falling birthrates lead to the rise of a theocracy in which women called Handmaids are conscripted into childbirth. The repressive regime she created in that novel, Gilead, has been endlessly referred to and reinterpreted over the years because of the wisdom it contains about why people cooperate with — and resist — political movements that destroy the freedom of others. And as recent weeks have shown, we’re far from the day when that wisdom becomes irrelevant to present circumstances.

[You can listen to this episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

We discuss the deep human craving for stories, why Atwood believes we are engaged in “an arm wrestle for the soul of America,” what makes the stories of the Bible so compelling, the dangerous allure of totalitarian movements, how the shift from coal to oil helped to fuel the rise of modern consumerism, why she thinks climate change will cause even more harm by increasing the likelihood of war than it will by increasing the likelihood of extreme weather, how our society lost its capacity to imagine new utopias, why progressives need to incorporate more fun into their politics, why we should “keep our eye on the mushroom,” Atwood’s take on recent U.F.O. sightings and more. She even sings a bit of a song from the 1950s about the Iron Curtain.

Disclaimer: This episode contains explicit language.

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here.

(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin, Kristina Samulewski, Coral Ann Howells and Brooks Bouson.

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