Year of the Flood * Margaret Atwood * Book review

220px-The_Year_of_the_Flood-cover-1stEd-HCThere is a specific thrill in picking up a book from Canadian best seller author Margaret Atwood which you know will be based in a dystopian future, an alegorical tale of things to be and how they could come to be.

And I approached this book knowing the first part of the story – of Snowman Jimmy in Oryx and Crake and how Crake created perfect humans and a virus to destroy the existing population of the earth, and I’ve also read the ending – MaddAdam – where people from “The Year of the Flood” got together against the Painballers and against the smart piggies.

I thought the ending was a bit disappointing but after going through “The year of the flood”, I think I will pick it up again and re-read it with a little bit more background story on Amanda, Toby and Zeb.

The story is written in parallel to the events of ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ends not too long after where that book left off. Since the characters are linked in quite strange and unexpected ways to the characters of ‘Oryx and Crake’, expect to see quite a few of your favourites from that book popping up here as well.

Atwood is not new to imagining for us civilizations gone wrong. Here, in the same setting and time frame in which Oryx and Crake takes place it is Year 25 after the vaguely described collapse of civilization due to genetic engineering gone awry (or not depending on your point of view). In the current year there has been a further cataclysmic event, called a waterless flood by the dominant religious cult in the society though in reality a kind of virulent plague, which only those who were isolated at the time have survived. Two of the survivors are Toby, a mature woman who had barricaded herself in the luxury spa in which she worked, and Ren a younger girl who happened to be in her strip-club’s isolation tank when the virus broke out.

Ren dancing
Ren dancing

The first two thirds of the novel consists of alternating flashbacks from Toby and Ren detailing their lives from the first year to the present day. The local governance is provided by a Corporation called Helth Wizer, an evil corporation intent on weird science and killing people who fail to follow the rules then using their body parts as the ingredients in Secret Burgers. People either live in Helth Wizer’s luxury compound, the dangerous areas outside known as the pleeblands or in the rooftop garden and surrounding buildings populated by God’s Gardeners. The Gardeners are led by the enigmatic Adam One and espouse a mixture of pop psychology, radical environmentalism and a disdain for science. The final third of the novel takes place in real-time as the few survivors of the waterless flood find each other and attempt to keep surviving.

Atwood vehemently argues she doesn’t write science fiction because any of the science in her books is possible today, though she seems comfortable with the speculative fiction label. Based on this book anyway that seems a fair call. The strongest element of the novel by far is the complex, intricate picture it presents of a world transformed by a mixture of natural events and humankind’s astonishing capacity for arrogance. The new world has its own rules, nomenclature (sometimes funny, sometimes eye-rollingly cute), detailed societal structure and scientific experimentation, particularly of the genetic splicing kind, gone mad.

I loved how they split the world up in consumers and growers – from people drinking un-ethically grown coffee – Hapicuppa products (Costa and Starbucks anyone?) – to roof-top gardeners believing in a vegetarian lifestyle and no technology. Makes you think – in case of a sudden apocalypse – who is more suited to survive?

Rooftop garden
Rooftop garden

The beliefs espoused by God’s Gardeners are also described in a lot of detail partly through Toby and Ren’s memories (both women were members for a time) and also because each new section of the novel takes place on one of the religion’s many saint’s days and commences with a sermon and a hymn (more about the hymns later). I did get a chuckle out of the saints who were mostly heroes of modern environmental movements including Dianne Fossey, James Lovelock and Australia’s own Tim Flannnery.

Reading this novel was, for me, like reading a very detailed travel diary of someone else’s trip to an exotic place I’ve never been. Bits of it were mildly interesting, some of it was unfathomable and quite a bit of it was fairly dull.

While many of the ‘big things’ in the novel are not clearly described or defined (for example you’re never sure where this is all taking place, I assume it’s somewhere in North America, possibly even Atwood’s native Canada, but I have read reviews which talk about it being in England) many of the small things are described in minute detail.

Much of Toby and Ren’s reminiscences relate to chores they undertook, meals they ate, classes they took or taught and religious ceremonies they participated in. For a while these are mildly interesting but 13 hours turned out to be more than enough for me.

The best bits of the book come through meditation on the status of cults and state, of what it means to be a predator and what it means to be prey.

“Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we’re about to be snuffed? Do rabbits feel the same as the fox teeth bite down on their necks? Is it mercy?”

The bad bits: drug abuse, rape and murder. This is not a book to buy for your child.

The good bits: I did love how in this book, the men are seen mostly as romantic interludes from the POV of the women, the women characters are truly kickass (TOBY), everyone was a lot more keen and clear-eyed than poor Jimmy (a low bar, there) — altho the constant sort of low-pitched humming (that’s how it affected me, like a weird sonic frequency) of sexual assault buzzing through the storyline made me uncomfortable, it was hard to relax into the story. (Just like REAL LIFE, haha.) Oryx’s story in O&C was harrowing, but it was just one story told by one person, to a man; Atwood depicts the constant not-so-low-level atmosphere of threat women move in all the time, like an element in addition to air, that weighs us down, and that was even more harrowing.


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