Atwood was game. She wrote:
Hmm. Good question. Are the ducks dead ducks, or are they alive? Are they Zombie Ducks? Is the horse a Pale Horse? Maybe not enough information here. I think I’d pick the hundred duck-sized horses. Easy to stampede, no? (“Scram, ducks!” Opens and closes an umbrella very fast. That’s worked for me in the past, against those weeny ducks.)
The session was part of Atwood’s promotion for the adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on the streaming service Hulu. In the book’s bleak future, an extreme Christian movement strips women of their rights.
Several Redditors asked her about the novel and its reception. When “The Handmaid’s Tale” was published, in 1985, Atwood said, many people dismissed the possibility that such a thing could come to pass. Fewer do today, she noted. (“‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is Not an Instruction Manual,” read one woman’s protest sign at the Women’s March in January.)
The horse-duck question is something of a Reddit custom. It’s a riff on the sort of parlor game in which people pose tricky or inane dilemmas, along the lines of the New York Times Magazine asking its readers if they would kill an infant Hitler.
The question’s exact origins are unclear, but before the horse-duck conundrum caught hold in the online forum, it existed as a letter to the editor published at the British newspaper Metro. It has inspired a New Yorker cartoon and an inquiry into duck and horse densities at Wired. One consideration players should make is that the horse-sized duck would be too weighty to fly, as Wired pointed out.
Atwood’s answer seemed to satisfy her fans. (Sean Connery fans may recall a similar technique involving an umbrella and a flock of seagulls, used to mortal effect in “Indiana Jones.”)
A few famous people, perhaps stumped, have ducked the query entirely — most notably former president Barack Obama in his 2012 Reddit ask-me-anything session.
The query was not forgotten among some of his staffers, as BuzzFeed reported in January 2013. Most of the Obama officials were convinced the horses were the correct decision, BuzzFeed reported. Most — but not all.
“Ducks are not exactly teeny-tiny — so 100 duck-sized horses (as opposed to duckling-sized horses), while smaller than a miniature pony, are still probably clocking in somewhere around ten pounds each,” one Obama official said, according to BuzzFeed. “That’s a lot to kick/throw/battle.”
The staffer continued: “Also, lacking a weapon of some kind, how exactly do you defeat it? Wrestling it to the ground seems unlikely. Can you break its legs? Snap a wing? Yet, it’s just one opponent — you can focus all your energy, attention, and strength on outsmarting it. Maybe it tires easily. Hard to know.” Perhaps, after all, Obama would have taken on the duck.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) felt that the choice was clear. “Obviously the answer is 100 duck-sized horses,” he told Reddit users in January 2016. (Paul, then campaigning for president, poked fun at Obama for not answering the question. “I hear the current president didn’t answer this vital question. We should expect more out of the next president.”)
Others have made the case for fighting the giant bird. In 2012, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof chose the duck, believing he could tame it with cracked corn and then fly around on the bird’s back. Unfortunately, as noted above, a mallard of unusual size would remain grounded.
Comedian Bill Murray, too, picked the big duck. “I would act like I was trying to ride it,” he said in October 2015, “and then I would strangle it from behind.”
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