Friday, July 6, 2012

The Year of the Flood

It's 2012, so it seems reasonable there should be a little bit of apocalypse going on. My sympathies to everyone affected by the storms in the mid-Atlantic who've had to go without power recently. I was lucky and didn't lose mine. But I have been hiding in the bathroom with my cat a lot recently.

So between the crazy heat, the storms, being 6 months away from a pre-Christmas apocalypse, and seeing Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (which was really good and may have made me openly sob in public), reading The Year of the Flood felt right in stride.

The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood's follow up to her 2003 dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, which I read about two years ago. The structure of both novels is very similar and they occupy the same timeframe. At the beginning we're introduced to the world after a mysterious epidemic has eradicated the majority of human life. Through flashbacks we find out what exactly happened. It's a tricky structure to pull off, since the reader already knows the end result, and the tension could easily have been lost. However Atwood lets just the right amount of information remain mysterious to make it a page turner.

In Atwood's dystopian vision, the future world is owned and controlled by corporations, predictably corrupt and money-seeking. Humans live either in gigantic walled communities owned by the corporations, "compounds," or outside in the ghetto-esque "pleeblands." Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology are the biggest focus of the corporations (Resident Evil, anyone?), and through experiments in genetic mutation some truly horrifying monsters have been created. Not in the name of warfare as you might think, but in the goal of feeding and sustaining an ever-growing human population. In Oryx and Crake we're introduced to 'pigoons,' pigs bred to grow extra organs so they can be harvested and transplanted into humans. Or even more terrifying, 'ChickieNobs', chickens bred without heads which grow harvestable chicken parts. Imagine a featherless raw chicken growing a ridge of nuggets down its back.

In Oryx and Crake we follow the story of one of the compounders and his experiences before and after the apocalyptic event. In The Year of the Flood we journey to the other side of the fence, following two women and their experiences in the pleeblands, as well as a few anti-corporate movements. One of these is called 'God's Gardeners,' a group dedicated to living in harmony with nature. It's a slightly satirical take on cults and religious groups such as the Amish -- if the Amish were vegan. After reading about ChickieNobs, veganism is looking ever more appealing.

One of my few criticisms of the novel is Atwood's insistence on making all the characters, and all the stories, reference each other incessantly. There were far too many coincidences for it to remain believable. I can believe in lab-created hybrid animal species (lion + lamb = 'liobam'), but not that one of the main characters is going to keep running into her ex-boyfriend every other page -- especially not after the world has ended. Oh hey there's probably only a dozen people left in the world and guess what, one just happens to be your ex! Ack! (I just gave someone in Hollywood an idea, didn't I).

The Year of the Flood ending seemed pretty unfinished, which tells me she'll most likely be writing a third follow-up (just checked, and yup). I'm not sure if I'll read it. There's nothing very fascinating or redeemable about this future world. It's mostly just repulsive and sad. I'm sure in the third book the characters will work to build a new world, and there will be corruption, and people will make the same mistakes again. New genetic hybrids will be introduced that have stupid names I'll have to remember. I think Atwood took some inspiration from Dr. Seuss when she came up with 'rakunk' (raccoon + skunk, obviously).

Not many quotables, but here are two passages I liked:

As with all knowledge, once you knew it, you couldn't imagine how it was that you hadn't known it before. Like stage magic, knowledge before you knew it took place before your very eyes, but you were looking elsewhere.

Glenn used to say the reason you can't really imagine yourself being dead was that as soon as you say, "I'll be dead," you've said the word I, and so you're still alive inside the sentence. And that's how people got the idea of the immortality of the soul -- it was a consequence of grammar. And so was God, because as soon as there's a past tense, there has to be a past before the past, and you keep going back in time until you get to I don't know, and that's what God is. It's what you don't know--the dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible, and all because we have grammar

That...actually makes a lot of sense. In a roundabout way. What came first -- worship of the unknown, or language?