Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

why i am in love with margaret atwood

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I wanted to do something different, so midway through last term, I wrote a proposal for Mutants and Monsters, a new science fiction course.

Since I teach biochemistry for a living and have been reading science fiction voraciously since I was six, it seemed only natural to splice the two subjects together, like genes.

The course, I imagined, would be offered to non-science majors and designated as “breadth." Students who take it would not only learn about real life science but also read bioscience-inspired literary works.

I incubated this idea for a long time, considering which texts to put on the syllabus.

I started with H.G. Wells because as a teenager I read all of his books. And I remembered that one of his novels featured a reclusive vivisectionist. Indeed, in The Island of Doctor Moreau, the title character performs gruesome surgeries. He believes that all life is plastic, and so attempts to create men from animals. Check.

After several more months of reading, I added another title to my syllabus: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, the same author who astonished the world with Jurassic Park. In The Andromeda Strain, scientists stumble upon a deadly, extraterrestrial organism. The book had so much biologically relevant science in it: I knew from the first page that it would be fantastic for my course. Check 2.

Then I found myself at an impasse. I was overwhelmed. There were so many options out there that I had a hard time selecting anything at all. I wished there were more than 13 weeks in a semester to get into, say, Brave New World, or anything by Isaac Asimov, or Ray Bradbury, or Richard Matheson, or Robert A. Heinlein, or Ursula Le Guin…

Eventually, I decided on Robin Cook’s Outbreak, a medical thriller that describes an Ebola epidemic in North America in horrifying detail. Outbreak is far from a perfect novel and verges, in parts, on sensationalism, but in it, Cook (himself a physician), introduces a lot of medical terms.

Once I had completed my draft proposal, I turned to my students for feedback. I showed them the texts I’d selected for their non-science peers and asked for their thoughts.

Most were impressed by and approved of my choices. But there was one who disagreed: a young woman who always sat in the front row and wore red leather boots. Notably, she was known for her irreverent answers on midterm exams.

“Excuse me,” she said, “but there’s nothing in your proposed syllabus about pigoons.”

“What?” I winced, thinking I misheard.

“Atwood,” she brought forth a tattered paperback, studded with pink Post-it notes. Flipping through it to find the right page, she read out loud a passage from Oryx and Crake:

The goal of the pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs in a transgenic knockout pig host – organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses, of which there were more strains every year. A rapid maturity gene was spliced in so the pigoon kidneys and livers and hearts would be ready sooner, and now they were perfecting a pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time.

Of course, I’d read Margaret Atwood and heard of Oryx and Crake, but at that time (for what reason I couldn’t fathom) I hadn’t read it yet.

“By the way,” the student in red leather boots continued, stowing her paperback away, “I switched my major from English to biochemistry because of this book.”

And so, just like that, I fell in love with Margaret Atwood. Again.

Major check.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Irina Kovalyova

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

You can contact Irina throughout the month of June at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Irina Kovalyova’s Author Page