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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"The Year of the Flood" by Margaret Atwood (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Margaret Atwood at Wikipedia
Official "The Year of the Flood" Website
Order "The Year of the Flood" HERE

INTRODUCTION: Margaret Atwood is so famous that I will forgo the usual more detailed discussion about authors which are reviewed for the first time here and stick to talking about her new dystopian near future series, of which "Oryx and Crake" was the beginning and "The Year of the Flood" is the middle volume. However as time frames go, "The Year of the Flood " covers pretty much the same period as "Oryx and Crake" though it advances the story at the end; in many ways I would consider it the best place to start the series.

The main reason is that "Oryx and Crake" was a pretty good mainstream novel with sff elements, but one that had almost no world building and in consequence the external reality was so blurry that everything could be interpreted as a dream for example. Reading Oryx and Crake was fascinating but I just could not imagine myself living in its world since it lacked any depth so I just could not take it seriously beyond the obvious metaphors, ideological points and the "literary" qualities like prose style or psychological depth of characters. But core-sff requires much more than that in terms of plausibility of the external reality.

The Year of the Flood is a true sff novel, the dystopian world of the author acquiring depth, color and "reality". From this point of view, this book is so much superior as to be no contest, while in terms of characters and prose I would argue that both novels are on equal footing and actually I liked much more the main characters here than in Oryx and Crake, but that is subjective.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: In a nearby future dominated by corporations like "HelthWyzer", in which the state has broken down under its fiscal burdens and environmental damage, humanity is separated in several categories. On top and living in isolated gated compounds and rarely interacting with the outside for fear of contamination, kidnapping or worse, the "corps people" themselves, then the "pleebs" eking out a leaving in the corporations commercial outlets ("Secret Burgers", "Happicuppa", "A Noo Yoo"...) and finally the "human refuse", the easily disposable and killed for their organs, protein calories or carbon components. Genetic manipulations and strange new life forms (liobams, enhanced pigs and many more) created in labs for various purposes, some more benign, some not so, are the order of the day.

Everything is policed by the corporate thugs "CorpSeCorps" who dispense summary "justice" at gunpoint, being the only ones allowed to be armed with their famous "sprayguns". For offenders against corporate interests there is usually summary arrest and torture under the "internal rendition" acts, followed by killing or occasionally a chance to be a "painballer", modern gladiators whose deaths in special fighting forest-arenas are filmed for the benefit of the masses. And there are pseudo green-religious fringe cults like the Gardeners or the
WolfIsaiahists which are tolerated as long as they seem nonthreatening.

Familiar and strange, mundane and imaginative, the world of the two novels as described above comes to magnificent life in so many little details in "The Year of the Flood" that it becomes one of the most important characters of the book; as we know from the beginning, during the title year, or Year Twenty-Five in the Gardener chronology, this world is murdered by the "Waterless Flood" which in a biblical parallel sweeps most humanity away by means of a deadly virulent pandemic which leaves most animals including the new lab species untouched and inheritors of the Earth with only selected Noah-like humans as survivors.

"The Year of the Flood" alternates third person narrative with first person narrative from two such survivors:

Toby, a middle aged manager of a "A Noo Yoo" spa for the rich pampered corps women, is formerly known as Eve 6 of the most influential Gardener group led by famous "preacher" Adam One whose superb sermons scattered through the book are a big highlight. A young woman in Year Five when she escaped the clutches of her violent boss Blanco to live among the Gardeners, Toby discovers a talent for plants, bees, teaching life-lore and becomes an influential Gardener, while she develops friendship with Adam' "second in command", mysterious tough guy Zeb who is partner of jealous fugitive corps wife Lucerne and "stepfather" of second pov Ren. Her narrative is the "adult" one through which the fate of the world unfolds.

Ren aka Brenda is currently a trapeze artist and occasional prostitute in the famous "Scales and Tails" establishment. Born with the Gardener chronology, so twenty five at present, we see the unfolding events through her childhood eyes since her mother ran away from her luxurious but cramped position as corporate wife to take refuge with lover Zeb in the Gardener compound.

At thirteen Ren meets a pleeb girl Amanda who becomes her best friend and later she meets Jimmy, Glenn aka Crake and Oryx and through her we have the main link with "Oryx and Crake" point of view of the events.

The ending is excellent tying up quite a few things from both this novel and the previous one, though of course there is a big To Be Continued sign and the next novel of the series became a big expected one for me. Another major novel of the year, "The Year of the Flood" is sff at its best from all points of view.


Lee said...

The expectation that SF requires world building is just that - a convention, nothing more. Why should a writer be forced to bow to such conventions?

Liviu said...

Without world building it is very hard - not impossible - to convey the external world as a "living, real, place I can visit" entity rather than scribbles on paper, dreamworld, solipsistic "I am God and created this" world

And that is the essence of the difference between for example these two books here - Oryx and Crake is beautifully written, fascinating and I liked it but it did not convey me the "reality" of the world, while Year of the Flood - little details here and there, do not need infodumps and folklore

suzie said...

I can't wait to read this!

Jo said...

I read this and found I was gulping it down -- and then went back and re-read Oryx and Crake (for the 4th time). I think Atwood did a beautiful job of revealing the world within the story -- I had been looking forward to this and was not disappointed!

Jo said...

I had been looking forward to reading this, and when I got it, wound up gulping it down (and then going back to Oryx and Crake to read that again). I think Atwood's writing here was just as enjoyable as in Oryx and Crake, although I felt the world in Year of the Flood was more revealed to the reader. Wonderful book!

Lee said...

Liviu, of course I don't mean that fiction can or should do without those essential, telling details which ground it. However, I feel that the emphasis on elaborate world-building in SF often functions to the detriment of other elements. And leads critics/reviewers/readers to continue making an unfortunate distinction between genres.

Liviu said...

Regarding world-building it's always a balance between too much and too little, but for me one of the reasons for reading and enjoying sff a lot is precisely that the world of the respective novel or ss is different, is a "strange" character if you want, so I want it to feel "real".

If I want only beautiful prose or psychological insight I would stick with the Nobel prize calibre writers of which I read quite a few along the years and still read when I want that.

Coming to genres, I strongly believe that core-sf is quite different from the rest in scope and goals - a novel like Incandescence/Egan for example is a good example of what I mean, Anathem is another.

Making the scientific process of discovery in general and general relativity in particular as almost "characters" makes up for a lot in my book, while a phrase like

“Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs,” I said. “We have a protractor.”

is one of the most memorable thing I've read in years...

Lee said...

Yes, Liviu, I understand that's what a lot of SF readers want. I just don't happen to be one of them - or to write for them. Why should I be obliged to use criteria that are too limiting to me?

Johnny Zuri said...

¿Un futuro visionario? ¿Una ficción? ¿Una historia de amistad? Me quedo con lo último. Magistral.

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