The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the FloodTitle: The Year of the Flood
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #2
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury (my edition)
Genre: science fiction, dystopian, literary
Rating: 8/10

The Year of the Flood‘s plot runs parallel to Oryx and Crakebut it’s set in the pleebland slums, rather than the secure, sterile Compounds of the scientific elite. The pleeblands are where everyone else lives. It’s violent, and rife with diseases and infections (some of which come from the Compounds who test viruses or make money selling cures).

The story follows the God’s Gardeners, believers in a green religion founded by Adam One, with leaders known as Adams and Eves. The Gardener’s faith is a pacifist, eco-friendly interpretation of the Christian Bible. They are strictly vegetarian, respect the lives of all creatures, shun technology, recycle absolutely everything, avoid the processed food and medications produced by corporations, and spend their days living a quiet agrarian existence amidst the chaos of the pleeblands. They lament the gross environmental destruction wreaked by Corporations, and await the Waterless Flood – the apocalypse.

Of course, we know from Oryx and Crake that this Flood will take the form of a plague designed by Crake. It comes in Gardener Year 25, which is when the novel opens. Toby is hiding out at the AnooYoo Spa where she was working. Many of the treatments are edible or at least useful, she’s got a rifle for protection, and draws on her Gardner knowledge to grow food. Ren is locked inside the quarantine room of Scales and Tails, the strip club where she worked. Being locked up saved her from the riots that followed the outbreak of the plague, but now she’s counting on her childhood friend Amanda to find her and unlock the door before she starves to death.

Punctuating this present-day narrative are the Gardener Years 1-24. Each year/section begins with a sermon from Adam One and a hymn, then follows the stories of Toby and Ren. The Gardeners rescue Toby from a rapist who was certain to kill her. She’s not a true believer, but she adapts to their lifestyle and finds a home. Ren went to live with the Gardeners as a child, when her mother ran away from the Compounds with a Gardener named Zeb. She later made friends with Amanda, a smart, tough pleebrat, and invited her to join the Gardeners.

It’s not as dramatic as Oryx and Crake, since it covers the same time period, and focuses on the people who are disempowered and, unlike Jimmy, have very little contact with the forces that define their society. And I prefer Oryx and Crake if only because it had the kind of impact on me that very few novels could ever match. Nevertheless, The Year of the Flood is a superb piece of painfully dystopian science fiction in its own right, and a beguiling literary novel. Oryx and Crake was a bit different for Atwood in that it had a male protagonist. With The Year of the Flood she’s back in her element with two female protagonists and a larger cast of female characters. Like Oryx, they live in a world where sexual predators are a constant threat, and Toby’s story of sexual abuse is reminiscent of Oryx’s, as is Ren’s decision to become a sex worker at Scales and Tales. Ren actually sees Oryx when Crake brings her to Scales and Tales late in the novel, and Ren immediately recognises her as a fellow sex worker, charming the people around her while hiding her own identity. In that moment, she seems to understand more about Oryx than Jimmy was ever able to.

Ren has her own disappointing experiences with Jimmy, who becomes her lover when they’re teenagers but eventually gives her his damaged-boy-who-can’t-commit speech. Toby also spots Jimmy as Snowman, leading the singing Crakers from the Paradice Dome to the shore. They’re so bizarre that Toby assumes she must be hallucinating. I think it’s the first time we see Jimmy from another perspective, and the first of several occasions when we get a fresh perspective on exactly how dysfunctional Jimmy/Snowman is.

The novel often intersects with Oryx and Crake like this, filling in little details. Besides Jimmy and Oryx, we encounter other familiar characters like Glenn/Crake, Jimmy’s mother, Bernice (Jimmy’s crazy roommate who set his shoes on fire), and MaddAddam. There are lots of familiar details of the world – Extinctathon, Happicuppa, ChickieNobs, AnooYoo, pigoons – and a few new things, like liobams (a lion/lamb splice) and Mo’Hair sheep (genetically engineered to grow human hair in a wide range of colours, although the wigs sometimes smell like meat).

As a child, Glenn had a connection to the Gardeners, many of whom are scientists who escaped the Compounds, and it’s clear that his actions were strongly influenced by their ideas. Adam One describes how the Waterless Flood will wash away the “Exfernal” world, destroying what man has built so that the natural world can flourish again, which what Crake attempted to do with his plague. His design for the Crakers also reflects the Gardeners’ lifestyle in some ways – they’re purely vegetarian, non-violent, and live happily with the bare minimum of industry. In some ways the Crakers are a perfected version of the Gardeners, who they smell bad, look scruffy, complain about inconveniences, need technology, and often break their own rules.

Obviously the one thing Crake didn’t like about the Gardeners was the whole idea of religion, which he tried (and failed) to eradicate in the Crakers. And although the Gardeners have many admirable ideas, their faith still suffers from the kinds of absurdities and hypocrisies common to religion. They’re wary of writing, but use the bible. They consider knowledge to be poisonous, but benefit greatly from the knowledge of the scientists among them. They rely on things they scavenge, which in some cases means living off things they consider evil.

Not surprisingly for a small community full of social misfits and outcasts, they also have problems with sexual harassment and abuse, but women and children are told to keep quiet about these things. Sharing personal problems is discouraged, some serious psychological problems are dismissed as a form of meditation, and voicing doubts is taboo. Toby in particular finds this troubling, but because she lives in constant terror that her rapist will find her and kill her, so she has no intention of leaving the Gardeners.

But then again, Atwood hasn’t written a world where anyone’s figured out clean, noble answers to the massively complicated problems plaguing society. It’s easy to be thoroughly evil – like a corporation that razes rainforests to plant coffee or a man who rapes women to death – but fixing a world full of these evils is almost unimaginable. A few people, like the man/group MaddAddam that is created in this novel, are bold enough to rebel. Only Crake, the mad genius, actually takes any major action, countering a million horrors with one massive one.

Most people, like Ren and Toby, are caught up in this world they have little control over, and the appeal of The Year of the Flood is this grassroots perspective. Which is not to say they’re weak – Amanda, Ren and Toby all show amazing resilience and adaptability, unlike Jimmy, who was always a bit unstable and degenerated into a sickly, naked nut job waving a gun at three strangers on a beach. If the ambiguity of that ending bothered you, by the way, rest assured that The Year of the Flood will take you back to that beach and resolve that scene, leaving the final book, MaddAddamto pick up the story from there.  As always with Atwood, it’s beautifully written and a pleasure to read, but also brutal and terrifying. This trilogy envisions one of the most disturbing futures I’ve ever read, but the books are so amazing I can’t look away.

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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and CrakeTitle: Oryx and Crake
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #1
Author: 
Margaret Atwood
Published: 2003
Publisher: 
Virago Press (my edition)
Genre: 
science fiction, dystopian, post-apocalyptic
Source:
 own copy
Rating: 
10/10

This is the first time I’m giving a book a 10/10 rating on Violin in a Void. While I’ve reviewed excellent books that could rival this one, I’ve reserved the highest rating for books that also make excellent re-reads. I think the best books are those that won’t fade with familiarity but actually become more enjoyable as you get to know them better. Oryx and Crake is the first such book that I’ve reviewed.

That said, it’s incredibly bleak, and I’d forgotten exactly how dark it gets. But while it scares and horrifies me, it’s also such a pleasure to read because of the elegance of Atwood’s writing and the sophistication of her vision. The narrative is split into two future time periods that also happen to fall into two sub genres – post-apocalyptic and dystopian. In the post-apocalyptic narrative a man named Snowman is a lone survivor of a global catastrophe for which he holds his friend Crake responsible. In his loneliness, he imagines the voice of his lover Oryx teasing and comforting him. But like Crake, Oryx is long gone. Snowman lives in a tree, wraps himself in old bedsheets, and scavenges meagre supplies from the remains of human civilisation. He is also the increasingly unnecessary guardian of the Crakers, a race of bio-engineered post-humans designed by Crake to inherit a ravaged earth.

The story of how this all came to be is told in the non-linear dystopian narrative, beginning when Snowman was a child named Jimmy. His world – our future – is characterised by bio-engineering, artificial food, extinction, climate change and environmental destruction. Great advances in medicine are matched by the creation of catastrophic viruses. The scientists who work for giant bio-engineering corporations live privileged lives in highly secure-compounds designed to save them from ever having to go out into the disease-ridden ‘pleeblands’ where the masses live.

As Atwood herself has said, “Every novel begins with a what if  and for Oryx and Crake she asked “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?” (Curious Pursuits, 2003, p.323). The questions are primarily ecological, and the answer to the first one is the dystopia where Jimmy’s story begins. The answer to the last questions is: Crake.

We first encounter him as a creepy child, a genius who seems to be studying everyone, who hides his feelings, and has secret plans that Jimmy never fully understands even when he’s caught up in the aftermath as Snowman. Oryx, the woman he loves, is similarly elusive, and somehow they’re both a part of the ruined world he lives in now.

Because he’s a “word person”, Snowman turns Oryx and Crake into myth for the Crakers. They are the Children of Crake, and the animals are the Children of Oryx, respected and never eaten. With the world reverting to its natural state, the Crakers give the impression of return to Eden, to paradise – they’re incredibly innocent without any violent tendencies or any knowledge of the world before. They’re also pretty damn weird. Crake designed them with myriad animal traits to keep them close to nature and avoid violent conflict. They wear no clothes (their skin is thick and UV-resistant), they eat leaves, purr like cats to heal injuries (yes, cats’ purring can do that). They’re designed to be free from lust, jealousy, racism and religion. The Crakers are basically Crake’s attempt to fix everything that was wrong with the human race and then make his own improvements on the basic design. It’s really interesting to see how he’s played god here.

Snowman of course, is stuck with the original design and isn’t suited to the world humanity has so badly damaged. This post-apocalyptic world of Atwood’s is more subtle than others I’ve read. Snowman simply finds himself at the mercy of the natural world as it consumes a dead civilisation. He sleeps in a tree to stay safe from predators. Because of climate change, he must to take shelter from the unbearably hot sun and daily storm. Things he probably never thought much about have become serious dangers or annoyances – ants, bug bites, sweating, starving to death. Simply scratching open a scab might lead to serious infection. Loneliness is driving him mad, and he finds little company among the strange Crakers.

The post-apocalyptic world is in many ways a version of the dystopia that led to it. While Snowman fears nature, Jimmy grew up in a world where humanity destroys and modifies nature. Jimmy’s father works for OrganInc, a company that creates pigoons – bio-engineered pigs that grow skin, organs and even brain tissue for human transplants. After the apocalypse however, the pigoons roam free. They could tear Snowman to shreds and eat him, and they’re extremely smart because of the human brain tissue they were designed to produce. Equally dangerous are the wolvogs – vicious wolves designed to look like friendly dogs.

The food that Jimmy eats is often pretty gross and almost always artificial. Dairy products seem to be a thing of the past, and you get crap like “cheese food” instead. There are the disgusting “Chickie-Nobs”, a kind of bland KFC-style junk food made from bio-engineered ‘chickens’ that are just fat bodies with mouths. No heads, beaks or feet because none of those things are needed to produce meat. Often when natural foods like real eggs, fish or meat appear, it’s described as a rare and expensive luxury. On the other hand, rainforests are destroyed to grow Happi Cuppa coffee.

Equally revolting is the media that Crake and Jimmy consume. They don’t watch movies and TV series, but watch videos online – animal snuff, assisted suicides, executions, child pornography. Disturbingly, none of this seems to be considered particularly abnormal. Two teenage boys watching hundreds of hours of real executions and kiddie porn is portrayed like two teenage boys watching normal TV and a bit of porn today.

Jimmy only pauses to consider what he’s doing when he first sees Oryx. At the time she has no name, she’s “just another little girl on a porno site” (103). But she turns to the camera and Jimmy imagines that she looks at him with contempt. For years, Jimmy is haunted by the look on her face and the way she seems to judge him.

It’s appropriate that the first feeling Oryx evokes in Jimmy is a kind of moral shock. While most of the novel reveals the environmental consequences of problems like overpopulation, Oryx is a testament to the more human side – stark poverty, trafficking, child abuse. After Jimmy has met Oryx and started sleeping with her, she tells him her life story – how she was sold into slavery by a mother who couldn’t afford to keep her and went from selling flowers to tourists, to following men into their hotel rooms, and then onto the kind of child pornography where Jimmy and Crake first saw her.

This is disturbing stuff, although Oryx tells it in a gentle matter-of-fact way that makes it easier on everyone. Jimmy actually doesn’t like this, because, in his opinion, she’s too forgiving of the men involved. She feels sorry for some for being so pathetic, she’s grateful to her pimp for looking after her, she giggled at men’s penises because she thought they looked funny. This is not what Jimmy wants to hear, “all this sweetness and acceptance and crap”. He wants her to cry, to say how traumatic it was, and to hate the men who abused her so that she can be the victim and he can be her saviour. And that bothers me about him.

But honestly, I don’t know how to feel about Oryx’s character either. She’s so elusive I can’t quite grasp her. Then again, my feelings about the other characters can never be simple either. Crake is both monstrous and admirable. I find him hateful at first, but out of all the characters, he’s the only one who both expresses anger at what humans are doing to the world, and actually manages to do something about it.

Jimmy is our connection to the story (he’s a “word person”, ideal for the job), and there are many reasons to empathise with him, especially when we see how neglectful his parents are. His mother is deeply depressed, agonising over the ethics of the work she and her husband have done. You might identify with his, while hating her for the way she treats her young son. Which leads you to feel sorry for Jimmy, but then he also watches child pornography. The thing is, he’s probably the character most similar to you as the reader – an ordinary person, who just gets swept along in the habits of society, no matter how repulsive those are. Jimmy/Snowman is not someone who will change the world or even oppose it.

The world does get changed however, and you could argue a great deal about the ethics that go into that, into genetic engineering, and the design of the Crakers. Will our extinction be the only thing that stops us murdering our world? Are the Crakers a better kind of human? Would you call them human at all? Is it ok for Crake to play god by creating them, or for any of the scientists to splice together species or grow human organs and brains in pigs and then eat them? Atwood leaves you with a thousand things to think about and not all of it is bad – there’s a lot of science that’s just really awesome. Still, the results of Atwood’s what ifs are so plausible it’s terrifying. Few novels have hit me as hard as Oryx and Crake does with its vision of the future, it’s exquisite writing,  and unforgettable characters. I will read this again, and again.

Ideally, I’d also like to say that everyone should read this book, but I know it’s not for every reader. While I take great pleasure from it, it’s not a fun book in any way, and it’d be completely wasted on readers only looking for entertainment. I find that it’s a smooth, easy read, but at the same time this is very much literary sci fi that deserves your attention, not just something you can breeze through.

If you’re a serious science fiction fan who enjoys the genre for its ideas and its vision, you can’t not read this. And I don’t give a crap what Atwood says about this not being true sci fi – it is. It’s some of the best sci fi I’ve ever read. Books like this are why I love this genre, why I love fiction, why I love reading.