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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):
Books - Sliced and Diced
The Mookse and the Gripes (This reviewer hated it so much I wasn't sure we read the same book.)