24 November 2009

Book Review: The Year of the Flood

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The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood prefers the term speculative fiction rather than science fiction to describe her latest novel The Year of the Flood (and her other works like it). Some might be hard pressed to understand the difference, but perhaps the distinction may be that Atwood speculates about the future based on our current trajectory rather than making up a new universe out of whole cloth. Not having read much science fiction over the years, I am not going to weigh in too much on this one. Suffice it to say that Atwood calls it speculative fiction. And since she is a goddess among us, I will defer to her wishes.

All of the speculative oddities included in The Year of the Flood seem less crazy not only because one can see the roots of the idea in what is happening in the present, but also because Atwood is a master prose writer and draws the reader effortlessly into this world. She doesn’t hammer these ideas home, she gently, in bits and pieces, introduces the reader to this dystopian future. Like all of Atwood’s novels, the characters are interesting and nuanced and don’t necessarily need the setting to make them so.

This story of survival, in the most trying of ecological and societal circumstances, is at times as whimsical as it is an overwhelmingly sad prediction of our future. A religious sect interested in bringing the biblical peaceable kingdom to fruition on earth attempts to get the lion and lamb to lay down together by genetically engineering “liobams”. The thought being that these lion/lamb hybrids would make such peace possible. However, as Atwood notes in the novel, the results were less than vegetarian. But this is only the tip of the iceberg (which don’t seem to exist in the future). In The Year of the Flood Atwood creates a complete world full of creatures and circumstances that are fascinating and yet seem entirely plausible after a few chapters.

This brings me to another aspect of Atwood’s great talent/skill. In addition to her writing ability, she knows so much about so many subjects or at least does the research to make it seem like she does. Like other great writers she is adept at weaving in deep layers of religious, mythological, psychological, philosophical, scientific, and cultural references. She also doesn’t shy away from sex, drugs, and violence, and writes about them in a way that makes you forget that she just entered her eighth decade.

One aspect of the story I found disappointing was her depiction of gender roles. Atwood’s future contains all kinds of advances in science but it doesn’t seem to include any evolution of male/female roles and attitudes. It is possible that this was a conscious choice on her part. Maybe she thinks the future doesn’t look bright for gender equality, or perhaps in this dystopian world where physical survival is paramount and weapons are hard to come by, gender roles devolve to something a little more Neanderthal. But I got the feeling that at least some of it suggests that Atwood’s personal outlook on gender--which doesn’t seem to grasp that men frequent spas--is stuck somewhere in the past.

There is definitely an environmental message here. About global warming, genetic engineering, the promise and danger of technology, and the effects they all will have on life as we currently know it. At no time does it come across as a political tract, unless you are one of those folks who believe we can do whatever we want to the planet and not suffer any consequences. If that is you, you will hate this book. As depressing as Atwood’s future world is, it kind of helps me cope with the stress of feeling powerless to do much about the enviro-political greed and stupidity we must deal with these days. Of course it is a fatalistic kind of relief. As in, won’t the planet be a better place without us? And personally, the idea that death means donating oneself “to the matrix of life” is quite comforting to me.

Finally, some of you are going to ask if you need to read Oryx and Crake first. The answer is no. It might enhance certain aspects of the book as some of the characters do reappear, but the book is fabulous enough to stand on its own.

Other views (if you have reviewed it, let me know and I will link):
Boston Bibliophile
Shelf Love
Books - Sliced and Diced
Savidge Reads
The Mookse and the Gripes (This reviewer hated it so much I wasn't sure we read the same book.)
 

13 comments:

  1. Great review and the point you made on gender is an interesting one. I can't wait to read this.

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  2. I read this a few months ago and enjoyed it, although it's far from my favorite Atwood. I thought the dystopia itself wasn't all that original, but that could be because I read and watch a fair bit of sci-fi. You make an interesting point about gender roles, and I agree with you that, if anything, things seemed to have moved backwards in her future universe. And the way she weaves religious thought into the story is very clever. (My review is at http://shelflove.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/year-of-the-flood-review/)

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  3. Terrific review. I love when I read a winner.

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  4. You've written beautifully about this, Thomas! I, too, enjoyed it a lot. If only more people would see where our selfish greed is taking us . . .

    Lezlie

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  5. This is going much, much higher up the TBR now. I have been meaning to read it since I got it months ago and havent. I have felt both daunted by it and like I should read O&C first. Now I know I shouldnt and I dont need to its just a matter of time. Great review Thomas.

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  6. I think Atwood is one of these writers who subscribes to the idea that as the world's situation worsens womens rights will tend to get chucked aside (see also The Carhullan Army by Sara Hall), an idea that I would guess comes from observing the slower emergence of womens rights in poor countries.

    I'm so in love with the cover of this book and your review just makes me wnat to grab it right now.

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  7. Wonderful review! After reading this, I want to read this book more than ever.

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  8. Another book I must now read. Atwood's attitude on gender has always been interesting, I remember feeling quite depressed after reading The Handmaid's Tale, but that was quite a while ago.
    Lovely review, I have really enjoyed reading through your blog.

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  9. Atwood is one of my favorites and I enjoyed reading your review. Like many of the other commenters, I like that you pointed out the role of gender in the book. I think it makes some sense since most of the characters are involved in a religious community, where traditional gender roles are more prevalent. My review is here: http://booksslicedanddiced.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/the-year-of-the-flood/

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  10. Ti: I think the gender discussion could be a whole book club debate. I would actually take a class on the gender roles in Atwood novels. I think there would be much to discuss.

    Teresa: Thanks for the heads up. I have posted your review.

    Diane: Thanks.

    Lezlie: The future can see overwhelming can't it?

    Simon: I guess you were serious when you said it was moving up your TBR. I posted a link to your review.

    Jodie: I think that is certainly the case of The Handmaid's Tale where religious fundatmentalism was such a strong theme. But I somehow got the feeling with this one that the gender roles seemed less ideological and more status quo--but status quo from maybe a decade or two ago.

    Rebecca: Time to pick it up and read it. You won't be disappointed.

    Bookpusher: I wasn't depressed after I read The Handmaid's Tale because I think Atwood's ending kind of unncessarily makes light of the tale. In fact, I think Atwood's ending of Handmaid kind of cheapens the book a bit.

    Books Sliced and Diced: Your review has been added to the post as well. Thanks for reminding me it was there.

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  11. Great review! May I respectfully disagree with you on one point though? I do think this and O&C read better in the order published. I think I feel this way mainly because I think if a reader likes this and then goes back and reads O&C it perhaps won't have the same impact.

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  12. Reading for BBAW and I've liked your reviews a lot. Good luck you've got my vote. Kathy

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  13. Tara: I agree with you. I was thinking more about whether or not Flood can stand on its own without needing the preamble of O&C. Which I believe it does. But if you are going to read both, then yes, O&C should come first.

    Kathy: Thank you for comment (and your vote). I still haven't finished going through all the BBAW blogs. The sheer volume is a little daunting. But quite fun.

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