Sunday, 11 April 2010

Science fiction + Mythology = ...

Sometimes, usually when I'm all alone out walking somewhere in the countryside, I fantasise about a life on Earth in the absence of humanity. How good it would be to just go anywhere I wanted, and how great it would be for ecosystems to return to a civilisation-free state. As evidenced by such films as 28 Days Later and I Am Legend (or the more peaceful excerpts of them, at least), I'm not alone in trying to imagine such a world. And in a similar vein, Margaret Atwood's latest novel, the dystopian tale The Year of the Flood, is a literary take on this apocalyptic theme.[1]

The novel is set in a somewhat extrapolated future in which western societies have "brazilified"[2] into super-rich gated communities governed by corporations, and crime-ridden slums occupied by the underclass. Biotechnology is a major industry in this world, and the genetic engineering of animals has created a diverse range of chimeric organisms tailored for particular purposes such as wool or meat production, and even as harvestable sources of transplant organs for humans. Alongside this increase in synthetic diversity, natural biodiversity has dwindled due to the depredations of a burgeoning human population.

Against this backdrop, the novel follows two women escaping from very different situations in this economically divided world. Threatened by a sadistic boss, Toby leaves a life of violent servitude in the slums; meanwhile, Ren escapes the scrutinised confines and corporate perfidy of the gated compounds. The two women meet in an ecological commune known as God's Gardeners, which operates outside of corporate rule but constantly has to defend itself from the neighbouring, lawless slums. Here they meet Adam One, the leader of this group, and are introduced to his theological interpretation of biology, with its catalogue of Saints such as Rachel Carson, Francis Crick and James Lovelock, and its core belief in a coming "Waterless Flood" that will end the tyrannical reign of humanity over the Earth.

Unbeknownst to God's Gardeners (and largely narratively off-stage), an idealistic geneticist known as Crake has developed a lethal virus that will deliver an Earth-cleansing "Flood". In tandem, Crake has also created a replacement for mankind in the form of a novel, and ecologically benign, human species. The release of the infectious agent triggers devastating mortality and the collapse of societies worldwide, and while God's Gardeners are somewhat better prepared, they too are caught off-guard by both its severity and the changed world that it leaves in its wake. In the aftermath, Toby and Ren find themselves trapped separately in safe, if temporary, havens, but events conspire to both reunite and threaten them.

The novel largely runs in parallel to Atwood's earlier novel, Oryx and Crake, and both novels share characters as well as the key event of the devastating global pandemic. This wide overlap between the two novels brings both advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side, it allows Atwood to more completely flesh out her dystopian future. Oryx and Crake was largely filtered through life in the super-rich enclaves, and specifically the experiences of a character very close to Crake. The Year of the Flood spends much more time in the poverty-stricken surrounding areas, and takes in some of the corporate world (the health spa, AnooYoo; the animal-themed sex club, Scales and Tails) in addition to the austere world of God's Gardeners. In a nice detail, the latter organisation is also used to provide the sermons and hymns that open each chapter, and which illuminate the depredations of humanity on the Earth.

However, on the down side, it does mean that readers of the earlier novel lose out a bit by already knowing something about the steadily approaching calamity. This event doesn't come as a surprise in the novel, since its time-line is already fractured, but it does mean that the narrative can feel something like a retread at times. More seriously, Atwood can't resist tying the two novels together, and doing so in a quite ham-fisted manner. First of all, though The Year of the Flood uses some very different locations and perspectives, one of its central characters is intimately connected to the protagonist from Oryx and Crake. Nothing wrong with that, but Atwood employs this connection in an utterly implausible coincidence at the tail end of the book. A coincidence, I should add, that also deflates the satisfyingly ambiguous ending of the original novel.

One area in which this novel particularly distinguishes itself is its melding of Christian mythology with environmentalism. As touched on already, Adam One constantly refers to the "Waterless Flood" and talks of both Ararat and a New Eden as God's Gardeners' haven during the flood and the cleansed world after it. The sermons more generally present a religion in which biological concepts like predation, eusociality and pollination are given a theological spin. I really quite enjoyed these rather florid extrapolations of Atwood's, and thought that she did a pretty good job of making a plausible stab at a religion more in tune with ecology (cf. "Let us make man in our image ... and let them rule ... over all the earth"). That said, she's clearly having a bit of fun with the shoehorning of religious ideas into agreement with less palatable concepts like disease and death, and the latter sermons after the release of the "Waterless Flood" are actually quite dark as God's Gardeners gradually come to terms with the thought that perhaps the New Eden is not for them.

So, overall I'd judge the novel very much as a mixed bag. I really liked the texture of it, and enjoyed being back in Atwood's apocalyptic world, but I just wish that she hadn't tied this novel so tightly to the previous volume. Follow-up visits by authors to their fictional worlds don't have to tie up the loose threads of predecessor volumes, and in this case really shouldn't have.

In passing, I think that the pandemic of both novels presents something of an interesting moral challenge to ecologically-minded readers like myself. It's the deliberate outcome of the actions of an idealistic environmentalist, but it's obviously an appalling event that kills practically everyone on Earth. But when I read of yet another species swallowed by extinction, or hear of a particularly strident protest against the thought that perhaps we've enough humans now, or see some especially wasteful new product or technology, then I start thinking the same way as Crake. Absurd, since I do think that biological diversity alone is not everything, and that civilisation is at least as important, but I feel, deep inside, where he's coming from. Given the sordid future that Atwood creates, and then destroys, again, I don't think that I'm alone.

[1] I say "literary" here since Atwood has an ambiguous relationship to science fiction (an issue on which she's not alone as I've commented before). It's difficult for me to see this volume, its predecessor and earlier works like The Handmaid's Tale as anything but science fiction, but Atwood prefers the term "speculative fiction". Possibly because she prefers all her books to sit together in the fiction section of bookshops; possibly because she perceives an antipathy in critics towards genre fiction. Either way, I do find the protests of "serious novelists" about the branding of their work as genre pretty annoying, not least because they're parroting the snobbishness of the critics. That said, if a few science fiction books like this one go "undercover" to infiltrate the literary fiction shelves, perhaps they'll serve as a Trojan Horse to get the genre (at least its best proponents) a little more acceptance.

[2] Brazilification: The widening gulf between the rich and the poor and the accompanying disappearance of the middle classes (Generation X).


Deditos said...

Aha, interesting. I read and enjoyed Oryx and Crake a few months ago, but I hadn't realised her new one was a sequel to it. I agree that one of best things about the former was the amount of ambiguity Atwood left in the world and in the ending. The minor caveats noted, I think I'll give this one a go at some point.

Plumbago said...

Me too - until I read the cover-blurb I hadn't realised that it was a quasi-sequel to Oryx and Crake.

Although I'm a little hard on it for overlap in my post, because I read the earlier book years ago, I'd mostly forgotten its twists and turns. To the extent that I only spotted the shared characters when I was already quite far in. So if you wait a bit (assuming you've a memory like mine!), the overlap isn't troublesome at all.

But I do still think it was a mistake to knot the two novels together so clumsily. I might have been more forgiving of the loss of ambiguity if it had been done better.

Anyway, I still enjoyed the book. It's nice to read science fiction by someone who can actually write!