Oct 25, 2009

Monkey droppings - The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood:

Today, the monkey tackles either science fiction or speculative fiction. He's not sure which it is, but as the author herself isn't sure, the monkey doesn't feel too bad about it.

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood
"Then God says a noteworthy thing. He says, "And the fear of you" - that is, Man - "and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air...into your hand are they delivered." Genesis 9:2. This is not God telling Man that he has a right to destroy all the Animals, as some claim. Instead it is a warning to God's beloved Creatures: Beware of Man, and of his evil heart."
Adam One,
The Year of the Flood
Now, there's been a lot of blog-furor over comments made by Margaret Atwood (for a taste, see here, here, and here), so I want to get something out of the way right up front: The Year of the Flood is science fiction. What's that? Gasps of disbelief? Well, I apologize, but only for the shock caused by the remark, not its content.

Despite what Margaret Atwood would claim to believe (
"Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen"), her newest novel is indeed science fiction. She may argue that it is 'speculative fiction,' but I put it to you that all fiction is 'speculative fiction,' as in, "I speculate these people would say these things if put in these situations." But as the definition of the term "science fiction" (helpfully provided by the good people at Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary) is "fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component," The Year of the Flood is science fiction. Deal with it. Simply because the novel does not have "monsters and spaceships" (her words) does not make it any less science fictiony, and the comment denigrates the entire genre to her detriment. While I'm not with those who state they will never read her again, I understand the anger. That's a topic for another post.

That out of the way (and please, no angry posts in response), I have always preferred Atwood's dips into possible future outcomes of humanity far more than her other works. I could not tell you from memory what
Alias Grace was about, and The Tent blew away before I finished the last page. However, The Handmaid's Tale is an out-and-out masterpiece, and Oryx and Crake is a damned disturbing dystopian epic. Atwood may hate the term, but her science fiction ranks among the best out there. Ironically, The Handmaid's Tale won the first ever Arthur C. Clarke Award for best Science Fiction in 1987. I wonder if she returned it.

The Year of the Flood is a visceral return to the hellscape first catalogued in Atwood's previous novel Oryx and Crake. This marks (to my knowledge) the first time Atwood has penned a sequel (although 'companion piece' would be a far more accurate term). Taking as its cue the man-made plague of Oryx, Atwood here focuses on two individuals not directly related to the creation of said plague; Ren, an exotic dancer holed up in accidental isolation in a strip club, and Toby, an older woman living in an "AnooYoo" abandoned beauty spa. Atwood, par for the course, is superb at creating nuanced characters, and Toby and Ren are no exception. As they unspool their stories pre- and post-pandemic, Atwood reveals both her skill at characterization and her dazzling ability to hold disparate storyline together.

Both women are past members of God's Gardeners, a pseudo-religion made up of equal parts old testament fundamentalism, Darwinism, creationism, and probably a few other religious backgrounds I'm not smart enough to pick up on. The Gardeners are lead by Adam One, a charasmatic lead who defines the purpose behind his beliefs thusly:
We've evolved to believe in gods, so this belief bias of ours must confer an evolutionary advantage. The strict materialistic view - that we're an experiment animal protein has been doing on itself - is far too harsh and lonely for most, and leads to nihilism. That being the case, we need to push popular sentiment in a biosphere-friendly direction by pointing out the hazards of annoying God by a violation of His trust in our stewardship.
Toby and Ren are rare survivors of "the Waterless Flood," as the Gardeners call it, a genetic plague that has wiped mankind off the map. The Flood has been expected for some time by Adam One, who preaches in one of the many fascinating sermons interspersed through the novel,
Let us today remember Noah, the chosen caregiver of the species. We God's Gardeners are a plural Noah: we too have been called, we too forewarned. We can feel the symptoms of coming disaster as a doctor feels a sick man's pulse. We must be ready for the time when those who have broken trust with the Animals - yes, wiped them from the face of the Earth where God placed them - will be swept by the Waterless Flood, which will be carried on the wings of God's dark Angels that fly by night, and in airplanes and helicopters and bullet trains, and on transport tucks and other such conveyances.
Atwood's writing, freed from the exacting confines of her more lauded 'literary' works, is exemplary, and her skills at world-building are terrific. The world of Flood is a lonely and terrifying place, and Atwood details with precision exactly the path humanity took to get there. The near-future is a place of corporate-run government (particularly the omnipresent CorpSeCorps), where animal species are dying out at the rate of hundreds a month, and science and religion battle over who gets the hearts and minds of the citizenry. Far more so than Oryx (which mentioned God's Gardeners only briefly), Atwood concentrates on the religious aspect of humanity's future, a future of strange offshoots of accepted religious practices, sometimes with exceedingly strange results. But Atwood does not take the easy path and subject the beliefs of her characters to ridicule (and how easy that would have been). Her sensitive treatment of the various cults and the security and comfort they can offer lonely individuals is commendable. As Adam One preaches, humans have evolved to believe in a higher power, and it is only logical that in the face of utter bleakness (and how bleak it does become), people seek reason for their misery, if only in the undefined actions of a nebulous authority figure.

Atwood's future is not without its humour, albeit of the blackest of black variety. Building on the genetic 'triumphs' of glowing green rabbits, pigoons (pig/baboon hybrids) and rakunks (racoon/skunk), Atwood introduces a few new animal cross-breeds into her world, most noticeably the liobams: "The lion-sheep splice was commissioned by the Lion Isiahists in order to force the advent of the Peaceable Kingdom. They'd reasoned that the only way to fulfil the lion/lamb friendship prophecy without the first eating the second would be to meld the two of them together. But the result hadn't been strictly vegetarian."

As much as there is to laud in the pages of
Flood, it suffers somewhat in its position as a secondary companion to Oryx and Crake. In Oryx, Atwood built an entire world though her characters, then destroyed it to begin again. It had the edge over Flood in being far more proactive in its world-building. While characters from Oryx flit through its pages, is far more about characters on the margins who react to their world rather than control it. When compared to Oryx, Flood is a trifle superfluous, even redundant, and people unfamiliar with the base provided in Oryx may find themselves frustrated by certain references and the opaque importance of several secondary characters. Flood is an often riveting piece of work, but overall it suffers as a stand-alone piece of work.

Yet Atwood proves again that, despite her misgivings, she is a proven talent who truly excels at 'science fiction.' Would that she could accept this as fact and move on; just imagine how triumphant the result would be.


1 comment:

Tina Kubala said...

I, too, was disheartened by Atwood's comments. The term 'speculative fiction' is snobbery coined by those who think science fiction isn't intellectual enough. Thinking of Asimov and Silverberg and Bradbury, my personal favorite classic sf authors, I can only be offended by the implication.

I am offended by the distinction. Still, I love Atwood's work enough to let it slide. She can call her books whatever she likes as long as she keeps writing them. She and I will have to agree to disagree on how she chooses to label her writing.

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