Review of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood doesn’t like hearing her novels called science fiction. In an article originally written for Book-of-the-Month Club/Bookspan and reprinted in her 2004 collection Moving Targets, Atwood explicitly disavows the term, which in her mind involves intergalactic space travel, teleportation, and Martians. Referring specifically to her 2003 dystopian epic Oryx and Crake, Atwood avers that “it invents nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent. Every novel begins with a what if, and then sets forth its axioms. The what if of Oryx and Crake is 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?”
The answers that Atwood comes up with are not likely to soothe hearts made anxious by early 21st-century existential malaise. Set in a post-Apocalyptic wasteland, Oryx and Crake posits a world that has been vanquished by human meddling. Before the plague that wiped out most of humankind, society has devolved into a sort of social Darwinian nightmare: wealthy corporations such as HealthWyzer set up compounds to seal off their denizens from the “pleeblands” where “the addicts, the muggers, the paupers, the crazies” hold sway. Security has been outsourced to a group of corporate commandos – the CorpSeCorps – and genetic engineering projects have been allowed to proliferate beyond all reason. AnooYoo is in the business of developing and selling products to alter a person’s physique in any way imaginable: “Cosmetic creams, workout equipment, Joltbars to build your muscle-scape into a breathtaking marvel of sculpted granite. Pills to make you fatter, thinner, hairier, balder, whiter, browner, blacker, yellower, sexier, and happier.” For amusement, the Web offers an interactive game called Extinctathon, which measures a user’s knowledge of extinct animals and plants, and there is a practically unlimited traffic in child pornography.
How slippery is the slope on which we currently find ourselves? If the Atwood of Oryx and Crake is to be believed, very slippery indeed. It should go without saying that our devotion to a kind of cutthroat consumerism is increasing the gap between rich and poor in Western societies; the Boomer generation’s defiant refusal to age gracefully has resulted in a vibrant market for plastic surgery, cosmetics, and other palliatives to disguise the body’s inevitable decay; genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have given rise to modifications in food products as varied as rapeseed, soy, and tomatoes; and the Internet is a locus of virtual reality and pornography of all stripes (legal and otherwise). All of these things are extant in our world; Atwood merely ratchets up the volume and pushes them to their logical extreme.
Still, her brusque dismissal of the term science fiction to describe the results seems odd, especially when seen in light of her remarks about another, earlier book, one which was hugely influential on both Oryx and Crake and its follow-up, 2009’s The Year of the Flood. In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, Atwood asserts that Wells referred to his tales as “scientific romances,” but only because the specific generic classification science fiction had yet to be coined. About Doctor Moreau, Atwood writes:
There are several interpretations of the term “science.” If it implies the known and the possible, then Wells’s scientific romances are by no means scientific: he paid little attention to such boundaries. As Jules Verne remarked with displeasure, “Il invente!” (“He makes it up!”). The “science” part of these tales is embedded instead in a world-view that derived from Wells’s study of Darwinian principles under Huxley, and has to do with the grand concern that engrossed him throughout his career: the nature of man. This too may account for his veering between extreme Utopianism (if man is the result of evolution, not of Divine creation, surely he can evolve yet further?) and the deepest pessimism (if man derived from the animals and is akin to them, rather than to the angels, surely he might slide back the way he came?). The Island of Doctor Moreau belongs to the debit side of the Wellsian account book.
Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood also belong to the debit side of the account book, in that they chronicle the latter days of a species – homo sapiens – that seems hell-bent on returning to a pre-evolutionary state along a road that is ironically paved by our own ingenuity: we are involved in the wholesale pursuit of the very technologies that will serve as the instruments of our destruction. Although The Year of the Flood is ultimately a more hopeful book than its predecessor, there is nevertheless a strain of “the deepest pessimism” running through it.
Like Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood “invents nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent.” Therefore, by Atwood’s own admission, it is “scientific” in the sense that “it implies the known and the possible.” Why, then, the almost preternatural aversion to the classification science fiction? Likely, Atwood’s hesitancy arises out of the suspicion (at best) and outright marginalization (at worst) that novels designated as such have experienced in this country. As a literary genre, science fiction is ranked somewhere just above chick-lit romances and Westerns in the pantheon of legitimacy. William Gibson and Robert J. Sawyer may be among the bestselling authors in the land, but it’s unlikely they will ever find their way into the kinds of discussions about great Canadian literature that are carried out by our self-appointed cultural gatekeepers, who generally react to sci-fi the way they might be expected to react if they caught someone defecating on their front lawn.
Then again, Atwood is equally cagey when it comes to the matter of The Year of the Flood’s precise relationship to Oryx and Crake. Although her Canadian paperback publisher, Vintage Canada, reissued the earlier book in 2009 as “The First Book of the MaddAddam Trilogy,” Atwood bristles when it is suggested that The Year of the Flood constitutes a sequel. The author told the U.K. magazine The Bookseller, “It’s not a sequel and it’s not a prequel. It’s a ‘simultaneouel’ in that it takes place during the same time span and with a number of people in it who are peripheral in Oryx and Crake but are central in The Year of the Flood.” Ah, yes: a simultaneouel. Right-o, then.
All of these semantic distinctions – science fiction vs. speculative fiction, prequel vs. sequel vs. “simultaneouel” – are little more than window dressing, a lexicographical parlour game that only serves to obscure the matter at hand: does The Year of the Flood work as fiction, on its own terms and with its own internal logic and integrity? It does, but at more than 400 pages, the book is also slower and more diffuse than its predecessor. It’s a bleak work that nevertheless ends on a note of marginal uplift, but the relentless satire that drove Oryx and Crake is diluted, replaced by something that closely resembles melancholy.
The story begins in the same situation as the earlier novel: a pandemic, which Crake developed while working in a biotech lab, has been set loose and created a wasteland where genetically altered animals – pigoons and wolvogs and rakunks – run rampant and the CorpSeCorps security contingent has clamped down. The two survivors we meet at the book’s outset are Toby, who has taken refuge in the AnooYou spa where she was working when the plague broke out, and Ren, a trapeze dancer at the Scales and Tails strip club, who was quarantined just prior to the outbreak because she was bitten by a client who might have been carrying a sexually transmitted disease.
Toby and Ren are erstwhile members of a strange eco-cult known as God’s Gardeners, a back-to-the-earth group of vegetarians with bad fashion sense led by a scientist-turned-prophet called Adam One. In stark contrast to the brutal and misogynistic theocracy that dominated Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the religious faction depicted in The Year of the Flood is largely benign: they grow their own food on rooftop gardens and sing atrocious hymns and prepare for the coming of the Waterless Flood:
A massive die-off of the human race was impending, due to over-population and wickedness, but the Gardeners exempted themselves: they intended to float above the Waterless Flood, with the aid of the food they were stashing away in the hidden storeplaces they called Ararats. As for the flotation devices in which they would ride out this flood, they themselves would be their own Arks, stored with their own collections of inner animals, or at least the names of those animals. Thus they would survive to replenish the Earth. Or something like that.
Readers will forgive the Gardeners a certain theological fuzziness because they are for the most part benevolent, especially when compared to the rapacious CorpSeCorps guards who protect the wealthy corporation workers and ruthlessly put down insurrections from the impoverished pleebmobs. When Adam One discovers Toby, she is working at SecretBurgers (the secret involves the burgers’ key ingredients: suffice it to say that stray corpses don’t last long in the pleeblands), where she is repeatedly raped by her boss, Blanco.
Atwood has often had difficulty with her male characters and Blanco is no exception; a broad caricature of a sexual sadist, his function in the novel is purely to antagonize Toby to such an extent that she is willing to flee with Adam One, and then to hide out at AnooYou once her whereabouts is discovered.
But, strangely, in this novel the women also seem like ciphers, or at the very least somewhat underdeveloped, each one evincing a dominant trait or characteristic that is sounded again and again through the novel like a chorus. Toby is the tough one. Ren is the naive one. Amanda is the artist who creates living eco-art. There are a host of other characters, including Jimmy (Snowman) and Glenn (Crake), who reappear from the earlier novel; Zeb, one of the Gardeners who goes on to create MaddAddam, the online entity that runs Extinctathon and becomes a nexus point for the survivors of the Waterless Flood; and Rebecca Eckler a solidly built black woman who unfortunately shares a name with a skinny white journalist (who won the opportunity to have a character in the book named after her in a charity auction). None of these characters makes a huge impression on the reader during the course of the novel, and none remains in the reader’s memory for very long afterward.
This is because The Year of the Flood is more a novel of ideas than a novel of character. Atwood is more focused on the details of her plague-ridden, Apocalyptic wasteland than she is on the nuances of the people who move across it. This is evident from the opening page:
As the first heat hits, mist rises from among the swath of trees between her and the derelict city. The air smells faintly of burning, a smell of caramel and tar and rancid barbecues, and the ashy but greasy smell of a garbage-dump fire after it’s been raining. The abandoned towers in the distance are like the coral of an ancient reef – bleached and colourless, devoid of life.
There still is life, however. Birds chirp; sparrows, they must be. Their small voices are clear and sharp, nails on glass: there’s no longer any sound of traffic to drown them out. Do they notice that quietness, the absence of motors? If so, are they happier?
This is what sticks with a reader long after the final page has been turned. The persistent feel of rot and decay, of stink and ash, but at the same time, the determination of life to find its way through the wreckage. The finale of the book brings us full circle to the final scene in Oryx and Crake, and while we discover the identity of the three mysterious figures at the end of the previous book, there is still ambiguity: What do the figures carrying torches off in the distance portend? Is it redemption that approaches, or final annihilation? (After all, Crake has been compared to Dr. Frankenstein, and we all know what the figures with torches portended in that story.)
Critics have suggested that in her speculative mode (to use Atwood’s preferred term), she is acting as the figure of Pandora from Greek mythology, opening up her fictional box and allowing the chaos to swirl out around her and her readers. I prefer to think of her as a different mythological figure: Cassandra, who warned of impending doom, but in vain, for the gods saw to it that there was no one who would believe her. Atwood has been eerily prescient in the past (her 2008 Massey Lectures, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth predicted the global economic downturn in scarily precise terms); if it is true that The Year of the Flood “invents nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent,” then the novel should stand as a cautionary tale about the slippery slope that we are all on, and what we can do to reverse our course before it’s too late. As prophecy, The Year of the Flood is not so much a dystopian thought experiment as it is a horror story. Just don’t call it science fiction.